How Does the Antarctic Treaty Protect Antarctica?

The Gerlache Strait separating the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsular off Anvers Island. The Antartic Peninsular is one of the fastest warming areas of the planet.
The Gerlache Strait separating the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsular off Anvers Island. The Antarctic Peninsular is one of the fastest warming areas of the planet. Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

The Antarctic Treaty is a collection of agreements that regulate international relations regarding the continent of Antarctica. Created in 1961, the treaty forbids any military activity on Antarctica and sets aside the continent as a scientific preserve by establishing freedom of scientific investigation.

The Antarctic Treaty has safeguarded one of the harshest and most spectacular regions on Earth, freeing it from military operations and territorial occupation, and perhaps most importantly, banning all commercial mining. As the first arms control agreement to be established during the Cold War, it has also served as a successful example of cooperation between nations for the sake of scientific discovery and long-term environmental protection. However, there are aspects of the treaty that some consider controversial, and criticisms regarding the efficiency of the treaty when it comes to the global climate crisis and pollution are not uncommon.

What Is the Antarctic Treaty?

While the original signatories represented the 12 countries that were active in and around Antarctica between 1957 and 1958 (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States), by the year 2021 the treaty had been signed by 54 parties.

An important feature of the treaty provides for the designation of observers and enforcers to carry out inspections in Antarctica, including stations, equipment, ships, aircraft, and any other installations. The United States, for example, has conducted 14 separate inspections since 1963, and has even teamed up with other countries to conduct joint inspections of third-party stations. In addition, 29 parties to the treaty are tasked with participating in the decision-making process at Antarctic treaty consultative meetings (these countries are the only ones with voting rights, but other nations that conduct scientific research in Antarctica can apply to become consultative parties). Consultative parties include the original 12 states as well as Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, and Uruguay.

The treaty also puts territorial claims on hold, which is important considering that there were a number of historical and “unofficial” claims on sections of the continent at the time of its inception. Under the treaty, Antarctica does not belong to any group or nation, and if someone breaks a law while on the continent they are subject to the laws of their own country.

Articles

A United States base at the South Pole
A United States base at the South Pole. Galen Rowell / Getty Images

As per the original treaty, the nations recognized that it was within the interest of all humankind that Antartica be used exclusively for peaceful and scientific purposes. The treaty includes 14 articles, summarized below: 

Article 1: The continent will only be used for peaceful purposes, and any military measures that aren't assets for scientific research are prohibited.

Article 2: Freedom of scientific investigation and cooperation in Antarctica shall continue as it was during the International Geophysical Year.

Article 3: In order to promote International cooperation, information regarding plans for scientific programs, scientific personnel, and scientific observations in Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available between parties.

Article 4: No future activity of any country that has signed the treaty can affect the existing state of affairs on any rights or claims to territorial sovereignty.

Article 5: Nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste material is prohibited.

Article 6: The treaty applies to the area south of 60° South latitude including ice shelves (but not the sea).

Article 7: Contracting parties have the right to designate observers with complete freedom of access to any area of Antarctica. The observers have the right to inspect other parties' buildings, installations, equipment, ships, or aircraft, and even employ aerial observations. Any new contracting parties must give other contracting parties advance notice of all expeditions to and within Antarctica, all stations in Antarctica, and any military personnel present on the continent.

Article 8: Any concerns or disputes under the present treaty shall warrant immediate consultation with a view to reach a mutually acceptable situation.

Article 9: Active signatory nations will meet periodically to exchange information, consult together on matters of common interest regarding Antarctica, and consider measures to help further the principles and objectives of the treaty.

Article 10: Active contracting parties agree not to take part in any activity contrary to the treaty.

Article 11: Disputes arising between two or more contracting parties concerning the treaty shall be resolved by peaceful means, and at last resort by the International Court of Justice.

Article 12: The treaty can only be modified by unanimous agreement. After 30 years of validity, any consultative party may call for a conference to review the treaty and it may be modified by a majority decision during that conference.

Article 13: Any nation that wishes to join the treaty must agree on all terms.

Article 14: The treaty was signed on December 1, 1959, and entered into force on June 23, 1961.

