Few territories on Earth remain unclaimed by one of many states. Fewer still are left to benefit humankind without profiting individual states or corporations. The continent of Antarctica is one of the four global commons, the others being space, the high seas, and the atmospheres.[1] As such, it is one of the last remaining uninhabited places on Earth, and a land with no clear and defined owner. Currently, it serves as home to many scientists as a research base, and is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, which allows states freedom to scientific investigations but restricts territorial sovereignty. However, as demand for land and resources rises, Antarctica’s assets may become more contentious. As such, it is important for the global community to create a new treaty establishing common ownership.

With the current growth in population, countries all over the world are scrambling to find new ways to house and provide for their citizens. Though since the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 resources found in outer space were to be “the property of all humankind”[2] the United States Congress recently passed the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, which allows private companies and states to own whatever materials they bring to Earth from space. As the United States, arguably one of the most powerful nation-states, has passed laws regarding one global common, they—and other countries—have precedent to pass laws regarding the other global commons.

The continent of Antarctica has a lot to offer the world, from energy and land resources to a unique environment for conducting scientific resource. The Ross, Weddell, Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas surrounding Antarctica all “host large oil and gas deposits.”[3] Per the Lowry Institute, predictions show Antarctica having a “200 billion barrel oil capacity.”[4] This would make the continent’s reserves the third largest in the world. As Funnel says, “global energy needs may well force an international consensus in favour of exploration.”[5] With expanding demands for energy and declining sources of oil, Antarctica has massive potential to tap into. Though some economies are moving towards renewable energy sources, there is still a great demand for gas and oil that might lead to the exploitation of Antarctica’s resources.

Additionally, “coal, lead, iron, chromium, copper, gold, nickel, platinum, uranium and silver are among Antarctica’s natural”[6] riches. A country laying claim to any Antarctic territory hosting these resources will find an easy supply of wealth to use and to trade. “In Chinese social science writing on Antarctica, the issue of resources is one that comes up again and again.”[7] States are more concerned with the potential resources Antarctica might provide than with the science and scientific research hoped for at the time of the Antarctic Treaty’s signage.

Most importantly, Antarctica has an abundance of water, both fresh and in the form of ice. The Antarctic icecap alone is home to “90 percent of the world’s ice” which, if it were to be melted, would amount to “70 percent of the world’s fresh water.”[8] A mere 10 percent of the water that melts off icebergs annually would amount to “some 120 billion cubic meters of usable fresh water a year, enough to irrigate 15 to 25 million acres of land”[9] In our “water-hungry world”[10] this water is a valuable resource. Droughts striking globally in recent years have led to problems with farming and irrigation, both vital for food production. Water is not a renewable resource, and as such Antarctica’s freshwater and abundance of ice might soon be demanded by countries lacking their own supplies.

Currently, the Antarctic Treaty governs the continent and the resources within it. While this treaty, which was written at a 1967 conference initiated by the United States in Washington D.C., has some merits and has worked well for many years, it also has insurmountable downfalls. The most pressing of these is the way states might later lay claim to territories, with many states currently attempting to build up their own baseis for future claims to the territory, but also includes the way law enforcement works.

As there is little legal precedent or codified laws governing the territory, legal dilemmas have arisen. The possible murder of a scientist researching in Antarctica in 2000 still has not been solved. Rodney Marks, an Australian native, was working on a United States base in the territory still claimed by New Zealand when he died. Supposedly, his death was of natural causes, but an autopsy later revealed that he had ingested poison. Eight years after the death, filed were released to the press that detailed “eight years of ‘legal, diplomatic and jurisdictional hurdles’”[11] between New Zealand police and the  United States State Department. In addition to being unfortunate, this case “revealed the precarious nature of international agreements that govern outposts in the Antarctic.”[12] With this problem, it would be entirely possible for many misconducts to happen without repercussion due to the indistinct borders and governing laws.

