How Does the Law Work in Antarctica?


Antarctica is a world of awesome beauty and great mystery. It is it is the coldest, windiest, driest, and highest continent in the world. The term "Antarctica" means "Opposite the Artic," as Antarctica lies at the bottom of the world opposite the Artic. But who lives there? What is its history? And most importantly, what are the laws of Antarctica and how might they affect the future development of mankind? We believe the answers to at least some of these questions will amaze you.

In order to understand the current legal structure of Antarctica, it helps to know a little bit about its geography, inhabitants, and history. Next, we’ll take a look at the geography of Antarctica.


Antarctica is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. In the winter months the interior temperatures of the continent regularly fall in between –112 to –130 degrees F (–80 to –90 degrees C). This is three to four times colder than the winter months in Alaska. It has "katabatic" winds that have been recorded up to 203 mph (327 km/hour), which are much faster than even the winds in a Level 5 hurricane (like the winds in Hurricane Katrina or Rita). "Katabatic" means these winds are driven by high-density air from a higher elevation down the contour of a mountain slope under the force of gravity.

Antarctica holds about 90% of the entire world’s ice, which accounts for about 70% of the world’s fresh water. If all of this ice melted into the sea, the level of all oceans in the world would rise by approximately 200 feet (60 meters). If this were ever to occur, it would cause tens of billions of dollars of damages to the world’s coastal areas. Even with all that ice, this southernmost continent has about the same level of precipitation as the Sahara Desert in Africa, which is one of the most barren places on Earth. Antarctica is also the highest continent in the world with an average altitude of 7,382 feet (2250 meters). To put this in perspective, the altitude in New York City is only about 157 feet.

Next, we’ll see who currently lives in Antarctica.

Who Lives In Antarctica?

There are approximately 6 billion people on our planet and growing, but no people call Antarctica their home. There are no cities, no states, and no permanent residents on the entire continent (but there are some permanent research stations). Yet, the continent covers more than 5,400,000 square miles (14 million square km), which is about 1.5 times the landmass of the entire United States.

Antarctica is used primarily for scientific research. Each year in the summer months from around September to February, approximately 4,000 scientists from over 27 different countries come to Antarctica to operate research facilities. They include biologists, geologists, glaciologists, oceanographers, meteorologists, physicists, and astronomers. These scientists come to conduct research on ice sheets, glaciers, snow precipitations, floating ice, wildlife, global warming, and the ozone layer. In the winter months from around May to August, the number of scientists drops to approximately 1,000. This is due to the dramatic change in climate conditions. The winter temperatures drop well below 0 and sunlight becomes very scarce.

In addition to the scientists, every year a certain number of brave tourists visit Antarctica. Approximately 36,000 tourists visited Antarctica in the 2006-2007 summer. Tourists come in the summer months because there is more sunlight and temperatures are much more bearable. The warmest part of Antarctica is the northernmost edge of the Antarctica Peninsula, where the average temperature can be in between 40 - 50 degrees F (4.5 – 10 degrees C) for a few months in the summer. Tourists come to see the wildlife, which include whales, penguins, seals, and other sea birds (Remember, there are no polar bears in Antarctica - they are only in the Artic by the North Pole). Tourists also come to see the massive icebergs, ice-covered mountains, Southern Lights, and to take in the serene nature that only Antarctica can offer.

Next, we explore how the bottom of the world was discovered.

Who Discovered the Bottom of the World?

Antarctica is the youngest continent in the world according to recorded history. This is because no human is credited with having seen Antarctica until the early 19th century. This means that Antarctica is younger than the United States by more than 200 years. However, the quest for discovery for a continent at the bottom of the world traces it roots all the way back to ancient Greece.

The ancient Greek mathematician and geographer, Ptolemy (1st century AD), believed that there had to be a landmass at the bottom of the Earth in order to preserve the symmetry of the rest of the world’s landmasses. This idea permeated much of the ancient world, but took nearly another 1700 years until any actual attempts were made to prove the theory true.

The English explorer, Captain James Cook, is credited with the first near encounter with of this southernmost continent. Historians agree that Captain Cook came within 75 miles of the Antarctica on his voyages in 1773 and 1774. But Captain Cook never knew how close he really came.

As for the actual first sighting, historians dispute about who the first human was to see Antarctica. Most historians credit the Russians, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarez, with the first human sightings of Antarctica on January 27, 1820. English Captain Edward Bransfield and American sealer Nathaniel Palmer also claim to have seen the southernmost continent, but most historians agree their sightings came after the Russians. Whichever theory is correct, we are at least fairly certain that no human even saw Antarctica until about 1820 (more than 300 years after Columbus discovered America).

According to many historians, American sealer John Davis made the first documented landing on mainland Antarctica on February 7, 1821. However, the most publicized event, even to our present day, was likely the race to the geographical South Pole in 1911.

