British territorial claims on Earth’s southernmost continent go back to the early Twentieth century, and the need to reaffirm Britain’s interests in Antarctica led to the eventual establishment of the British Antarctic Survey.
Since the Ross Expedition (1839-1843), British explorers had a keen interest in Antarctica. However, it would take some decades for the first moves made by Captain James Clark Ross to receive more attention from the Government in London. This lack of interest from Britain was reinforced when the Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1845 ended in disaster. Polar expeditions were regarded as futile, expensive and dangerous.
It was only at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that a surge of international interest in the Antarctic regions would influence the British Government to support a new official expedition. Led by Robert Falcon Scott – a Royal Navy officer – and with the presence of Sir Ernest Shackleton the undertaking was known as Discovery Expedition (officially ‘British National Antarctic Expedition’). After the successful Discovery Expedition (1901-1904), other British explorers would return to the frozen continent, and Shackleton would be widely known for its voyages.
While Shackleton and other explorers conducted expeditions to the continent, in 1908, the British Government declared its sovereignty over South Georgia, the Sandwich Islands, South Shetlands, South Orkneys and the Graham’s Land. These territories were governed from Stanley as part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies. Nine years later, in 1917, Britain issued a new version of the claims especially to avoid ambiguity when stating that the British claims stretched to the South Pole.
The 1917 declaration of sovereignty cemented the boundaries of the current British Antarctic Territory. Additionally, since 1841, the UK had claims in the ‘Victoria Land’ -discovered by Captain James Clark Ross – and ‘Enderby Land’. However, the British Government transferred these territorial ambitions to Australia in 1933, in part due to the latter proximity to the Territory and increasing political autonomy of the Dominion. New Zealand’s current claim over Ross Dependency also has its origins in Britain’s demands on the continent. The area was slowly transferred to New Zealand although there was no specific agreement formalising the question. Technically, Ross Dependency continues to be a claim of the Monarch of New Zealand and the United Kingdom, meaning that Queen Elizabeth II can exercise her claims through any of her governments.
During the Second World War, the British Government recognised the threat posed by German U-boats and commerce raiders in the extreme south of the Atlantic. Additionally, the war could be exploited by neutral Argentina as the South American nation was inclined to have a presence in the Antarctic continent. An Argentine permanent presence in Antarctica had the potential to weaken Britain’s interests and position in the area. It is worth mentioning that following the 1941-1942 Japanese advances, London began to be increasingly preoccupied with the possibility of a Japanese dash through the Pacific eventually reaching the Falklands. The British military presence in the Falkland Islands were no more than 330 volunteers from the local population, meaning that any attack was a significant threat. All these factors would influence the UK to send a secret expedition to Antarctica, aiming to reaffirm British territorial claims and deny anchorages to German raiding vessels while gathering meteorological data for shipping in the South Atlantic.
Operation Tabarin was launched in 1943 having specific orders to avoid confrontation with Argentine and Chileans explorers or officials were they to be found in the area; both Chile and Argentina have claims in the British sector. The operation was successful in establishing British installations in the region, opening the way for future scientific expeditions and thus strengthening Britain’s position in what would become the British Antarctic Territory. The expedition, led by James Marr, set up bases on Port Lockroy (Station A) and Deception Island (Station B). Port Lockroy served as a British research base until 1962 when scientific works were transferred to the Argentine Islands (Station F). Since 1996, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) is responsible for the base’s buildings and conservation. Deception Island saw service until 1969. After two series of volcanic eruptions in late 1967 and early 1969, the scientific installations were closed. On the second year of the Operation – now led by Andrew Taylor from the Royal Canadian Engineers – the explorers established Hope Bay (Station D). The base was deactivated in 1964, and 33 years later it was transferred to Uruguay.
Operation Tabarin’s main legacy lies on the establishment of the first permanently occupied British stations on the Antarctic continent. The efforts of Britain’s Admiralty and Colonial Office to secure a claim were mostly successful with a relatively small expedition. However, the complexity and relevance of the operation showed that long-term interests would require a long-term governmental structure to support these Antarctic ambitions. In July 1945, exploration efforts would be reorganised into a permanent organisation. Initially, under the control of the Colonial Office, the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey (FIDS) was the Government’s agency responsible for three permanently occupied British bases and one seasonal base in the frozen continent. The newly created British national scientific body became the first of its kind to be established in Antarctica.
