Is Antarctica a country? No, Antarctica is actually a continent, and an isolated one at that.
Home to mostly penguins, ice, and a handful of scientists, Antarctica’s inhospitable climate has helped ensure its status as the only continent on earth without any permanent human residents. However, that does not mean that others in the past have not tried to claim it as their own.
In fact, lots of countries have made claims to this massive territory. So who ultimately owns it?
Who Owns Antarctica?
Antarctica is known for its harsh climate, and as such, it was never colonized, even after it was visited by various explorers in the 19th century. Since no settlements were ever formed on the continent, Antarctica was never the focus of land claim disputes.
This began to change at the start of the 20th century. An increase in expeditions to Antarctica eventually led to the United Kingdom staking claim to a large portion of the continent in 1908. Not to be outdone, many other countries began scrambling to secure Antarctic land while it was still available. Nations like Chile, Argentina, Australia, France, Norway, New Zealand and even Nazi Germany would all claim bits of Antarctica as their own.
However, with so many nations staking their claims, it soon became clear that not everyone was going to agree. Different nations based their claims on different factors and principles. Argentina, for example, disputed Britain’s territory, feeling that the British lacked substantial occupation. Over time, many countries would try and one up the next by planting flags or plaques, and redrawing maps.
1959 Antarctic Treaty
With so much confusion over who owned what, it became clear that some sort of guidelines were needed to address all the various claims. In 1959, the 12 countries who had active scientists on the continent signed the Antarctic Treaty. All previous land claims would become obsolete. Instead, the 12 signatory nations would be given mutual sovereignty of the continent.
The Antarctic Treaty contained many provisions that would help prevent any conflict over land claims:
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. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force (Article IV).
Other Important Parts of the Treaty
- Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only (Article I).
- Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end … shall continue (Article II).
- Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available (Article III).
- To promote the objectives and ensure the observance of the provisions of the Treaty, “All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment within those areas … shall be open at all times to inspection” (Article VII).
Since that initial treaty, a few dozen more countries have signed on. Today, this large, unsettled continent is still being used as a shared scientific preserve.