Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Antarctica and Arctic

The continent of Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean, both approximately 8.7 million square miles, cover the southern and northern polar regions, respectively, and have held economic and geopolitical interests for many countries. During the 1930s, scientific research and political rivalry in Antarctica began to supplant discovery and mapping operations. Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, and Great Britain established year-round national research stations there, both to maintain territorial claims and to conduct scientific research. In November 1946, the United States conducted Operation highjump, the largest Antarctic expedition to date, involving intensive exploration by means of ships, aircraft, and temporary land stations. The main goal of the operation was to give U.S. military forces experience in polar conditions. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, this was seen as a necessary means to prepare for a potential confrontation with Soviet troops in the northern Arctic region, the shortest distance between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Arctic Ocean was a contested place as well. However, it was less a question of territorial claims than of geopolitical dominance. The United States, Canada, Russia, and several northern European countries all border this polar region. Nuclear submarines of both superpowers played a dangerous game of cat and mouse beneath the shifting polar ice, while slight changes in water temperature disguised huge ships by diffusing enemy sonar. The proximity to each other's country was a source of constant concern during the Cold War. Security interests dominated in the Arctic, but economic activities also had a geostrategic component in terms of oil, natural gas, and mineral deposits. On a political level, the end to the Cold War has had a profound effect on the Arctic. Because of the radioactive contamination of the waters caused by leaking Soviet submarines and discarded reactors, the region has emerged as an area of environmental cooperation involving all Arctic-border nations.

The various territorial claims in Antarctica, however, created an atmosphere of tension that threatened scientific cooperation. The International Geophysical Year (IGY), from July 1957 to December 1958, was the first substantial multination research program that coordinated geophysical research and proved a useful step in resolving political disputes. Twelve nations (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United States, and the USSR) agreed that their political and legal differences should not interfere with the research program. More than 5,000 scientists and support staff served at forty-nine international Antarctic stations. Research projects included studies of atmospheric physics, meteorology, oceanography, glaciology, seismology, and geology. The international cooperation and overall success of the IGY led the governments of the twelve nations to establish the Special (later Scientific) Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in 1958, a group designed to coordinate additional research that exists to this day.

This was followed up with the Antarctic Treaty, signed on 1 December 1959 and entered into force on 23 June 1961. The treaty stipulates that Antarctica be used only for peaceful purposes, prohibits militarization and weapons testing, requires freedom of scientific investigation, provides for exchanges of scientific results, and allows mutual inspection of stations, ships, and aircraft. The treaty prohibits nuclear explosions and disposal of nuclear waste in the area south of latitude 60 degrees. The treaty also addressed long-standing territorial conflicts in Antarctica. It made no ruling on the validity of existing claims by seven nations (Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, New Zealand, and Norway) and stated that no member nation was required to recognize the claims of other nations. Although the United States and the Soviet Union reserved the right to stake future claims of their own, the indefinite freeze on territorial claims served to ease Cold War suspicions of each other's activities in Antarctica.

The nations that signed the treaty became Antarctica's governing body, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The treaty also provides that any member state of the United Nations (UN) can attain membership in it. At the end of 2004, there were forty-five ATS member nations. The treaty has been recognized as one of the most successful international agreements in modern history. Differences over territorial claims have been effectively set aside, and as a disarmament agreement the treaty has been very successful. In 1991, ATS members recognized the enduring strength and relevance of the treaty by adopting a declaration proclaiming their determination to maintain and strengthen it and to protect Antarctica's environmental and scientific values.

Katja Wuestenbecker


Further Reading
Nuttall, Mark, and Terry V. Callaghan, eds. The Arctic: Environment, People, Policy. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 2000.; Taubenfeld, Howard Jack. A Treaty for Antarctica. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1961.
 

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