The Antarctic Nuclear-Free Zone

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, November 1997 | Go to article overview

The Antarctic Nuclear-Free Zone


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


The International Geophysical Year, which began in July 1957, facilitated considerable international co-operation, among erstwhile Cold War political enemies, in Antarctica. This co-operation was then enshrined in a treaty. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty has been one of the most successful treaties ever negotiated. It settled some difficult issues and created a base upon which the international scientific community could operate -- despite the international political tensions on the rest of the globe. It created the world's first nuclear-free zone. There was no Cold War at the South Pole.

The Antarctic is the most inhospitable place on earth. Unlike the Arctic, which is a sheet of ice under which submarines can navigate, the Antarctic is a rock covered in ice which is gradually moving to the sea. The Antarctic has the lowest natural temperatures ever recorded on earth and for four months of winter it is totally dark. Gales blow for some 300 days a year.

The region is isolated from the rest of the world by the Southern Ocean. There are also the chunks of ice breaking off from the Antarctic ice sheet. The largest iceberg was in 1959 and it was the size of Belgium, and each year ones the size of a city break off from the Antarctic. (With the speculation over the `greenhouse effect', it is likely that the rate of the ice breaking off will increase; if all the ice were to melt then the sea level would rise around the world about six feet). These factors deter regular visitors. To reach the Antarctic, it is necessary to travel over the inhospitable Southern Ocean for some thousands of miles.

The Antarctic is part of the ancient giant super-continent Gondwanaland,, which broke up. India is (in geological terms) racing north and colliding with China (hence the Himalayas being formed from two landmasses pushing into each other). Australia moved north at a slower pace and Antarctica moved south. The Antarctic's rock and ice are so heavy that they give the earth its pear-shape. All the mineral wealth found in India and Australia are also, it is assumed, to be found in Antarctica.

There have been three motivations for colonisation elsewhere in the world. First, there was the economic motivation: to gain raw materials or additional markets. Second, there was the strategic motivation: the belief that it was necessary to hold onto certain territory as a launching point for other invasions or to have a defensive or protective belt from invasion. Third, there was a variety of psychological motivations: such as the need to win over the `heathens'(such as to make them good Christians), or to win greater glory for one's country by expanding the size of its empire. All three motivations did not apply to the Antarctic. Until recently, it was impossible to excavate minerals under ice or permafrost; no one would use the Antarctic for any strategic purpose; and there were no humans permanently in the Antarctic to convert to one's point of view.

Various countries have made claims to parts of the Antarctic. From about the 1820s, explorers from several countries made various landings but none established a permanent presence there. By the 1930s, seven countries had stake out claims: the United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand and Norway (which recognised each other's claims) and Argentina and Chile (whose claims overlapped both with each other and that of the UK). The largest single claimant is Australia, which claims about 41 per cent of the continent (a claim the size of which is equivalent to over half the size of the continental US). In the 1930s the US briefly made a claim to the unclaimed territory (Admiral Byrd named it Marie Byrd Land after his wife) but the US did not persist with it because it said that it disapproved of such claims. It reserved the right, However, to reassert the claim.

An international scientific programme in the Antarctic was created under the auspices of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). …

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