Seven countries currently ‘officially’ claim territory in Antarctica. A map of these claims looks like a pie chart, as all are centred on the geographical South Pole(*). If all those claims would be realised, one would be able to visit those seven countries by simply walking in a circle around that one point. But all territorial claims on Antarctica were ‘frozen’ by the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, which also stipulated that thereafter, no new claim could be made. Present claimants are:

  • France (Terre Adélie, since 1924)
  • Chile (Antárctica, since 1940)
  • Argentina (Antártida Argentina, since 1943)
  • Australia (Australian Antarctic Territory, since 1933)
  • United Kingdom (British Antarctic Territory, since 1908)
  • Norway (Dronning Maud Land, since 1939; Peter I Island, since 1929)
  • New Zealand (Ross Dependency, since 1923)

All claims apply to the areas south of 60°S, which is the northern limit of the Antarctic Treaty. The area between 90°W and 150°W remains unclaimed, except for Peter I Island, Norway’s claim on this territory being the only one in Antarctica that is not a sector (a ‘slice of the pie’).

This status quo has been maintained ever since 1961, certain signatories – notably the US and the USSR – nevertheless expressing their reservations about certain treaty restrictions. Which could be dangerous, as some claims overlap – notably between Chile, Argentina and the UK. The latter two countries already went to war over the nearby (but non-Antarctic) Falkland Islands in 1982.

A Brazilian geostrategist Therezinha de Castro proposes a different way of approaching the divvying-up of the South Pole – a method which of course is more beneficial to Brazil’s as yet unrecognised Antarctic claims, but which would also eliminate the inherent danger of overlapping claims. It goes like this: all non-South American nations withdraw their claims and bases from the South American sector of Anterctica (from 0°W to 90°W), and this sector is divided among the South American nations according to defrontação. This frontage signifies the ‘open’ sea acces to Antarctica via meridional lines. This would diminish the Chilean and Argentine sectors, give Uruguay, Peru and Ecuador a slice – and would give Brazil the biggest sector.

On reading an Economist article about British territorial claims in Antarctica, Paul Youlten recently came up with a similar idea. “The useful little map (included in the Economist article) got me wondering about which other countries might also lay claim to a slice of Antarctica based on their having un-restricted southern passage across open seas to the continent.”

He used the ‘frontage’ principle not just for South America, but for the whole world. For a bit more about the sources and methods used by Paul Youlten, please click here to read his post on the subject. Via the Youlten method of frontage-ing, no less than 47 countries can lay a claim to Antarctica. To wit:

  • From the Americas: USA, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Greenland.
  • From Africa: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Somalia and Madagascar.
  • From Asia: Yemen, Oman, Iran, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma and Indonesia.
  • From Oceania: Australia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Zealand.

Remarkably, Iceland is the only European country with direct Antarctic access, unless you count the UK (via the Falklands and South Georgia). “Unexpected results include the surprising news that Somalia, Yemen and Oman could make claims,” says Mr Youlten. “As well as Iran, which I suspect might be tempted to set up an ‘Icelamic Republic’ – sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.”

Will a re-distribution like this ever happen? It reminds one of the attempts to broaden the UN Security Council: the vetoing powers might not all be world powers anymore, but they can still… veto any change, for example to include one vetoing member per continent. This will continue until the UN Security Council or its vetoing members achieve total irrelevance. Similarly, a ‘fairer’ division of Antarctica will not happen until the Treaty signatories are weak enough, or the other parties are strong enough. Which is not anytime soon.

(*) even though the Norwegian claim is only defined east-west, not north-south, and therefore in theory does not extend all the way down to the Pole itself.