The Madrid Protocol, in effect since 1998, prohibits mining in Antarctica for 50 years. But what will happen in 2048? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Antarctica is the Earth’s only continent without a native human population, and no one country can claim to own it. Unique in the world, it is a land dedicated to science and all nations.

However, that could soon change. With the 2048 renewal date for the Madrid Protocol fast approaching, there are already signs that countries may be vying for possession of territory there. Complicating this issue is that as the climate continues to rapidly warm, oil and gas deposits that Antarctica may have—first hinted at in the 1970s—might finally be able to be extracted.

The energy needs of the world are increasing. Is thinking that a whole continent can remain dedicated solely to science now unrealistic?

Tourists are allowed in Antarctica, if their national programs approve their expeditions. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The Antarctic Treaty

By the 1940s, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom had all claimed sections of Antarctica—although the Argentine, Chilean and British claims partially overlapped. In the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year, Belgium, Japan, South Africa, the U.S.S.R. (now Russia), the United States and the original claimants met. On December 1, 1959, these 12 countries signed The Antarctic Treaty. In part, the treaty stipulated that:

  • Antarctica is to be used for peaceful purposes only; no military measures are permitted (the treaty does allow, however, some commercial activity: fishing is permitted in certain areas of the Southern Ocean and tourists can visit Antarctica, as long as their expeditions are approved by their national Antarctic programs).
  • Nuclear explosions or dumping of radioactive wastes are banned.
  • There is complete freedom of scientific investigation and cooperation.
  • Claims are “frozen”; no new or enlarged claims are permitted (15 percent of Antarctica is still unclaimed). It does get tricky here: while the original claimants are the only nations allowed to have claims, they can’t assert them. So if, for example, Sweden wants to build a base, it can go to the treaty nations as a whole to present a proposal.
  • A decision-making role is held only by nations carrying out substantive scientific research activity.

Today, more than 45 nations are signatories.

Penguins and ice shelves

In 1991, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (also known as the Environmental Protocol or Madrid Protocol) was adopted. It entered into force in 1998, and it is the main instrument concerning conservation and management of biodiversity in Antarctica. Notably, it prohibits mining. If requested, however, in 50 years time a review conference could decide to modify the mining prohibition, provided that “at least three-quarters of the current consultative parties to the Antarctic Treaty agree, a legal regime for controlling mining is in force and the sovereign interests of parties are safeguarded.” That 50-year term expires in 2048.

The management of Antarctica’s biodiversity is addressed in the Madrid Protocol. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Unfortunately, disagreements between countries about commercial rights to the continent are bound to increase in the future. A study first published online in 2012 in the sixth edition of the Nature Geoscience journal identified central West Antarctica as one of the fastest-warming regions on Earth. The researchers presented a complete temperature record from Antarctica’s Byrd Station and stated that it “reveals a linear increase in annual temperature between 1958 and 2010 by 2.4 plus or minus 1.2 degrees centigrade.”

Back in 2007, the United Kingdom made a submission to the United Nations for sovereignty of 386,000 square miles of seabed off Antarctica, some say in defiance of the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty. While it is too difficult to extract any useful minerals from that area at the moment, technological innovations and environmental changes due to climate change in the Southern Ocean could make drilling an economically viable activity within a few decades.

Recent events such as these have given rise to the fear that countries are subtly working to position themselves for that moment in 2048, when the consultative parties may revise the Madrid Protocol. They point to China, which has already built four Antarctic research stations and has scouted the construction site for its fifth. And the United Kingdom and Argentina continue to have diplomatic tensions over the Falkland Islands.

Who owns Antarctica? Right now, it could be said, that the penguins and the ice shelves do. But that might soon change.

Do you think that Antarctica should or even can continue to be the Earth’s only continent unowned and dedicated solely to science? Or will the Antarctic Treaty and its Madrid Protocol need to be updated to reflect our current economic times?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,