It is not illegal to fly over the continent of Antarctica

25 January 2024
What was claimed

Aircraft are not legally permitted to fly over Antarctica and visiting the continent is also restricted.

Our verdict

This isn’t true. Flights are not banned or prevented by law from flying over the southernmost continent on Earth, and people visit Antarctica for research and tourism purposes.

What was claimed

There is documented evidence of Nazi interest in Antarctica. Between 1944 and 1945, approximately 14 major expeditions were conducted from Germany to Antarctica.

Our verdict

This isn't quite right. Under the Nazis a German expedition mapped part of Antarctica in 1938 and 1939, but there is no evidence that expeditions returned until 1959 when the first Germans landed with a Russian expedition.

What was claimed

On a map from 1513, now housed in Istanbul, Antarctica is depicted as green and it was once a flourishing land.

Our verdict

This isn’t right. The 1513 Turkish ‘Piri Reis’ map which is alleged to show Antarctica likely shows an extension of South America and a cartographical trend to include a southern continent symmetrical to habitable northern land, rather than mapping Antarctica.

What was claimed

There was an 18th century nuclear war.

Our verdict


Posts widely shared on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) say it is a “curious fact” that aircraft are not permitted to fly over the continent of Antarctica.

One post, with almost identical wording shared over 1,600 times on X, also makes a number of other claims, including that Antarctica is the only continent where “ordinary individuals are forbidden to stay, all due to authorities concealing a barrier behind which other civilizations [could] exist” and that there is “documented evidence” of “Nazi interest” in Antarctica between 1944 and 1945.

It also says: “On a map from 1513, Antarctica is depicted as green; before the 18th-century nuclear war, it was once a flourishing land. The authenticity of the map has been verified, and it is currently housed in Istanbul”.

However, all of these claims have no basis in fact.

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Is it illegal to fly over Antarctica?

According to the posts it is a “curious fact” that “aircraft are not permitted to fly over Antarctica”. They continue by saying that “specifically, such flights are prohibited, and visiting the continent itself is also restricted”.

But flights are not banned or prevented by law from flying over the southernmost continent on Earth. Specialised flights for the purposes of scientific research and tourism do fly to Antarctica. In November 2021, the first Airbus A340 landed in Antarctica

There are a number of factors that make flying over the south pole difficult, meaning it happens rarely. These include extreme weather conditions—such as blinding blizzards and low visibility—and strong magnetic fields in the polar regions that can interfere with navigational equipment.

Limited infrastructure also means that Antarctica lacks the facilities that are required for regular commercial flights, such as airports and refuelling stations.

There are also regulations that flight operators must abide by, such as the Extended-Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS) mandate. 

This requires twin-engine aircraft to remain within a certain distance of a suitable airport in case of engine failure, which cannot be guaranteed over Antarctica—which is around 5.5 million square miles in size.

Additionally people are not prohibited from visiting Antarctica. A number of travel companies run tours there, and leisure visits to the icy continent are due to reach 100,000 a year this season, with the first tourists arriving in the 1920s.

While most excursions involve short departures from cruise liners, in the 2022/23 year, some 71,346 people landed in Antarctica while 821 people went on ‘deep field visits’ to the interior of the continent. 

Were the Nazis interested in Antarctica?

The social media post also claims there is “documented evidence of Nazi interest in Antarctica” and that between 1944 and 1945, “approximately 14 major expeditions were conducted from Germany to Antarctica”.

While there was documented “interest” in Antarctica by the German state under Adolf Hitler, there is no evidence there were 14 expeditions in the final year of the Second World War.

An expedition to Antarctica by Germany took place between 1938 and 1939 as part of the country’s plans to find substitutes for whale oil.

The German Foreign Office identified unclaimed territory in Antarctica between Norwegian and British zones, part of an area known as Queen Maud Land, as a potential for establishing a whaling base.

The expedition on the Schwabenland vessel was led by Captain Alfred Ritscher and mapped the region by air using Dornier seaplanes for the purposes of discovery and exploration. 

But follow-up expeditions were planned for the years 1939-41 which might have eventually led to the construction of a base could not be carried out because of the outbreak of war.

A report by the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge says there is no evidence that German activity in Antarctica continued after the 1938 expedition or during World War Two, until 1959 when the first Germans landed with the Russian expedition to the Schirmacher Oasis

The first German research station was opened in Antarctica in 1976, named after the German naturalist Georg Foster. It was withdrawn from service in 1993 and dismantled by 1996.

Does a historic map show Antarctica as green and flourishing?

The widely-shared post also says: “On a map from 1513, Antarctica is depicted as green; before the 18th-century nuclear war, it was once a flourishing land. The authenticity of the map has been verified, and it is currently housed in Istanbul”.

The image attached with the post shows a globe-style map, with a landmass at the south of the globe and representations of the ‘four winds’ at each corner of the page.

However, the post appears to be conflating two different maps. 

The map pictured is from the Miller Atlas, a Portuguese world atlas commissioned by King Manuel I of Portugal which dates from around 1519 and is currently kept at the National Library in France

Although it appears to show the continent of Antarctica, the geographical areas depicted in the atlas are the North Atlantic Ocean, Northern Europe, the Azores Archipelago, Madagascar, the Indian Ocean, what was known at the time as Insulindia, the China Sea, the Moluccas, Brazil, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.

A different map was produced in 1513 by the Ottoman Turkish admiral and cartographer Hagji Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, called the Piri Reis map. 

Surviving fragments of the map have garnered attention and controversy due to theories that it shows an ice-free landmass that some identify as Antarctica, 300 years before it was discovered by European explorers in 1820. 

This theory was popularised in a 1965 book called ‘Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings’ by American Professor Charles Hapgood. 

However, it has since been widely argued by cartographers that this map depicts not Antarctica but an extension of South America, and there are other sixteenth-century maps that also show a southern continent connected to South America.

It was also part of cartographic philosophy, stemming back to the Ancient Greeks, of the inclusion in maps of a landmass called ‘Terra Australis Incognita’—hinging on the idea that a hypothetical continent was located in the southern hemisphere, symmetrically positioned in relation to the northern habitable world.

What about an 18th century nuclear war?

The post claims that prior to an “18th-century nuclear war” Antarctica was once a “flourishing land”.

However, the science of atomic radiation and nuclear power was first developed from 1895, with research focusing on the atomic bomb between 1939 and 1945.

While uranium was discovered in 1789 by the German chemist Martin Klaproth, ionising radiation was not discovered until 1895—when Wilhelm Rontgen passed an electric current through an evacuated glass tube to produce continuous X-rays. 

The uranium atom was split in 1938 by chemists working in Berlin, with the 1942 Manhattan Project in the US dedicated to developing the first atomic bomb, led by Julius Robert Oppenheimer.

There is no evidence that scientists had discovered how to develop nuclear weapons in the 1700s, or that a nuclear war took place in Antarctica during this period.

And while Antarctica wasn’t always covered with ice, it began to freeze around 34 million years ago creating a vast ice sheet over the continent.

Scientists estimate that the land masses along the coast of Queen Maud Land have been covered by ice between 75% and 97% of the time during the last one million years.

There is also no evidence that other civilisations could or do exist in Antarctica, where the average temperature in the interior is -57°C and it is the coldest, windiest and driest of all the continents on Earth.

Conspiracy theories such as these can lead people to reject publicly available, widely-documented information in favour of unsubstantiated claims that may lead to harmful behaviours.

We’ve previously written about similar theories, including posts alleging that the location of the Great Pyramid of Giza is mysteriously connected to the speed of light.

Image courtesy of GRID-Arendal 

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