Antarctica is the world's southernmost continent and is it's the planet's most inhospitable. It is a continent devoid of permanent human habitation with most of the people who are there being scientists and support. There are at least seven countries staking claims to this frozen wasteland (with others like the United States "reserving the right" to stake a claim).

For those who can afford it, it is a very rewarding experience to discover Antarctica on an expedition - and one can actually get tours to the South Pole. But some of the best Antarctic scenery is not Antarctica itself, but South Georgia Island and other sub-Antarctic islands. These islands are teeming with life and can be reached with an expedition.

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What to Know About The Most Inhospitable Continent

Antarctica is extremely southern and is almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle. It is almost twice the size of Australia and is entombed in a blanket of ice. The average thickness of its ice shelves is around 1.9 kilometers or 1.2 miles.

  • Size: 14,200,000 km2 (5,500,000 sq mi)
  • Summer Population: 5,000 (At Research Stations)
  • Winter Population: 1,000 (At Research Stations)

This continent is the coldest, driest, and windiest of all and by far the highest average elevation. Around 70% of the world's fresh water is locked up in its ice (which if that were to melt, would raise global sea levels by around 60 meters or 200 feet).

Few plants and animals can exist in the brutal environment (although the polar waters can be rich in marine life). Its native species are largely limited to mites, nematodes, penguins, seals, and tardigrades with its limited vegetation being tundra.

While it may be easy to visit 6 of the world's 7 continents - ticking this one off the list can be tricky.

Related: 10 Most Fascinating Things About A Possible Trip To Antarctica

The Antarctic Treaty - Freezing The Frozen Continent

So with all that, it's not particularly a continent that anyone really wants. It wasn't even until 1840 that the continent was discovered and the first confirmed landing wasn't until 1895.

Today seven countries stake a claim to splices of Antarctica. But it is governed by around 30 countries that are parties of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System. This treaty was a compromise to "freeze" the continent.

  • Banned: The Treaty Bans All Mining, Nuclear Explosions, Nuclear Waste Disposal, And Military Activity
  • Definition: Under The Treaty, Antarctica Is Defined As All Land and Ice Shelves South of 60°S latitude
  • Research Stations: There Are Over 55 Antarctic Research Stations

Under the treaty, the continent was set aside as a scientific preserve and guarantees the freedom of scientific research. The treaty does not dispute or recognize any claims on the continent and bans any future claims to the continent (although in 2015 Norway formally defined its claim, Queen Maud Land, as extending all the way through unclaimed land to the South Pole).

Related: 10 Bizarre Things Hidden Right Underneath The Antarctic (10 Found Above Ground)

The Countries Claiming Slices of Antarctica

Today most of Antarctica is claimed by seven countries - the lion's share being claimed by Australia. Some of these countries recognize each other's claims but their claims are not widely internationally recognized.

The Territorial Claims in Antarctica are:

France:

  • Name of Territory: Adelie Land
  • Date Claimed: 1840
  • Claim Limits: 142°02′E to 136°11′E
  • Over Lapping Claims: None

United Kingdom:

  • Name of Territory: British Antarctic Territory
  • Date Claimed: 1908
  • Claim Limits: 080°00′W to 020°00′W
  • Over Lapping Claims: Partial Over Lapping Claims with Chile and Argentina

New Zealand:

  • Name of Territory: Ross Dependency
  • Date Claimed: 1923
  • Claim Limits: 160°00′E to 150°00′W
  • Over Lapping Claims: None

Norway:

  • Name of Territory: Queen Maud Land & Peter I Island
  • Date Claimed: 1939 & 1931
  • Claim Limits: 020°00′W to 044°38′E & 68°50′S 90°35′W

Australia:

  • Name of Territory: Australian Antarctic Territory
  • Date Claimed: 1933
  • Claim Limits: 044°38′E to 136°11′E, and 142°02′E to 160°00′E
  • Over Lapping Claims: None

Chile:

  • Name of Territory: Chilean Antarctic Territory
  • Date Claimed: 1940
  • Claim Limits: 090°00′W to 053°00′W
  • Over Lapping Claims: Partial Over Lapping Claims with The UK and Argentina

Argentina:

  • Name of Territory: Argentine Antarctica
  • Date Claimed: 1943
  • Claim Limits: 074°00′W to 025°00′W
  • Over Lapping Claims: Partial Over Lapping Claims with The UK and Chile

In all of this (and overlapping claims), there is actually a sizable part of the unclaimed territory (called Marie Bryd Land). It extends from 150°00′W to 090°00′W - but excludes the Norwegian claim to the Peter I Island.

As New Zealand and Australia achieved independence, they inherited the older British claims to the continent.

  • Recognition: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Norway All Recognize Each Other's Claims
  • Brazil: Staked A "Zone of Interest"

Under the Treaty Russia and the United States reserve their right to make a claim to Antarctica. Peru and South Africa also formally reserve their rights to stake out a claim, while Brazil is designated a "zone of interest" - although that is not the same as an actual claim.

Next: The White Darkness: 25 Stunning Pics Taken In Antarctica