The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region and beyond. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and lands surrounding Australia.


On this page:

  • History of the White Continent
  • The Antarctica Treaty System
  • Claims and Rivalries


History of the White Continent

Ancient scholars predicted the presence of a southern landmass, which the Greeks called Ant-Arktos. This name is derived from two Greek words meaning ‘opposite to the Artic’ or ‘opposite to the north.’ Historical records and stories show that Indigenous voyagers, whaling vessels, and early European explorers spotted icebergs and crossed the Antarctic Circle.

Polynesian legends of expeditions between the islands include voyaging (tūpuna) into Antarctic waters by Hui Te Rangiora (also known as Ūi Te Rangiora) and his crew on the vessel Te Ivi o Atea, likely began in the early 7th century. More evidence filling the gaps about Māori connections to the frozen continent is leading to increased recognition of Indigenous knowledge systems in the southern hemisphere and Polynesian traditions. This has been seen in more recent initiatives, with Māori leadership in New Zealand's Antarctic research growing more visible. To find out more, visit Antarctica New Zealand and Māori and Antarctica: Ka mua, ka muri.

For many European and North American powers, the White Continent represented the last great frontier for human exploration. Fuelled by nationalist pride and supported by advances in science and navigation, many explorers took on the ‘Race for the South Pole.’ Explorers first skimmed the boundaries of Antarctica on sea voyages. Still the continent remained largely neglected for the rest of the 19th century because of its harsh environment, lack of easily accessible resources, and isolation.

By the early 20th century, explorers started to traverse the interior of Antarctica. The aim of these expeditions was often more competitive than scientific. Because early explorers confronted extreme obstacles and debilitating conditions, this period of time became known as the ‘Heroic Age.’ During this era, the Antarctic became the focus of a global attempt that resulted in rigorous geographical and scientific exploration. Characterised by 17 south pole expeditions from ten countries such as Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden just to mention a few. Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Adrian Wilson, and Ernest Shackleton all competed in the Race to the South Pole. This era came to an end with the latter’s Imperial trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1917.

In 1911, Amundsen of Norway and Scott of the United Kingdom, began expeditions with the aim of becoming the first man to reach the South Pole. Amundsen’s team set out from the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea on 19 October, while Scott set out from Ross Island on 1 November. Each team used different methods, with drastically different levels of success. Amundsen’s team relied on dog sleds and skiing to reach the pole, covering as much as 64 kilometres per day. Scott’s team, on the other hand, pulled their sleighs by hand, collecting geological samples along the way. Amundsen’s team became the first to reach the South Pole on 15 December. The team was healthy, and successfully made the journey out of Antarctica. Scott’s team reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, suffering from malnutrition, snow blindness, exhaustion, and injury. They all died on their journey home. To learn more about the race between Amundsen and Scott watch the following video by Vox.

More explorations were done by air from 1929 to the 1950s, earning this era the name 'Mechanical Age.' Women were originally kept from exploring Antarctica until well into the 1950s. A few pioneering women visited the Antarctic land and waters prior to the 1950s and many women requested to go on early expeditions but were turned away. Early pioneers such as Louise Séguin and Ingrid Christensen were some of the first women to see Antarctic waters, the latter was the first recorded woman to set foot on the mainland of Antarctica. Much of these explorations were overlaid with proclamations of sovereignty over the southern land and surrounding islands. These are discussed below in Claims and Rivalries.

The second half of the 20th century was a time of drastic change in the Antarctic. Following World War II, the continent experienced an upsurge in scientific research. A number of countries set up a range of year-round and seasonal stations, camps, and refuges to support scientific research in Antarctica. This change was initially fuelled by the Cold War, a period defined by the division between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the threat of nuclear war. In 1948, negotiations towards the development of a global condominium over the continent commenced and seven claimant powers were involved in the original process. These included Argentina, Chile, Norway, France, New Zealand, Australia, and Britain. The United States also participated in the negotiation.

