Antarctic Treaty Summary

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Antarctic Treaty Summary

Type of Government

Nearly ten times the size of Alaska, the continent of Antarctica is a vast expanse of ice sheets, glaciers, and floating ice shelves. Apart from scattered scientific research stations and transient tourists, it is uninhabited. A reliable system of governance is nonetheless necessary, because its unique climactic and geographic features make it critically important to a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including climatology, geology, biology, and oceanography. To ensure that scientists of all nations are able to conduct their research in an atmosphere free of political intrigue and commercial exploitation, twelve nations signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, creating a form of governance called the Antarctic Treaty Summary. Several other nations have since joined the agreement, and a separate protocol mandating measures for the preservation of the continent’s ecology was added in 1991.


The first humans to glimpse Antarctica are thought to have been a group of seal hunters in 1820. Despite heavy use of the shipping channel around Cape Horn, roughly six hundred miles away at the southern tip of South America, few sea captains were rash enough to venture farther south; even in the summer months, the risk of collision with floating ice was enormous. A few tentative explorations took place over the next hundred years, but large-scale expeditions did not become feasible until the technological advances that happened during World War I. It was, above all, the development of long-range aircraft that opened the continent to scientific study and to territorial claims by a variety of nations, including France and Great Britain. Other countries, notably the United States and the Soviet Union, conducted expeditions but generally refrained from asserting territorial claims. The most notorious claim was made in 1939, when a German aerial expedition claimed an extensive territory for Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and the German Reich.

World War II had relatively little impact on Antarctica. By the 1950s, however, cold war rivalries and a growing awareness of the continent’s scientific importance had brought new claims by Chile, Argentina, Australia, and others, as well as a wave of building activity. The culmination of this period of energy and enthusiasm was the declaration of 1957–1958 as an International Geophysical Year (IGY), an ambitious, multinational research program with a strong emphasis on Antarctica. The IGY proved a model of international cooperation in the sciences, and its success prompted widespread awareness of the need to preserve the continent for scientific purposes. In 1958 U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) invited eleven other nations with major interests in the region to begin work on a comprehensive treaty. Negotiations began in June of that year, and the treaty was signed on December 1, 1959. Following ratification by all twelve parties (the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, France, Japan, and Norway), the treaty became binding in June 1961. A number of other nations have since joined the agreement, including India, Poland, and Brazil.

Government Structure

Terms of the treaty are valid for fifty years and cover all areas south of sixty degrees latitude with the exclusion of the high seas. The first provisions call for only peaceful, nonmilitary uses of the area and for cooperation in research, including the exchange of data, personnel, and equipment. The parties also agree not to obstruct or interfere with another’s research, though each has the right to inspect the facilities of the others. Disputes are to be settled through negotiation, arbitration, or, in the last resort, by appeal to the International Court of Justice. The testing of nuclear weapons and the dumping of nuclear waste are banned. There are also provisions for the review and modification of the original agreement, notably a review to be held after thirty years if one of the parties requests it.

Finally, there is the matter of territorial claims. For these the treaty essentially preserves the status quo, prohibiting new claims but leaving earlier ones in place. Because these claims fall within a gray, unadjudicated area of international law, the treaty’s drafters wisely made no attempt to resolve them, instead deferring the issue to the jurists of a later generation.

Political Parties and Factions

Though political parties do not exist, differences of opinion do arise with some regularity. The most significant of these occurred in 1988, when thirty-three nations signed a Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities, or CRAMRA. Mining and other types of resource extraction fell outside the scope of the 1959 treaty, but technological advances in the interim had reduced the obstacles Antarctica’s forbidding environment posed to these activities. CRAMRA imposed restrictions on mining but did not prohibit it. Reaction was swift and vehement, with widespread feeling that any mining was a violation in spirit (though not in letter) of the original treaty. As a result, CRAMRA was rescinded. Superseding it in 1991 was a new protocol on environmental protection, Article VII of which bans any mineral activities unrelated to scientific research.

Major Events

Global climate change poses a major challenge to the treaty nations, because it threatens the unique environment the treaty seeks to preserve. Antarctica’s landscape has always been in flux, as icebergs break off into the sea and ice shelves melt and reform. Recently, however, scientists have noted a dramatic increase in melting activity. In 2005, for example, satellite photos revealed that surface snow had melted over an area the size of California. May 2007 marked the beginning of an International Polar Year (IPY), an event similar to the IGY of 1957–1958. The focus of the IPY, however, is squarely on climate change.

Twenty-First Century

Over the past fifty years, scientists have noted a rise of two and a half degrees Celsius in the average temperature of the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent’s most accessible region. Scientists note that this warming trend, moreover, seems to be increasing in speed and intensity. If Antarctica’s ice—roughly ninety percent of the world’s total—continues to melt into the ocean, the implications for the continent, and for plant and animal life around the globe, are ominous.

Antarctic Treaty Secretariat. “Antarctic Treaty Secretariat.” (accessed May 26, 2007).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” (accessed May 26, 2007).

International Polar Year. “IPY 2007–2008.” (accessed May 26, 2007).