On a mild December day in Washington, 1959, delegates from 12 nations gathered to sign the Antarctic Treaty, putting an end to escalating geopolitical contestsby Camilla Nichol / December 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
On an unseasonably mild December day in Washington in 1959, delegates from 12 nations gathered after days of complex negotiations to sign the Antarctic Treaty, a unique piece of international legislation, the likes of which had never been previously seen. This treaty, made up of 14 simple articles, laid out rules protecting the entire continent from exploitation, pollution and conflict.
The signing was momentous, given the fraught political history marking the continent. Without an indigenous population and no automatic geographical territorial claims as we see in the Arctic, Antarctica was fair game for a sovereignty race. Nations first raced to claim the area in the hope of controlling tax revenue from commercial whaling activity: the UK asserted the first sovereign claim in 1908, and later apportioned parts to New Zealand and Australia, at that time still under British governance.
France and Norway, both active in Antarctica, put forward their own claims, to which the UK eventually assented. There was also an abortive attempt by Germany to claim a large area, but this was thwarted after the Second World War. During the war, however, both Chile and Argentina declared their own claims over the Antarctic Peninsula, both of which overlapped with the British claim. Finally, on the precipice of Cold War-era geopolitics, Antarctica attracted those looking for new resources and territorial expansion.
A science experiment gone right
1940s and 50s marked a very important period in Antarctica—the rapid development of science programmes and scientific expeditions from a number of nations, driven often by geopolitics. It never came to blows, but it was clear that the ongoing escalation couldn’t continue and somehow the tensions needed to be dampened. In the 1950s, science was the future and the future was now. There was a pervading sense of adventure and discovery as technology was opening up opportunities to discover new places and push back frontiers. Nowhere more so was this happening than in Antarctica.
July 1957 saw the start of the International Geophysical Year, a 17 month-long international scientific collaboration focussed largely, but not exclusively, on Antarctica. Sixty-seven countries participated in this ambitious…