June 10, 2023

Antarctica truly is like nowhere else on Earth. Almost entirely covered in ice, the frozen southern continent is one of the driest, coldest and windiest places on the planet. As for the question of who owns Antarctica, the short answer is no-one.

First signed by 12 nations, the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961 to bring disagreements over the continent’s governance to an end. It confirmed the continent as a site of common scientific interest, established freedom of research and banned military activity.

Introducing Antarctica

The southernmost continent on Earth, Antarctica is a long way from anywhere. That’s one of the reasons why the sheer scale of the continent is hard to comprehend.

With an area of almost 5.5 million square miles, it’s twice the size of Australia. 99% of the land is covered by an ice sheet that reaches almost three miles deep at its thickest point.

The weight of the ice sheet has had an incredible impact on the bedrock. The lowest known point at the Byrd Subglacial Basin lies at more than 8,000 feet below sea level.

Territorial rivalry in Antarctica

Ever since the continent was first spotted sometime in the 19th-century, polar explorers from several countries made claims on territories in and around Antarctica. But with such inhospitable conditions, no permanent human settlements were established.

In the years following World War II, rivalry between nations claiming territory on the continent increased. This was especially true around the relatively accessible Antarctic Peninsula.

As diplomats became fearful of Antarctica being used as a political pawn in the emerging Cold War, discussions took place about a potential treaty to govern the continent.

Scientific progress

Scientists took advantage of the situation to obtain broad support for scientific programs on the continent. Following a successful research program, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) established the Special Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in 1958 to coordinate Antarctic research among nations. Strong scientific collaboration continues to this day.

Up to 4,500 scientists visit Antarctica at one of more than 70 permanent and seasonal research stations every year, although the population drops to around 1,000 during the winter.

The signing of the Antarctic Treaty

Shortly after the scientific collaboration was agreed, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower convened an Antarctic Conference to which the 12 countries active in the scientific research program were invited. Representatives met over multiple sessions before the text was finally agreed and signed in 1959. It would come into force in 1961.

The 12 initial signatories were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the U.K., the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Seven of the original 12 signatories had previous territorial claims. The treaty was designed in part to set aside conflicts over sovereignty by clarifying that nothing that occurs once the treaty is in force will enhance or diminish previous territorial claims.

The fact that the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed to put aside their differences at the height of the Cold War surprised many and makes the achievement of the group truly remarkable. The treaty has since gone on to be signed by 50 nations, representing approximately two-thirds of the world’s population.

Several related agreements have been entered into over the years. Perhaps the most notable is the 1991 Madrid Protocol. Treaty members agreed to an indefinite ban on mining or mineral resource activity in Antarctica.

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