In 1939, the Nazis flew planes over Antarctica, firing spears from the air emblazoned with swastikas, which punched into the ice, marking their territory. They also planted flags along the coast. Their goal was to establish New Swabia, a German territory on the ice, to be a source of whale oil and other resources. (The Nazis never likely built a secret bunker there, despite rumors to the contrary.)
They weren’t the only ones. The whole history of Antarctica is one of exploration, soft power, and on a deeper level, conquest. Beneath the ice in Eastern Antarctica is a continent roughly the size of Australia (itself roughly the size of the United States), with all the resources one could want. Which means when the system of Antarctic treaties lapses in 2048, depending on the state of the climate and the ice on top of all that land, a New New World might suddenly open up. Countries are going to want a piece of it.
Here is a little history of Antarctic exploration—which might just be a preview for the decades to come.
MAPS BEFORE SATELLITES
It is hard to say who, exactly discovered Antarctica because first you have to define “Antarctica,” and second, you have to define “discover.” No less than Aristotle postulated the existence of a southern analogue to the continents of the northern hemisphere, believing the “Arktos” needed a balance—an “Ant Arktos.” In the 1520s, Magellan was quite certain such a land existed, believing, indeed, that the islands south of the Strait of Magellan were part of that mysterious mainland. He called it “Terra australis recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita,” or “Southern land recently discovered but not yet fully known.”
Cartographers believed such a land might connect South America to New Guinea (which is near Indonesia). Explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós claimed all of it for Spain, though then as now, claiming land you cannot defend is as meaningless as claiming to own the moon.
SO WHO DISCOVERED ANTARCTICA?
Famed British explorer James Cook came closest in 1774—a mere 80 miles from the continent, though sea ice blocked his way. He wrote: “I firmly believe that there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the Source of most of the ice which is spread over this vast Southern Ocean,” adding, “The risk one runs in exploring a coast in these unknown and Icy Seas, is so very great, that I can be bold to say, that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored.”
In 1820, two Russian explorers, a British explorer, and an American explorer each claimed to have sighted the continent. Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, captain of the Russian ship the Vostok, was likely the first to see Antarctica. But it was an American explorer, John Davis, who first set foot on Antarctica, in 1821. During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, explorers from around the world raced to become the first man to reach the South Pole, most prominent being Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton. Amundsen won the race. (When Scott got there less than a month later, he found a note waiting from Amundsen. In dismay, Scott wrote in his diary, “Great God! This is an awful place.”
(I have been to Antarctica multiple times. Scott was not wrong.)
WHO OWNS WHAT NOW?
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration formed the basis of many of the claims to the continent today. At the end of the day, though, might makes right. Who owns Antarctica? Ultimately, it will be the country that rolls its tanks across its newly exposed soil.
In 1946, with World War II ended, the United States sent 13 Naval vessels and 5,000 soldiers to build bases on Antarctica. Operation Highjump, as it was called, was very publicly not at all a play at laying claim to Antarctica, but in practice was a flexing of American might. Within ten years, the U.S. had laid claim to the most prestigious spot on the continent: the South Pole, and has had ongoing military resupply, station construction, and geophysical operations on the continent.
Basically: “Here is our Navy and Air Force, which we parked here with little effort, and we are going to build enormous stations on the most important places in Antarctica. We don’t claim to own this place, but everybody take a good look.” (The South Pole is incredibly important for ICBM targeting.)
A LOT OF LAND, A LOT OF AMBIGUITY
Despite the unpleasant origins of the German slice of Antarctica—even during the Nazi regime, the Germans never made a formal claim on the land—the Germans maintain a research station in formerly-known-as-New-Swabia, which is also part of the million square miles of Antarctica claimed by the Norwegians. (That’s about the size of Texas and Alaska combined.) The Germans do not recognize anyone’s claims of Antarctica sovereignty. They are not worried about Norway’s feelings on the matter.
Indeed, almost nobody is.
Australia acquired its massive slice of the ice—a full 40% of Antarctica (and the good part, too, in the East)—in 1933. At the time, Australia and New Zealand were part of the British Dominion. The three countries worked jointly to explore Eastern Antarctica from 1929 through 1931, with the understanding that Britain would hand over administration of the continent to Australia on its completion. This was a pretty good deal for everyone, as Australia was part of the new British Commonwealth under King George V, and the handoff kept the Antarctic territory “in the family” while also offloading the expense of administering it to Australia.
It was about more than owning a lot of ice. This was also about whaling rights in territorial waters, and consolidating British sovereign rights in the southernmost continent, which prevented the Norwegians (who also claimed a big piece of the pie) from doing the same.
ANTARCTICA IS SAFE… FOR NOW
Today, seven countries claim to own territory in Antarctica: Australia, Norway, New Zealand, Argentine, Chile, France, and the United Kingdom.
Interestingly, only five countries recognize those claims: Australia, Norway, New Zealand, France, and the United Kingdom. (Chile and Argentina do not recognize anyone else’s claims, because their claims overlap, and also overlap with those of the United Kingdom.)
If you ignore these claims, as the rest of the world does, it means the whole place is fair game. Indeed, though the Antarctic Treaty forbids the establishment of new claims on Antarctic territory, the United States and Russia object to that restriction, and once the treaty comes up for renegotiation, it is hard to see the issue not causing problems. This is particularly so because China, another treaty signatory, has aggressively positioned its research stations in Antarctica as a way of establishing a claim over territory owned by Australia.
THE WAR FOR ANTARCTICA
International agreements essentially restrict the exploration of Antarctica to scientific purposes. If pushed, however, Australia would need to defend their territory or step aside. And quite a lot of territory it is. Because neither they nor anyone else is fortified on the ice, claiming land would mean open warfare unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. (The United States most closely approximates fortification at McMurdo Station, the largest base in Antarctica. Some of you reading this might even work there!)
The Antarctic Treaty specifically forbids new claims on the continent. Once the treaty runs out, however, the deck will be reshuffled. All the minerals found elsewhere in the world can be found in Antarctica, from gold and palladium to lithium and uranium. Fishing rights in Antarctic waters, highly restricted as a result of Antarctic treaties, are immeasurably valuable. And all this is to say nothing about oil: There is likely as much oil beneath Antarctica as there is beneath Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the ice in places continues to recede. Maybe it will recover, and maybe it won’t. The point is, we are 26 years from a New New World. When Columbus discovered America, warfare in Europe only intensified and spread to the new land. There is no reason to think the same won’t happen again. To borrow a phrase, “He who controls the ice will control the universe.”