Territorial claims in Antarctica

Seven sovereign states – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom – have made eight territorial claims in Antarctica. These countries have tended to place their Antarctic scientific observation and study facilities within their respective claimed territories; however, a number of such facilities are located outside of the area claimed by their respective countries of operation, and countries without claims such as China, India, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa (SANAE), Ukraine, and the United States have constructed research facilities within the areas claimed by other countries. There are overlaps among the territories claimed by Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom.

Map of territorial claims in Antarctica, including Marie Byrd Land, most of which is unclaimed[note 1]
  New Zealand
  United Kingdom


Historical claims to Antarctica

 France 1840–present

 Adélie Land 1840–present

 United Kingdom 1908–present

Falkland Islands Dependencies 1908–1962
 British Antarctic Territory 1962–present

 New Zealand 1923–present

 Ross Dependency 1923–present

 Norway 1931–present

 Peter I Island 1931–present
 Queen Maud Land 1939–present

 Australia 1933–present

 Australian Antarctic Territory 1933–present

 Nazi Germany 1939–1945

New Swabia 1939–1945

 Chile 1940–present

 Chilean Antarctic Territory 1940–present

 Argentina 1943–present

 Argentine Antarctica 1943–present

Spanish claims

Map of the Spanish governorate of Terra Australis (1539-1555), the first territorial claim over the lands near the South Pole. It was later incorporated into the Governorate of Chile.

According to Argentina and Chile, the Spanish Crown had claims on Antarctica. The capitulación (governorship) granted to the conquistador Pedro Sánchez de la Hoz in 1539 by the King of Spain, Charles V, explicitly included all lands south of the Straits of Magellan, (Terra Australis, and Tierra del Fuego and by extension potentially the entire continent of Antarctica) and to the East and West the borders were the ones specified in the Treaty of Tordesillas and Zaragoza respectively, thus creating the Governorate of Terra Australis.[1][2][3]

De la Hoz transferred the title to the conqueror Pedro de Valdivia in 1540.[4] In 1555 the claim was incorporated to Chile.[5]

This grant established, according to Argentina and Chile, that an animus occupandi existed on the part of Spain in Antarctica. Spain's sovereignty claim over parts of Antarctica was, according to Chile and Argentina, internationally recognized with the Inter caetera bull of 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. Argentina and Chile treat these treaties as legal international treaties mediated by the Catholic Church that was at that time a recognized arbiter in such matters.[6] Each country currently has claimed a sector of the Antarctic continent that is more or less directly south of its national antarctic-facing lands.

Modern Spain has not claimed any Antarctic territory. It operates two summer research stations (Gabriel de Castilla Base and Juan Carlos I Base) in the South Shetland Islands.

British claims

The United Kingdom reasserted sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic in 1833 and maintained a continuous presence there. In 1908, the British government extended its territorial claim by declaring sovereignty over "South Georgia, the South Orkneys, the South Shetlands, and the (South) Sandwich Islands, and Graham's Land, situated in the South Atlantic Ocean and on the Antarctic continent to the south of the 50th parallel of south latitude, and lying between the 20th and the 80th degrees of west longitude".[7] All these territories were administered as Falkland Islands Dependencies from Stanley by the Governor of the Falkland Islands. The claimed motivation for this declaration was what the British said was the need to regulate and tax the whaling industry effectively.

In 1917, the wording of the claim was modified, so as unambiguously to include all the territory in the sector stretching to the South Pole (thus encompassing all the present British Antarctic Territory). The new claim covered "all islands and territories whatsoever between the 20th degree of west longitude and the 50th degree of west longitude which are situated south of the 50th parallel of south latitude; and all islands and territories whatsoever between the 50th degree of west longitude and the 80th degree of west longitude which are situated south of the 58th parallel of south latitude".[7]

It was the ambition of Leopold Amery, then Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, that Britain incorporate the entire continent into the Empire. In a memorandum to the governors-general for Australia and New Zealand, he wrote that 'with the exception of Chile and Argentina and some barren islands belonging to France... it is desirable that the whole of the Antarctic should ultimately be included in the British Empire.' The first step was taken on 30 July 1923, when the British government passed an Order in Council under the British Settlements Act 1887, defining the new borders for the Ross Dependency  "that part of His Majesty's Dominions in the Antarctic Seas, which comprises all the islands and territories between the 160th degree of East Longitude and the 150th degree of West Longitude which are situated south of the 60th degree of South Latitude shall be named the Ross Dependency." The Order in Council then went on to appoint the Governor-General and Commander-in Chief of New Zealand as the Governor of the territory.[8]

