Nature and Science Preserve

No one owns or governs Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, sets aside the continent as a scientific preserve. It establishes freedom of scientific inquiry and bans military activity.

Forty-nine treaty nations currently engage in scientific research on the continent’s varied terrain. Although ice sheets cover 98% of Antarctica, the continent also contains glaciers, dry valleys, and volcanic mountains. International collaborations take place at research stations, including the United States’ McMurdo Station and the Russian Vostok Station.

Ice cores offer a view into the climate history of the planet. Long sections of ice, drilled from glaciers and ice sheets, contain tiny bubbles of air and sediment trapped over thousands of years. Scientists examine layers of ice, which reveal a 40% rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Heidi Roop, Ice Core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Core (WAIS)

Chris Linder, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica, November 29, 2009

The Protocol on Environmental Protection—added to the Treaty in 1991—bans all mineral exploration for fifty years. Antarctica offers a model of cooperation and preservation for the Arctic as nations begin oil drilling and mining on the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean.