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The history of Antarctica emerges from early Western theories of a vast continent, known as Terra Australis, believed to exist in the far south of the globe. The term Antarctic, referring to the opposite of the Arctic Circle, was coined by Marinus of Tyre in the 2nd century AD.
The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries proved that Terra Australis Incognita ("Unknown Southern Land"), if it existed, was a continent in its own right. In 1773 James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time but although he discovered nearby islands, he did not catch sight of Antarctica itself. It is believed he was as close as 150 miles from the mainland.
In 1820, several expeditions claimed to have been the first to have sighted Antarctica, with the very first being the Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev. The first landing was probably just over a year later when American Captain John Davis, a sealer, set foot on the ice.
The first Norwegian expedition to Antarctica was led by Captain Carl Anton Larsen aboard the barque Jason in 1892. During the expedition he was the first to discover fossils in Antarctica, for which he received the Back Grant from the Royal Geographical Society. In December 1893 he also became the first person to ski in Antarctica where the Larsen Ice Shelf was named after him. Larsen is also considered the founder of the Antarctic whaling industry and the settlement at Grytviken, South Georgia.
Once the North Pole had been reached in 1909, several expeditions attempted to reach the South Pole. Many resulted in injury and death. Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally reached the Pole on December 14, 1911, following a dramatic race with the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott.
In the Western world, belief in a Cold Land—a vast continent located in the far south of the globe to "balance" out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa—had existed for centuries. Aristotle had postulated a symmetry of the earth, which meant that there would be equally habitable lands south of the known world. The Greeks suggested that these two hemispheres, north and south, were divided by a 'belt of fire'.
It was not until Prince Henry the Navigator began in 1418 to encourage the penetration of the torrid zone in the effort to reach India by circumnavigating Africa that European exploration of the southern hemisphere began. In 1473 Portuguese navigator Lopes Gonçalves proved that the equator could be crossed, and cartographers and sailors began to assume the existence of another, temperate continent to the south of the known world.
The doubling of the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 by Bartolomeu Dias first brought explorers within touch of the Antarctic cold, and proved that there was an ocean separating Africa from any Antarctic land that might exist. In 1513, the Ottoman Turkish admiral Piri Reis drew a world map that has been said to show part of the Antarctic continent.
Ferdinand Magellan, who passed through the Straits of Magellan in 1520, assumed that the islands of Tierra del Fuego to the south were an extension of this unknown southern land, and it appeared as such on a map by Ortelius: Terra australis recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita ("Southern land recently discovered but not yet fully known").
European geographers connected the coast of Tierra del Fuego with the coast of New Guinea on their globes and allowing their imaginations to run riot in the vast unknown spaces of the south Atlantic, south Indian and Pacific oceans. They sketched the outlines of the Terra Australis Incognita ("Unknown Southern Land"), a vast continent stretching in parts into the tropics. The search for this great south land or Third World was a leading motive of explorers in the 16th and the early part of the 17th centuries. The Spaniard Gabriel de Castilla, who claimed having sighted "snow-covered mountains" beyond the 64° S in 1603, is recognized as the first explorer that discovered the continent, although he was ignored in his time.
Francis Drake like Spanish explorers before him had speculated that there might be an open channel south of Tierra del Fuego. Indeed, when Schouten and Le Maire discovered the southern extremity of Tierra del Fuego and named it Cape Horn in 1615, they proved that the Tierra del Fuego archipelago was of small extent and not connected to the southern land.
Voyagers round the Horn frequently met with contrary winds and were driven southward into snowy skies and ice-encumbered seas; but so far as can be ascertained none of them before 1770 reached the Antarctic Circle, or knew it, if they did. The story of the discovery of land in 64° S. by Dirk Gerritz on board the Blijde Boodschap in 1599 was shown to be the result of a mistake of a commentator, Kasper Barlaeus, in 1622.
The visit to South Georgia by Anthony de la Roché in 1675 was the first ever discovery of land south of the Antarctic Convergence i.e. in the Antarctic. Soon after the voyage cartographers started to depict ‘Roché Island’, honouring the discoverer. James Cook was aware of la Roché's discovery when surveying and mapping the island in 1775.
Edmond Halley's voyage in HMS Paramour for magnetic investigations in the South Atlantic met the pack ice in 52° S in January 1700, but that latitude (he reached 140 mi off the north coast of South Georgia) was his farthest south. A determined effort on the part of the French naval officer Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier to discover the "South Land" – described by a half legendary "sieur de Gonneyville" – resulted in the discovery of Bouvet Island in 54°10′ S, and in the navigation of 48° of longitude of ice-cumbered sea nearly in 55° S in 1730 .
In 1771, Yves Joseph Kerguelen sailed from France with instructions to proceed south from Mauritius in search of "a very large continent." He lighted upon a land in 50° S which he called South France, and believed to be the central mass of the southern continent. He was sent out again to complete the exploration of the new land, and found it to be only an inhospitable island which he renamed the Isle of Desolation, but which was ultimately named after him.