In 1930, the United Kingdom claimed Enderby Land. In 1933, a British imperial order transferred territory south of 60° S and between meridians 160° E and 45° E to Australia as the Australian Antarctic Territory.[9][10]

Following the passing of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the government of the United Kingdom relinquished all control over the governments of New Zealand and Australia. This, however, had no bearing on the obligations of the governors-general of both countries in their capacity as Governors of the Antarctic territories.

Other European claims

Discovery and claim of French sovereignty on Adélie Land by Jules Dumont d'Urville, in 1840.

The basis for the claim to Adélie Land by France depended on the discovery of the coastline in 1840 by the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, who named it after his wife, Adèle.[11] He erected the French flag and took possession of the land for France, on January 21, 1840 at 5:30 pm.[12]

The British eventually decided to recognize this claim, and the border between Adélie Land and the Australian Antarctic Territory was fixed definitively in 1938.[13]

These developments also concerned Norwegian whaling interests which wished to avoid British taxation of whaling stations in the Antarctic and felt concern that they would be commercially excluded from the continent. The whale-ship owner Lars Christensen financed several expeditions to the Antarctic with the view to claiming land for Norway and to establishing stations on Norwegian territory to gain better privileges.[14] The first expedition, led by Nils Larsen and Ola Olstad, landed on Peter I Island in 1929 and claimed the island for Norway. On 6 March 1931 a Norwegian royal proclamation declared the island under Norwegian sovereignty[14] and on 23 March 1933 the island was declared a dependency.[15][note 2]

The 1929 expedition led by Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen and Finn Lützow-Holm named the continental landmass near the island as Queen Maud Land after the Norwegian queen Maud of Wales.[16] The territory was explored further during the Norvegia expedition of 1930–31.[17] Negotiations with the British government in 1938 resulted in setting the western border of Queen Maud Land at 20°W.[17]

Norwegian expedition landing on Peter I Island in 1929.

The United States, Chile, the Soviet Union and Germany disputed Norway's claim.[18][19] In 1938, Germany dispatched the German Antarctic Expedition, led by Alfred Ritscher, to fly over as much of it as possible.[17] The ship Schwabenland reached the pack ice off Antarctica on 19 January 1939.[20] During the expedition, Ritscher photographed an area of about 350,000 square kilometres (140,000 sq mi) from the air[21] and dropped darts inscribed with swastikas every 26 kilometres (16 mi). However, despite intensively surveying the land, Germany never made any formal claim or constructed any lasting bases.[22] Hence, the German Antarctic claim, known as New Swabia, was disputed at the time, and is currently not taken into account.

On 14 January 1939, five days before the German arrival, Norway annexed Queen Maud Land[16] after a royal decree announced that the land bordering the Falkland Islands Dependencies in the west and the Australian Antarctic Dependency in the east was to be brought under Norwegian sovereignty.[17] The primary aim of the annexation was to secure the Norwegian whaling industry's access to the region.[16][23] In 1948 Norway and the United Kingdom agreed to limit Norway's longitudinal claims of Queen Maud Land to 20°W to 45°E, and to incorporate the Bruce Coast and Coats Land into Norwegian territory.[17]

South American involvement

Omond House was built in 1904 by the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition as the first permanent base in Antarctica. It was later sold to Argentina.
President of Chile Gabriel Gonzalez Videla during his visit in the 1940s. With this he became the first head of government and state to visit Antarctica.

Upon independence in the early 19th century South American nations based their boundaries upon the uti possidetis iuris principle. This meant there was no land without a sovereign. Chile and Argentina applied this to Antarctica citing the Inter caetera bull of 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. Argentina and Chile treat these treaties as legal international treaties mediated by the Catholic Church that was in that time a recognized arbiter in these matters.[6]

This encroachment of foreign powers was a matter of immense disquiet to the nearby South American countries, Argentina and Chile. Taking advantage of a European continent plunged into turmoil with the onset of the Second World War, Chile's president, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, declared the establishment of a Chilean Antarctic Territory in areas already claimed by Britain.

