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Who Owns Antarctica (A Continuing Saga)

The unique treaty that governs Antarctica – written in 1959, signed by 46 countries in 1961 and amended in 1991 to keep the seventh continent off limits to oil and mineral exploitation until at least 2041 – is facing its most severe test yet.

In November 2007, the United Kingdom, citing decades-old territorial claims, claimed for itself 385,000 square miles of the continent, including the 600-mile long Peninsula and – most importantly – the coastal shelf that lines it.

When the treaty was written after the successful International Polar Year of 1957-58 it defined Antarctica as all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south. No mention was made of the continental shelf, nor specifically who had rights to it. By international law every coastal nation “owns” 230 miles off its coastline. But if no one “owns” Antarctica, who owns its continental shelf? Today a fight has begun over who owns what in Antarctica, a struggle that promises to last long into the future.

Why the fight? Simple: Potential oil and gas reserves. Why now? Because this May the U.N.’s Convention of the Law of the Sea will expand each coastal nation’s sovereignty over its continental shelf from 230 miles to 380 miles off shore. But claims must first be approved by the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which also meets in May.

Which is why in historic manner lawmakers from long-squabbling Chile and Argentina flew to Antarctica last week to publicly denounce the U.K.’s claim and instead suggest that those same icy plains – and shelf – belong instead to the two South American countries. Last Thursday they met at the Chilean base of Eduardo Frei and on Friday jumped to the Argentine base known as Jubany to announce their very rare collaboration.

The Antarctic claims of Argentina, Chile and Britain are particularly difficult to sort out since they are all claiming the same sizable pie slice of the continent. The British territorial claim goes back to 1908. Another eight countries (Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, France, Spain and Norway) also still claim pieces of the continent, which, according to treaty, is supposed to be unclaimed and open only to science. The U.S. has never (not yet?) made a claim in Antarctica, though it operates the largest science base on the continent (McMurdo) and controls the South Pole (Scott-Amundsen).

It’s long been thought that Antarctica and its coast was too foreboding, too far away and chocked by too many 15-mile-long icebergs to make drilling for oil and gas possible, or cost-effective. But as we are witnessing in the Arctic as its ice disappears, as the ice along the Antarctic Peninsula lessens – thanks to temperatures that have warmed more than anywhere on the planet during the past fifty years – territorial battles have begun.

I’ve been up and down the Antarctic Peninsula for many years and can testify there is still lots and lots of ice both on land and afloat. Today it still looks like a tricky place to put up oilrigs. But who knows how technology will change – and how Antarctica will change – in the coming years? All of these nations are simply planting new flags all over the continent … just in case.