The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty

From 1957-1958,  sixty-seven countries became involved in a period of amazing scientific exploration and discovery which was called the “International Geophysical Year” (IGY).  Science activities were conducted from North Pole to South Pole, and spanned many areas of science including geology, glaciology, meteorology, physics, oceanography, solar activity, auroras, geomagnetism and much more.

One major geologic discovery was the concept of plate tectonics, confirmed by the concepts of continental drift and seafloor spreading.  This period of time advanced science in many ways, brought the polar regions to the forefront once again, and led to the establishment of  the Antarctic TreatyThis treaty protects Antarctica as a continent for peaceful, scientific purposes.  No one owns Antarctica; no one country governs it.  It is held as a beacon of cooperation between countries seeking new information about the Earth and its systems.

The original treaty was written and signed on December 1, 1959 by twelve nations interested in preserving this unique place for peaceful scientific purposes. The treaty went into effect in June of 1961.  The Governments of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, the French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Union of South Africa, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America were the original signatories of this treaty.

These flags flying at the NSF Chalet building represent those twelve original signatories.


A similar ring of flags circles the Ceremonial South Pole, at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.


The preamble (introduction) of the treaty states:  (from the National Science Foundation website)

“The Governments of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, the French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Union of South Africa, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America,

Recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord;

Acknowledging the substantial contributions to scientific knowledge resulting from international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica;

Convinced that the establishment of a firm foundation for the continuation and development of such cooperation on the basis of freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica as applied during the International Geophysical Year accords with the interests of science and the progress of all mankind;

Convinced also that a treaty ensuring the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only and the continuance of international harmony in Antarctica will further the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.”

Various “articles” or short explanations of different topics were covered specifically in the treaty. Things like being free to conduct scientific investigations, the exchange of information and results between nations, free access and chances for observation between countries working here, prohibition of nuclear explosions, the settlement of disputes (differences of opinion or arguments), and a plan for treaty nations to meet periodically were all provisions of the Antarctic Treaty.

As of this point, many other nations have signed the treaty and agreed to abide by the treaty and attend the meetings, now held at least every other year.  There are 48 Antarctic Treaty nations, which represent about two-thirds of the world’s human population.  It is a good feeling to know that this incredible place is protected with the common goal of peace and science.

While over at the Chalet taking the photos of the flags I also saw this bust of Admiral Richard E. Byrd.


Admiral Byrd was an American naval officer, a pioneering American aviator, a global adventurer, and he specialized in exploration of polar regions.  Among his many accomplishments world-wide here are some facts about Admiral Byrd:

In 1926 Byrd reported that he had flown over the North Pole.  There has been controversy over this fact throughout the years, based on the wind speed in the meteorological records of that time and the speed of the airplane he was piloting — a Fokker tri-motor airplane named the Josephine Ford.  There has also been controversy surrounding entries in his notebook and diary, both carried on the flight.  But, the fact remains, that Admiral Byrd was a pioneer in Arctic aviation and exploration.


Admiral Byrd made one of the first Trans-Atlantic flights in 1927, being edged out of the prize by Charles Lindbergh, who was the first to make such a flight.

In 1928 Byrd began an ambitious first expedition to Antarctica.  He helped establish a base on the Ross Ice Shelf which was named “Little America.”

Admiral Byrd did fly over the South Pole in 1929.


Admiral Byrd was a recipient of the highest honor for heroism given by the United States, the Medal of Honor.

Paul Siple, a 19-year old American Boy Scout accompanied Admiral Byrd on this expedition.  There is a remote station named Siple Dome named in honor of Paul Siple.

Byrd also named an area of Antarctic land he discovered Marie Byrd Land, after his wife, Marie.

A documentary film describing Byrd’s flight to the South Pole was released in June of 1930.  It won the award for “Best Cinematography” at the 3rd Academy Awards.  Notice the caption on the poster that says “Actually filmed in the vast unknown of the Antarctic.”


Many heroic explorers had come before Byrd, sailing to Antarctica to explore and later claim the prize of first to the South Pole.  But that’s a story for another day and another blog.  The history of this region is fascinating to me.  The names of mountains, valleys, glaciers, landforms, bays and other ocean features is a veritable “who’s who?” of Antarctic exploration and discovery.

When I look at the maps of Antarctica and I see the names, I think of the explorers and scientists who have come before me and I imagine what they must have experienced in a period long before modern air transportation to and from the continent that we experience today.  There were no C-17’s flying cargo and passengers to McMurdo Station.  McMurdo Station didn’t even exist until 1956, just prior to the International Geophysical Year (IGY).  It gets its name from Archibald McMurdo, who traveled on an expedition with James Clark Ross (Ross Sea, Ross Ice Shelf) that charted this area in 1841.  When the base was established it became the center of scientific and logistical operations for IGY.  Initially the station was referred to as a Naval Air Facility McMurdo.

Everywhere I look, names evoke a sense of adventure and a spirit of exploration.  This truly is an amazing place.

6 responses to “The Antarctic Treaty

  1. Before the making of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 a number of countries, including Australia, had terriitorial claims on parts of Antarctica – in some cases overlapping. What is the situation with those claims now?

  2. Some interesting facets of Byrd’s Antarctic experiences.
    (1) Igloo was a terrier who accompanied Byrd on his expeditions. Flew over the north pole (May 1926) and the south pole (Nov 1929). Igloo is buried at the Pine Ridge Cemetry for Small Animals, Dedham, Massachusetts.
    (b) For his second expedition to Antarctica in 1933 Byrd took down three Guernsey cows – from farms in Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina. The cow from North Carolina was with calf at her departure and the calf, named Iceberg, was born 247 miles north of the Antarctic Circle.

    • Cool information, Gordon. I’m going to make you a guest blogger! You know SO much about Antarctic history and exploration from your many trips to Antarctica with the Australian Antarctic Division. And, it must be all those great books you order….you are always learning! For all of my readers…take note…keep reading and learning your whole life through. So many doors will open to you and you will have so many interesting things to talk about with others! 🙂 Keep on writing, Gordon! You’re helping us all learn! 🙂

  3. Hi cool Antarctica should be protected its a great amazing place I wish il’le be able to go to Antarctica when I get older

    • Hi Seif,
      Yes, I’m really happy that Antarctica is protected by the treaty and I’m glad it is a place of peaceful scientific research. It is a place where countries can cooperate to make new discoveries…I like that. I hope you do get the opportunity to travel to Antarctica when you get older. Maybe you’ll be a scientist, making new discoveries in this remote place on Earth. Keep working hard in school, and many doors of discovery and learning will open for you. Miss you! Love, Mrs. Trummel 🙂

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