Antarctica is the Earth’s southernmost continent. It is the only continent with no indigenous population.

The continent is capped by an inland ice sheet up to 4.8 kilometres thick, containing 90 percent of the world’s total fresh water. It is documented as the coldest place on Earth, having registered a record lowest temperature at one of its stations, Vostok, of -89˚C.

In 1908, the United Kingdom became the first country to formalise its claim to the Antarctic through the Falkland Island Dependencies Letters Patent. Six other countries have since made formal claims to Antarctic territory, with some of these claims overlapping. Those countries are: New Zealand (1923); France (1924); Norway (1929); Australia (1933); Chile (1940) and Argentina (1942). In addition, the US and Russia reserve the right to make a claim in the future.

Map detailing the seven territorial claims made in Antarctica prior to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty

A map of the Antarctic showing territorial claims

Image courtesy of the Australian Antarctic Program.

The 12 nations active in the continent, nine of which had made claims or reserved the right to do so, agreed to put their legal and political differences aside to focus on scientific research during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which was held between July 1957 and December 1958. The IGY was a multi-national global study of geophysical phenomena and their relationships with solar activity. It led to the establishment of permanent research stations on the continent. According to the British Antarctic Survey, an organisation that oversees UK Antarctic research and operations, the “outstanding success” of the IGY led to the 12 nations agreeing that peaceful scientific cooperation in the continent should continue “indefinitely”. This led to the immediate commencement of negotiations for the Antarctic Treaty.

Antarctic Treaty

On 1 December 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington, USA, by the 12 nations active during the IGY: Argentina; Australia; Belgium; Chile; France; Japan; New Zealand; Norway; South Africa; United Kingdom; United States; and USSR. The treaty applies to the area south of 60˚ South latitude.

There are fourteen articles in the treaty. This includes articles which:

  • stipulate that the continent should be used exclusively for “peaceful purposes”, with military activities and the establishment of military bases in Antarctica prohibited;
  • provide that no activities will “enhance or diminish” previously asserted positions with respect to territorial claims; and
  • create a dispute settlement procedure and a mechanism by which the treaty can be modified.

The treaty remains in force indefinitely. It also provides for members of the United Nations to accede to it. At present, the treaty has 54 parties. Since coming into force in June 1961, the parties meet annually to discuss issues such as scientific cooperation, measures to protect the environment and operational issues.

In October 1991, parties to the treaty signed the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. The protocol commits parties to the “comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment”, designating Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. It does this by setting out several principles for parties to adhere to. This includes:

  • banning all commercial mineral resource activity;
  • requiring environmental impact assessments to be completed prior to the commencement of all activities; and
  • requiring the conservation of Antarctic flora and fauna.

Threats to Antarctica

In recent years, Antarctica has faced two main threats to its ecosystem. The impact of climate change and tourism.

Scientists and conservationists have warned that a rise in global temperature has led to the warming of the Antarctic Peninsula, impacting the continent’s ice sheet. In 2018, an analysis of satellite observations of the continent revealed that Antarctica lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2017. Further, in 2019, the Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that a 1.5°C increase in global temperatures would lead to marine ice sheet instability in Antarctica and could result in a multi-metre rise in sea level over hundreds to thousands of years.

Rising temperatures and the breaking apart of the ice sheet in Antarctica has also impacted the continent’s local species populations. Krill, which are small crustaceans, often feed on algae underneath the ice sheet and have seen their populations declining in the Antarctic Peninsula, as sheet ice has decreased. This, in addition to changing weather conditions in its traditional nesting areas, has led to the decline in the numbers of Chinstrap penguins by 77 percent in the past 50 years.

Tourism in Antarctica began in the late 1950s when Argentina and Chile first carried a few hundred fare-paying passengers to the South Shetland Islands, and has increased ever since. The tourism industry is largely managed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a voluntary trade association, which was founded by seven private tour operators in 1991 and now comprises of more than 100 member companies. Similarly, the number of tourists visiting the continent has increased from 6,700 in the 1992–1993 season to 56,000 during 2018–19.

Scientists and conservation groups have warned that although human activities on Antarctica are regulated by the treaty and its associated protocols, tourism threatens the continent’s biodiversity. They contend that increased human movement in Antarctica increases the risk that people will transfer invasive species to the continent. In addition, scientists have also expressed concern about potential pollution from shipping vessels travelling to and from the continent.

Another concern is that the day-to-day management of tourism in the continent is self-regulated by the tour operators. Although tour operators must obtain a permit to travel in Antarctica from one of the parties in the treaty, scientists and conservation groups argue that increasing tourism numbers could push the existing system to “breaking point”. According to Cassandra Brooks, an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, “IAATO is truly amazing in what they have accomplished, but it’s difficult to imagine how they will manage to control this burgeoning industry”.

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Cover image: Map detailing the seven territorial claims made in Antarctica prior to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. The claims of Chile, Argentina and the United Kingdom partially overlap (as can be seen from the mixed colours). Cover image map by Lokal Profil, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons, and key by House of Lords Library.