Antarctic Governance

Antarctica is a continent shared by all of humanity, where peace, environmental protection, and scientific research are paramount.

Antarctica is governed collectively by a group of 54 nations under the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS).

There are many international conventions, agreements, and organizations, which also play an important role in Antarctic decision making.

Antarctic governance is always evolving. Read on to find out more.

ANTARCTIC Governance

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Antarctic Treaty

Treaty System


close up of emperor penguin chick


Map of Antarctic territorial claims_CIA wikimedia commons
Map of Antarctic territorial claims. Souce: CIA/ Wikimedia Commons


Antarctic governance

Antarctica was the last continent discovered by humans. Isolated for millennia by extreme cold and the wild Southern Ocean, humans first laid eyes on its icebound coastline in 1820. Since then, the question of who owns Antarctica has been a source of international interest. 

Early visitors reported abundant natural resources in the form of seals and whales. In the 19th century, lucrative industries sprung up around the subantarctic and the Antarctic Peninsula, exploiting seal pelts and whale blubber, and decimating their populations.

As the world became aware of the economic and geopolitical value of Antarctica, interest in the continent grew. By the mid-1900s, seven nations had made claims to sectors of Antarctic territory: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. These claims were not recognized by all nations. Some claims overlapped and began to be disputed, causing tension.

Researchers carefully extract ice core sample. Photo credit: Ted Scambos, NSIDC
Technicians working on an Antarctic ice core.
Technicians working on an Antarctic ice core. Photo credit: Marlo Garnsworthy / IODP

International Geophysical Year

Antarctic governance

From the 1940s, tension grew about the uncertain status of Antarctica. Several incidents, including the German capture of two Norwegian whaling ships in Antarctic waters in 1941, sparked international concern. By the 1950s, fears of militarization, nuclear testing and waste disposal in Antarctica grew amid the global instability caused by the Cold War.

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-58 was a turning point for Antarctica. The largest and most important international scientific effort ever undertaken at the time, the IGY involved 67 countries and over 4000 scientists. While the project was global, there was a focus on Antarctica’s role in the earth system, and researchers from 12 nations worked together to gain insights into the continent.

Image Credit: Tom Woolley Illustration/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

International Geophysical Year

Antarctic governance

Researchers in Antarctica made ground-breaking discoveries in the fields of glaciology, magnetism, meteorology, and land biology, demonstrating the importance of Antarctic research in understanding our planet. The IGY also demonstrated that by setting aside political barriers, we can accomplish ground-breaking scientific research in the most extreme environment on earth. 

The success of the IGY was transformative. The twelve nations* involved, seven of which had previously made claims to Antarctic territory, agreed to meet to secure a peaceful future for Antarctica. Discussions to negotiate a Treaty began immediately. The result of these discussions was the Antarctic Treaty, that set aside political differences, and put international collaboration and scientific research at its core.

*Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 


Antarctic Treaty Preamble

‘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.’

Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Ivanov L. and N.Ivanova.

The Antarctic Treaty

Antarctic governance

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington on 1 December 1959 by 12 nations: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It entered into force in 1961, and applies to the land and ice shelves south of 60°S.

The Treaty established Antarctica as a region free from military activity and encourages cooperation, peaceful conflict resolution and the exchange of scientific information between nations. It ushered in an era of unprecedented international cooperation in the realms of both Antarctic science and governance. 

Click here to read the original text.


The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty outlines the fundamental principles of Antarctic governance.


A continent for peace and science

Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty states that:

Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.

There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measures of a military nature . . . [except] for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose.

Image: An original copy of the Antarctic Treaty at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

sea ice drilling


Scientific research is front and center

Article II of the Antarctic Treaty states that: 

Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end, as applied during the International Geophysical Year, shall continue . . . 

Image credit: ©ACE CRC

extracting an ice core by Ted Scambos/NSIDC


International cooperation is necessary

Article III of the Antarctic Treaty states that: 

(a) information regarding plans for scientific programs in Antarctica shall be exchanged to permit maximum economy and efficiency of operations;
(b) scientific personnel shall be exchanged in Antarctica between expeditions and stations;
(c) scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.

Transparency and open collaboration are key

Article VII of the Antarctic Treaty states that: 

All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment within those areas, and all ships and aircraft . . .  shall be open at all times to inspection . . . 

Aerial observation may be carried out at any time over any or all areas of Antarctica . . .

Image courtesy of NSIDC/ Ted Scambos/ Rob Bauer.

Stability & Security

All disputes over territory are put aside for the life of the Treaty

Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty states that: 

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. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.