Next, we’ll find out who was the first person to reach the most southern geographical point in the world.

The First to Reach the South Pole

Two separate polar expeditions went head-to-head in race to reach the geographic South Pole. Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen and his crew competed against an expedition led by English explorer Robert Scott. Both would eventually make it to the world’s southernmost point, but only one team returned.

On December 14, 1911, Roald Amundsen and his team became the first humans to reach the geographic South Pole. One month later, the expedition led by the Englishman Scott arrived there. However, many misfortunes befell Scott’s crew and they eventually ran out of food and froze to death in the Antarctic wasteland.

The excitement of the race caught the world’s attention. Amundsen became a national hero, and Scott’s name still lives on with certain parts of Antarctica named after him. After the hype of the race to the South Pole was over, the emphasis slowly began to turn into scientific exploration.

Next, we’ll see how science led to cooperation between nations on Antarctica.

Scientific Exploration Comes to Antarctica

After WW II, scientists from the United States, Russia, Australia, Chile, Argentina, France, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, Norway, and others countries began to place greater emphasis on scientific exploration in Antarctica. More scientific bases were constructed, as scientists worked to discover and record meteorological and geographical information. During the years from 1957-1958 these nations agreed to cooperate and focus their research on the following eleven Earth sciences: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations (precision mapping), meteorology, oceanography, seismology and solar activity. This cooperation led to the foundation of the system of "law" in place today in Antarctica (we’ll explore what "law" means later in this article). In addition, some countries were making territorial claims on sections of Antarctica for their own use.

Next, we’ll see what countries made such territorial claims.

What Countries Have Territorial Claims in Antarctica?

The following 7 countries have placed territorial claims of ownership on portions of Antarctica (with dates of claims in parentheses):

Great Britain (1908)
New Zealand (1923)
France (1924)
Norway (1929)
Australia (1933)
Chile (1940)
Argentina (1943)

Some of these countries claims of ownership overlap one another. For example, Argentina, the UK, and Chile have claims that overlap, which has caused some friction between them. Even with all these territorial claims, about 15% of the continent is unclaimed. However, the United States, Russia, and many other countries do not recognize any territorial claims of ownership in Antarctica.

Next, let’s explore how the law operates in Antarctica.

The Law of Antarctica

To say that Antarctica has "laws" is really a mischaracterization. In fact, Antarctica has no government and no country owns it. As previously mentioned, 7 countries have placed territorial claims on Antarctica, but most countries including the United States and Russia do not recognize such claims. Because no country technically owns Antarctica, Antarctica is not a sovereign. This means no government controls Antarctica. Therefore, Antarctica is more like a “no-mans-land” from a traditional legal perspective.

While there are no "laws" as we traditionally know them, there is a treaty and many international agreements in place between the cooperating nations of Antarctica. In reality, the international scientific community governs Antarctica because those are the people who work and operate on the continent. However, this cooperation would likely have not been possible without the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which created the foundation for how everything operates today.

Lets explore the Antarctic Treaty and the countries that abide by it.

The Antarctic Treaty

The first official treaty signed between any countries concerning Antarctica is the "Antarctic Treaty" of 1959. The following 12 countries signed the Treaty: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The Antarctic Treaty set the foundation for how affairs are conducted in Antarctica today. It suspended all territorial claims made on the continent. It defined all signatory countries of the Antarctic Treaty as "consultative members." The Treaty defines consultative members as those nations that have voting rights in making agreements about Antarctic. Countries that have signed the Treaty but have no voting rights are referred to as "acceding members." At the end of 2007, there were 46 treaty member nations comprised of 28 consultative member nations and 18 acceding member nations.

The 28 consultative member nations (i.e. voting member nations) are as follows (the 7 countries in italics are also claimant nations): Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Uruguay, the UK, the United States, and Russia.

The 18 acceding (i.e. non-voting members) nations include: Austria, Belarus, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Next, let’s explore the 12 articles of the Antarctic Treaty in more detail to better understand the Treaty.

The 12 Articles of the Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty is composed of 12 articles, which are written in fairly general terms and are only enforceable by the cooperation of the consultative members.

Here is a brief summary of the 12 articles of the Antarctic Treaty to give you a better sense of how consultative member nations are encouraged to cooperate:

Article 1 – Antarctica is to be used for peaceful purposes only. Military activities, such as weapons testing, are strictly prohibited. However, military personnel and equipment can be used for scientific and other peaceful purposes.

Article 2 – Countries shall work together in cooperation for scientific discovery.

Article 3 – Countries shall freely exchange information and personnel, cooperate with the United Nations, and cooperate with other international agencies.

Article 4 – No territorial claims on Antarctica are recognized, disputed, or established, and no new claims shall be asserted while the Treaty is in force.

Article 5 – This Treaty prohibits nuclear explosions and disposal or radioactive wastes.

