Mental Floss

Who Owns Antarctica?

Michele Debczak
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Outside of penguins and ice, Antarctica has few natural resources to speak of. That along with its inhospitable climate have ensured its status as the only continent on earth without a permanent human population. But if there’s one thing we know about people, it’s that they love sticking flags in unclaimed territories. So which nation has dibs on the seventh continent?

While no one country “owns” Antarctica, a total of 52 nations do have joint international control over the region. The world’s struggle for a piece of the frozen pie began with the increase in Antarctic expeditions at the start of the 20th century. In 1908, England made the first attempt by laying claim to a significant portion of the mainland and several surrounding islands. In response, several other nations scrambled to secure territories while there was still land left to claim. Those nations included Chile, Argentina, Australia, France, Norway, New Zealand and even Nazi Germany. 

Wikimedia Commons

The nations staked their claims based on a variety of factors and principles, some of which weren’t always agreed upon by everyone involved. Argentina disputed Britain’s territory on the grounds that they lacked an effective occupation. Chile hopped in on the squabble in 1940, and each country ended up trying to upstage the next with flags, plaques, maps, and memoranda. 

Antarctica even became a point of political tension between the U.S. and Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Following World War II, the U.S. figured the best way to keep Russia disinterested in the continent was by refusing to recognize any claims or seek claims for itself. The U.S. still managed to snatch a prime spot in the end when they built a base on the South Pole in 1957.

When the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, all previous claims became null and void. Instead of divvying up the land between world powers, the treaty granted mutual sovereignty to the 12 nations that signed it. Since then, a few dozen more countries have signed on, and, by some miracle, a continent that makes up 10 percent of the earth's land is still being used as a shared scientific preserve today.