In Depth

Who owns Antarctica?

Continent threatened by global warming and exploitation of natural resources

The climate crisis is threatening Antarctica’s status as the last great wilderness - and with it, a Cold War-era treaty on how the region is governed, according to a leading expert. 

Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that Earth’s southernmost continent faces a growing danger from fishing and mining as its ice melts and the global population swells.

Speaking to Sky News to mark the 200th anniversary of Antarctica’s discovery, Dodds said: “If Antarctica continues to change thanks to things like climate change, will that also lead to a shift in the way that we think of Antarctica? Does Antarctica stop being so exceptional?” 

Who owns Antarctica? 

As the Financial Times reports, “Antarctica is a continent with no government”. 

Instead, the Earth’s coldest, driest and windiest continent is governed from a “drab, ten-person office” in Argentina’s capital capital, Buenos Aires, that houses the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty. This organisation is responsible for communications between the 53 countries that together run Antarctica under the Antarctic Treaty.

The treaty “was signed at the height of the Cold War” in order to “put aside territorial claims made by the UK, France, Norway, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand, and designated the continent as a place of ‘peace and science’”, says Sky News.

According to the broadcaster, 30 of the signatory countries have established a total of 82 research bases across Antarctica.

These countries include China, which views the continent as a site of strategic importance and is now investing heavily in missions there as part of a push to become a “polar great power”, says the FT.

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Will the treaty survive? 

“Scientists and diplomats are growing concerned that the existing system will be unable to respond to the new pressures” facing the region, the FT reports. 

The issue of what happens when a country violates the treaty rules remains largely unaddressed, yet both Chile and Argentina have made territorial claims in Antarctica that overlap with those of the UK, according the Sky News. The two South American nations are even reported to have sent pregnant women to their bases to give birth to bolster their claims.

The treaty is facing a further threat from tensions over “the military presence at some bases and lack of high-quality science at others”, the broadcaster adds.

British academic Dodds says that “science has always been a proxy for geopolitics”, adding: “People assumed in the 1950s that Antarctica would be isolated from the rest of the world, that it would be a sort of natural laboratory for science and good governance.

“Actually, as we go into the 2020s we’re going to see that Antarctica is ever more exposed to these broader geopolitical, economic and cultural currents that make it hard to continue with the old business model.”

Disputes over minerals, such as zinc, iron and uranium, could arise, while the exploitation of seals and whales is already an issue, he says.

The head of the UK Foreign Office’s polar regions department, Jane Rumble, says that keeping science at the heart of the international agreement is vital to its survival.

“We’re not complacent or naive that the treaty is the best thing ever,” Rumble told Sky News. “But the evidence shows that most states feel that they’re better off cooperating within the treaty to understand Antarctica and have a say in how it’s governed than trying to go alone.”

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