The obsession of the undiscovered continent culminated in the brain of Alexander Dalrymple, the brilliant and erratic hydrographer who was nominated by the Royal Society to command the Transit of Venus expedition to Tahiti in 1769. The command of the expedition was given by the admiralty to Captain James Cook. Sailing in 1772 with the Resolution, a vessel of 462 tons under his own command and the Adventure of 336 tons under Captain Tobias Furneaux, Cook first searched in vain for Bouvet Island, then sailed for 20 degrees of longitude to the westward in latitude 58° S, and then 30° eastward for the most part south of 60° S, a higher southern latitude than had ever been voluntarily entered before by any vessel. On 17 January 1773 the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the first time in history and the two ships reached 67° 15' S by 39° 35' E, where their course was stopped by ice.
Cook then turned northward to look for French Southern and Antarctic Lands, of the discovery of which he had received news at Cape Town, but from the rough determination of his longitude by Kerguelen, Cook reached the assigned latitude 10° too far east and did not see it. He turned south again and was stopped by ice in 61° 52′ S by 95° E and continued eastward nearly on the parallel of 60° S to 147° E. On 16 March, the approaching winter drove him northward for rest to New Zealand and the tropical islands of the Pacific. In November 1773, Cook left New Zealand, having parted company with the Adventure, and reached 60° S by 177° W, whence he sailed eastward keeping as far south as the floating ice allowed. The Antarctic Circle was crossed on 20 December and Cook remained south of it for three days, being compelled after reaching 67° 31′ S to stand north again in 135° W.
A long detour to 47° 50′ S served to show that there was no land connection between New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego. Turning south again, Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle for the third time at 109° 30′ W before his progress was once again blocked by ice four days later at 71° 10′ S by 106° 54′ W. This point, reached on 30 January 1774, was the farthest south attained in the 18th century. With a great detour to the east, almost to the coast of South America, the expedition regained Tahiti for refreshment. In November 1774, Cook started from New Zealand and crossed the South Pacific without sighting land between 53° and 57° S to Tierra del Fuego; then, passing Cape Horn on 29 December, he rediscovered Roché Island renaming it Isle of Georgia, and discovered the South Sandwich Islands (named Sandwich Land by him), the only ice-clad land he had seen, before crossing the South Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope between 55° and 60°. He thereby laid open the way for future Antarctic exploration by exploding the myth of a habitable southern continent. Cook's most southerly discovery of land lay on the temperate side of the 60th parallel, and he convinced himself that if land lay farther south it was practically inaccessible and of no economic value.
The first land south of the parallel 60° south latitude was discovered by the Englishman William Smith, who sighted Livingston Island on 19 February 1819. A few months later Smith returned to explore the other islands of the South Shetlands archipelago, landed on King George Island, and claimed the new territories for Britain.
In the meantime, the Spanish Navy ship San Telmo sank in September 1819 when trying to cross Cape Horn. Parts of her wreckage were found months later by sealers on the north coast of Livingston Island (South Shetlands). It is unknown if some survivor managed to be the first setting foot on these Antarctic islands.
The first confirmed sighting of mainland Antarctica cannot be accurately attributed to one single person. It can, however, be narrowed down to three individuals. According to various sources, three men all sighted Antarctica within days or months of each other: Fabian von Bellingshausen, a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy; Edward Bransfield, a captain in the British navy; and Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealer out of Stonington, Connecticut. It is certain that on 28 January 1820 (New Style), the expedition led by Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev on two ships reached a point within 20 miles (40 km) of the Antarctic mainland and saw ice-fields there. On 30 January 1820, Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland, while Palmer sighted the mainland in the area south of Trinity Peninsula in November 1820. Bellingshausen's expedition also discovered Peter I Island and Alexander I Island, the first islands to be discovered south of the circle.
Only slightly more than a year later, the first landing on the Antarctic mainland was arguably by the American Captain John Davis, a sealer, who claimed to have set foot there on 7 February 1821, though this is not accepted by all historians.
In December 1821, Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealer looking for seal breeding grounds, sighted what is now known as the Antarctic Peninsula, located in the continent's northwestern quadrant. In 1823, James Weddell, a British sealer, sailed into what is now known as the Weddell Sea.
The first person to realize that he had actually discovered a whole continent was Charles Wilkes, the commander of a United States Navy expedition. His 1840 voyage discovered what is now known as Wilkes Land, on the southeast quadrant of the continent.
After the North Magnetic Pole was located in 1831, explorers and scientists began looking for the South Magnetic Pole. One of the explorers, James Clark Ross, a British naval officer, identified its approximate location, but was unable to reach it on his trip in 1841. Commanding the British ships Erebus and Terror, he braved the pack ice and approached what is now known as the Ross Ice Shelf, a massive floating ice shelf over 100 feet (30 m) high. His expedition sailed eastward along the southern Antarctic coast discovering mountains which were since named after his ships: Mount Erebus, the most active volcano on Antarctica, and Mount Terror.