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58 aimed to end Cold War divisions among the scientific community by promoting global scientific exchange. The IGY prompted an intense 18-month period of scientific research in the Antarctic. Many countries conducted their first Antarctic explorations and constructed the first research stations on Antarctica. More than 50 Antarctic stations were established for the IGY by just 12 countries: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1961, these countries signed the Antarctic Treaty. Today, a total of 54 states are parties to the Treaty. For more information, watch the following video.

The first countries to have female scientists working in Antarctica were the Soviet Union, South Africa, and Argentina. Women faced legal barriers and sexism that prevented most from visiting Antarctica and doing research until the late 1960s. The United States Congress banned American women from traveling to Antarctica until 1969. The first woman from the British Antarctic Survey to go to Antarctica was Janet Thomson in 1983 who described the ban on women as a "rather improper segregation." Once women were allowed in Antarctica, they still had to fight against sexism and sexual harassment. However, a tipping point was reached in the mid-1990s when it became the new normal that women were part of Antarctic life. As more and more women began working and research in Antarctica, the change was solidified. Yet, women continue to be outnumbered in many careers in Antarctica, including fleet operations and trades. Some organisations, such as the Australian Antarctic Division, have created and adopted policies to combat sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender.

The Antarctic Treaty was an important geopolitical milestone because it was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War. Along with the IGY, the Treaty symbolised global understanding and exchange during a period of intense division and secrecy. Many important documents have been added and are collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System; they cover such topics as pollution, conservation of animals and other marine life, and protection of natural resources. To gain an insight on the vast upgrades to living spaces in Antarctica, check out the following National Geographic video.

Explore the following resources for more on the history of Antarctica.


The Antarctica Treaty System

The continent is governed by a group of countries in a unique international partnership known as the Antarctica Treaty System (ATS). The Treaty was signed in Washington, United States on 1 December 1959 by the twelve countries, including: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States, and the Soviet Union. Since then, it has been signed by 42 other countries, representing about 80% of the world’s population. The Treaty covers the areas south of 60°S latitude, extending to the South Pole.

The main Treaty officially entered into force on 23 June 1961. The key objectives are:

  • to keep Antarctica demilitarised, to establish it as a nuclear-free zone, and to ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only;
  • to promote international scientific cooperation in Antarctica; and
  • to set aside disputes over territorial sovereignty.

The following is a summary of the 14 articles of the Antarctic Treaty:

  1. No military use shall be made of Antarctica, though military personnel and equipment may be used for peaceful purposes.
  2. There will be complete freedom of scientific investigation.
  3. Antarctic Treaty Nations will exchange plans for their scientific programmes, scientific data will be freely available, and scientists will be exchanged between expeditions where practical.
  4. All territorial claims are put aside for the duration of the Treaty. No activities under the Treaty will affect claims to sovereignty of any part of Antarctica made by any nation.
  5. Nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal are banned from Antarctica.
  6. The Treaty applies to all land and ice shelves south of 60° South, but not to the seas.
  7. All Antarctic stations and all ships and aircraft supplying Antarctica shall be open to inspectors from any Treaty nation.
  8. Observers and exchange scientists shall be under the jurisdiction of their own country regardless of which national station they may visit. National laws do not apply to stations or areas, but only to the citizens of those countries.
  9. Treaty nations will meet to consider ways of furthering the principles and objectives of the Treaty. Attendance at these meetings shall be limited to those countries that are engaged in substantial scientific research activity in Antarctica. Unanimous approval will be necessary for any new measures to become effective (i.e. everyone has to agree).
  10. All Treaty Nations will try to ensure that no one carries out any activity in Antarctica that is against the Treaty.
  11. Any dispute by Treaty Nations, if not settled by agreement, shall be determined by the International Court of Justice.
  12. The Treaty may be modified at any time by unanimous agreement. After 30 years any consultative Party may call for a conference to review the operation of the Treaty. The Treaty may be modified at this conference by a majority decision.
  13. The Treaty must be legally ratified (agreed to) by any nation wishing to join. Any member of the United Nations may join as well as any other country invited to do so by the Treaty Nations. All notices and records are deposited with the Archives of the United States of America.
  14. The Treaty translated into English, French, Russian and Spanish was signed on 1 December 1959 by 12 states and entered into force on 23 June 1961.

