Norway’s path to the Antarctic Treaty


Two things in particular link Norwegians to Antarctica: whaling and Roald Amundsen. Although Amundsen looms large in polar mythology, he left behind few traces in Antarctica. Whaling in the Southern Ocean, though largely forgotten, set Norway on the path to membership in the Antarctic Treaty.

By: Harald Dag Jølle // Polar historian, Norwegian Polar Institute 

Roald Amundsen and his race to the South Pole against the British in 1911 meant a lot for Norwegian interest in Antarctica. But apart from a few place names, a cairn, a kerosene bottle, and a tent buried deep in the snow, Amundsen left no lasting traces on the vast, icy continent.

Whaling, on the other hand, was crucial to Norwegian Antarctic policy. Norwegian polar enthusiasts, who had successfully annexed land in the north, not least in Svalbard, were eager to place parts of Antarctica under the Norwegian crown. After combined whaling and research expeditions, Bouvetøya and Peter I Øy (Bouvet and Peter I islands) were declared Norwegian dependencies in 1928 and 1931, respectively. In addition, the four Norvegia Expeditions surveyed a large area on the Antarctic mainland in the years around 1930.

The Norwegian desire to annex land in Antarctica was partly driven by shipowners fearing they might be excluded from whaling grounds in the Southern Ocean. But this desire must also be understood as an expression of an imperialistic polar ambition during the interwar period, when commercial enterprise, politics, and science often went hand in hand.

The Norvegia survey did not result in an immediate Norwegian annexation on the Antarctic mainland. The authorities did not wish to challenge British dominance in the south. It was only when Adolf Hoel, the leader of Norway’s Svalbard and Arctic Ocean Research Survey, discovered that a German expedition was on its way to Antarctica in December 1938 that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed its opinion. Fearing that Nazi Germany would annex the area that Norwegians had surveyed, Norway acted as early as 14 January 1939, and declared that the area now known as Dronning Maud Land “is being brought under Norwegian sovereignty”.


A diplomatic conference in Washington DC in 1959 ended with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. Note the twelve flags representing the countries that constituted “the innermost circle” in these discussions.
Photo: Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty / ATS Image Bank, accessed February 2, 2021,

Strategically more important

World War II clearly showed how important the Arctic had become from a military perspective. Antarctica, though remote, had now gained a whole new strategic importance. As early as 1946, the United States Navy was on its way to the continent with Operation Highjump, an expedition that included over 4000 men, 13 ships, and dozens of aircraft.

After the war, it became an established viewpoint among the armed forces that anyone who wanted to control the world’s oceans must control Antarctica. In the event of a new major conflict, both the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal could be closed, and shipping between the continents would then have to sail south of Africa and South America. This would bring the ships within range of missiles, long-range aircraft, submarines, and warships based in Antarctica. In addition, many envisioned that Antarctica, with its vast uninhabited areas, would be used for testing atomic bombs.

A total of seven countries had annexation claims in Antarctica. These claims were partially overlapping, and were by no means widely recognised. The United States and the Soviet Union, which had no annexation claims of their own, disputed the claims of all other countries.

In 1948, the United States suggested that the continent be internationalised, but the proposal found little support. The Norwegian authorities made it clear that they would not enter into an agreement that would oblige them to “renounce exclusive sovereignty”. The government believed that Norwegian sovereignty in Antarctica “had a solid foundation in international law” – and therefore that Norway “for national and political reasons” could not give up “that which is Norwegian territory”. Furthermore, Norway considered it advantageous that some countries had exclusive sovereignty over specific parts of Antarctica: it would “spur those countries to conduct scientific research there, for the benefit of the whole world”.

At Maudheim: Expedition leader John Giæver, Norwegian Polar Institute Director Harald Ulrik Sverdrup, and Guttorm Jakobsen, captain of the vessel Norsel.
Photo: Stig Hallgren / Norwegian Polar Institute Photo Archive

Major expeditions

It is in this politically uncertain post-war and Cold War context that we must interpret the two major Norwegian expeditions to Dronning Maud Land in the 1950s.

