Antarctica: an exceptional continent

Antarctica covers an area of 14 million km² and is the coldest landmass on earth. In the Antarctic polar circle, average temperatures range from 0°C in summer (December-January) to between -20C and -30°C in winter. On the ice sheet (the continental glacier), average temperatures fall to -40°C in summer and -70°C in winter, and a record low of -89.7°C was recorded at Russia’s Vostok Station. Unlike in the Arctic, there are not many permanent ice shelves in Antarctica (except for in the Ross and Weddell Seas, which contain a portion of permanent ice). A seasonal ice shelf of 20 to 21 million km2 forms in winter but melts in summer. Antarctica’s ice sheet is very thick, ranging from 1,300 metres in the west and 2,200 metres in the east.

The effects of climate change have started to be seen in Antarctica
and especially in the Antarctic Peninsula, off the southern tip of South America. One example is the 5,800 km² iceberg which broke off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in July 2017. The same thing could happen to other glaciers and they are being monitored closely by the scientific community.

The Antarctica is also the continent with the highest average altitude (over 2,300 metres). Its glaciers are at times as high as 4,000 metres about sea level. Antarctica experiences very violent winds blowing from its centre to its coasts. A record of 320 km per hour winds was recorded at France’s Dumont d’Urville Station.
These very tough conditions explain why people have never lived all Fyear round on Antarctica, where only 2% of the land is not covered in ice. Only 2,000 scientists spend the winter in Antarctica every year, while in summers there are approximately 10,000 people. People rarely stay more than a season (six months).

Some history

Exploration of the region really began in 1675 when the Brit Anthony de la Roche made it to South Georgia, the first subantarctic territory ever discovered.
In the 18th century, explorers sailed to latitudes farther and farther south: 52°S in 1699 (Edmond Halley), 61°30’S in 1720 (George Shelvocke), 71°10’S in 1774 (James Cook). France actively participated in the exploration of subantarctic regions, discovering the Bouvet (1739, Jean-Baptiste Bouvet), Marion, Prince Edward, Crozet (1772, Marion-Dufresne) and Kerguelen (Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen) islands.

In 1773-1774, the British explorer James Cook unknowingly conducted the first circumnavigation of Antarctica. In 1820, the Russian Fabian von Bellingshausen was the first to see the continent on which the American John Davis would be the first to step foot in 1821.

In 1840, the French Admiral Jules Dumont d’Urville was the first to step foot on West Antarctica, where he claimed Adélie Land for France.

After a break from 1843 to 1872, exploration resumed. Antarctica’s coast was recognized and its interior started to be explored. The culmination of these efforts occurred on 14 December 1911 when the South Pole was discovered by Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

France continued to participate in exploration with the expeditions of Commander Charcot from 1903 to 1910. This better understanding of the continent led seven States to claim territories there: the United Kingdom (1908), New Zealand (1923), France (confirmation in 1924 of the claim of 1840), Australia (1933), Norway (1939), Argentina (1939) and Chile (1940).

After the First World War, continuously improved equipment made it possible to collect even more information about Antarctica leading, from 1943, to the building of permanent scientific stations. From 1950 to 1956, France built several stations in Adélie Land, including the Dumont d’Urville Station, which is still in operation today.

A continent with a unique legal status

The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington on 1 December 1959 by twelve States – including France – whose scientists had been active in the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). Among the twelve original signatory States there are seven States (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) which made territorial claims in Antarctica before the signature of the Treaty in 1959.

The Antarctic Treaty entered into force on 23 June 1961. In 2021, there are a total of 54 States Parties to the Treaty: 29 Consultative Parties, which may take part in decision-making (Article IX.2 of the Antarctic Treaty gives them this status because of the importance of their scientific research activities in Antarctica) and 25 Non-Consultative Parties.

The States Parties meet every year at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM)
, a diplomatic conference which oversees activities conducted in the 60th parallel south. The Legal Affairs Directorate of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs heads the French delegation at the ATCM (which also includes representatives from the Ministry of the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, the Administration of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, the French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, CNRS).

Important Provisions

The provisions of the Antarctic Treaty apply to the region south of 60 degrees latitude. The Treaty sets forth the following four main principles:

  • Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. The Treaty expressly prohibits the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons (Article I);
  • Any nuclear explosions in Antarctica and the disposal there of radioactive waste material shall be prohibited (Article V);
  • Freedom of scientific investigation and promotion of international scientific cooperation in Antarctica. The Treaty promotes the exchange of scientific personnel between expeditions and stations and sets forth the principle of freely available results of investigations (Articles II and III);
  • Establishment of a status quo regarding territorial claims on all or a part of the continent (Article IV). The Treaty recognizes both the existence and the challenging of these claims. Since that time, the sensitive issue of sovereignties was removed from the debate of States interested in Antarctica and it was possible to focus on scientific and environmental issues.

It is important to point out that to promote the objectives and ensure compliance of its provisions, the Treaty provides that “All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment within those areas (…) shall be open at all times to inspection (Article VII).