Nuclear activity is forbidden

Article V of the Antarctic Treaty states that: Any nuclear explosions in Antarctica and the disposal there of radioactive waste material shall be prohibited.

This commemorative stamp was issued by USAirmail in 1991 to honor the 30th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty being signed.
ATCM XLIV Plenary session Photo credit: Lena Ganssmann
ATCM XLIV Plenary session. Photo credit: Lena Ganssmann

Antarctic decision-making

Antarctic governance

Antarctic Treaty Parties meet annually at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs). Representatives from each country discuss issues facing Antarctica and share information about their recent Antarctic activities. They make consensus-based decisions on matters including scientific cooperation, field operations and environmental protection. When an issue needs to be discussed in greater depth, an Antarctic Treaty Meetings of Experts (ATME) may be called. 

How does the Treaty become law?

Antarctica is governed by international law under the Treaty system. Anyone who visits or works in Antarctica is subject to the laws of the Antarctic Treaty that have been ratified in their home country. For example, in the United States, the Antarctic Conservation Act and Permits contain laws relating to U.S citizens in Antarctica.

After Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, national representatives go home and ensure binding decisions become law in their home countries. These laws extend to citizens when they are in Antarctica. 

For example, Consultative Parties might designate a particular bay as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) or an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA). Anyone entering the area must hold a special permit. To ensure that this happens, Treaty Party representatives meet with local lawmakers in their home country to put measures such as legislation and laws in place, reflecting the new designation and permit requirements. This means that citizens who want to enter the newly protected area are required, by the law in their country, to adhere to the decision made by Antarctic Treaty Parties.

Antarctic research stations.
Antarctic research stations. Image credit: Teetaweepo/ Wikimedia Commons

The Treaty today

Antarctic governance

Over the past 50 years, the Antarctic Treaty has grown from 12 to 54 signatory nations. Any member of the United Nations can accede to the Treaty, and membership is still growing today.

Of the current members, 28 are Consultative Parties, a status gained by being an original signatory or by conducting significant research in Antarctica. Consultative Parties attend annual meetings and vote on decisions about the governance of Antarctica. 

The other 19 nations are Non-Consultative Parties. They attend annual meetings but can’t vote. If they demonstrate a significant investment in scientific research, they can move to Consultative Party status. You can see a full list of current Parties to the Treaty here

In the fulfillment of the IGY vision, today there are about 80 scientific bases across Antarctica, operated by around 30 different countries. Scientists of all nationalities work together, sharing resources and data to achieve the best research outcomes for everyone.


The Antarctic Treaty System

Since 1959, the Antarctic Treaty has evolved to respond to new issues facing the region. Today the Antarctic Treaty System includes the Treaty itself, plus three related agreements.


Antarctic Treaty System

The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty is the first pillar of the Antarctic Treaty System. Entering into force in 1961, the Treaty outlines the fundamental principles underlying Antarctic governance. It establishes Antarctica as a region free from military activity, where scientific collaboration and peaceful conflict resolution prevail.

Read the Antarctic Treaty.

Image: An original copy of the Antarctic Treaty at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

weddell seal underwater

The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS)

Adopted in 1972, CCAS established measures to conserve Antarctic seal populations. Although the Convention allows permit-holders to hunt seals commercially, this has not taken place in Antarctica for over 50 years.

Read about CCAS.

Antarctic krill

The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) 

Adopted in 1980, CCAMLR is responsible for the conservation of living marine resources in the Southern Ocean. 

While CCAMLR is charged with making decisions on fisheries regulation in the Southern Ocean, they have a mandate to take a precautionary, ecosystem-based approach, with conservation as the primary goal. 

Learn more about CCAMLR.


Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was agreed in 1991 and came into force in 1998. Also known as the Madrid Protocol, this document is responsible for securing Antarctica’s status as the greatest shared, protected wilderness on our planet.

The main purpose of the Protocol is to ensure that environmental protection is central to the planning and conduct of all activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. It identifies the Antarctic environment as a wilderness with intrinsic aesthetic and scientific value, which must be a “fundamental consideration” of all activities in the area.

It also bans all aspects of mineral and gas resource exploration and exploitation in Antarctica, provides guidelines for Environmental Impact Assessments for all activities, sets standards for the prevention of pollution on land and sea and prevents the dumping of waste from research bases into the Southern Ocean.

Read the Protocol

ASOC Campaigners protest the possibility of mining in Antarctica in front of the U. S. Department of State.

Environmental Protocol and the mining ban

Antarctic Governance

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty officially designates Antarctica as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science,’ and implements a ban on any ‘activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources, except for scientific research.’ This ban will remain in place indefinitely, however there is a provision that allows Parties to request a review of the Protocol in 2048.  

