The Antarctic Treaty, Territorial Claims and a Continent for Science

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The Antarctic Treaty, which was adopted in 1959 and entered into force in 1961, is a remarkable treaty with a geopolitical history that is perhaps not as well appreciated as it might be. One reason why, could be a common assumption that the Antarctic is somehow divorced from global political, cultural and economic histories and geographies. The Antarctic remains an important site for experimentation in human governance, which continues to influence the politics of other parts of Earth and beyond. Examples would include the replication of nuclear-free zones of peace and the adoption of ideas about how to govern Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ) including the seabed and the Moon/outer space.

The Antarctic remains a contested geopolitical space – seven claimant states exist and Russia and the United States are best described as semi-claimants because they reserve the right to make a formal territorial claim in the future. In that sense the Antarctic Treaty did not ‘seal off’ Antarctica from geopolitical machinations. Distinctly modern activities and practices such as mobilising rival sovereignty claims, mapping and charting, cultural and historical commemoration, scientific base construction and the politicization of science reveal a more complex entanglement with a world beyond Antarctica.

While we can celebrate the past achievements of the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctic governance and science are not immutable. Ever since the Treaty entered into force, the moniker ‘continent for science’ has never adequately conveyed a polar world far more complicated than simply a handmaiden for science and scientists. The politics of Antarctica will become increasingly complicated and even controversial in future years. The struggle for the mastery of Antarctic futures will be emblematic of wider earthly politics regarding what we value, where and how we protect, and who decides on such matters.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Polar Regions
EditorsMark Nuttall, Torben Christensen, Martin Siegert
Place of PublicationAbingdon
ISBN (Print)1138843997
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018

Publication series

NameRoutledge International Handbooks


  • Geopolitics
  • Science
  • Territory
  • Antarctica
  • Antarctic Treaty

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