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Where penguins live, and other reasons why the Antarctic is not the Arctic

The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction

By Klaus Dodds


Let’s start with some salient facts:

Fact 1: The Antarctic is not the Arcticno matter how often toy makers and television programming routinely confuses the geographical distribution of polar bears and penguins. Penguins are to be found in Antarctica.

Fact 2: The Antarctic  is comprised of a large polar continent surrounded by ocean. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents and islands.

Fact 3: The Antarctic is colder, drier, windier and higher than the Arctic.

Fact 4: The Antarctic does not have an indigenous human population.

Fact 5: The Antarctic is remote and far removed from centers of population.

But why does the Antarctic matter? And why should we take an interest in this apparently distant, remote and unpopulated space? Does the Antarctic hold vast and largely untapped resources? Will countries and other stakeholders ever go to war over their ‘rights’ to territory and resources? It might sound mad but the Antarctic is caught up in the politics of nationalism and national pride. You only have to look at a map of the Antarctic and read the place names.

These kinds of questions were routinely posed in the 1940s and 1950s when it was unclear as to what kind of future faced the Antarctic. At that stage there were seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK) that believed that they enjoyed sovereign rights in the Antarctic. Unfortunately for this particular G7, the United States and the Soviet Union rejected those claims and reserved the right to make their claim to the vast and poorly mapped polar continent.

As the Cold War gripped the Arctic region, there was a strong likelihood that superpower competition might migrate southwards. And it did. In the form of science and scientific endeavor rather than military posturing and war gaming. Science, by the International Geophysical Year (1957-1959), was the mechanism by which rivalries flourished. Fearing the worst 12 countries agreed upon an Antarctic Treaty to help regulate behavior.

Over the next five decades, interest in the Antarctic has grown steadily inspired by scientific, resource and strategic drivers. Science remains the dominant activity and a growing number of nations invest in national and multi-national programs designed to better understand below and above the surface of the polar continent. Resource exploitation, especially via fishing and controversially whaling, is pivotal in shaping the management of the Southern Ocean. Strategically, despite efforts to ensure that territorial claims do not become a subject of dispute, all the claimant states including the UK behave as if they enjoy a sovereign presence in the Antarctic.

The manner in which the Antarctic is managed is controversial. For non-governmental organizations, there remain complaints that the dominant powers are not regulating sufficiently well fishing and a growing tourism sector. Commercialization is blamed for corrupting the scientific ethos of the Antarctic Treaty. Rising powers such as India and China are now more visible on the ice and within the corridors of polar power. Their presence routinely cited for unsettling established Antarctic powers such as Australia, which maintains a vast claim to the Antarctic. India and China have understood the ‘rules of the game’ and built research stations and undertaken scientific firsts such as establishing bases in more remote places of the polar continent.

This tendency to emphasize the idea of performance reminds us that the Antarctic has been a very gendered place. This was a space, ever since the Edwardian era, for men to test themselves against nature. Scott and his party may have died on their return from the South Pole in 1912 but they did so heroically. Women were nowhere to be found. Or if they were present then it was more likely to located on a map. The exploration and scientific study of the Antarctic was largely a man’s world. This has now changed but that gendered legacy remains. The Antarctic continues to attract men eager to show off their equipment and study, exploit and play.

Should we worry about the Antarctic? One enormous cultural shift has occurred in the manner in which we engage with this region. In the nineteenth century, it was common to read stories about how the polar realm inspired awe and fear. The ice was to be feared, and there has been no shortage of explorers and novelists ready to sustain such an unsettling vision of place. But now it is the ice that should be scared of us. Ice, snow, and the cold are the new frontline of human anxiety pertaining to a changing world.

Increasingly scientists and policy-makers speak of the Antarctic as no longer remote in any sense. The Antarctic is connected to planet Earth, and contemporary research recognizes that so much of the world’s climate is tied to the southern continent and surrounding Southern Ocean. And vice versa. What remains to be understood is how rising temperatures, and the rise is not uniform across the Antarctic, is having varied consequences for ice cap stability and biodiversity.

What to do? The governance of the Antarctic is so much more complicated than it once was in the 1950s. In the late 1950s, the Antarctic Treaty stood largely untroubled by other kinds of international legal entanglements. This is no longer the case. The Antarctic is ensnared in a complex mix of legal regimes involving terrestrial and marine environments. The Antarctic is no longer exceptional in that regard, and that troubles claimant states and even non-claimants such as the United States.

The good news is that all the parties working in the Antarctic accept that there should be no mineral exploitation. This ban is in place for at least three decades. There is no evidence that mining is coming any time soon. The Arctic is on the front line in that regard.

The bad news is two fold. Scientists worry that the Antarctic ice sheet  is being destabilized by ongoing climate change. This will have consequences for the region and the wider world. And political co-operation might be undermined if states and other stakeholders continue to make money from Antarctic related activities. No one agrees on the question “Who owns the Antarctic?” And that will remain the case for this century.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of a number of books including Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction (2007) and The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction (2012).

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Adelie penguin on Paulet Island, Antarctica. Photo by nailzchap, iStockphoto.
Antarctica map. Photo by 1905HKN, iStockphoto.

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