Who owns Antarctica?

Australia is among seven nations that have claimed territory in Antarctica. These claims are based on discovery and effective occupation of the claimed area, and are legal according to each nation’s laws. Three countries – the United Kingdom, Chile and Argentina – have overlapping claims in the Antarctic.

Some countries explicitly recognise these claims; some have a policy of not recognising any claims in Antarctica, and others reserve the right to make a claim of their own.

Antarctic territorial claims: Chilean, British, Argentine, Norwegian, Australian, French, New Zealand

Map: National claims to Antarctic Territory
© Australian Antarctic Data Centre

Antarctica’s harsh environment and its remoteness has meant that land exploration by humans is quite recent, most of it being accomplished in the last 100 years. During the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 12 countries set up stations for scientific research on the continent, including the seven that previously asserted sovereignty over parts of Antarctica.

The IGY was an outstanding success and led to huge advances in the scientific understanding of Antarctica. Its success led the 12 participating nations to agree that peaceful scientific cooperation in the Antarctic should continue indefinitely.

The Antarctic Treaty, eventually signed by many more countries, agreed to set aside Antarctica as scientific reserve, and suspended all future territorial claims in order to focus on research.

The Antarctic Treaty puts aside the potential for conflict over sovereignty by providing that nothing that occurs while the Treaty is in force will enhance or diminish territorial claims. Member states cannot make any new claims while the Treaty is in force.

Through this agreement, the countries active in Antarctica meet every year to discuss issues as diverse as scientific cooperation, measures to protect the environment and operational issues. They are committed to taking decisions by consensus, and have all made the commitment that Antarctica should not become the scene or object of international discord.

This page was last modified on 22 February 2011.