Argentina has a long history in the area.[24] In 1904 the Argentine government began a permanent occupation of one of the Antarctic islands with the purchase of a meteorological station on Laurie Island established in 1903 by Dr William S. Bruce's Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. Bruce offered to transfer the station and instruments for the sum of 5.000 pesos, on the condition that the government committed itself to the continuation of the scientific mission.[25] The Envoy at the British Legation in Argentina, William Haggard,[26] also sent a note to the Argentine Foreign Minister, José A. Terry, ratifying the terms of Bruce's proposition.[25]

In 1906, Argentina communicated to the international community the establishment of a permanent base in the South Orkney Islands, the Orcadas Base. However, Haggard responded by reminding Argentina that the South Orkneys were British. The British position was that Argentine personnel were granted permission only for the period of one year. The Argentine government entered into negotiations with the British in 1913 over the possible transfer of the island. Although these talks were unsuccessful, Argentina attempted to unilaterally establish its sovereignty with the erection of markers, national flags and other symbols.[27]

In response to this and earlier German explorations, the British Admiralty and Colonial Office launched Operation Tabarin in 1943 to reassert British territorial claims against Argentinian and Chilean incursion and establish a permanent British presence in the Antarctic.[28] The move was also motivated by concerns within the Foreign Office about the direction of United States post-war activity in the region.

A suitable cover story was the need to deny use of the area to the enemy. The Kriegsmarine was known to use remote islands as rendezvous points and as shelters for commerce raiders, U-boats and supply ships. Also, in 1941, there existed a fear that Japan might attempt to seize the Falkland Islands, either as a base or to hand them over to Argentina, thus gaining political advantage for the Axis and denying their use to Britain.

In 1943, British personnel from HMS Carnarvon Castle[29] removed Argentine flags from Deception Island. The expedition was led by Lieutenant James Marr and left the Falkland Islands in two ships, HMS William Scoresby (a minesweeping trawler) and Fitzroy, on Saturday January 29, 1944.

Bases were established during February near the abandoned Norwegian whaling station on Deception Island, where the Union Flag was hoisted in place of Argentine flags, and at Port Lockroy (on February 11) on the coast of Graham Land. A further base was founded at Hope Bay on February 13, 1945, after a failed attempt to unload stores on February 7, 1944. Symbols of British sovereignty, including post offices, signposts and plaques were also constructed and postage stamps were issued.

Operation Tabarin provoked Chile to organise its First Chilean Antarctic Expedition in 1947–48, where the Chilean president Gabriel González Videla personally inaugurated one of its bases.[30]

Following the end of the war in 1945, the British bases were handed over to civilian members of the newly created Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (subsequently the British Antarctic Survey), the first such national scientific body to be established in Antarctica.

Postwar developments

Hut built at Hope Bay in 1903. It was there that the only instance of shots fired in anger on the Continent occurred in 1952.

Friction between Britain and Argentina continued into the postwar period. Royal Navy warships were dispatched in 1948 to prevent naval incursions. The only instance of shots fired in anger on Antarctica occurred in 1952 at Hope Bay, when staff at British Base "D" (established 1945) came up against the Argentine team at Esperanza Base (est. 1952), who fired a machine gun over the heads of a British Antarctic Survey team unloading supplies from the John Biscoe. The Argentines later extended a diplomatic apology, saying that there had been a misunderstanding and that the Argentine military commander on the ground had exceeded his authority.

The United States became politically interested in the Antarctic continent before and during WWII. The United States Antarctic Service Expedition, from 1939 to 1941, was sponsored by the government with additional support from donations and gifts by private citizens, corporations and institutions. The objective of the Expedition, outlined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was to establish two bases: East Base, in the vicinity of Charcot Island, and West Base, in the vicinity of King Edward VII Land. After operating successfully for two years but with international tensions on the rise, it was considered wise to evacuate the two bases.[31] However, immediately after the war, American interest was rekindled with an explicitly geopolitical motive. Operation Highjump, from 1946 to 1947 was organised by Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd Jr. and included 4,700 men, 13 ships, and multiple aircraft. The primary mission of Operation Highjump was to establish the Antarctic research base Little America IV,[32] for the purpose of training personnel and testing equipment in frigid conditions and amplifying existing stores of knowledge of hydrographic, geographic, geological, meteorological and electromagnetic propagation conditions in the area. The mission was also aimed at consolidating and extending United States sovereignty over the largest practicable area of the Antarctic continent, although this was publicly denied as a goal even before the expedition ended.

