Antarctica has long been famous for being the only continent in which no government holds power. While not truly uninhabited thanks to the thousands of personnel present in research stations, the world community generally looks at Antarctica as terra nullius – belonging to no one. That is not to say, however, that no one claims land on the continent, for in fact there are seven countries that claim what amounts to about three-quarters of the frozen continent as part of their own national territory. Since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, these claims have been frozen in the sense that these countries are not allowed to assert, defend or deny any claims made to Antarctic territory (defined as all land below 60°S latitude) by any country, nor is any non-scientific military activity permitted in Antarctica. As long as the treaty remains in place, so will Antarctica’s neutral status. Nevertheless, the claims, however frozen by the treaty, are still in play (the United States and Russia also retain the right to make territorial claims). Here, then, are the seven claimants to Antarctic territory and their claims. As you can see on the map below, three of these claims overlap.
British Antarctic Territory: The United Kingdom placed a claim on the sector of Antarctica between 20°W and 80°W latitude in 1908, as well as South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, the South Orkney islands, and South Shetland Island. Essentially, it was an extension of their holdings in the Falkland Islands, to the point where these claims were administered as the Falkland Islands Dependencies. The claim was certified to extend southward all the way to the pole in 1917. Strategically, this is a very important wedge, as it contains the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the Antarctic mainland and the part of the continent that hosts the most human activity. In 1962, after the implementation of the Antarctic Treaty, the British government removed the Antarctic territory from the Falklands’ purvey (which was reduced to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands since that was all of the territory left north of 60°S) and created the British Antarctic Territory, administered by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The BAT government finances its operations almost entirely through minting coins and printing stamps; its issues some of the most sought-after modern-day issues by collectors in recent years (as these prices attest). The UK maintains three research stations plus Port Lockroy, a historic whaling and research station that now operates as a museum, post office, and tourist stop.
Chilean Antarctic Territory: The westernhalf of the British claim overlaps with the Chilean claim, which extends from 53°W to 90°W. The claim dates back to 1940, and the territory’s current status is that of a commune inside of the Antártica Chilena Province, the southernmost province of Chile. Villa Las Estrellas, the largest civilian settlement on the continent, is located here along with ten other Chilean bases. Bernardo O’Higgins Station at the top end of the peninsula serves as the capital.
A plaque in Punta Arenas, Chile showing the Chilean claim. Source: M. St-Amant, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:182_-_Punta_Arenas_-_Revendications_territoriales_chiliennes_-_Janvier_2010.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
Argentine Antarctica: Argentina’s claim overlaps both those of Chile and the UK, meaning all three countries claim the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. Argentina’s claim is the most recent, dating back to 1942. It claims the territory as a department (equivalent to a US county) n the province of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and South Atlantic Islands with a census population of 230. The other civilian settlement in Antarctica, Esperanza, is located here, one of 13 bases Argentina has within its Antarctic claim.
Queen Maud Land: Moving east of the three overlapping claims centered on the Antarctic Peninsula (and directly bordering the British claim), we come to Queen Maud Land (Dronning Maud Land), claimed by Norway as a dependency since 1939 (the area of the claim is about seven times as large as the actual country of Norway) and name for the late queen consort of Norway (and granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom) that had passed away the previous year. The extends between 20°W and 45°E, straddling the Prime Meridian, but unlike the other claims on Antarctica does not explicitly reach north to 60°S or south to the pole. Norway maintains one permanent (Troll) and one seasonal (Tor) base in Queen Maud Land The entire coastline of Queen Maud Land is a 20-30m (66-98 ft) ice cliff.
Australian Antarctic Territory: To the east of the Norwegian claim is Australia’s claim, Australian Antarctic Territory. The claim is broken apart by France’s claim, leaving a larger western sector (45°E to 136°E) and a smaller eastern sector (142°E to 160°E). In total, the 5 896 500 km2 (2 276 651 sq mi) claim constitutes approximately 42% of the entire area of Antarctica; Australia maintains just three bases for the entire area. Originally, the westernmost portion, Enderby Land, was a British claim made in 1930. Enderby Land was transferred to Australian control three years later (part of the gradual relinquishing of British control over the foreign affairs of other British Empire countries), at which Australia accepted responsibility over all of the land between 45°E and 160°E other than France’s Adélie Land in the name of the Commonwealth.
Adélie Land: The aforementioned Adélie Land occupies the narrow wedge of land between 136°E and 142°E. Discovered by the French explorer Dumont d’Urville in 1840 (who named it for his wife), this land formally was claimed by France in 1924, nine years before Australia made its claim on the surrounding lands. Today, France claims it as one of the five districts of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, which otherwise consist of various islands dispersed around the Indian Ocean; the capital is thus Port-aux-Français on Grande Terre, Kerguelen. The lone French base (and base of any kind for that matter) is fittingly named for Dumont d’Urville.
Ross Dependency: New Zealand’s Ross Dependency is the easternmost mainland claim on Antarctica, extending from 160°E to 150°W, the sector immediately surrounding the Ross Sea (and thus the Ross Ice Shelf, Ross Island, Roosevelt Island, and Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano which has been in a state of eruption since 1972). Two heavily-used research stations, New Zealand’s Scott Base and the United States’ McMurdo Station, lie adjacent to each other on Ross Island, and the famous ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys lie here as well. Claimed for the British by the explorer James Ross (for whom the dependency is named) in 1841, the claim was transferred to New Zealand in 1923. As with the United Kingdom, New Zealand produces stamps exclusively for the dependency valued by philatelists (although Ross Dependency mail is processed back in New Zealand at Christchurch).
Peter I Island: While the remaining mainland between 90°W and 150°W is unclaimed (it is called Marie Byrd Land after the wife of US explorer Richard Byrd), there is a small offshore claim from Norway in the form of Peter I Island, 450 km (280 mi) north of Australia in the Bellingshausen Sea and named in 1820 for Peter the Great of Russia. Almost entirely glaciated, 40-m (130-ft) ice cliffs surround nearly the island. Norway claimed the island in 1931 in an effort to gain another potential whaling station location, but no ships would return to Peter I until 1948, and whaling never took place here to any large extent. Even today, it is believed that less than 600 people have ever stepped foot here.
Note: the UK, France, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand all recognise each other’s claims, but Chile and Argentina do not recognise each other’s claims, nor the UK’s.
Australian Government (2000). Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act 1933. ComLaw. Available at http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2004C00416. Accessed 13 February 2012.
Conference on Antarctica (1959). The Antarctic Treaty. Washington, 15 October 1959. Available at http://www.ats.aq/documents/ats/treaty_original.pdf. Accessed 13 February 2012.
Filatelia Argentina (2000). La Actividad Argentina en la Antártida. Available at http://www.cpel.uba.ar/filargenta/correo/anta0047.htm. Accessed 13 February 2012.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2011). British Antarctic Territory. Available at http://britishantarcticterritory.fco.gov.uk/en/. Accessed 13 February 2012.
Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2011). The Antarctic Treaty. Available at http://www.ats.aq/e/ats.htm. Accessed 13 February 2012.
Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (2011). Antarctic Treaty. Available at http://www.scar.org/treaty/. Accessed 13 February 2012.