On this day: creation of the Australian Antarctic Territory

By Julian Swallow 7 November 2013
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In 1936 Australia claimed territory in Antarctica in the name of science and exploration.

ONE OF THE FEW TRULY politically neutral places on Earth, Antarctica is a final frontier of adventure and science. Its independence came about not only because of its isolation and harsh landscape, but also because Australia and other nations realised its global scientific significance.

Australia’s involvement with Antarctica began in the early years of the country’s exploration and settlement, when the ships linking Australia with Britain made use of the strong winds found in the sub-Antarctic region to speed their passage east from the Cape of Good Hope.

Hunters also increasingly ventured into Antarctic waters in search of new sources of oil, as populations of seals and whales dwindled in Australia’s territorial waters.

Exploitation gradually gave way to science, and in 1886 the Australian Antarctic Exploration Committee was established by the Royal Society of Victoria to promote exploration and establish research stations in Antarctica.

At the time, there was a growing realisation of Antartica’s scientific potential, promoted by men like famed explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and Tasmanian physicist Louis Charles Bernacchi – the first Australian to set foot in Antarctica in 1899 – who said that, “Antarctic exploration is of capital importance to science.”

On 24 August 1936, the Australian Antarctic Territory was created after a proclamation by Governor-General Alexander Hore-Ruthven. It followed the passage of the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act 1933 by the Australian Parliament.

Today, the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) sprawls over 5,800,000 sq km of eastern Antarctica, making it the largest claimed area on the continent. It also encompasses the sub-Antarctic Heard Island and the McDonald Islands, which were transferred from British control in 1947.

Dr Julia Jabour of the University of Tasmania’s Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies says the AAT represents “over 100 years of Australian Antarctic exploration and history,” and that its creation was a sign of Australia’s growing confidence as a nation.

Permanent research stations

With the proclamation of a permanent territory came a desire for a settled presence in Antarctica. Meteorological and scientific research stations were established on Heard Island and Macquarie Island in 1948. After several years of exploration for a suitable site, on 13 February 1954 the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) established its first permanent Antarctic station (Mawson) on MacRobertson Land.

Further permanent stations were established in 1957 (Davis) and 1988 (Casey), and today they support scientific research into ice, oceans, atmosphere and climate, Southern Ocean ecosystems, adaptation to environmental change, and the impact of human activities in Antarctica.

“We have lots of really good scientists doing really important science for Australia and the world,” says Julia.