Who owns Antarctica?

In this learning sequence, students conduct an inquiry into factors or events that have influenced Australia’s connection to Antarctica. Discover Australia’s involvement in the early exploration of the Antarctic region. Find out which countries have laid claim to Antarctica and what treaty is in place to protect Antarctica. Research the history of Australia’s Antarctic bases and their role in scientific study of Antarctica. Use ‘what if’ scenarios to consider potential threats to Antarctica if the treaty was ignored. Through the inquiry learn about Australia’s role in the care and protection of Antarctica and its connection to other countries.

Setting the scene

Australia and Antarctica

Pose the enquiry question: What factors or events have influenced Australia’s connection to Antarctica?

Prompt student thinking by posing the following questions:

  • What industries where important to colonial Australia around the 1800s? How were these industries linked to the Antarctic region? What role did they play in the discovery of Antarctica?
  • How might Hobart’s location be important in relation to exploring Antarctica?
  • When and why did Australia organise its first expedition to Antarctica?
  • What claim has Australia made on the continent of Antarctica?
  • What is Australia’s current connection with Antarctica?

At this stage, ask students to record their ideas without referring to any reference material. Use this task to access student prior knowledge. Ask students to brainstorm their ideas and record them using a bubble or mind map graphic organiser. Keep their initial brainstorm and use it to compare and reflect on their learning at the end of the sequence of learning.

Early Antarctic explorers

Explain that prior to 1910 much of Antarctica was undiscovered and was mostly unmapped.

View a historical map of the Antarctic land discoveries preceding the year 1910.

Provide a list of Early Antarctic explorers that includes Captain James Weddell, Captain John Davis, Roald Amundsen, Ernest H. Shackleton, Otto Nordenskjöld, Jules-Sebastian Dumont d'Urville, Robert F. Scott and Douglas Mawson.

Ask students to write some key points about what they recall about any of these explorers (without using any reference material).

Organise students to work in collaborative groups to research one explorer. Ask each group to create 2–3 presentation slides to summarise their chosen explorer’s contribution to exploration of the Antarctic. Information of interest includes country of origin, historical dates, achievements, challenges and tragedies. Each group presents their slides to the class.

Discuss the influence:

  • sealing and whaling had on the exploration of Antarctica
  • these expeditions may have had on developing Australia’s connection with Antarctica.

Explore and research

Who owns Antarctica?

Discuss which countries might ‘own’ areas of Antarctica. Conduct a straw poll of countries that may have laid claim to Antarctica.

View a blank world map [PDF].

Ask students to suggest reasons why one country may have more of a claim over Antarctica than another.

Explain that Australia is among seven nations which have claimed territory in Antarctica. The other claimant nations are Argentina, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Locate these countries on the world map. Discuss what students know about them.

Discuss the proximity of these countries to Antarctica and/or their involvement in Antarctic exploration. On a blank map of Antarctica [PDF] predict the areas these countries may have claimed.

Compare the class prediction to the actual claims. Provide a copy of the map Antarctic territorial claims [PDF].

Provide a copy of the map showing Antarctic wintering stations [PDF].

Ask students to use BOLTS (Border, Orientation, Legend, Title and Scale) mapping conventions to draw a map that shows the territory claims and the site of the scientific research stations. Provide students with a copy of the blank map of Antarctica [PDF]. Note placement of the sites will be highly approximated.

Discuss possible reasons for the location of the research stations.

History of Australian stations

Australia has three scientific stations in Antarctica: Mawson, Casey and Davis. Macquarie Island is a sub-Antarctic station.

Ask students to research the history of Mawson, Casey, Davis and Macquarie Island stations. Provide students access to the website section Australian Antarctic stations.

Organise students in collaborative groups to research one station in detail. Develop a list of agreed categories on which to report for example:

  • naming of the station
  • first discovery
  • date of building
  • important people
  • reason for setting up the station
  • Australia’s involvement
  • other countries’ involvement.

Agree on a suitable format to present their findings back to the class.