Article 6 – This Treaty includes all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees 00 minutes south, and reserves rights to the high seas.

Article 7 – All countries that abide by this Treaty have free access to any area of Antarctica. As such, all countries may inspect any installations, stations, and equipment of other countries, and have free access to aerial photography. However, advance notice must be given of all expeditions and of the use of any military personnel.

Article 8 – Each country has legal jurisdiction over its own citizens and observers. (This means, for example, US law would govern US tourists, while German law would govern German tourists.)

Article 9 – Frequent consultative meetings shall take place between consultative member nations.

Article 10 – Consultative member nations will discourage activities by any country in Antarctica that are contrary to this Treaty.

Article 11 – Disputes are to be settled peacefully by the parties concerned, or the International Court of Justice.

Articles 12, 13, and 14 – These articles deal with upholding, interpreting, and amending this Treaty.

As you can probably see, the nations that sign this Treaty are relying on each other to cooperate peacefully. Article 11 explicitly states that disputes are to be handled by the parties or nations concerned. In other words, there really is no "legal system" for solving disputes (except to rely on the International Court of Justice).

In addition to the Antarctic Treaty, the consultative member nations meet fairly regularly to recommend, update, and ratify sections to the Treaty. More than 200 recommendations have been adopted at these treaty consultative meetings. One such adoption was the Madrid Protocol that deals with environmental concerns, which we’ll talk about in the next section.

Next, we’ll explore how the law of Antarctica may affect the future development of the world.

How Will the Law of Antarctica Affect the World's Future?

As previously mentioned, the international scientific community essentially governs Antarctica today. So far, this system has been fairly successful and peaceful. However, most countries have only viewed Antarctica as a location for scientific research. The extreme climate conditions of Antarctica have made it nearly impossible to utilize the continent in any other way. This may all change in the future, and the Antarctic Treaty and international agreements between cooperating nations in Antarctica may be put to the test.

In 1991, the Madrid Protocol was signed by the consultative member nations of the Antarctic Treaty. It sets the principles under which environmental protections in Antarctica are to be regulated. It also includes a ban on all commercial mining for at least fifty years up until 2041. In the next half century, as the world’s population increases, energy becomes more of a concern, and technology improves, Antarctica may become a hotbed of interest in human and energy development between competing nations.

At the time of the signing of the Madrid Protocol there was no real commercial interest in mining or oil exploration. Antarctica's weather, ice, distance from any industrialized areas, and dangerous conditions made mining too expensive to consider. Reliable authorities have estimated that it would cost approximately $100 US dollars per barrel to commercially extract oil from Antarctica. On January 2, 2008, for the first time in history, oil prices per barrel exceeded $100 US dollars. It is estimated there are up to 100 years worth of oil in Antarctica.

Coal has also been found in two regions in Antarctica - the Transantarctic Mountains and Prince Charles Mountains. The coal found thus far near the Transantarctic Mountains was of low quality because of its high moisture and high ash content. But coal by the Prince Charles Mountains was better and could likely be exploited.

Countries are also constantly improving in green technology like wind and solar power. The potential for wind and solar power development in Antarctica could be enormous. However, scientists and engineers would have to overcome great obstacles to develop green technology that could withstand the climate and be efficiently exported. While the potential for green technology is there, perhaps only necessity will ever induce action. Until then, the current legal system in Antarctica will likely be safe.

Next, we’ll look at some final points to consider about Antarctica.


It is easy to see why Antarctica may be our last great frontier on Earth. But we are only beginning to understand the possibilities that this continent may present for the future development of mankind. So far, the international scientific community’s research on Antarctica has broadened our understanding on many topics including the world’s climate, geology, ice formation, sea levels, meteorology, and glaciology on planet Earth.

Roald Amuldson, the man who first stood at the South Pole, was a man of action. In preparation for his expedition to the bottom of the world, he learned to live like the Eskimos, ski in dangerous artic terrain, improve his understanding of directing a dog-sled team, and learned from adversity. On the other hand, historians now generally agree that Englishman Robert Scott did not prepare with the same drive and focus as Amuldson. Scott did not particularly like Antarctica, while Amuldson said, "it [Antarctica] is supposed to be painful and purifying."

Amuldson stated in his journal almost 100 years ago that Antarctica "is the last beautiful, vast, virgin land in the world." But he also said, "To go it alone is pure madness." If Antarctica ever turns into something more than just a scientific research community, we will have to work in cooperation with the rest of the world to make it happen.

NOTE: Watch the Nova DVD Mountain of Ice, (2003) where Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air,; and world-class mountaineer Conrad Anker and his team of climbers hike to the top of Antarctica’s tallest peak, Vinson Massif. The DVD showcases the great panoramic footage of the continent from a close-up perspective, and shows the profound impact of the weather on this great continent at the bottom of the world.

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