The Antarctic Treaty determines the way that people conduct themselves in Antarctica, it was added to substantially in 1991 with the advent of the Madrid Protocol which came into force in 1998. Also relevant to Antarctic governance are the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

The Treaty and related agreements, collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica. Since September 2004, the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, which implements the treaty system, is headquartered in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The tasks of the Secretariat can be divided into the following areas:

  • Supporting the annual ATCM and the meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection.
  • Facilitating the exchange of information between the Parties required in the Treaty and the Environment Protocol.
  • Collecting, storing, arranging, and publishing the documents of the ATCM.
  • Providing and disseminating public information about the ATS and Antarctic activities.

The Secretariat and its work are funded by the Consultative Parties. The budget is approved each year at the ATCM while Financial Regulations govern its management.

Every year the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) brings together the Consultative Parties “for the purpose of exchanging information, consulting together on matters of common interest pertaining to Antarctica, and formulating and considering and recommending to their governments measures in furtherance of the principles and objectives of the Treaty”. Only 29 of the 54 parties to the agreements have the right to participate in decision-making at these meetings, though the other 25 are still allowed to attend. The decision-making participants are the Consultative Parties and, in addition to the 12 original signatories, include 17 countries that have demonstrated their interest by carrying out substantial scientific activity on the southern continent.

There is also the Committee for Environmental Protection and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Additionally, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research is a thematic organisation of the International Science Council and was created in 1958.

In 2021 the ATS turned 62 years old. It has succeeded in not just constraining geostrategic tensions in Antarctica but in also encouraging rivals – such as the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War – to collaborate in scientific research. The ATS has provided a durable framework for cooperative internationalism, allowing governments including Australia’s to advance their primary Antarctic objective of gaining scientific knowledge that is made available to all.

Antarctica currently has no permanent population and therefore it has no citizenship nor government. Personnel present on the continent at any time are always citizens of some sovereignty outside Antarctica, as there is no Antarctic sovereignty. In general, for individuals at Antarctic bases, the national laws of their home country apply to them personally. These laws generally apply only to their own citizens, wherever they are in Antarctica, and serve to enforce the consensus decisions of the consultative parties: about which activities are acceptable, which areas require permits to enter, what processes of environmental impact assessment must precede activities, and so on. The Antarctic Treaty is often considered to represent an example of the common heritage of humankind principle. For more information on the legal system in Antarctica, watch the following video.

Explore the resources on the ATS below.


Claims and Rivalries

European knowledge and fascination with the southern continent started much later in world history and eventuated with its discovery, exploration, and various claims to sovereignty. This complicated geopolitical history culminated in the establishment of peaceful intent under the Antarctic Treaty. However, territorial rivalries and ‘pending’ historical claims continue to overshadow the ATS, with the potential to shape disputes about the continent’s future.

In 1833, the United Kingdom strengthened sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic and was able to maintain a constant presence there. In 1908, the British government expanded its territorial claim by proclaiming sovereignty over the Sandwich Islands, the South Shetlands, the South Orkneys, and Graham's Land, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. All these regions were governed as Falkland Islands Dependencies by the Governor of the Falkland Islands from Stanley. Under the leadership of Leopold Amery, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Britain tried to integrate the whole continent into the British Empire. The initial step was taken on 30 July 1923 when an Order in Council was passed by the British government under the British Settlements Act 1887. The Order in Council then appointed the Commander-in Chief and Governor-General as the governor of the region. The United Kingdom went on to claim Enderby Land in 1930. A year later, the Statute of Westminster was passed, and the United Kingdom had to renounce all control over the government of Australia and New Zealand.

Besides the United Kingdom, other countries also laid claim on the continent. In 1924, the French Government laid claim to Adélie Land which had been discovered by the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1840.

In 1929, a Norwegian expedition led by Nils Larsen and Ola Olstad landed on Peter I Island and claimed the island for their country. Another Norwegian expedition led by Finn Lützow-Holm and Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen names the continental landmass Queen Maud Land, after the Norwegian queen Maud of Wales.

