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Research / Discovery

Peace, science, and shared sovereignty in Antarctica

October 12, 2009

Adrian Howkins, who joined the history department in 2008 to teach international environmental history, is studying the sovereignty dispute that took place from 1939 to 1959 between Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile in the Peninsula region of Antarctica.

Competition to arrive first at South Pole

Antarctica was first seen by humans around 1820, with Great Britain, the United States, and Russia each claiming credit for its discovery.

The continent came to the world’s attention during the so-called “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century, as explorers competed to become the first to arrive at the South Pole.

Melting ice, international attention

Today, the central role of Antarctica in the global climate system is again bringing the southern continent to the attention of the international community, as melting ice in Antarctica has the potential to raise sea levels around the world.

Adrian Howkins, who joined the history department in 2008 to teach international environmental history, is studying the sovereignty dispute that took place from 1939 to 1959 between Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile in the Peninsula region of Antarctica. On several occasions, the dispute threatened to turn violent.

The British argued that only they had the scientific knowledge and administrative experience to manage the Antarctic whaling industry in a sustainable manner. The Argentines and Chileans claimed the Andes Mountains continued beneath the Drake Passage to re-emerge in the Antarctic Peninsula as the “Antarcandes,” thereby physically connecting this region with South America.

Continent internationalized around peace, science

The active period of the dispute came to an end in 1959, when 12 nations negotiated the Antarctic Treaty. This treaty suspended the question of sovereignty for its duration, effectively internationalizing the continent around the ideals of peace and science. It is often cited as one of the world’s most successful and innovative international treaties.

Howkins suggests that Antarctica offers an excellent location for thinking about the history of human interaction with the natural world.

Fragility of the Antarctic environment

“Less than 100 years ago, during the heroic era of exploration, Antarctica was seen as an almost impenetrable wilderness. Today, it is the fragility of the Antarctic environment and its vulnerability to climate change that often gets most attention. With the addition of the 1991 Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, the Antarctic continent has arguably become the most protected environment anywhere in the world.”

Historical archives around the world

To date, Howkins’ research has taken him to historical archives around the world, including:

  • England
  • Argentina
  • Chile
  • Falkland Islands
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Columbus, Ohio (location of the Byrd Polar Research Institute)

2,000 people, half a million sheep

The most memorable, according to Howkins, is the Falkland Islands archive in Stanley, “with a permanent population of around 2,000 people and half a million sheep.”

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Original story published in the Fall 2009 College of Liberal Arts Newsletter.