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50 Years Later, Antarctic Treaty Still Holds

On Dec. 1, 1959, after more than a year of secret negotiations, 12 nations signed a document that dedicated 10 percent of the Earth's surface — the continent of Antarctica — to peaceful activities.
/ Source: OurAmazingPlanet

On Dec. 1, 1959, after more than a year of secret negotiations, 12 nations signed a document that dedicated 10 percent of the Earth's surface — the continent of Antarctica — to peaceful activities.

The Antarctic Treaty, signed in Washington, D.C., 51 years ago, was drawn up in four languages — English, French, Spanish and, perhaps most surprising, Russian.

The treaty resulted in Antarctica remaining a relatively pristine area where scientists could study glaciers, the extreme environment and its unique biota.

Cold War breakthrough

It was the height of the Cold War, and President Eisenhower, going against the wishes of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought the Soviets to the table to set up what was not only a landmark development for international scientific cooperation, but also, in essence, the world's first nuclear arms agreement, said Paul Berkman, head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Program at Cambridge University in England.

Berkman said Eisenhower saw the Antarctic Treaty as an opportunity for diplomacy through science, since negotiations with the Soviet Union had proved fruitless through other avenues.

"Eisenhower was a very unusual president," Berkman told OurAmazingPlanet. A commander of Allied forces during World War II, "he knew firsthand the horrors of war, and made it his passion to focus on issues of peace during his administration and for the rest of his life."

Partly due to Eisenhower's vision for a peaceful future, the treaty prohibited military bases, military exercises and weapons testing in Antarctica, and also established an inspections regime to ensure parties stuck by the demilitarization agreements.

In addition, the treaty established scientific pursuits as a priority on the continent, and encouraged the exchange of ideas and information among nations conducting research there.

In the years leading up to the treaty, American and Soviet scientists had shared quarters at research stations set up by the feuding countries.

All together, a dozen nations — Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States — were conducting research in Antarctica, sometimes jointly.

Many nations still keep researcher stations on the frigid continent and work jointly to study Antarctica's ice, oceans, geology and biology. At the U.S. McMurdo Station, more than 1,000 scientists gather each summer to do research.

"These matters of common interest are in contrast to matters of national interest," Berkman said. In a sense, the Antarctic Treaty began the process in our civilization of balancing the two sometimes competing interests, Berkman said.

Long-term success

Forty-eight nations have now signed the treaty.

Remarkably, the treaty remains little changed from its 14 original articles. "Those 14 articles were sufficient to carve out a flexible and strong foundation for the world to effectively respond to virtually every challenge that has been thrown at the Antarctic," Berkman said.

The long-term success of the treaty may offer hope in light of some similar arguments going on now about the New START treaty (New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia, Berkman added.

"The discussion was very similar to the discussions the U.S. is having today," Berkman said.

Although the treaty solved many problems for Antarctica, challenges remain, among them burgeoning commercial interest in the area, managing increasing tourism and development, and climate change.

"It illustrates the bigger challenge we have as a civilization and that's understanding the concept of time," Berkman said. "Most of the decision-making is done on an electoral cycle, but the types of problems we need to address and solve as a civilization require that we look decades — even centuries — into the future."

Reach Andrea Mustain at Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.