Antarctica: Home to Ice, Penguins, and Boundary Disputes

November 29, 2022
IMA Research Team

By Alex Marsh

First discovered in 1840, Antarctica has long been the subject of intrigue in the international community. As the region’s ice continues to recede, increasing access to the area has prompted renewed scrutiny of states’ maritime and territorial claims.

Map from the 1933–1935 Second Byrd Antarctica Expedition, from the Library of Congress.

The Antarctic Treaty System

The Antarctic is unique in that it is the only continent on earth with no native human population, and therefore, no government. As interest in the region intensified in the mid-20th century, states recognized the need for international cooperation. As a result, Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, a collection of agreements and treaties that commits signatories to responsible and cooperative behavior in the region. The basis of the treaty system is a recognition by all states party to the treaty that, “it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” As of 2022, 54 states are party to the Antarctic Treaty System, including all states which maintain territorial claims (or the right to assert a claim) in Antarctica.

The portion of the Antarctic Treaty System that concerns territorial claims and sovereignty is contained in the system’s founding document, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Despite the general spirit of cooperation in the Antarctic Treaty, Article 4 makes clear that those countries that had previously made territorial claims to Antarctica would not be renouncing them and that the agreement itself was in no way intended to establish any form of official recognition of any one countries claim.

Territorial Claims

A total of seven states have made land claims in Antarctica: France (Adélie Land), Argentina (Argentine Antarctica), Australia (Australian Antarctic Territory), the United Kingdom (British Antarctic Territory), Chile (Chilean Antarctic Territory), Norway (Peter I Island & Queen Maud Land), and New Zealand (Ross Dependency). These territorial claims are only recognized by the aforementioned seven states, and not unanimously. The United Kingdom, Argentina, and Chile have overlapping claims, and thus do not recognize each other’s claims. Land claims made by the seven states are conical in shape, extending outwards from the south pole to the Antarctic coast. The sole exception to this rule is the Norwegian claim, whose southern and northern limits remain undefined. The United States, Russia, Peru, and Uruguay have all reserved their right to make a claim, but as of 2022 have not done so.

The various claims to Antarctica.

Maritime Claims

Maritime claims in the Antarctic are the subject of some dispute. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Antarctic Treaty System ostensibly clash in this area, with differing interpretations by different parties. Since the 1959 Antarctic Treaty only commits states to pausing “territorial” claims, some parties have argued it does not apply to maritime claims, or that it contradicts the rights of states to file extended continental shelf claims under Article 76 of UNCLOS. Historically, submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) by states with territorial claims in the Antarctic explicitly requested that the CLCS not consider data from Antarctica, so as to avoid antagonizing parties to the Antarctic Treaty System by making new claims.

Australia, however, included their claimed “Australian Antarctic Territory” in their 2004 submission to the CLCS. The CLCS found that Australia’s claim was scientifically valid, delimiting not only the Australian Antarctic Territory’s ECS boundaries, but also claimed limits for a territorial sea and 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. Argentina and Norway followed suit in 2009 with submissions to the CLCS that included their antarctic claims, and the United Kingdom and Chile have also declared their intent to file similar claims.

A map from Australia’s ECS submission depicting its EEZ and ECS claims to the Australian Antarctic Territory.

If you’re interested in learning more about the boundary weirdness of the extended continental shelf, check out this blog, which includes information on the claims of Antarctica’s polar opposite.

Research Outposts

While they are not a form of territorial claim, there are nonetheless a significant number of research outposts in Antarctica. There are 92 seasonal and full-time research stations in Antarctica, operated by 42 states (all members of the Antarctic Treaty System) and a total crew ranging anywhere between 1,000–4,000 scientists and researchers. The operation of a research station does not constitute a territorial claim under the Antarctic Treaty System, which states, “No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica.” As such, many states operate research outposts in territory claimed by other states with no issues. Scientific cooperation in the Antarctic is another principle of the Antarctic Treaty System, so the construction and operation of these outposts are not typically cause for dispute.

As the global climate continues to change, interest in the Antarctic is only expected to increase. Numerous states that have reserved their right to make territorial claims have begun seriously examining the possibility, while others, such as Australia, test the boundaries of the Antarctic Treaty System’s constraints on sovereignty claims. The Antarctic will continue to be an area of global interest, territorial dispute, and scientific research.

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