Towards an international treaty

The International Geophysical Year was pivotal in establishing a cooperative international framework in Antarctica, and led on to the Antarctic Treaty System in 1959.

Meanwhile, in an attempt at ending the impasse, Britain submitted an application to the International Court of Justice in 1955 to adjudicate between the territorial claims of Britain, Argentina, and Chile. This proposal failed, as both Latin American countries rejected submitting to an international arbitration procedure.[33]

Negotiations towards the establishment of an international condominium over the continent first began in 1948, involving the 8 claimant countries: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, US, France, Norway, Chile and Argentina. This attempt was aimed at excluding the Soviet Union from the affairs of the continent and rapidly fell apart when the USSR declared an interest in the region, refused to recognize any claims of sovereignty and reserved the right to make its own claims in 1950.[33]

An important impetus toward the formation of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1959 was the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957–1958. This year of international scientific cooperation triggered an 18-month period of intense Antarctic science. More than 70 existing national scientific organisations then formed IGY committees, and participated in the cooperative effort. The British established Halley Research Station in 1956 by an expedition from the Royal Society. Sir Vivian Fuchs headed the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which completed the first overland crossing of Antarctica in 1958. In Japan, the Japan Maritime Safety Agency offered ice breaker Sōya as the South Pole observation ship and Showa Station was built as the first Japanese observation base on Antarctica.

France contributed with Dumont d'Urville Station and Charcot Station in Adélie Land. The ship Commandant Charcot of the French Navy spent nine months of 1949/50 at the coast of Adélie Land, performing ionospheric soundings.[34] The US erected the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station as the first permanent structure directly over the South Pole in January 1957.[35]

Finally, to prevent the possibility of military conflict in the region, the United States, United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and 9 other countries with significant interests negotiated and signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The treaty entered into force in 1961 and sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation, and banned military activity on that continent. The treaty was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War.[36]

Antarctic territorial claims

Territorial claims in Antarctica

Seven sovereign states had made eight territorial claims to land in Antarctica south of the 60° S parallel before 1961. None of these claims have an indigenous population.

All claim areas are sectors with the exception of Peter I Island. The South Orkney Islands fall within the territory claimed by Argentina and the United Kingdom, and the South Shetland Islands fall within the areas claimed by Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom.

These claims have been recognized only between (some of) the seven claiming states. The United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand and Norway all recognize each other's claims[37] (none of their claims overlap with each other).

South Africa does not claim sovereignty over Antarctic territory and does not recognise the right or claim to territorial sovereignty by any state.[38]

Prior to 1962, the British Antarctic Territory was a dependency of the Falkland Islands and also included South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The Antarctic areas became a separate overseas territory following the ratification of the Antarctic Treaty. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands remained a dependency of the Falkland Islands until 1985 when they too became a separate overseas territory.

Official claims south of 60° S

Flag Territory Claimant Date Claim limits/Coordinates Area (km2)
Adélie Land
(District of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands)
 France 1840 142°2E136°11E 432,000
Argentine Antarctica
(Department of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and South Atlantic Islands Province)
 Argentina 1932 25°W74°W 1,461,597
Australian Antarctic Territory
(External Territory of Australia)
 Australia 1933 160°E142°2E
British Antarctic Territory
(British Overseas Territory)
 United Kingdom 1908 20°W80°W 1,709,400
Chilean Antarctic Territory
(Commune of Antártica, in Antártica Chilena Province)
 Chile 1940 53°W90°W 1,250,257.6
Peter I Island
(Dependency of Norway)
 Norway 1931 68°51′S 90°35′W 154
Queen Maud Land
(Dependency of Norway)
 Norway 1939 44°38E20°W 2,700,000
Ross Dependency
(Dependency of New Zealand)
 New Zealand 1923 150°W160°E 450,000

Official claims of Antarctic islands north of 60° S

Four island territories on the Antarctic Plate located north of the 60° South circle of latitude are associated with the continent of Antarctica. They are not subject to the Antarctic Treaty System. None of these territories has an indigenous population.