Conservation

A group of penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica
A group of penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica. David Merron Photography / Getty Images

The Protocol on Environmental Protection was added to the Antarctic Treaty in 1991 and entered into force in 1998. The protocol designated the continent as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science,” setting forth basic environmental principles that apply to human activities in Antarctica and prohibiting all activities relating to the continent’s mineral resources with the exception of scientific research. Article 8 of the protocol, for instance, requires parties to conduct specific environmental impact assessments for Antarctic activities, whether it's building a new research station or conducting scientific research.

The protocol also sets definitive regulations for Antarctica’s wildlife as well as waste management and marine pollution. Invasive species are of particular concern, and there are steps taken to prevent their introduction, such as prohibiting the transportation of soil into Antarctica and requiring boots and clothing from outside destinations to be cleaned of seeds and spores. Some areas are additionally protected as designated Antarctic specially managed areas or historic sites and monuments.

Scientific Research 

Although there is still much to be learned about Earth's southernmost continent, the Antarctic Treaty has helped lead the way for invaluable scientific research since its inception. Under the treaty, any activity conducted in Antarctica must be measured in terms of its environmental impact, including scientific activity.

Antarctica’s millions-of-years-old ice holds plenty of history that has led scientists to rethink the limits of life on Earth, from fossilized remains of the largest penguin species ever discovered (6 feet, 8 inches) to thousands of newly discovered species living under ice shelves 3,000 feet deep. In 2019, scientists found a speck of stardust within an Antarctic meteorite that likely predated the formation of our solar system. In 2017, scientists discovered that microbes in Antarctica were able to scavenge hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide from the air to stay alive in extreme conditions; the discovery suggested that similar microbes could rely on the same gases for survival on other planets.

The Antarctic Treaty and the Climate Crisis

There have been numerous studies about the challenges the treaty may face throughout the remainder of the 21st century, from the threats posed by the rapid development of fast-rising states and newly acceding countries, to significant governance challenges from climate change and new economies in tourism and fishing.

Antarctica’s ice is three miles deep and covers 5.3 million square miles (97.6% of the entire continent), meaning global sea level would rise by an estimated 200 feet if the ice suddenly returned to the oceans. Needless to say, Antarctica is especially vulnerable to climate change. While the Antarctic Treaty remains the continent’s most loyal defender, the fate of this special place could be in the hands of policies outside of the specific treaty, as well. A 2021 study coauthored by Rutgers University researchers found that the Antarctic ice sheet is much less likely to cause dramatic sea-level rise if the world follows the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement target of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Missing the target would increase the risk of melting ice shelves around the Antarctic ice sheet's perimeter, and their collapse would trigger even more rapid Antarctic melting. Global warming of just 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the study said, could lead to an increase of 0.2 inches per year globally after 2060.

Overtourism is also an issue in Antarctica. At the annual meeting of parties to the Antarctic Treaty in 2018, figures showed 45 private yachts in Antarctic waters, up one-third from the previous year. Even worse, nine of them entered the waters without permission and at least one of them was observed approaching birds’ nests, flying drones, and touching animals—all of which violate strict protection rules. That same year, campaigners observed snow samples polluted with persistent hazardous chemicals.

Setting aside the unique biome helps designate Antarctica as a barometer for climate change, ozone depletion, and sea-level rise, all while allowing scientists to conduct studies that they wouldn’t normally be able to. Still, the current version of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty will end in the year 2048 (including the part of the treaty which prohibits mining), at which point the Antarctic treaty consultative parties could reject certain environmental regulations by way of a majority agreement rather than a unanimous one.

It is no secret that world politics have changed since 1961, and it’s certainly possible that the policies observed within the fine print of the Antarctic Treaty may need to change along with it. Will the treaty have to do away with the unanimous vote requirement in order to keep science at the forefront of Antarctica’s future? As the global tourism industry continues to grow, can we upkeep policies that protect the continent from overcrowding and exploitation? Commercial mineral extraction has been prohibited since the treaty’s entry into force, but mineral resource activities could very well change once 2048 comes along.