What is the Antarctic Treaty System of 1959?

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

While you may know that Antarctica is the home to adorable penguins and cold temperatures, it's also a popular place for scientific research. This lesson explains the Antarctic Treaty System of 1959 that allows countries to conduct research.


How much do you know about the continent of Antarctica? Located at the relative bottom of planet Earth, the continent is nearly one and a half times the size of the United States. If you've ever seen March of the Penguins, you know that Antarctica is filled with all sorts of amazing wildlife. It's also super cold there! During Antarctica's summer (December through February), temperatures hover around 32° Fahrenheit. The winter, however, is much colder. Depending on where you are on the continent, the temperatures can range anywhere from 14° to -76° Fahrenheit. Talk about frigid temperatures!

Antarctic Treaty System of 1959

Unlike continents like North America, Europe, or Asia, Antarctica does not have a native population of its own. The place is just way too cold! As a result, Antarctica does not have its own government. Despite this fact, many different countries have explored and claimed parts of Antarctica as their own.

In 1959, a group of 12 countries met in Washington, DC to discuss the freezing continent. Even though seven of the 12 countries had some sort of territorial claim to the region, the countries agreed that there needed to be international regulation for the use of Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty System did not recognize, endorse, or validate any of the claims the signing countries may have had. So what was the point of the treaty? The countries wanted to keep Antarctica a peaceful place where researchers could study and perform scientific experiments.

Provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System

One of the most important provisions of the treaty states: 'Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.' As a result of the treaty, the 12 countries agreed to keep Antarctica a demilitarized zone; no country could build or maintain military bases, perform any sort of military operation, or test weapons in Antarctica. The countries also agreed that they would not dump any nuclear or radioactive waste on the continent as a byproduct of nuclear testing somewhere else. The original 12 signatories included:

  • the United States
  • the Soviet Union
  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Great Britain
  • Chile
  • France
  • Japan
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • South Africa

In addition to the demilitarization provisions, the Antarctic Treaty System also stated that countries were allowed to establish research facilities and explore and study freely on the continent. Countries are also encouraged to share their research findings with one another.

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