At the bottom of the world, there’s a land of superlatives. Simultaneously the coldest, the windiest, and the driest place on Earth, it’s also one of the most protected. No military operations are allowed. Mining is expressly forbidden. And its largest cities are research stations. The place, of course, is Antarctica, and the delicate balance of its ecology and its importance to the world has been maintained for six decades by a cluster of agreements called The Antarctic Treaty System.
Scientists, scholars, and navigators had speculated on the existence of a vast southern continent as early as the 1st century AD. In 1773 and 1774, the ships of Captain James Cook came close to the land mass, but continued on because of sea ice. Antarctica’s ice shelf was officially spotted three times in 1820; the first completely documented and confirmed landing happened at Cape Adare in 1895. Explorers and researchers would return to the land over time. Eventually, a number of countries declared sovereignty over part or all of Antarctica. The United States debated staking a claim after World War II, while England and Argentina military units had heated encounters.
While other treaties and agreements were in effect, and while others were being contested in the International Court of Justice, the United States made a new proposal in 1948. The idea was that the United Nations would become the guardian of Antarctica via a trust that would be administered by a number of member countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Argentina, and others. That agreement didn’t materialize, even though over a dozen countries continued to set up research bases on the continent.
The major fear in the United States was that the spreading Cold War would find Antarctica as its next battleground. To head that off, President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated an Antarctica Conference in 1958. Twelve countries with research projects on the continent took part in meetings into 1959 to try to hammer out a treaty. It was here that fundamentals like a ban on nuclear testing in Antarctica, openness to international observers, administration by the United Nations, and other guiding principles were put together. The treaty opened for signatures on December 1, 1959, with a set effective date of June 23, 1961. The original signing countries were: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (the Soviet Union at the time), South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. Since that time, the number of ratifying countries in the treaty system has risen to 54 (the most recent being Iceland in 2015).
Today, there are a variety of active research stations from member countries. Those countries administrate their own jurisdictions, and each country’s laws govern their areas. U.S. law also applies to areas of Antarctica without a formal country jurisdiction; a group of special deputy U.S. Marshals is stationed on the ice in case law-enforcement aid is required. While there are occasional bumps in the road, the represented countries generally work together to maintain the ecological integrity of the continent. One example of that came in 2013, when Metallica played a special show at Argentine Antarctic Base Carlini; in order to protect the environment, the band played without any outside or direct amplification, rather broadcasting their sound into headphones that individual attendees (which included scientists and visitors from Germany, Brazil, Chile, Poland, China, Russia, and South Korea) wore. It’s just another symbol of the sixty years of cooperation represented by the Antarctic Treaty System.
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