Protection of Antarctica’s environment

Since the entry into force of the Antarctic Treaty in 1961, two international agreements have been concluded to shore up the protection of Antarctica’s environment and ecosystems:

In 1989, France and Australia took the initiative to invite the Consultative Parties to the Treaty to open negotiations resulting in the adoption on 4 October 1991 of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, known as the Madrid Protocol. This Protocol entered into force on 14 January 1988 and supplements the Treaty designating Antarctica as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science” where mining is prohibited – an obligation which has always been strictly adhered to since then. It also prohibits any degradation of the environment and imposes that any activity in the region be preceded by an environmental impact study.

The Protocol also created a Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), on which experts from State Parties sit, to provide scientific and environmental expertise to the ATCM.

Although people think that the Treaty and its Protocol shall only apply for 50 years, these two texts have no set duration. This common misconception stems from the fact that the Protocol’s amendment procedure is to change 50 years after its entry into force (in 2048). This will not however change States’ obligations, and the amendment rules that will apply after 2048 will only produce a very relative easing because of the decision-making mechanism based on consensus.

The international system established since 1959 to protect Antarctica has proven to be very effective. The Treaty and its Protocol as well as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources have established robust international cooperation, which has made Antarctica’s environment into a sanctuary, curbed illicit fishing, and created an international legal framework which strictly regulates activities conducted in the region.

These positive outcomes however must not distract from the fact that challenges remain, the first one being the rapid development of tourism, which, if not better regulated, could threaten the equilibrium of the continent’s ecosystems in the future. France is very active in the ATCM and the CCAMLR when it comes to shoring up the protection of Antarctica’s environment, stopping illicit fishing and regulating the development of tourism.

The protection of the Antarctic environment requires strict monitoring of economic activities

Certain economic activities are therefore prohibited:

Seal hunting

The Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Seals, adopted in London on 1 June 1972, prohibits the hunting of the six main species of Antarctic seals which had been hunted up until that time in the Southern Ocean.


The creation of the International Whaling Commission in 1946 and its adoption of a moratorium on the hunting of these cetaceans in 1982 (in force since 1986) have today limited whaling to very small amounts by indigenous people (in the Artic and Caribbean especially) and by certain countries to which whaling is important. This system was supplemented in 1994 by an Antarctic whale sanctuary where commercial whaling is prohibited.


The Madrid Protocol states that “Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited” in Antarctica. This prohibits the mining of minerals, gas, oil and ice from freshwater south of the 60th parallel in the sea or on land. Adopted on 4 October 1991, the Protocol entered into force on 14 January 1998. This prohibition has always been respected by its States Parties and generally speaking, no activity of this type has been observed in the region.

Activities in Antarctica are strictly regulated:

Only fishing and tourism are authorized and conducted in the Antarctic Treaty area (60th parallel south). These activities are strictly regulated.


The CCAMLR was created to control the fishing of krill, which constitutes a very important step in the local food chain. The measures adopted since have restricted this fishing. Toothfish fishing has developed since the beginning of this century in certain areas off the coast of this continent, particularly in the Ross Sea, under the strict oversight of the Commission. France is the leading country when it comes to toothfish fishing but this fishing is done far off the coast under French jurisdiction of the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands. Measures concerning fishing in the French exclusive economic zones (EEZ) are submitted every year to the CCAMLR Scientific Committee.

To ensure sustainable, environmentally friendly fishing in Antarctica, France, with the many partner States within CCAMLR, seeks to:

  • Better fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) in the region (notably by seeking new means of monitoring);
  • Better regulate the volume of fishing (by systematically acting on scientists’ recommendations on the evolution of fish stocks) and fishing practices to ensure better protection of Antarctica’s environment and ecosystems. Scientists from the National Museum of Natural History conduct considerable research in this regard;
  • Create a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA). Supporting all of the MPA projects of recent years at CCAMLR, France is particularly active with its European Union and Australian partners regarding the proposal for creating a MPA in East Antarctica. This proposal that interests several French ministries (foreign, ecological transition) is supported at the highest level of government.


Tourism in Antarctica has been growing significantly since the 1960s and the emergence of commercial expeditions in the region. More than 55,000 tourists visited Antarctica in the 2018-2019 season versus an estimated 9,000 in the 1995-1996 season. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to slow this progression for the 2020-2021 season.

This tourism is concentrated on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is easier to access (from the southern tip of South America), and consists in activities by air (overflights of Antarctic regions), by sea (visits of private individuals in sailboats to cruise ships) and on land (short visits, long expeditions, sports, etc.).

Tourism is a source of concern for Parties to the Antarctic Treaty because of the risks it generates for people’s safety (far distance from emergency health services, limited radio coverage, tough climate), for the environment (waste, disruption of animal and plant habitats, introduction of non-native species) and scientific research (disruption of the operation of scientific equipment, malicious acts, etc.).

The French delegation is working hard in the ATCM to achieve better regulation of tourist activities in Antarctica.
It leads work in the two ATCM working groups to better regulate tourist activities in Antarctica including the writing of a guide with all the rules for tourism and non-governmental activities in Antarctica and discussion on establishing a mechanism for governmental observers boarding cruise ships operating in the Antarctic Treaty area.

In addition, it is important to recall that every State Party is responsible for ensuring compliance with the Treaty. States are responsible for issuing the authorizations required for going to Antarctica and monitoring compliance with regulations. The administration of French Southern and Antarctic Territories or “competent national authority” vigilantly ensures this role for France.

January 2021