Antarctica History: Past and Present

The idea of a large southern continent first appeared in the Greek writings of both Pythagoras and Aristotle. It was believed the earth would topple if a sizable landmass did not exist to balance out the northern continents. Today, we refer to that region as Antarctica.

Although Captain James Cook was the first recorded explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773, he was not the first to see Antarctica's landmass. That acclaim would go to Russian Fabian van Bellinshausen fifty years later. Cook's accounts of the large seal and whale populations, however, helped influence further exploration of the Southern Ocean from sealers in search of the mammals' valued skins. In the 19th century over one thousand sealing ships traveled to the Antarctic regions and its shoreline.

In the early 20th century, reaching the South Pole became a top priority for explorers. The first expeditions to actually declare the South Pole as their primary purpose were led by Robert F. Scott in 1902, and Irishman Ernest Shackleton in 1908. Neither would reach their desired destination, but Shackleton came frustratingly close, just 97 miles from the Pole before terminating his crusade. Norwegian Roald Amundsen would be the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911.

Shackleton had failed in his quest for the South Pole, but he returned to the continent in 1914 to claim a new prize: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. With a crew of 27, they set sail in early December. A month into the expedition, their ship, Endurance, was trapped and slowly crushed by pack ice. Salvaging what supplies they could, the crew was forced to abandon the ship, and struggle to stay alive in one of the most inhospitable environments in the world. The men would endure sub-zero temperatures and starvation for nearly 20 months, with no communication to the outside world. Incredibly, not a single man would be lost. Shackleton's journey of survival would become one of the most noted in Antarctica's history.

Interest in Antarctica continued through the World Wars and into the Cold War. At that time, an American training facility was created to give US troops experience in polar conditions. In early spring of 1954, the first permanent scientific station was established by the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions.

No single nation controls Antarctica, nor does the continent have any nations of its own. The Antarctic Treaty governs Antarctica. Originally signed in 1961 by 12 nations (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Union of South Africa, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and United States of America) it now contains the signature of 44 countries. The treaty recognizes Antarctica's unique position on the planet as a shared environment to be used for peaceful purposes, and international cooperative scientific research. Together, Antarctica would be used in the interests of all human progress and to better humankind.

The treaty still holds strong today. Nations from all over the world have established research stations throughout the continent, many times working together on coordinated projects. This essentially untouched and undisturbed region offers scientists many advantages over anywhere else on earth. Fields of study currently being researched include aeronomy, biology, the Greenhouse Effect, oceanography, and terrestrial life. Exploration of the continent has also inspired researchers to look toward the stars; astronomy and meteorology are two of the major disciplines currently studied. It is interesting to think where Antarctica will lead us next.