In 1897, an expedition led by Belgian Adrian de Gerlache left Antwerp, Belgium for Antarctica. The multi-national crew included a Romanian zoologist (Emil Racoviţă), a Polish geologist (Henryk Arctowski), a Belgian navigator/astronomer (George Lecointe), several Norwegians, including Roald Amundsen, and an American surgeon, Dr. Frederick Cook. In 1898, they became the first men to spend winter on Antarctica, when their ship Belgica became trapped in the ice. They became stuck on 28 February 1898, and only managed to get out of the ice on 14 March 1899. During their forced stay, several men lost their sanity, not only because of the Antarctic winter night and the endured hardship, but also because of the language problems between the different nationalities. A year later a British expedition commanded by Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink became the first to intentionally spend winter on the continent itself. These expeditions marked the start of the era called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
In 1903, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition established Osmond House, a meteorological observatory on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. A year later, ownership of the base was passed to Argentina and it was renamed to Orcadas Base. It is the continent's oldest permanent base, and, until World War II, the only one present.
Ernest Shackleton, who had been a member of Scott's expedition, organized and led the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition (1907–09), again with the primary objective of reaching the South Pole. It came within 180 km (97 nautical miles) before having to turn back. During the expedition, Shackleton discovered the Beardmore Glacier and was the first to reach the polar plateau. Parties led by T. W. Edgeworth David also became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole.
On 14 December 1911, a party led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen from the ship Fram became the first to reach the South Pole, using a route from the Bay of Whales (his camp Polheim and up the Axel Heiberg Glacier. Amundsen was followed by Robert Falcon Scott from the Terra Nova over a month later, using the route pioneered by Shackleton. Scott's party later died on the return journey after being delayed by a series of accidents, bad weather, and the declining physical condition of the men. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was later named after these two men.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914, led by Ernest Shackleton, set out to cross the continent via the pole, but their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed by pack ice before they even landed. The expedition members survived after an epic journey on sledges over pack ice to Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others crossed the Southern Ocean, in an open boat called James Caird, and then trekked over South Georgia to raise the alarm at the whaling station Grytviken.
US Navy Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd led five expeditions to Antarctica during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He overflew the South Pole with pilot Bernt Balchen on November 28 and 29, 1929, to match his overflight of the North Pole in 1926. Byrd's explorations had science as a major objective and pioneered the use of aircraft on the continent. Byrd is credited with doing more for Antarctic exploration than any other explorer. His expeditions set the scene for modern Antarctic exploration and research.
In 1946, Admiral Byrd and more than 4,700 military personnel returned to Antarctica in an expedition called Operation Highjump. Reported to the public as a scientific mission, the details were kept secret and it may have actually been a training or testing mission for the military. The expedition was, in both military or scientific planning terms, put together very quickly. The group contained an unusually high amount of military equipment, including an aircraft carrier, submarines, military support ships, assault troops and military vehicles. The expedition was planned to last for eight months but was unexpectedly terminated after only two months. With the exception of some eccentric entries in Admiral Byrd's diaries, no real explanation for the early termination has ever been officially given.
Captain Finn Ronne, Byrd's executive officer, returned to Antarctica with his own expedition in 1947–1948, with Navy support, three planes, and dogs. Ronne disproved the notion that the continent was divided in two and established that East and West Antarctica was one single continent, i.e. that the Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea are not connected. The expedition explored and mapped large parts of Palmer Land and the Weddell Sea coastline, and identified the Ronne Ice Shelf, named by Ronne after his wife Edith Ronne. Ronne covered 3,600 miles by ski and dog sled—more than any other explorer in history. The Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition discovered and mapped the last unknown coastline in the world and was the first Antarctic expedition to ever include women.
During the International Geophysical Year of 1957, a large number of expeditions to the Antarctic were mounted.
In 1956, a United States Navy expedition set up the first permanent base at the South Pole, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, by airlift, to support the International Geophysical Year. In 1958, Edmund Hillary's party in the New Zealand party of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition became the third group in history to reach the South Pole by land, and the first group of motor vehicles to reach the pole. The British team led by Vivian Fuchs, met them at the pole shortly afterwards. The expedition completed the first overland crossing of the continent by land via the South Pole. New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary reached the Pole in early January 1958 using farm tractors equipped for polar travel, the first party since Scott's to reach the South Pole overland. Hillary was laying supply depots as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition and in typical Hillary style "detoured" to the pole because the trip had gone well. British explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs then arrived at the Pole from the opposite direction later in January, meeting Hillary. Fuchs continued on, making use of the provisions that Hillary had stored, and on 2 March succeeded in reaching Scott Base, completing the overland transpolar crossing that Shackleton had envisaged.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed on 1 December 1959 and came into force on 23 June 1961. Among other provisions, this treaty limits military activity in the Antarctic to the support of scientific research.
Børge Ousland, a Norwegian explorer, finished the first unassisted Antarctic solo crossing on January 18, 1997.