The Antarctic Conundrum: By Kevin Hughes


“The way the TCC looks at Antarctica is all wrong,” said one club member, “It’s just one place.” Or is it? Certainly, looking at a map or satellite image of the continent, it is only one place, but as usual it takes governments to screw things up.

As the world began the exploration of Antarctica in earnest, countries laid claim to the white continent until the claims looked like the slices of a pie, with three claims over-lapping the Antarctic Peninsula— so who’s territory was it really?

With the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in December 1959, the world got its answer: Nobody’s! No one is allowed to claim any territory in Antarctica so all the claims became null and void.

Countries were allowed to establish bases for scientific research anywhere on the continent— no mining rights and no nuclear materials were allowed, among other restrictions— but the now moot claims remained.

The TCC was established in 1954, well before the treaty was signed, when the political divisions were still bones of contention, so why not count them? As a result they were written into the TCC’s rules/guidelines.

In order to be considered part of Antarctica the territory must be South of 60 degrees South latitude. The only exceptions are:

The French sub-Antarctic Islands because the French lump their islands together with Terre Adelie Land (their very narrow slice of the Antarctic “pie”) to form what they call “The French Southern and Antarctic Territory.”

Macquarie Island (Australia) which lies North of 60 degrees South, but is administered by the Australian Antarctic Division, so a similar situation applies as with the French.

Bouvet I. which is North of 60 degrees South but was included in their Antarctic territory by royal decree.

The most controversial, however, is the continental Norwegian Antarctic territory, Queen Maud Land, because when the King of Norway claimed it by royal biland (decree) in 1939, he stated that the southernmost and northernmost boundaries of the territory were not defined. The South Pole is a defined point so it cannot extend all the way to the Pole.

In reply to my letter asking for a clarification, then Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S., Knut Vollebaek, said, “I would certainly not object if you or other members of the Travelers’ Century Club after having walked around the South Pole, claim to have set foot in Queen Maud Land”—a very nice way of telling us, in diplomatic language, that they don’t care what we do, without settling the issue. One thing is sure: No one in the Norwegian government is in a hurry to undo an historic royal biland, so don’t look for anything to change.

Going to the Pole is an achievement, to be sure, so you can say “I’ve been there,” but the real history, nature and beauty is along the coast. “Ticking them off ” is not nearly as great as the sheer glory of the experience.