In 1959, the UK alongside eleven nations including the United States, France and the Soviet Union, signed the Antarctic Treaty opening a new chapter in the history of the continent. The numerous and complex agreements that are part of the Treaty inaugurated the ‘Antarctic Treaty System’, which would be enhanced during the next decades. Entering into force in 1961, its 12 original members are the nations that were active in the continent during the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958).
The British Antarctic Survey points out that the Antarctic Treaty primary goal is to ensure that “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only”. Within this aim, the Treaty states that it is “in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.
Therefore, all territorial claims are held in abeyance, and military activity is prohibited – except in aid and support of scientific activities – and so are nuclear tests and disposal of nuclear waste. All the area south of 60° South Latitude is under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty System.
Thus, disputes over territorial sovereignty are frozen since 1961. Nevertheless, Article IV of the Treaty declares that nothing in the agreement shall be interpreted as “a renunciation by any Contracting Party of previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica”.
Article IV recognises that the countries with claims were not giving up their territorial interests, but states that “No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present treaty is in force.”
Amongst other things, this meant that other countries beyond the UK, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina were prohibited from issuing claims during the treaty existence. However, it is worth mentioning that the United States and Russia (originally a signatory as the Soviet Union) maintain that they have reserved the right to claims in the future. Beyond that, some South American nations, such as Peru and Ecuador, have declared their “rights” over sectors of Antarctica.
Britain’s ratification of the Treaty led to the creation of the British Antarctic Territory as a separated overseas possession. Until 1962, the Territory was a dependency of the Falkland Islands alongside South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. In the following years the UK, Norway, France, Australia and New Zealand would recognise each other’s claims leaving Argentina and Chile as the only not recognised by the majority of the current claimers. The Argentine and Chilean claims overlap each other’s and also overlap Britain’s signalling future divergence concerning the region when and if the Antarctic Treaty System ends with no similar replacement.
The scientific presence of the UK would face a change in 1962 when the ‘Falkland Islands Dependency Survey’ (FIDS) was renamed ‘British Antarctic Survey’ (BAS). The newly formed BAS was responsible for 19 stations and three refuges for emergencies. Throughout the next decades, the total numbers of bases were reduced due to management and operational efficiency, cracks in ice shelf and other natural phenomena like the volcanic eruptions of Deception Island. Currently, the BAS operates three permanent ‘Research Stations’: Rothera on Adelaide Island, Halley on the Brunt Ice Shelf and Signy on Signy Island. Besides, there are two logistics facilities, one on Alexander Island named Fossil Bluff and another on Ellsworth Land named ‘Sky Blu’. Both installations act as refuelling stations for aircraft and are only active during the Antarctic summer season between October and March.
Lastly, the BAS operates two permanent stations on the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia. Bird Island Research Station and King Edward Point Research Station are run throughout the year also serving as essential bases when reaching other British scientific bases in Antarctica.
Concerning the central British installations, Rothera serves as the capital of the British Antarctic Territory and is Britain’s most important base in the region. Rothera is a research hub supporting international science programmes in Britain and elsewhere. Throughout summer, the population peaks at over 100 people, falling to roughly 22 during winter. In 2017, the BAS received £100m from the British Government to modernise the installations, including the construction of a new wharf, living quarters and storage. The funding is also aimed at improving facilities at the mentioned bases in South Georgia and Signy Island. Rothera’s improved dock will be used by research vessels like the Royal Research Ship (RSS) Sir David Attenborough.
Another important facility is the Halley Research Station, the world’s first re-locatable research station; sometimes named ‘Halley VI’ for being the sixth version of a line of designs built since its first construction in 1956. According to the British Antarctic Survey, “Halley Research Station is an internationally important platform for global earth, atmospheric and space weather observation in a climate-sensitive zone”.
The data collected at Halley serves as information for the Space Environment Impacts Expert Group that advises the British Government on the impact of space weather on Britain’s business and overall infrastructure. Measurements from this British station led to the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985. Despite its relevance, Halley VI is situated on an increasingly unstable ice shelf. The winters of 2017 and 2018 witnessed the base being closed up because of the growing uncertainty about the stability of the ice. Although the BAS believes the ‘ice crack’ is far away from Halley, it has ordered as a preventive measure the removal of its personnel during winter when the severe weather hinders access to the station.
