Discovery of Antarctica: 200th Anniversary

This briefing on the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica explores the history of the UK’s involvement in Antarctica since 1820.

Download the full report

The UK has had a long historical relationship with Antarctica. British naval officer Captain James Cook was the first to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent in the late 18th century, and a few decades later, British naval officer Edward Bransfield was one of the first to sight Antarctic land. This year marks 200 years since Bransfield’s first sighting of Antarctic land on 30 January 1820, and the beginning of the UK’s involvement in Antarctica.

After the discovery of the continent, British sealers and explorers established a presence in Antarctica and the UK became the first country to lay formal claim to Antarctic territory, in 1908. This claim was followed by territorial claims from six other countries, two of which laid claim to the same territory as the UK.

In 1957, for the duration of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), all claims to territory in Antarctica were put aside to allow for the establishment of scientific research stations across the continent for the collection of data as part of the worldwide programme of research. Following the success of the IGY, the twelve nations involved in Antarctic research negotiated the Antarctic Treaty, which set aside all claims to Antarctic territory indefinitely.

The UK is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty. Since its ratification in 1961, the UK has upheld the principles of the treaty and protected the Antarctic continent through a series of Antarctic Treaty conventions. 

Several UK institutions are active in Antarctic affairs. The UK has a dedicated office for the Polar Regions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which represents the UK in matters of governance; the British Antarctic Survey, which represents the UK in leading Antarctic scientific ventures and collaborations; and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, which works to conserve the heritage sites on the continent that illustrate the long history of the UK’s involvement in Antarctica.

The Antarctic continent faces several challenges, including those posed by climate change and the effects of increased tourism to the continent. The UK has dedicated to meeting these challenges and has undertaken initiatives to combat these issues. 

  • Lords Research Briefing LLN-2020-0103
  • Author: Iqra Choudhry
  • Topics: International Law

Download the full report