A Brief History Of Antarctica

~350 BCE

The name Antarctica was created by the Greeks and is the Romanized version of the word ανταρκτική (antarktiké), which means "opposite to the north". Aristotle knew of the existence of the Arctic to the north and hypothesized by his mathematical thinking of symmetry that there must be a land mass to the south to balance the world.


150 CE

Claudius Ptolemaeus (known as Ptolemy in English) was a Roman citizen of Egypt who wrote in Greek. He was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer and poet. One of Ptolemy's main works was his Geographia which was a compilation of what was known about the world at that time and included "Terra Australis Incognita" or "unknown southern land".



British Astronomer Edmund Halley leads an expedition south into the Atlantic Ocean and discovers the 'convergence' where the transition from the Atlantic to the Southern Ocean is marked by a rapid drop in sea and air temperatures. He observed large flat-topped, tabular icebergs often mistaken for islands.


February 1772

In 1772 a French expedition led by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec,

sailed to the Antarctic, in search of the fabled Terra Australis. The expedition discovered the Kerguelen Islands and took possession of various territories for France. On his retrun to France he greatly overestimated the value of the Kerguelen Islands. He was sent on a second expedition, again reaching Kerguelen. By this time, it had become clear that the islands were desolate useless, and not the Terra Australis he was searching for. On returning to France, Kerguelen-Trémarec was sent to prison but during the French Revolution he was again released.


November 1772-March 1775

With the question remaining as to whether there was another continent in the unexplored south led the British Admiralty to appoint James Cook to take an expedition south to find out. The ships Resolution and Adventure left Plymouth on July 13, 1772 on a three year voyage. On December 11 the crew of the Adventure thought they had found the southern continent but they had just sighted a massive iceberg and found themselves at the edge of the endless ice pack on the following day. It is believed that this was the ships were the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773. Due to winter approaching the expedition headed north again to explore the South Pacific.


Cook again headed south on November 27, 1773 but on January 30, 1774 ran up against pack ice which "extended east and west far beyond the reach of our sight, while the southern half of the horizon was illuminated by rays of light which were reflected from the ice to a considerable height...It was indeed my opinion that this ice extends quite to the Pole, or perhaps joins to some land to which it has been fixed since creation". The expedition spent another one and a years voyaging before returning to England arriving on July 30, 1775. During that time the expedition also discovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Based on the findings of the expedition, governments turned their attentions elsewhere. It was the owners of whaling fleets in Europe and America who were drawn to the southern waters based on the constant reference in Cooks journals to large numbers of seals and whales that were encountered during the voyages. So it was not the explorers, who now prepared themselves for exploration into the Antarctic waters but the whaling fleets.


February 1819

William Smith (1775 - after 1847) was a British merchant sea captain who during a voyage from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso on the Williams and spotted a new land at 62° West on February 19, 1819. He did not land on this voyage but retuned again on October 16 and landed on the largest island which he named King George Island.  He named the archipelago after the Shetland Islands north of Scotland. The following year, 1820, the Royal Navy chartered the Williams and sent Smith and Lieutenant Edward Bransfield to survey the newly discovered islands, which also led to the discovering the Antarctic Peninsula.



December 25, 1819

The first seal hunters started to arrive in South Shetland Islands.


January 28, 1820

Russian Czar Alexander I authorized an expedition to the south polar region in 1819. Fabian Gottlieb Benjamin von Bellingshausen, a Russian naval officer, was selected to lead it. The expedition left Portsmouth on September 5, 1819 with two ships, the Vostok and the Mirnyi. On January 28, 1820 the expedition discovered the Antarctic mainland approaching the Antarctic coast. The Bellingshausen Sea along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula was named after the naval captain.


February 7, 1821

The first documented landing on the mainland of Antarctica was by some of the crew of American sealer John Davis in West Antarctica on 7 February 1821, when he put some men ashore to look for seals. Some historians dispute this claim.


February 20, 1823

James Weddell was a British sealer who set out on a hunting voyage aboard the Jane along with the Beaufoy captained by Matthew Brisbane. A poor resulting hunt around the South Orkneys drove them further south. A mild season allowed them to sail to 74° 15' S, 34° 16' W the southernmost position any ship had ever reached. The Weddell Sea and Weddell Islands were named after him.


November 1840 - April 1841

Another British expedition of James Clark Ross breaks through pack ice to enter the Ross Sea, discovers Cape Adare, Admiralty Range, Ross Island, Mount Erebus, and chart the Great Ice Barrier for 300 miles. This voyage establishes the new farthest south record of 78°S.


November 1841 - February 1842

The Ross Expedition charts more of the Great Ice Barrier and establishes a new farthest south record of 78°09'S.


February 6, 1874

HMS Challenger, a British steamship, enters the Antarctic Circle, the first steamship to ever do so. Rocks are dredged from the ocean floor suggesting the presence of a continental land mass further south.



An expedition by Anton Carl Larsen discovers Larsen Ice Shelf (on which skis were used for first time).


