With a total area of about 5.5 million square miles (or some 14 million km2) constituting one tenth of the world's land surface, Antarctica is far larger than India and China put together. Right through the nineteenth century and up to World War II, human presence and activity in the Antarctic was rather patchy, both spatially and temporally. Thereafter, and particularly from the International Geophysical Year (IGY), during 1956–57, permanent scientific stations were established and seasonal marine mammal harvesting continued. But it was not until the late 1970s that the southern polar region was subjected to significant modern commercial interest. From this period (marked by resource geopolitics and diplomacy) onward, Antarctica has been increasingly integrated into global systems and highly capitalized actors and forces of the globalized economy have arrived on the scene. Acting as a major catalyst for this transformation are of course the technological, political, and attitudinal transformations in the wider international system.
One can identify the following major geographical representations of the Antarctic, which broadly coincide with different periods of the present century: (1) a partially filled space, with seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain, Norway, and New Zealand) staking territorial claims (1900–40), (2) a site implicated in the Cold War politicking (1945–60), (3) the 'greatest natural laboratory of science' on the planet (1960s), (4) a place of galvanizing resource potential (1970s to 1980s), and (5) a 'natural reserve' devoted to science, peace, and environmental protection, increasingly subjected to commercial tourism (since the 1990s). These varied, and in some respects overlapping, representations of the Antarctic carry important policy implications.