Nov 2018

Gateway to Antarctica? Punta Arenas and the International Antarctic Center

Chile and the Antarctic

Chile has a long-standing interest in the Antarctic. In 1940, it formalised its claim to
‘Southern Territories’ on the basis that it inherited these territories from the Spanish Empire after it became an independent nation in 1818. Chile has further supported its claim by advancing geographical and geological arguments that the Antarctic peninsula is a prolongation of the American continent. Owing to its geographical proximity, Chile is also greatly affected by Antarctica’s climate. Chile’s claims in the Antarctic overlap with those of the UK and Argentina. However, under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, all sovereignty claims have been set aside.  

Following the International Geophysical Year (1957-195), in 1963 Chile established a National Antarctic Institute (INACH) to define and develop the country’s scientific activity in the Antarctic. It also advises the Minister of Foreign Affairs on policy-related matters and represents Chile in several international forums related to Antarctica. In 2003, INACH was moved from Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile’s most southerly city.  

Punta Arenas: Gateway to Antarctica

Punta Arenas is regarded as one of five gateway cities to the Antarctic. The others are Cape Town (South Africa), Christchurch (New Zealand), Hobart (Australia) and Ushuaia
(Argentina). It was founded in 1848 as a penal colony but later attracted European immigrants. Its port was critical for linking the Atlantic and the Pacific before the Panama Canal was built. The city lies c. 800 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula, which hosts the largest concentration of scientific research stations on the continent.  

In recent decades, more and more visitors from around the world have used Punta Arenas as a gateway to the Antarctic. In the 1980s, scientists from three other countries used Punta Arenas as their jumping off point. Today, Punta Arenas receives scientists from twenty-two of the forty counties that undertake scientific activities in Antarctica.  

Chile’s future Antarctic Science plans

Punta Arenas’ rapid growth as a gateway to the Antarctic led the Chilean Government to reconsider Punta Arenas’ role in supporting international Antarctic science. Following the move of INACH to Punta Arenas, Chile’s Antarctic science programme was also massively expanded, with a clear focus on international cooperation (for example, Chile put out open calls for science proposals in English, and subjected the grant-making process to international peer review). Since then, the UK has become one of Chile’s biggest partners for Antarctic science with seven joint projects last year (underpinned by a close relationship between INACH and the British Antarctic Survey since a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2012, which has received further high-level support from the UK and Chilean governments in the years since).  

Chile’s Antarctic science programme is today being shaped in response to international demands for key questions to be answered about climate change and environmental impacts in the region. Punta Arenas is being re-imagined as the first stepping stone in a network of scientific stations stretching from the Chilean mainland to Union Glacier, which is roughly 1,900 miles from Punta Arenas and 600 miles from the South Pole.

International Antarctic Center

Central to this vision, is INACH’s proposal for a £54 million project to build an ‘International Antarctic Center’ in Punta Arenas. The Center, which would resemble an iceberg when viewed from the Strait of Magellan, will have five floors. Two floors will be dedicated to science, while two other floors will be open to the general public to inform, educate and interest people in the Antarctic.  

The Center has been designed with three purposes in mind: to improve science by making infrastructure and equipment available to national and international scientific programmes
(based on recommendations from the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research); to provide a logistics platform to support international Antarctic science programmes; and to provide an exhibition space for engaging and educating the general public, including tourists from overseas (the exhibition space will include aquariums containing Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species and a recreation of Antarctica’s ‘green’ past).

Ultimately, INACH hopes the Center will become a global reference point for both scientists and the general public seeking to learn more about Antarctica. INACH feels a responsibility to the world, by virtue of Chile’s geography, to support international science in Antarctica, particularly in terms of understanding climate change. However, the Center will also serve other functions, such as stimulating Chile’s education system by attracting world-class researchers, sharing Chile’s knowledge of Antarctica with the rest of the world, and providing a focal point for Punta Arena’s growth as a tourist destination.  

Government approval of the project is still pending, but INACH is optimistic that construction will begin in 2020 with a view to opening the International Antarctic Center by 2023.  

This paper was prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge (Director, APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat),
and endorsed by James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions).

Please send any comments, queries, or suggestions to

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do
not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.