Stupid Question ™
May 9, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Who owns Antarctica?
A: The answer, as any Internet search engine will barf out at you, is that no one owns Antarctica.
But this doesn’t mean very much, since no one owns any of the other continents, either. Instead, various governments have sovereignty over various parts of the continents, and may grant private ownership of land to their citizens.
The same basic situation exists in Antarctica, with two major exceptions: Not everyone agrees claims of sovereignty there have any validity, and those who do think they have sovereignty have agreed not to do anything about it.
The first two waves of exploration, in 1820-1850 and 1890-1930, came from about 10 countries. Most were private expeditions either hoping to find some valuable resources or simply going for the adventure and glory. (Private expeditions continue today, though they’re mostly limited to insane South Pole skydiving flights.)
But as early as the 1920s, governments started claiming territory based on claims of discovery, exploration and/or geographical proximity. By the 1950s, huge tracts had been claimed by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK. Australia alone claimed nearly half the continent.
The potential for conflict was obvious, especially since the UK and Argentina had competing claims that tied into their dispute over the Falkland Islands.
The US and Soviet Union did not recognize any of these claims, and did not make any of their own (though reserving the right to do so). They recognized the threat of Antarctica becoming a nuclear missile haven and possibly sparking a literal Cold War.
In 1957, an “International Geophysical Year” was declared in which 12 nations would work jointly on science projects. The US seized the opportunity and proposed the nations join an Antarctic Treaty to ensure peaceful exploration of the continent.
It worked. In 1959, the signatories (including all nations with territorial claims) agreed to ban military activity and nuclear weapons/waste, and preserve Antarctica as a peaceful, collegial scientific environment. (A total of 44 countries have now signed on.)
The treaty allowed those with existing territorial claims to keep making them (without judging the validity of such claims), but barred them from developing or expanding such claims. It also barred any new territorial claims. In addition, it mandated open inspections and free travel in any area.
Practically, though not legally, it killed territorial claims, which traditionally require colonization, improvement and defense to be established. (Most of the territorial countries do have essentially powerless Antarctic governors and make weak support efforts such as issuing postage stamps of their “territory.”)
Once a powder keg, Antarctica is now a model of international cooperation. One US base actually sits within territory claimed by New Zealand. You can enter without a passport.
There has never been any major violation of the treaty. However, until recently Argentina had been aggressively asserting colonial claims. It actually sent a pregnant woman to give birth there in 1978, successfully making an Argentine citizen the first person born in Antarctica.