The Australian Antarctic Territory: History and Present Status

Only four countries recognize Australia's claim to sovereignty in Antarctica.

The Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) is an external territory of the Commonwealth of Australia. The territory occupies an area of 2,276,700 square miles and has a population of less than 1000. The population is made up of staff of the research stations within the territory. The AAT does not have a native human population, mainly due to its isolated location and harsh geographic and climatic conditions. The Australian Antarctic Territory was first established in 1841 as a territorial claim of the United Kingdom, and was named Victoria Land. The present section claimed by Australia was transferred from British to Australian sovereignty in 1933 through the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act. The territory is mainly used as a region for scientific research with three permanent stations. The territory is divided into nine districts, including Enderby Land, Kemp Land, Mac Robertson Land, Princess Elizabeth Land, Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, Queen Mary Land, Wilkes Land, George V Land, and Oates Land.

Administration and Recognition of the Australian Antarctic Territory

The Australian Antarctic Territory is a politically neutral region under the government of Australia, and is under the administration of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). The AAD is a part of the Department of the Environment, which administers the region through three-year rounds among three stations: Mawson, Davis, and Casey. The three stations support research and collaborations with other organizations in Australia and abroad. The division has the responsibility for administering the territory, conducting research, developing policy proposals, protecting the environment of the Antarctic, and promoting the interests of the territory within the Antarctic treaty system. The Australian claim of the AAT is recognized by only four countries, which include Norway, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and France. Japan’s failure to recognize Australia's claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory has led to conflicts concerning Japanese whaling.

Research Conducted at the Australian Antarctic Territory

The Antarctic region is a scientifically significant region previously exploited for whales and seals, which were sought after as sources of oil. Focus on the scientific importance of the region began in the late 19th century. Australia first established research stations in Antarctica through the 1886 Australian Antarctic Exploration Committee. After the AAT had been established as a territory of Australia, permanent research stations were set up. The first permanent station is the Mawson station of 1954, located on Mac Robertson Land. Later in 1957 and 1988, two more permanent stations, Davis and Casey, were set up. These stations conduct research on ocean ecosystems, the atmosphere, climate, environmental change, and human activities in the region.

The Antarctic Treaty System

The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is a body of agreements that regulate international relations of the Antarctic. The treaty system became effective in 1961, with an initial membership of 12 countries. Currently, the treaty system has 53 signatories. The Antarctic Treaty System binds all nations with claims in the Antarctic. Some regulations within the system include the ban military activity in the region, the establishment of the Antarctic as a region of scientific studies, and the freedom of scientific research in the region.

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