The encroachment of the region by foreign countries caused a lot of discomfort to the neighbouring South American countries such as Argentina and Chile. In 1904, Argentina started a permanent occupation in the region with the purchase of a meteorological station on Laurie Island founded in 1903 by Dr. William S. Bruce's Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. Eventually the country was able to establish Argentine Antarctica in 1943. Chile's president, Pedro Aguirre Cerda took advantage of World War II and decreed the formation of the Chilean Antarctic Territory in territories that had already been claimed by Britain. There was a lot of friction between Britain and the Latin American countries which continued even after World War II had ended. In 1948, the United Kingdom dispatched Royal Navy warships to deter naval invasions.

From 1939 to 1941, the United States Antarctic Service Expedition was sponsored by the government. The end of the war rekindled American interest and it now had a geopolitical objective, initiating Operation Highjump. Its main objective was to develop the Antarctic research base Little America IV to train personnel and test equipment in glacial circumstances; and to amplify available stores of knowledge of geographical, hydrographic, electromagnetic and meteorological propagation conditions in the region. It is the largest military expedition force that the United States has sent to Antarctica to the present, consisting of 13 ships, 4,700 personnel, and numerous aerial devices.

On 2 September 1947, the American quadrant of Antarctica (between 24° W and 90° W) was included as part of the security zone of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, committing its members to defend it in case of external aggression.

In August 1948, the United States proposed that Antarctica be under the guardianship of the United Nations as a trust administered by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Still, the idea was rejected by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, and Norway. Before the rejection, on 28 August 1948, the United States proposed to the claimants some form of internationalisation of Antarctica, with the support of the United Kingdom. Chile responded by presenting a plan to suspend any Antarctic claim for five to ten years while negotiating a final solution, which did not prosper. The interest of the United States to keep the Soviet Union away from Antarctica was frustrated when in 1950, they informed the claimants that it would not accept any Antarctic agreement in which it was not represented. The fear that the USSR would react by making a territorial claim, bringing the Cold War to Antarctica, led the United States to make none. In 1956 and 1958, India tried unsuccessfully to bring the Antarctic issue to the United Nations General Assembly.

The majority of Antarctica is claimed by one or more countries, but most countries do not explicitly recognise those claims. The area on the mainland between 90° W and 150° W is the only major land on Earth not claimed by any country. Until 2015 the interior of the Norwegian Sector, the extent of which had never been officially defined, was unclaimed. That year, Norway formally laid claim to the area between its Queen Maud Land and the South Pole.

Various inflammatory events between countries motivated the creation of an agreement for the Antarctic Treaty. Among the signatories of the Treaty with territorial claims before 1961, sometimes overlapping. None of these areas have an indigenous population, New Zealand has a legacy of Māori expeditions to the southern continent but no records of a permanent population. To learn about Australia's claims to Antarctica, check out the #KYR – Antarctica: Special Issue.

These claims have been recognised between some of the seven claimant states. The United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway all recognise each other's claims (none of their claims overlap with each other). Other countries do not recognise any claims. The U.S. and Russia maintain they have a basis of claim. Also in the mix are maritime claims; Australia, Chile, and Argentina all claim Exclusive Economic Zone rights or similar over 370 nautical kilometre extensions seaward from their continental claims, but like the claims themselves, these zones are not accepted by other countries.

A sattelite map of Antarctica.

The indication of boundaries on this map are intended to agree with the national legislation of the countries concerned but are not to be treated as evidence of the official views of the Government of Australia with respect to the national legislation of other countries.

The Antarctic Treaty states that contracting to the treaty:

  • is not a renunciation of any previous territorial claim;
  • does not affect the basis of claims made as a result of activities of the signatory nation within Antarctica; and
  • does not affect the rights of a State under customary international law to recognise (or refuse to recognise) any other territorial claim.

What the Treaty does affect is new claims:

  • no activities occurring after 1961 can be the basis of a territorial claim;
  • no new claim can be made; and
  • no claim can be enlarged.

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). There has been speculation about possible future claims. Countries in South America have indicated further overlapping claims. Efforts to become the next ‘Polar Great Power’ are a growing concern and further discussed in #KYR – Antarctica: Military article. Check out the following video for an overview of the geopolitics shaping Antarctica.