Think of the coldest region you know. Is it Canada? Siberia? Or your backyard during winter? On the southernmost tip of the planet there is a place called the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station which is home to approximately 200 individuals. This place is one of the coldest there is on the planet and has set many records regarding extreme temperatures. What is notable about this research station is that it is owned by the American government, while the USA has no actual ties with the Antarctic continent. How is this possible?
In January 1773, Captain James Cook was able to lead two ships, the HMS Resolution and Adventure, to approximately 75 miles off of the Antarctic coast until he encountered a field of ice, impenetrable to the wooden ships of the time. The vast British Empire would eventually make a claim to this new continent as it hypothesized its value for the British crown. Over time, several nations came to this uninhabited continent and started to lay claims to the fifth-largest continent of the world. On the 23rd of June, 1959, 14 years after the conclusion of the Second World War, the Antarctic Treaty was established. This treaty, also known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), was meant to regulate the politics regarding Antarctica. By this treaty, Antarctica is defined as all land south of the 60th parallel. The ATS establishes firm guidelines about the freedom of scientific investigation and bans all military activities on the continent. The latter was rather significant at the time due to the overall zeitgeist of the late 1950s. The Cold War was reaching its pinnacle and Antarctica was becoming of interest to both the United States and the USSR. Additionally, the region known as Antarctica is a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ). The initial signatories of the ATS were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, the UK and the USA. All of these nations were somehow involved in the issue of ‘penguin politics’.
By the Antarctic Treaty, no more claims are recognized by any nation to the Antarctic region. There are currently eight recognized territorial claims split up amongst Argentina, Chile, Norway, Australia, France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. These seven nations are de facto owners of Antarctica. However, by Article 2 of the Antarctic Treaty, the freedom of scientific investigation is guaranteed. As of October 2014, there are 66 research stations on the Antarctic continent coming from over 30 different nation-states. These research stations are either manned year-round or only in the summer months of the southern hemisphere. This shows that despite the international conflicts occurring around the world, collaboration in Antarctica is still possible. During the Second World War, when Nazi Germany invaded France, the Nazi’s actually took control of the French research stations in Antarctica. Every nation desires to have a piece of the Antarctic pie.
The main reason why nations desire to have a presence in Antarctica is for science and resources. Coal, hydrocarbons, iron, platinum, chopper, chromium, nickel and gold have all been found in Antarctica although not in large enough quantities to extract. This process is also further hindered by the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. The second reason why nations are so passionate about the Antarctic is that Antarctica offers the possibility of yielding answers to the infinite conundrums in science. There is a large amount of meteorite specimens available in the Antarctic region which could yield answers to the beginnings of our universe. The constant debate on climate change stems from observations conducted in Antarctica about the gaping ozone hole above the region. Glaciologists strive to study the glacial structures in Antarctica and determine how long ago they were formed. Every type of science, no matter how significant it may be, has something to do with Antarctica. The land of penguins has the possibility to yield the scientific community with many answers.
The latest development in Antarctica is the role tourism is starting to play. Many tourists, after having been bored of traveling to exotic locations in Asia or North America (depending on your location), are looking south. How cool would it be if you could tell your friends that you went to see wild penguins? Since 1969, sea cruises have been departing ports in Argentina and Australia to sail to Antarctica. Costs for these types of cruises can range from $3,000 to $30,000. Scenic flights, departing from New Zealand and Australia have also been increasing. In the 2009-2010 tourist season in Antarctica, a total of 37,000 people visited Antarctica on scheduled tours. There are numerous environmentalist groups who have now raised concerns about this issue as there is an impact Antarctic tourism has on the environment. However, because this is still a relatively undeveloped issue, little attention has been paid to these claims.
Penguins, Leopard seals and a whole bunch of ice is what comes to my mind when someone mentions Antarctica. However, contrary to my belief, there are so many more aspects to this issue than one could imagine. Antarctica is different from its northern neighbor, the Arctic, as it is not in the news as often. This was because nations realized the significance of the Antarctic and decided to take the necessary measures to combat future discrepancies. Maybe the Arctic Council should consider following the example Antarctica has set. Penguin Politics might teach us all something!
(Picture Credit: http://www.mapsofworld.com/images/world-countries-flags/antarctica-flag.gif)