Antarctica is a very unique place on the planet. At once deserted and fascinating, the southernmost edge of the world, brimming with natural beauty and resources, one of the most curious facts about Antarctica is that it is the only continent on the planet that has no “owner” to its territory, but has a shared, international status in world politics, focused on scientific cooperation and no military activity allowed.
But that wasn’t always the case. In history, Antarctica had been an often explored and heavily disputed territory, with many countries across the world vying to claim ownership over it. How, then, did it become the international scientific cooperation reserve it is today? That story involved “heroic” expeditions, a machine gun, and one giant international science fair!
Ancient theories and Terra Australis Incognita
Beliefs and theories about a land in the southern part of the world, an anti-arctic region that was situated opposite to the arctic, that would ‘balance’ the Earth dates back to Antiquity.
From ancient civilizations through to medieval explorers, an unknown land to the south of the world, often called Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Southern Land) appeared in discussions, maps, and occasionally sighting reports, but the first known landings in Antarctic land would only happen in the 19th century.
Early Antarctic expeditions and the Heroic Age
Accidental sightings and discoveries by whaler captains in the early 1800s are credited but disputed by historians; the first exploration to actually discover and explore the Antarctic continent, in what is today known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf, was a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.
These discoveries led to what would be known as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”, a period between the late 1800s up to the First World War, where geographical and scientific societies in many countries encouraged expeditions to discover more about the Antarctic continent, despite the expedition, communications, and transportation technology still being quite limited.
Seventeen major expeditions were launched by ten different countries, some of them the first ones to overwinter (spend the winter in the harsh Antarctic conditions, something that is rarely done even today) in Antarctica, many resulting in injuries and even death, and were considered “heroic” later for the show of endurance in its crews.
An alleged ad for Antarctic explorations read, "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success." And here are the Nightwatchmen of the doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition (c. 1914) from OldSchoolCool
After the ending of the “Heroic” age, came what was known as the “Mechanical Age”, where expeditions increasingly used aircraft and more equipped ships. These early explorations of Antarctica mapped a significant portion of its territory and acquired scientific and geographical importance to the continent.
From the early 19th century, Britain, France, Norway, and Germany disputed and laid claims to many areas of Antarctic territory, from reported landings to trading routes. These European arguments and encroaching bothered South American countries Chile and Argentina immensely as the closest countries to Antarctica, and friction between Argentina, Chile, and Britain were especially fraught, including even a machine gun-tempered diplomatic mishap.
The United States and the USSR eventually joined the fray, and fears that they'd bring the Cold War to the Antarctic continent grew.
After a failed attempt by the British to get an International Court to determine a territory divide between Britain, Chile, and Argentina, negotiations towards an international condominium started to move between the disputing countries but fell through due to the Soviet Union’s interest in the region.
International Geophysical Year
One of the key elements that shifted the geopolitical views on Antarctica was the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, a global and international scientific project that involved dozens of countries and resulted in many scientific achievements.
Inspired by the International Polar Years, which previously took place in 1882-1883 and 1932-1933, and by the scientific advancements of the post-war period, the International Council of Scientific Unions felt, in 1950, that the time was ripe for another moment of scientific research and cooperation, focusing on the Earth sciences and expanding it to the entire planet.
After negotiations, in 1957 the first major and (mostly) peaceful cooperation of knowledge and science between opposing countries since the beginning of the Cold War took place. It was 18 months of work that joined thousands of scientists, researchers, enthusiasts, students, and teachers of 67 countries, including both the U.S.A and the USSR
The IGY was a success, an incredible example of countries coming together in peace and science even in a time as fraught and tense as the Cold War. Though political interests still played a part, the IGY ran without any major hitches, and its results included the launches of the first space satellites, the confirmation of tectonic plate theories, the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts, the creation of the World Data Systems, (a system built for the transparent sharing of scientific data between nations, which are located in different places around the world, to protect study data from destruction in any one place), and, of course, the direct lead into the composition of the Antarctic Treaty.
The Antarctic Treaty
Following the many successes of the IGY and the development of studies in the Antarctic region, including the establishment of many research bases in Antarctica, some of the countries chose to extend the research period in Antarctica for another year. During that time, the then-president of the United States, Eisenhower called for an Antarctic Conference with the 12 countries in activity in Antarctica, 9 of which had territorial claims over it.
After months of discussions and negotiations, the Antarctic Treaty was signed on December 1st, 1959, agreeing on an international administration of the continent of Antarctica taking as a model the United Nations, reserved for peaceful purposes only.
Other key agreements in the Antarctic Treaty were setting aside Antarctica as a scientific, peaceful reserve, the banning of military activity, the mutual sharing of resources and scientific data produced in Antarctica, and the establishment of randomized supervision by other nations.
It was the very first arms control agreement to be signed during the Cold War. The Treaty does not confirm nor deny the previous territory claims by any countries.
The Antarctic Treaty was effective in 1961, and subsequent additions to the terms include the conservation of the Antarctic ecosystem, protection of its fauna and flora, regulating mining and marine activity, and the environmental protection of the continent.
Today, 54 countries are party to the Treaty, 29 of which are consulting parties, a.k.a make decisions about new developments, and Antarctica remains a reserve for scientific development and peaceful cooperation. The studies conducted there have proved crucial to understanding the development, past, and future, of the Earth.