January 19, 1895

A Norwegian whaling expedition puts Hynrik Bull, Carsten Borchgrevink and four others ashore at Cape Adare. It was believed to be the first landing on Antarctica until 1952, when the 1821 landing by American sealers came to light.


July 1895

The sixth International Geographical Congress held in London proclaimed that "exploration of the Antarctic Regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken." The "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration was to begin.


1897 - 1899

The Belgian Antarctic Expedition led by Belgian naval officer Adrienne de Gerlache and including Roald Amundsen, began as a summer scientific expedition on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. De Gerlache pushed the expedition south late into the season, and as a result in March 1898, the Belgica became locked in the sea ice; drifting with the ice floe for thirteen months in the Bellinghausen Sea before getting free. The crew weren't prepared for having to overwinter so it was a difficult time both mentally and physically. However the scientific members of the team continued to collect valuable data for an entire Antarctic year.
Another benefit of their misfortune was to learn a lot about overwintering that would be invaluable to later expeditions.


1898 - 1900

The Southern Cross Expedition, officially known as the British Antarctic Expedition, was the first British venture of the Heroic Age of Exploration. The expedition was led by Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian born explorer and schoolmaster.
This was a very important, although somewhat forgotten expedition. It was the first expedition to over-winter on the Antarctic mainland at Cape Adare, the first to visit the Great Ice Barrier since James Clark Ross in 1840-43, and the first to carry out a landing on the Barrier's surface. It was also the first to use dogs and sledges in Antarctic travel. It also set a new Farthest South record at 78°50'S, and established the most accurate location of the South Magnetic Pole.

On returning to England in 1900 the expedition did not receive the same accolade as later expeditions due in part to resentment from the London geographical establishment. They had planned their own National Antarctic Expedition.
Borchgrevink was never accorded the heroic status of Scott or Shackleton, considering the groundbreaking achievements in Antarctic survival and travel. His expedition was soon forgotten to the other Heroic Age explorer's dramatic voyages.


Roald Amundsen, conqueror of the South Pole in 1911 did acknowledge that Borchegrevink's expedition had removed the greatest obstacles to Antarctic travel, and had opened the way for all the expeditions that followed.


1901 - 1903

The first German South Polar expedition was led by Erich Dagobert von Drygalski, a German geographer, geophysicist and polar scientist. Drygalski ship was the Gauss. The purpose of the expedition was to explore the unknown area of Antarctica lying south of the Kerguelen Islands. A small party of the expedition was also stationed on the Kerguelen Islands, while the main party travelled further south. 

The expedition also visited Heard Island and provided the first comprehensive scientific information on the island's geology, flora and fauna. This expedition was also trapped by ice and spent for nearly fourteen months there until February 1903. During that time though, the expedition discovered new territory in Antarctica including Kaiser Wilhelm II Land and the Gaussberg volcano.


1901 - 1904

The British National Antarctic Expedition, generally known as the Discovery Expedition, was the first official British exploration of the Antarctic regions since James Clark Ross's voyage sixty years earlier. It was organized by a joint committee of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society and led by Robert Falcon Scott.


This expedition aimed to carry out scientific research and geographical exploration in the largely untouched continent. It was this voyage that launched the careers of many of the leading figures in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly.


On December 30, 1902 Scott, Shackleton and Wilson set the Farthest South record at 82°17'S on the "Great Ice Barrier" (the Ross Ice Shelf).


1901 - 1904

A Swedish Antarctic Expedition led by Otto Nordenskjöld and Carl Anton Larsen on board the Antarctic was to drop Nordenskjöld's group off at their wintering station which turned out to be Snow Hill Island. The plan then called for the Antarctic and it's remaining crew to carry out research in the region during the summer and autumn before returning the following year to pick up Nordenskjöld and his men.

Nordenskjöld and his party were dropped at Snow Hill Island. The Antarctic then travelled back to winter over at the Falklands. On November 5, 1902 they left to return and pick up the wintering party. The ship ran into problem and decided to drop a three man party at Hope Bay to set up a possible alternative wintering depot in the event that they didn't reach Snow Hill Island.


Soon after, the ship became icebound resulting in the crew abandoning ship before it sank. What followed was another incredible story of survival of three different groups of men, Nordenskjöld and his party on Snow Hill Island, the three man team put ashore at Hope Bay and the remainder of the crew from the Antarctic who were stranded on Paulet Island. They were finally rescued in November 1903.

The expedition parties explored much of the eastern coast of Graham Land, including Cape Longing, James Ross Island, the Joinville Island group, and the Palmer Archipelago. The expedition also recovered valuable geological and marine animal samples, earning Nordenskjöld lasting fame at home, but its huge cost left him greatly in debt.


1903 - 1904

The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition was organised and led by William Speirs Bruce on board the Scotia. The expedition was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that the Discovery Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott was happening at the same time. Nevertheless this Scottish expedition completed a full programme of exploration and scientific work including the establishment of the first manned meteorological station, in the Antarctic territory, and the discovery of new land to the east of the Weddell Sea. The biological and geological specimens collected, along with those from Bruce's earlier travels, led to the establishment of the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in 1906.