The first, the Maudheim Expedition, lasted from 1949 to 1952, and was a collaboration between Norwegians, Britons and Swedes. The expedition was led by the Norwegian Polar Institute, and Norway’s objective was undoubtedly to strengthen its claim on Dronning Maud Land through scientific presence and surveying. However, it was a Swede who hatched the idea for this first multinational overwintering expedition in Antarctica. The initiator, Hans W:son Ahlmann, felt that the expedition could be a step on the way to strengthening European polar expertise – a response to the increasing dominance of the Americans and the Russians. The expedition headed south with important scientific questions. Among other things, the scientists were to investigate whether there had been an “improvement in climate” in Antarctica.

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) from 1957 to 1958 was a large-scale, global effort to explore the entire planet. Sixty-eight different countries formulated scientific programmes that involved approximately 60 000 participants. In the midst of the Cold War, East and West were to come together in scientific collaboration. Nevertheless, there was a lot of politics beneath the surface. For example, a classified report from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated a conviction that “in the name of science, extensive activities are being carried out for political reasons”. This was evident not least from “the huge sums of money that are being made available, and that science would otherwise certainly not have been granted to the same extent”.

Swedish glaciologist Valter Schytt examines ice crystals under a microscope in the cold lab. Schytt participated in the international Maudheim Expedition 1949-1952.

Photo: Valter Schytt / Norwegian Polar Institute Photo Archive

For a long time, it looked as though Norway would not have any activities in Antarctica during the IGY. Norwegian research communities would rather use their scarce resources in the Arctic. This attitude was shared by the director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Harald U Sverdrup, who had penned the following reflection on his way home from a visit to Maudheim in 1951: “If it were up to me, I would give the land back to the penguins.”

But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a different opinion.

They shared the American hope that “ ‘friendly nations’ should join forces to establish the stations that were wanted in Antarctica”. There was concern that the area Norway had claimed would be empty during the IGY, and that the Russians would take over the entire sector. Consequently, the Norwegian Polar Institute sent 14 men and 42 Greenland dogs south in the autumn of 1956. The plan was to spend two years in Antarctica. They brought with them a relatively extensive research programme – and great ambitions to survey Dronning Maud Land.

Ambassador Herman Phleger, representing the United States, signs the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959.
Photo: Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty / ATS Image Bank, accessed February 2, 2021,

The Antarctic Treaty

While the participants on the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition went about their daily duties, intense negotiations were taking place in the more temperate parts of the world – about the future of Antarctica.

Norwegian authorities were afraid that if they closed Norway Station before the negotiations were completed, it could be interpreted as a lack of interest in Antarctica. Therefore, the expedition was extended. Three men agreed to spend a third winter in the Antarctic, and new replacements were sent south.

On 1 December 1959, the twelve countries that had stations in Antarctica during the IGY finally came to an agreement. All territorial claims were put on hold: no new claims were to be submitted, no existing claims would be rejected. In addition, future activities would have no relevance for existing claims. Antarctica would be demilitarised and free of nuclear weapons – for humanity and for science. The Antarctic Treaty also had a provision stating that it could be renegotiated in 30 years’ time. Norwegian negotiators had a hard time accepting this but eventually signed the treaty.

Norway sat in the innermost circle, as a claimant and as one of the twelve countries that had signed the treaty. Its position “as one of the twelve” was entirely due to Norway’s presence on the continent during the IGY.

The Antarctic Treaty led to a change in Norwegian interest in the southern continent. When expedition leader Sigurd Helle returned home with his men in early 1960, he was thanked by Foreign Minister Hallvard Lange – who breathed a sigh of relief and said that Norway could now take a break from Antarctica.

Tore Gjelsvik, the newly appointed director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, also hoped Norway’s polar scientists could “rest on their oars” after the relatively major efforts in Antarctica during the 1950s. But he soon changed his tune. After meeting the treaty’s other member countries, he wrote: “If we want Dronning Maud Land to keep its Norwegian character, we must resume our activities in the field as soon as possible.” However, many decades would pass, and it wasn’t until the Antarctic Treaty’s first thirty-year period began to approach its expiration date that Gjelsvik received political support for a renewed focus on Antarctica. And in 1989, construction began on the permanent Norwegian Antarctic research station Troll – in part to strengthen Norway’s position within the Antarctic Treaty.