The continent was circumnavigated by Captain James Cook in the 18th century though he never saw it. In the early 20th century explorers were obsessed with reaching the South Pole and eventually the Norwegian Roald Amundsen attained that goal in 1911.
The Division of AntarcticaAs Antarctica was an unclaimed territory and a possible source of valuable resources, several nations decided to claim portions of the continent. What is very unusual about borders in Antarctica is the fact that they all follow lines of longitude and are completely straight.
The United Kingdom claimed a pie piece portion in 1908, New Zealand made their claim in 1923, France in 1924, Australia in 1933, Norway in 1939, Chile in 1940, and finally Argentina in 1943. Many of these claims overlapped (an excellent map) and oddly enough, the area between 90° and 150° west went unclaimed by any nation.
The Antarctic TreatyJuly 1957-December 1958 was the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a time of unprecedented international scientific cooperation between scientists around the world (even between the U.S. and the Soviet Union) to record and exchange data about our planet. Dozens of Antarctic research stations were established during the IGY and the spirit of cooperation led to the Antarctic Treaty in December, 1959. The fourteen short articles of the treaty are summarized by Martin Glassner:
Antarctica is to be used for peaceful purposes only; no military activities of any kind are permitted, though military personnel and equipment may be (and are) used for scientific purposes. Freedom of scientific investigation and cooperation shall continue. Scientific program plans, personnel, observations, and results shall be freely exchanged. No prior territorial claim is recognized, disputed, or established, and no new claims may be made while the treaty is in force. Nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive waste are prohibited. All land and ice shelves south of latitude 60°S are covered, but not the high seas of the area. Observers from treaty States have free access to any area and may inspect all stations, installations, and equipment. Treaty states shall meet periodically to exchange information... (549)
The treaty was signed by twelve nations in 1959 which included the seven nations which had made claims as well as five non-claimant countries (South Africa, Belgium, Japan, United States, and Soviet Union). The treaty was ratified in 1961 and had an initial period of thirty years. There are now a total of 42 nations which have become members of the Antarctic Treaty system. The treaty was renewed in the early 1990s amid concerns that the treaty makes no mention of commercial or tourism use of the continent.
Without travel restrictions, thousands have visited the continent and have endangered the fragile ecosystem. Antarctica is a dangerous place for tourists and scientists alike, over fifty American planes have crashed and dozens have been killed by being trapped in ice.
International cooperation under the guidelines of the treaty have been excellent although there is a slight rift between Chile and Argentina which claim overlapping territory. The two countries have created maps showing "their" territory, have issued postage stamps from Antarctica, and erected buildings.
Some other extreme geopolitical stunts by the two nations included a week long tour of Chilean territory by the President in 1977 and in 1978 Argentina sent a pregnant women south to give birth to the first Antarctic child and held the first wedding on the content.
The fifth largest land mass is the "coldest, windiest, driest, highest, quietest, most remote, and least understood continent on earth" (Glassner, 545) but global scientific cooperation seems to be working well and hopefully it will be a long time before any nation seeks to establish true "territory" on Antarctica.
For more information about Antarctica and current research, visit Rice University's educational site about Antarctica, Glacier.
Bibliography - Glassner, Martin. Political Geography. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995.