Established in 1947, the Signy Research Station (or Station H) is the oldest and smallest British base with accommodation for up to 10 people. In 1963, it was modernised with a laboratory for biological research operated initially throughout the year. Since the mid-1990s, it has operators only during summer. Signy has an automated system that continues observations when the occupants are not present. This system has enabled the base to be recording the sea ice extent for more than 50 years.
Lastly, the King Edward Point Station in South Georgia provided a long-standing British scientific presence on the island from 1969 to 1982. When the Falklands War broke out, on 3 April Argentine forces invaded South Georgia and closed the station. The Argentine forces would be defeated 22 days later during the British recapture of the island through Operation Paraquet. Nevertheless, the BAS would only formally return to Edward Point in 2001 when the British Army garrison on the island returned to the UK. Concerning Bird Island Station, it was beyond the reach of the attacking Argentine forces, remaining under British control throughout the conflict. After the war, Bird Island Station would be permanently occupied by the BAS. Beyond their scientific role, politically both bases are relevant to reaffirm the British sovereignty over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Currently, there is one research vessel – James Clark Ross – operated by the British Antarctic Survey supported by a Royal Navy polar research icebreaker, currently HMS Protector. The Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Clark Ross was launched in 1990 and has been a crucial asset for Britain’s scientific research and logistics effort in Antarctica.
In 2019, a second vessel operated by BAS was sold to Italy, RRS Ernest Shackleton served for 20 years before being removed from service. Both ships are going to be replaced by the larger and more capable RRS Sir David Attenborough, which was named on 26 September 2019, expected to be ready for active service in 2020.
According to BAS, RRS Sir David Attenborough is considered one of the “most advanced polar research vessels in the world” and represents the most significant commitment of the British Government in polar science since the 1980s. The ship has remotely operated vehicles that can collect data from the depths of the ocean and previously inaccessible areas under the ice. One of these vehicles is the famous Boaty McBoatface, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (or ‘Autosub Long Range’) with the ability to reach depths of 6000 metres and travel under the ice.
Moreover, two vessels can support the service of the British Antarctic Survey. Operated by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), RRS James Cook and RRS Discovery are fitted with flexible laboratory spaces and equipment for “blue ocean” research, meaning that their specialisation is centred on oceanographic duties. During her maiden scientific deployment in 2007 to the Caribbean, RRS James Cook was directly involved in the observation of the world’s deepest volcanic activity. Discovery was completed in 2013 and since then operates in different regions around the world as a Research Ship Unit.
An aircraft force of four De Havilland Canada Twin Otters and one De Havilland Canada Dash-7 also supports the British Antarctic Survey. Specially designed for remote environments, the Twin Otter aircraft is known for its reliability, performance and short take-off.
The Otters are relatively versatile, allowing them to be fitted with scientific equipment. The Dash-7 operated by the BAS is a modified version that allows long-range flights and larger cargo transportation than its standard model. Beyond that, the aircraft has short take-off and landing capability and can carry up to 16 passengers. According to the BAS, the Dash-7 is “a key element of our aircraft capability” performing “regular flights to and from the Falklands” during the Antarctic summer and thus acting as an “intercontinental link” for the British bases in Antarctica.
Therefore, the British Antarctic Territory and the British Antarctic Survey are directly linked. Initially, during the Second World War, the UK envisaging to secure its territorial claims in Antarctica organised Operation Tabarin, which was hugely successful and eventually evolved to become a permanent government body, firstly as the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey and later as the current British Antarctic Survey. Following the Antarctic Treaty, the scientific interests surpassed the territorial rivalry between nations with regional claims and the potential of the region for science became even more apparent.
Concerning its claims, the UK Government declares that its strategic objectives are “to promote the UK’s sovereignty of the [British Antarctic] Territory, including by increasing awareness of current and historical British interests in the region” and “to ensure the long-term security of the Territory by supporting the UK’s high profile within the Antarctic Treaty System”.
The Government also states that the British claim is “the oldest territorial claim to a part of the continent”.
Considering that the British Territory is contested by the Argentine and Chilean claims (and both South American countries overlaps each other’s claims), the UK has maintained a continuous presence within the limits of British Antarctic Territory as a way to reaffirm its long-standing rights when the time to discuss a post-Treaty Antarctica arrives.
Thus, the British Antarctic Survey duty goes beyond scientific research. It also serves to reassure that competing claimants do not weaken the UK’s position in the area. Therefore, the recent investments in modernising and improving the British scientific research presence are extremely relevant for the future of British science and the long-term existence of the British Antarctic Territory.