After this review it may be possible to amend any part of the Protocol, but there are strict requirements for doing so. Before any change could be made, it would have to be agreed by a majority of Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties, including three quarters of those that were Consultative Parties at the signing of the Protocol in 1991. 

ATCM XLIV Photo credit: Lena Ganssmann

Environmental Protocol and the mining ban

Antarctic Governance

For that change to come into force in international law, it would need to be ratified by three quarters of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties, including all that were Consultative Parties when the Protocol was originally signed. 

Even if Parties agreed to lift the prohibition on mining, mining could not occur until a comprehensive, binding legal regime on Antarctic mineral resource activities was in force. This is an extremely high bar to set, making it very unlikely that there will be any change to the Protocol in 2048. 


Related organizations

Several other agencies and international organizations support the Antarctic Treaty Parties in their work. These bodies may be asked to provide specialist advice to Antarctic Treaty Parties, or contribute expertise to Antarctic Treaty meetings and other related forums.

Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR)

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CCAMLR 2016 - by Bob Zuur

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tourist and penguin

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Emperor penguin and chicks

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ATCM XLIV Photo credit: Lena Ganssmann

ASOC in the ATS

Antarctic governance

As an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), ASOC is invited to attend and contribute to Antarctic governance meetings. We send delegations to submit science-based policy proposals on environmental issues, meet with government officials to represent the position of the Antarctic conservation community, and monitor official decisions. 

Although we do not cast votes, ASOC plays an important role in the consensus-based decision making process by providing governments with timely information on contentious issues to illustrate the need for urgent action.

Read more about our work.


International Agreements

In addition to the Antarctic Treaty System, there are several international conventions, agreements and organizations that play a role in Antarctic governance. Together, they contribute to how individual species are monitored and protected, and how certain industries and human activities are conducted and regulated in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

Southern Ocean Shipping

albatross in flight

Protecting Antarctic Wildlife

Vessel in ice

Southern Ocean Shipping

Antarctic governance

Each year hundreds of vessels sail the Southern Ocean in the service of Antarctic science, fisheries and tourism. Any incidents, oil spills, or dumping of waste in the Southern Ocean can have significant impacts on vulnerable polar ecosystems. 

Shipping in the Southern Ocean is particularly high-risk due to cold temperatures, powerful storms, and hazardous icebergs. Ships need to be ice-strengthened, and crews need special training to minimize the risk of accidents. Oil spills present a particular threat to polar waters as oil takes longer to dissipate in colder waters than warmer ones.

The Antarctic Treaty applies to the land and ice shelves south of 60°S. While CCAMLR is responsible for conserving and managing the entire Southern Ocean ecosystem, and Annex IV (Marine Pollution) of the Environmental Protocol contributes to the regulatory framework, international shipping and sea travel is regulated principally by the International Maritime Organization via flag state nations.

Participation in the International Maritime Organization as of 2014. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Allstar86

The IMO in Antarctica

Antarctic governance

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) responsible for the safety, security and environmental performance of shipping worldwide. The IMO has a mandate to regulate maritime issues under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Its main role is to create a regulatory framework for the shipping industry that is fair and effective, universally adopted and implemented, which results in a safe, secure, and efficient international shipping industry. 

Originally established to avoid human tragedies like the sinking of the Titanic, the IMO’s mission has expanded to include protection for the marine environment including oil spills, the discharge of ballast water, atmospheric pollution, and the management of  Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA) and the Polar Code. These regulations apply to the Arctic and the Southern Ocean.


International Maritime Conventions

There are several international maritime conventions relevant to shipping in the Southern Ocean.


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weddell seal in breathing hole

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Protecting Antarctic Wildlife

In addition to the instruments of the Antarctic Treaty System, there are several international conventions and agreements that contribute to the conservation of migratory species that visit Antarctica.

Humpback whale

International Whaling Commission (IWC)

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albatross in flight

Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels

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Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.

A global effort 

Antarctic Governance

As you can see, Antarctic governance is a truly global affair, with many groups and individuals around the world working together to protect Antarctica. There is also a growing, worldwide network of Antarctic enthusiasts and supporters advocating for its protection: people just like you. 

What happens in Antarctica affects us all, whether it’s through melting ice causing rising sea levels, changing ocean currents affecting global temperatures, or collapsing penguin colonies

No matter who you are or where you live, you can do something today to help protect Antarctica into the future. 

Now you’ve learned about Antarctic governance, read on to learn more about the important issues facing Antarctic decision-makers today.

Antarctic affairs


Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
Rally for Antarctica, May 2022. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp.
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