As no country has complete authority and must take precautions before acting, governing the seas and keeping laws intact remains a problem. This is evidenced by rogue fishing ships in Arctic seas illegally catching limited supplies of fish. One particular group flew the Equitoral Guinea flag, meaning that though the New Zealand navy had evidence of their criminal acts, “the navy [could] do little but capture video footage of the illegal catch”[13] until they received permission from the Equitoral Guinea government to board or capture these ships, although authorities doubted these pirates were actually from the Equitoral Guinea. “These criminals have repeatedly demonstrated that they have no respect for the law, and are blatantly flaunting their illegal activity in the face of New Zealand authorities.”[14] As no distinct laws govern the high seas and the grounds of Antarctica, these rogue ships can continue to exploit Antarctica’s resources as they please.

The treaty also fails to solve the vital problem of territories and claims. Though the treaty was intended to postpone the issue of Antarctica’s ownership and to keep countries from taking sections of land as their own, it did not clearly prohibit the staking of potential claims or lay out specific means for what might define a well intentioned use of Antarctica’s space. As more time goes on, more countries invest resources in Antarctica, and while these resources may supposedly be for scientific research, these can also be used to support a later claim for territory.

One commonly accepted way in international law to establish ownership of a territory is occupation, and countries are very excited about Antartica’s potential for resources. Many countries have begun increasing their presence in Antarctica so as to have a claim if the Treaty is reconfigured. “Proving occupation requires demonstration of intention to act as sovereign and exercise of real authority over the area claimed.” [15]

The idea of assertively giving oneself territorial rights through occupation is based on the predominant “environmental authority.”[16] However, while in other lands, environmental authority was easy to achieve, the same principle is more challenging in Antarctica. While sending people to establish a colony on a supposedly undiscovered land with the terrain for agriculture would be relatively simple, occupying a land covered with ice that sees very litte sun and holds little agricultural prospects, “a polar region . . .not suitable for colonising,”[17] can raise challenges and is unprecedented territory. In order to “become a consultative party” to the Antarctic Treaty, a state needs to have an operative base in Antarctica doing scientific resource.[18]

Realising the potential wealth Antarctica holds, many countries are flocking to create these scientific bases in order to conduct research. “Countries like China, Russia, Korea and India talk openly in their own languages about the potential of Antarctic mineral resources.”[19] They set up research bases not only to advance their scientific discoveries or to take advantage of species unique to Antarctica, but most importantly to later have a claim to the resources Antarctica holds. When the Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Antarctica in 2014, he was not concerned with improving relations with the scientific community. “The main motivation for the Chinese presidential visit was. . . future energy security.”[20]

Brazil and China began building research centres in 2014.[21] [22] “Russia, India and Iran have also expressed interest in Antarctica’s minerals.”[23] “Approximately 30 nations now have a declared Antarctic science and research programme”[24] including “some rather unlikely entities like Malaysia, Poland, Pakistan and even Romania.”[25] Russia has been developing its assets in Arctic territories, “including hydrocarbon production and the development of the Northern Sea Route. The country has also boosted its military presence in the area to ensure its defense capabilities in the region.”[26] While these countries may have benevolent intentions and may do fantastic scientific work, it is likely that they are mainly motivated by their own self-interests.

As such, it is better to write a new treaty sooner rather than later to prevent future fights and wars over Antarctica. Instead of solving the issue of ‘who owns Antarctica?’ the current treaty “attempts to set the problem aside, at least temporarily, by freezing existing positions and establishing a moratorium on new claims while the treaty is in force.”[27] This has been effective in keeping Antarctica out of greedy hands for many years, but needs to change to preemptively stop a conflict that might arise in later treaties. The treaty clearly states “no acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting, or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica.”[28] However, this obviously is not the case as states continue to do research mainly for the purpose of creating a claim to the lands. As there are no clear definitions restricting countries from building claims under the pretence of research and there are no active bodies to govern Antarctica, the treaty is ineffective.

