Who Owns Antarctica?

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth; inland, it can reach highs (no, that’s not a typo) of -30°C (-22°F) in the summer and lows of -80°C (-112°F) in the winter; it’s so remote that its permanent population is zero; and if you want to live there long-term, you may have to have a body part removed before you go. In short: it’s hard to see why anybody would want it.

So how come the whole place is such a clusterfuck of international law and territorial disputes?

Who owns Antarctica?

Depending on who, where, or when you ask, the answer to who “owns” or governs Antarctica could be anything from “nobody” to “53 different countries”.

“The [Antarctic] Treaty, which dates from 1959, governs all activities in Antarctica,” said Henry Burgess, then the Deputy Head of the Polar Regions Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in a 2015 interview with the Royal Geographical Society. 

Ratified by 56 countries at last count, the agreement “puts in place a unique and globally important system of international governance and establishes the continent as a region exclusively for peace and science,” Burgess explained.

In other words – and to take the most literal and international view – nobody owns Antarctica. And we don’t mean that in the sense of “it’s not a sovereign nation, but such-and-such country runs it day-to-day”; the Antarctic Treaty specifically prohibits any establishing or expansion of territorial claims on the continent. 

That’s not all: there is also to be no military activity, no weapons tests, and no mineral extraction in the region, according to the Treaty. In fact, the whole planet south of 60° South latitude, the agreement states, “shall be used for peaceful purposes only.”

If it sounds utopian, it is. And like all things that seem too good to be true, there’s a catch.

Who says they own Antarctica?

Here’s where things get thorny, geopolitically speaking. While nobody officially owns Antarctica, there are quite a few countries that would like us to think they do – and even more who seem interested in establishing a prospective future foothold in the region.

“Only seven countries have ever formally claimed parts of Antarctica: the United Kingdom, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway,” Burgess explained. “During the 1940s and 1950s the competing claims between the UK, Chile and Argentina in the Antarctic Peninsula caused international tension.”

Those three countries alone are responsible for some of the more obvious territorial shenanigans. Look at a political map of Antarctica today, and you’ll see the upper left quadrant is, frankly, a bit of a mess: while Norway, Australia, France, and New Zealand all lay claim to discrete sections of the continent, Chile, Argentina, and the UK’s claims all overlap.

See? Look at that mess.
Image Credit: A loose necktie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Only the latter nation’s claims are recognized to any international extent, though – and even then, that recognition is limited to the other four countries on the Antarctic map. As Adrian Howkins, associate professor at Colorado State University, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history of territorial disputes in the Antarctic region, told Atlas Obscura: “I think pretty much every other country in the world doesn’t recognize any of these claims.” 

Why do countries want to own Antarctica?

To be fair, the US – as well as many other countries – has a vested interest in not recognizing the current territorial claims in Antarctica. Straddling all eight divisions is the Amundsen-Scott research station, where the US has maintained an official presence on the continent since 1956; other nations, including China and Russia, have established more than 75 research stations across the area over the years.

Still others, like Iran and Turkey, have ambitions for future development in Antarctica. Quite a few countries, the US included, maintain a basis to claim territory in Antarctica, despite not having done so; some of those, such as Brazil and Ecuador, have even marked out the sections of the map they’re hoping to grab.

But what is it about this desolate wasteland that’s so enticing? In a word: oil.

“For sure, [countries involved in Antarctica] have one eye focused on the resources that might be available in the future,” Máximo Gowland, Argentina’s director for Antarctic foreign policy, told the Financial Times in 2018. In a world where minerals and water are becoming increasingly scarce, “you don’t know how quickly the situation might evolve,” he said.

Antarctic oil would be extremely difficult to extract – the continent’s ice sheets can be up to 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) deep (at the moment) – but should the process become more cost-effective, there’s a predicted 200 billion barrels’ worth lurking underneath the landmass. 

Of course, it’s against the rules to mine in the region in any case, right? Well, yes – but there’s a time limit on the dream. While the Treaty itself doesn’t technically have an expiration date, various provisions in it can occasionally be renegotiated – and the environmental protocols banning prospecting are expected to come up for review 14 years from now, in 2048.

How to claim a piece of Antarctica

So, you might be wondering, what does a territorial claim to a snowy desert look like? And let us tell you: the answers range from “yeah, that makes sense” to “are you serious right now?”.

On the practical side of the spectrum, there’s the little things. Passport stamps, for example: a number of research stations, as well as the UK’s Port Lockroy, will stamp your passport as proof of your travel to the world’s most southerly territory.

 

Perhaps slightly less expected is the ability to send a postcard or letter. The “penguin post office”, on Goudier Island, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Antarctica – despite by all accounts smelling pretty pungent due to the local populations of Gentoo penguins.

But if you really want to commit to the bit, there are some more extreme methods available to stake your claim in the Antarctic. And it involves surgery.

“Everyone undergoes various health checks before going to work in Antarctica. There is a doctor at each Australian Antarctic and sub-Antarctic station. They are highly skilled, and trained in remote medicine including dentistry,” notes the Australian Antarctic Program.

Well, that sounds fine and dandy. Sure hope there’s no weird small print that – oh wait.

“But doctors who are wintering at Australian Antarctic stations do have to have their appendix removed,” it continues. “This is because there is usually only one doctor on station during winter. Evacuation back to medical care in Australia is impossible for at least part of the year.”

The same is true for the residents of Villas Las Estrellas, one of the few settlements on the continent where humans live for years rather than weeks. “The nearest major hospital is more than 1,000 km (625 miles) away,” explains a BBC Future article about the town; “There are only a few doctors on base, and none are specialist surgeons.”

But if major surgery isn’t to your taste, there’s always another medical procedure you could undergo: giving birth. In 1977, intent on marking their ownership of the continent by, essentially, creating a native population for it, the Argentinian government airlifted the heavily pregnant Silvia Morello de Palma to the country’s Antarctic Esperanza Base.

Two months later, her son Emilio became the first person in history known to have been born in Antarctica. 

It may sound a little less than kosher, geopolitically speaking – and it is, really: “All of the countries involved in the issue of Antarctic sovereignty are kind of making up the rules as they go along,” Howkins said. But the Argentines had set a precedent: Chile doubled down on the feat, and so far at least a dozen births between the two nations have been registered in Antarctica.

While none of them are realistically likely to make a difference in any territorial disputes, they have given Antarctica one distinguishing honor. All the babies survived, giving the continent a zero percent infant mortality rate – the lowest anywhere in the world.

Not bad, really – you know, for a frozen wasteland a thousand miles from anywhere.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.  

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