Another island territory, partly located on the South Sandwich Plate and partly on the Scotia Plate,[note 4] is sometimes associated with the continent of Antarctica (since both of those are minor tectonic plates that border the major Antarctic Plate).

Possible future claims

There has been speculation about possible future claims. The United States and Russia (as a successor state of the Soviet Union) maintain they have reserved the right to make claims. There has also been speculation on Brazil making a claim bounded by 53° W and 28° W,[39] thus overlapping with the Argentine and British claims but not with the Chilean claim. Peru made a reservation of its territory rights under the principle of Antarctic defrontation (in Spanish) and due to influence on its climate, ecology and marine biology, adducing, in addition, geological continuity and historical links.[40]

Uruguayan adhesion to the Antarctic Treaty System includes a declaration that it reserves its rights in Antarctica in accordance with international law.[41]

In 1967, Ecuador declared its right over an area bounded by 84°30' W and 95°30' W, thus overlapping with the Chilean claim and Norway's claim of Peter I Island. The claim was ratified in 1987.[42]

Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth's only continent without a native human population. The Treaty has now been signed by 54 countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, and the now-defunct Soviet Union. The Treaty set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation and banned military activity on that continent. This was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War.

The Antarctic Treaty states that contracting to the treaty:

  • is not a renunciation of any previous territorial claim
  • does not affect the basis of claims made as a result of activities of the signatory nation within Antarctica
  • does not affect the rights of a State under customary international law to recognise (or refuse to recognise) any other territorial claim

What the treaty does affect is new claims:

  • No activities occurring after 1961 can be the basis of a territorial claim.
  • No new claim can be made.
  • No claim can be enlarged.

The Soviet Union and the United States both filed reservations against the restriction on new claims,[43] and the United States and Russia assert their right to make claims in the future if they so choose. Brazil maintains the Comandante Ferraz (the Brazilian Antarctic Base) and has proposed a theory to delimit territories using meridians, which would give it and other countries a claim.

In general, territorial claims below the 60° S parallel have only been recognised among those countries making claims in the area. However, although claims are often indicated on maps of Antarctica, this does not signify de jure recognition. All claim areas except Peter I Island are sectors, the borders of which are defined by degrees of longitude. In terms of latitude, the northern border of all sectors is the 60° S parallel (which does not cut through any piece of land, continent or island) and is also the northern limit of the Antarctic Treaty. The southern borders of all sectors are one single point, the South Pole. Previously, the Norwegian sector was an exception: the original claim of 1930 did not specify a northern or a southern limit, so that its territory was only defined by eastern and western limits.[note 5] However, in 2015, Norway formally declared that its claim extended south to the pole.[44]

See also


    • The claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom partially overlap (as can be seen from the mixed colours above).
    • Norway claims two territories: Peter I Island (small purple circle near the Chilean claim) and Queen Maud Land.
  1. At the time of the claim, Norway did not validate the sector method of demarcating polar territory. This was in line with Norwegian claims in the Arctic and hence to avoid compromising Norway's position with regard to the former Soviet Union (present-day Russia). In the 2015 Meld. St. No. 32 (2014–2015) 'Norske interesser og politikk i Antarktis' (White Paper No. 32 on Norwegian Interests and Policy in the Antarctica), the Foreign Ministry confirmed that while Norway rejected the sector method of delimiting claims it was not intended create a difference in interpretation of the Norwegian claim in Antarctica. White Paper No. 19 (1939) had stated that the purpose of the annexation was to annex 'land which is currently terra nullius and that only Norwegians have researched and mapped'.
  2. Excluding the Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, which is associated with Africa, and Adélie Land.
  3. However, experts in plate tectonics have been unable to determine whether the South Georgian Island Group is (still) a part of the Scotia Plate or have recently been accreted to the South American Plate.
  4. However, the Norwegian government had stated in 2003 that the northern extent of the Norwegian territory conforms to general practice by extending 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the shore.


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