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Claiming Antarctica

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This post was written by Lesley Anderson, 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Map of Antarctica documenting which part of Antarctica have been claimed by specific countries.
Antarctica, research stations and territorial claims. United States Central Intelligence Agency, 1984

Have you ever wondered who owns Antarctica? Who is allowed to visit? What scientific research and exploration occurs on the southernmost continent? Presenting students with two maps can help them understand that both geo-political and scientific interests complicate the question.

First introduce this map to your students without the title and instruct them to observe closely to see if they can deduce what part of the globe this map represents. Once students determine that this is a map of Antarctica, encourage them to ask questions. For example:

  • How big is Antarctica?
  • Why do the latitudinal and longitudinal lines look different on this map compared to other maps of the world?
  • What do each of the pieces of the pie represent on this map?

Students may work alone or with a partner to write down their questions and observations or the teacher can record them for the class.

Next, pair students with a partner and ask them to discuss what they notice in the research map and how it compares to the Antarctic Treaty Map. Students may wonder:

Map indicating which countries are Antarctic treaty consultative nations" and "Antarctic treaty acceding nations.
Antarctic treaty signatories. United States Central Intelligence Agency, 1984
  • Why do some countries have research stations, but no claims on the continent?
  • Why are there areas with overlapping claims, areas with undefined limits, and areas with no claims at all?
  • What is a claim and do other countries need permission to access their research stations in claimed territories?
  • Who governs the continent of Antarctica?

Ask students to reflect on the geographic location of various research stations and the type of polar science being conducted in each. Encourage students to think about the different biomes and ecosystems that make up the continent and how this affects specific research projects. In groups, students could brainstorm what type of research they predict would occur at each station, considering things like geographic region of the continent and research station nationality.

For example, in a life science classroom, students may consider why many more research stations on the Antarctic Peninsula study wildlife compared to research stations in the polar plateau that are geographically uninhabitable for most wildlife species. Students may create their own map that identifies Antarctic habitats.

In a physical science classroom, students might think about why an astrophysics research project like the IceCube Neutrino Observatory is strategically located at the South Pole despite the challenges of assembling this station at the center of a massive icy continent. This could be a great hook for students to become engaged with learning about subatomic particle physics.

In an interdisciplinary course, students might engage in a Model United Nations simulation about climate change and resource acquisitions in Antarctica. Students may research related topics such as:

  • How do a “claim” and a “designated zone of interest” differ?
  • How do countries designate a “claim” and achieve recognition from other countries?
  • Why is the CIA the contributor of these documents and what implications can these maps have on foreign policy?

There are many other ways to engage students with these primary resources – let us know what you try in your classroom!

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for sharing these resources. So few of us get to see Antarctica, but it is a wonderful example of international cooperation.

  2. Thank you for this excellent post and wonderful suggested questions for students to consider about Antarctica. This post brings me back to an entire course focused on Antarctica that I took as an undergrad at American University in the early 1990s – taught by the esteemed professor Dr. Jack Child. We learned so much about international cooperation, diplomacy, geopolitics, negotiation, etc., doing role play exercises and other hands-on activities.

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