The seven original claimants still hold a lot of authority over their land, but this is not legitimate. “New Zealand, Australia and other countries might think that they have territory in Antarctica, but everybody else thinks that’s nonsense.”[29] Building research stations is “a method of assertion on a continent where sovereignty is disputed.”[30] “Allocating a large budget to Antarctic research and hosting scientific facilities on the continent are considered suitable ways for a country to signal its presence in this territory.”[31] Though they may have sent the original explorers to Antarctica, they should work towards protecting Antarctica for the good of humankind.

This form of establishing territorial rights also opens up the possibility of private ownership. As there is nothing in the treaty prohibiting private ownership, theoretically an independent company could set up a research base and later claim land. As companies are even less likely to have the international community in their interests, this could open Antarctica up to a lot of exploitation from companies after Antarctica’s natural resources. As the United States’ Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 shows, though a country might once agree that certain resources are for the good of humankind, they can take this back at anytime, leaving these resources available for exploitation by privately owned companies.

Nonetheless, the most important goal of any new treaty should remain peace. Antarctica for the global community would solve any potential conflict of ownership or diving the territory between various states. A globally owned Antarctica would also improve security in the region. “The New Zealand Government believes that the only final solution to territorial disputes and rivalries may eventually prove to be an agreement to relinquish national rights and claims in respect of Antarctica.”[32] The original Antarctic Treaty’s most powerful feature was in its creation of “a quasi condominium for the governance of Antarctica.”[33] Any new treaty should similarly leave Antarctica open for any countries wanting to pursue scientific resource in a peaceful fashion, but should clearly abolish the idea of environmental authority and ensure that Antarctica’s resources are forever for general humankind.

A new treaty should additionally regulate future handling of resources and protect them from exploitation. “Resource activities require legal security and regulation that can be provided only by effective governmental institutions having clear authority over the geographical area in which the activities occur.”[34] Even seemingly forgettable resources such as ice need to be protected by law as even this can be argued over. “The accepted view is that [ice’s] international law status changes depending on where the ice is located.”[35] There are many different types of ice, and conflict could arise over the lack of distinction between these.

Creating a treaty that would put Antarctica under international governance could be immensely challenging. The idea of Antarctica becoming an international territory under the governance of the United Nations had been raised in 1956 but “all seven claimant countries rejected this idea as a violation of their sovereign right.”[36] However, a treaty that abolished the territorial claims that still exist and made Antarctica a condominium, would be a first step to leaving Antarctica open for the future for preservation, research, and possible exploitation or utilization of resources.

Many legal issues could arise. Deciding how to divide profits alone would be challenging. “How would you decide what proportion of any commercial profits should be redistributed for the benefit of all mankind? Furthermore, who do you give any money to? Would the money go to the Antarctica Treaty parties, or some other body that represents all of the world’s nations?”[37] A myriad of legal questions are possible.

Ultimately, despite any struggles that might arise and comprises needed to be hammered out, creating a new Antarctic Treaty that addresses the issues of ownership, legal authority, and resource protection is absolutely vital in order to protect one of humanity’s vital regions.


[1] Salazar, Juan Francisco. “Antarctica may hold the key to regulating mining in space.” The Conversation. 10 Aug, 2015. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://theconversation.com/antarctica-may-hold-the-key-to-regulating-mining-in-space-45702>

[2] Salazar, “Antarctica may hold the key to regulating mining in space.”

[3] Leighton, Paula. “Developing nations seek a share of Antarctica’s spoils.” SciDevNet. 2 Oct, 2014. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://www.scidev.net/global/bioprospecting/feature/developing-nations-seek-a-share-of-antarctica-s-spoils.html>

[4] Davison, Nicola. “China eyes Antarctica’s resource bounty.” The Guardian. 8 Nov, 2013. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/08/china-antarctica-trip-icebreaker-snow-dragon>

[5] Funnell, Antony. “Is mining in Antarctica inevitable?” ABC News Australia. 06 May, 2014. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. < http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/5433498>

[6] Leighton, “Developing nations seek a share of Antarctica’s spoils”

[7] qtd. in Funnel, “Is mining in Antarctica inevitable?”