Antarctic Treaty

Explain that activities in Antarctica and its surrounding seas are governed by a unique agreement between nations: The Antarctic Treaty. Signed in 1959 it was designed to provide an agreement for the future care and use of Antarctica, as well as avoid territorial and other disputes.

View the video on this page, about the Madrid Protocol, which was signed in 1991 and is the framework for protecting the Antarctic environment.

For background information, refer to the Antarctic Treaty System.

Ask students to describe Australia’s role and responsibilities as one of the Antarctic Treaty parties.

Explain and share

Is Antarctica in safe hands?

Pose the question: ‘Is Antarctica in safe hands?’

Ask students in pairs to consider the information they have gained so far in their inquiry. Do they think Antarctica is being managed well or is there cause for concern? To support their claims record a list of positives and negatives as a way to correlate their understandings.

Allow students to conduct further research to answer the question. Encourage them to list any questions that have arisen but are yet to be answered.

Ask students to consider conservation of wildlife, protection of the environment, threats and challenges facing Antarctica and what is currently being done.

Encourage students to support any claims they have with evidence.

Discuss the role Australia has played so far in the care and protection of Antarctica. Refer to the videos on the following web pages:

Evaluate and apply

Threats to Antarctica

The long term survival of wildlife in Antarctica is threatened by human activity.

Brainstorm potential threats such as:

  • over fishing or commercial fishing related disturbances
  • habitat degradation
  • environmental changes that affect feeding grounds
  • increased tourism in the Antarctic region.

Challenge the students to consider a ‘what if’ scenario to consider the potential impact of human activity on the Antarctic environment and wildlife.

Consider what would happen if the treaty that promotes care and protection of the Antarctic were to be ignored by certain countries. Think about the impact of illegal fishing or illegal whaling, sealing or harvesting penguins for oil. How might it affect the health of these populations? How might it also affect other species? What about a rise in tourism to isolated areas that have fragile ecosystems? What would happen if accommodation was built in Antarctica to address the increased demand for tourism?

Ask students in pairs to choose an issue to investigate further. Choose a ‘what if’ scenario to explain the effects of not managing this type of issue.

Relevant sections of the AAD website include:

After students have presented their ‘what if’ scenarios discuss the value of the Antarctic Treaty.


Australia’s role in Antarctica

Revisit the inquiry question: What factors or events have influenced Australia’s connection to Antarctica?

Provide the opportunity for students to review and update their initial brainstorm of ideas. Ask them to write new information in a different colour to distinguish new ideas from initial ideas. Support students to reflect on their learning and identify some key understandings.

Use their updated bubble or mind map to create a poster or slide presentation about what Antarctica means to Australia and describe Australia’s involvement in Antarctica. In their presentation students should include:

  • an historical perspective
  • Australia’s connection with other countries
  • Australia’s claim to Antarctica
  • agreements and treaties
  • current and future issues.

Share completed presentations with the class.

Unclaimed Antarctica

Present the hypothetical scenario that a country is making a claim for the portion of unclaimed Antarctica. Refer again to the map of National claims to Antarctic Territory [PDF]. Identify the portion that is unclaimed.

As a class estimate the percentage portion to which each country has laid claim. This can be approximate and take into consideration that some areas overlap. Discuss that regardless of claim size, each country has equal voting power and decision making, and that some countries do not recognise others’ claims.

Have students research the treaty partners. In collaborative groups they select a treaty partner that does not have a claim on Antarctica, and then develop a proposal for their slice of Antarctica. In their proposal they should include:

  • a justification for their claim
  • a description of what they will do with the area
  • how they would work with the seven other countries who already have a claim.

Share the ideas and look at which countries were selected and why.

Discuss what would happen if a country did lay claim to this area and then began mining or drilling for oil and gas. How might this be resolved? Is it a possibility? How might the Antarctic Treaty or other agreements be used to work through a solution?

Assessment ideas

At various points in the learning, assess to what extent students:

  • identify and describe the achievements of an early Antarctic explorer
  • use mapping conventions to create and interpret maps
  • describes connections Australia has with Antarctica
  • explain the value of the Antarctic Treaty.