The History of Antarctic Exploration
Discover and learn more about the incredible stories of Antarctic exploration in the 20th century.
It was the ancient Greeks who first came up with the idea of Antarctica. They knew about the Arctic – named Arktos – The Bear, from the constellation the great bear, and decided that in order to balance the world there should be a similar cold southern land mass that was the same but the opposite “Ant - Arktos” - opposite The Bear.
Finding the Fabled Frozen Continent
It’s 1820, and the race to find the elusive southern continent is on. But who will be the first to discover it? What follows is a story of human endeavour, tenacity, determination, and the will to triumph where others failed.
To truly tell the tale, we need to start earlier than 1820, going all the way back to ancient Greece. The Greek scholars were among the first to suggest that a sizeable southern continent could even exist. Aristotle stated that the symmetry of a sphere meant that the Earth’s northern region had to be balanced by an equal southern region. This theoretical land was given the vague name Antarktos, or ‘opposite Arktos’.
Fast-forward to the age of European exploration of the globe in the 15th century. The imaginary land was widely printed in maps and labelled ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ - Unknown Southern Land. For a time, Antarctica continued to be dismissed as reality, even if the thought of it fired the imagination of many an explorer. But sure enough, fantasy would soon pass into fact.
Crossing the Circle
In 1773, James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time. He discovered isolated islands but found no continent. Little did he know that he had been just 128 kilometres from the Antarctic coast at one point in his journey. Cook famously declared, “I can be bold to say, that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored.” It would take only 48 years to prove him wrong.
On 27 January 1820, a Russian expedition led by Bellingshausen crossed the Antarctic Circle, for only the second time in history till then. The following day, he became the first explorer to ever lay eyes on the unknown continent - an honour denied him due to incorrect translation of his journal. Just a year later, explorer and sealer John Davis became the first person to set foot on Antarctica. The seventh continent had finally been proven without a doubt at last.
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration
The focus quickly shifted to the inevitable issue of which country and explorer would claim the enviable glory of first to reach the South Pole. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott sailed from England in 1901 and attempted to reach the South Pole in 1902. The harsh conditions proved to be impossible to beat, and the team had to retreat to 82°17’S.
Anglo-Irishman Ernest Henry Shackleton had been a part of Scott’s expedition and barely survived. He was, however, determined to try again. In 1908, he pioneered the route up to the polar plateau and came within 180 km of the Pole before being forced to return.
The race to the finish line
Two expeditions soon followed in 1910. Norwegian Roald Amundsen led one, Robert Falcon Scott the other. By this time, Amundsen was a veteran of Arctic expeditions and had been first to cross the Northwest Passage entirely by ship from 1903 to 1906. This experience proved crucial, and he and his team managed to achieve what others had failed to before.
On 14 December 1911, after 99 days and 1,400 nautical miles after his departure, Roald Amundsen raised the Norwegian flag at the South Pole. Robert Falcon Scott arrived 33 days later. His agony is recorded in his diary, “The worst has happened [...] All the daydreams must go [...] Great God! This is an awful place". Tragically, neither he nor his companions made it back alive.
Powers for peace
In the years to come, several countries claimed rights in Antarctica, and negotiations between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Chile, Argentina and the USA began in 1948. Finally, to prevent conflict in the region, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.
The treaty set Antarctica aside as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation and banned all military activity on the continent. The treaty was the first arms control agreement to be set during the Cold War. Antarctica remains to this day, a site for scientific research and a beacon for particularly adventurous travellers.