[8] Peterson, M. J. “Antarctica: The Last Great Land Rush on Earth.” International Organization 34.03 (1980): 377-403. Web. p. 387.

[9] Peterson, “Antarctica: The Last Great Land Rush on Earth.” p. 387.

[10] Davison, “China eyes Antarctica’s resource bounty”

[11] Fisher, David. “New twist in case of Antarctica poisoning death.” New Zealand Herald. 15 Mar, 2009. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10561809>

[12] McKie, Robin. “Mystery of poisoning in Antarctic deepens as suicide is ruled out.” The Guardian. 14 Jan, 2007. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jan/14/antarctica.robinmckie>

[13] Vance, Andrea. “Third boat caught illegally fishing near Antarctica.” Stuff.co.nz. 13 Jan, 2015. Web. 05 Oct, 2015. <http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/64909773/third-boat-caught-illegally-fishing-near-antarctica>

[14] Vance, “Third boat caught illegally fishing near Antarctica.”

[15] Peterson. “Antarctica: The Last Great Land Rush on Earth.” p. 392.

[16] Howkins, 184

[17] Rothwell, p.58

[18] Leighton, “Developing nations seek a share of Antarctica’s spoils”

[19] Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury,, qtd. in Funnel

[20] Nick Rowley, a former senior advisor to UK prime minister Tony Blair, qtd. in Atkin

[21] Leighton, “Developing nations seek a share of Antarctica’s spoils”

[22] Davison, “China eyes Antarctica’s resource bounty”

[23] Atkin, Michael. “China wants Antarctic share to support its ‘one billion population.'” ABC News Australia. 20 Jan, 2015. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-20/chinas-desire-for-antarctic-mining-despite-international-ban/6029414>

[24] Funnel, “Is mining in Antarctica inevitable?”

[25] Funnel, “Is mining in Antarctica inevitable?”

[26] “Russia to Boost Scientific Research in Arctic, Antarctic.” Sputnik News. 02 Sep, 2015. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://sputniknews.com/environment/20150902/1026492374.html>

[27] Bilder, Richard B. “Control of Criminal Conduct in Antarctica.” Virginia Law Review 52:02 (Mar, 1966): 231-285. p. 237.

[28] The Antarctic Treaty. <http://www.state.gov/t/avc/trty/193967.htm>. Article IV.

[29] Dr. Alan Hemmings, a polar specialist at the University of Canterbury, qtd. in Laursen, Wendy. “Time to Revisit the Antarctic Treaty.” Maritime Executive. 20 Dec, 2014. Web. 02 Oct, 2015. <http://www.maritime-executive.com/features/time-to-revisit-the-antarctic-treaty>

[30] Davison, “China eyes Antarctica’s resource bounty”

[31] Leighton, “Developing nations seek a share of Antarctica’s spoils”

[32] qtd. in Falconer, Tasmin. “New Zealand Policy on the Ross Dependency – Literature Review.” University of Canterbury. Feb 2000.

[33] Laursen, “Time to Revisit the Antarctic Treaty.”

[34] Peterson, M. J. “Antarctica: The Last Great Land Rush on Earth.” International Organization 34.03 (1980): 377-403. Web. p. 377.

[35] Rothwell, Donald. The Polar Regions and the Development of International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. p.262

[36] Howkins, Adrian. “Melting Empires? Climate Change and Politics in Antarctica since the International Geophysical Year.” Osiris 26:01 (2011): 180-197. p. 185

[37]Kevin Hughes from the Britich Antarctic Survey’s environmental office, qtd. in Leighton, “Developing nations seek a share of Antarctica’s spoils”