This expedition has been described as "by far the most cost-effective and carefully planned scientific expedition of the Heroic Age". But despite this recognition, William Speirs Bruce never received any formal recognition from the British Government. The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition's permanent memorial is the Orcadas weather station, which was set up in 1903 as "Omond House" on Laurie Island, South Orkneys, and has been in continuous use ever since.


1907 - 1909

The Nimrod Expedition was the first of three expeditions to the Antarctic led by Ernest Shackleton. The main focus was to be first to the South Pole. This wasn't achieved, but the expedition's southern march reached the farthest south latitude of 88°23′S, just 97.5 nautical miles (180.6 km; 112.2 mi) from the pole.


A separate group led by Edgeworth David and including Alistair Mackay, and Douglas Mawson, reached the estimated location of the South Magnetic Pole, and the expedition also achieved the first ascent of Mount Erebus, Antarctica's second highest volcano. 


1910 - 1912

A Norwegian expedition to Antarctica led by Roald Amundsen aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole. The expedition was a success arriving at the pole on December 14, 1911, beating Robert Falcon Scott and his ill-fated party by thirty-five days. Five members of the Norwegian expedition reached the pole, Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting. The Amundsen South Pole Expedition was based at the Bay of Whales on the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf.


1910 - 1911

The Terra Nova Expedition was led by Robert Falcon Scott with the aim of being first to reach the South Pole. Scott, Henry Robertson Bowers, Evans, Oates and Wilson reached the pole on 17 January 1912 but they found that the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beat them by 33 days. Sadly Scott's entire party died on the return journey from the pole. The bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers were found in their tent along with journals and photographs by a search party eight months later. Evans and Oates bodies were never found. The Terra Nova Expedition was based on Ross Island at western end of Ross Ice Shelf.



1911 - 1914

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition was led by the Australian geologist Douglas Mawson. He planned the expedition to chart the 2000-mile long coastline of Antarctica to the south of Australia.

The expedition built their main base at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, where eighteen men spent the winter of 1912 and seven spent the winter of 1913. The huts still stand and are now managed as an historic site by the Australian Antarctic Division.

The expedition is best known for one of the most harrowing survival stories of all time when three men, Mawson, Mertz and Ninnis set off on a sledging trip from which only Mawson was to return.


1914 - 1916

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition or the Endurance Expedition, was conceived and led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. The objective of the expedition was to attempt the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. 

As the South Pole had been achieved by Roald Amundsen in 1911, the crossing from sea to sea remained, as Shackleton's put it, the "one great main object of Antarctic journeyings". The expedition failed to complete the objective, but instead was recognised as one of the most epic journeys of endurance.

The ship Endurance became held in the pack ice in the Weddell Sea and despite efforts to free her she drifted northward through the Antarctic winter of 1915. The ship was crushed and sunk stranding the 28-man party on the ice. Spending months in makeshift camps, man-hauling the lifeboats, the ice continued drifting northwards. The party decided to take to the lifeboats to the open water to reach the inhospitable, uninhabited Elephant Island. 


In a further effort to try get rescued Shackleton, with Worsley as navigator, Crean, McNish, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy made an epic 800-mile (1,300 km) open-boat journey in the James Caird to reach South Georgia. The rest of the crew were to await rescue on Elephant Island.


Arriving on the south side of South Georgia, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean then had to cross the uncharted interior to reach the whaling station at Stromness which in itself was a very dangerous undertaking and turned out to be a treacherous journey. Vincent and McNish stayed behind due to poor health along with McCarthy to care for them.

Shackleton, Worsley and Crean eventually reached the station and the first task was to mount a rescue for the three men on the other side of the island. Following that he attempted to mount a rescue of the men waiting on Elephant Island which was completed successfully on 30 August,1916 with no loss of life.



On 15th April, 1928 Hubert Wilkins and his pilot Carl Ben Eielson made a trans-Arctic crossing from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen, arriving about 20 hours later on 16 April, touching along the way at Grant Land on Ellesmere Island.
Using the same plane, a Vega, Wilkins and Eielson now travelled south to explore Antarctica. They arrived at Deception Island on the Graham Land Peninsula in November 1928.


Their flights exploring the Graham Land Peninsula were the first time anyone had flown a plane in Antarctica. Wilkins had planned, if possible, to fly to the South Pole, but on Deception Island he was unable to find a runway long enough to get the Vega into the air with sufficient fuel to complete the distance. Nevertheless it was the first time in history undiscovered land was mapped from a plane. 



Although Hubert Wilkins was the first to fly an airplane in Antarctica, he was ahead of Richard Evelyn Byrd, an American US Naval flying instructor and explorer, by only ten weeks. Richard E. Byrd first flew on January 15, 1929. However, these flights, which were made using three different aircraft, a Ford monoplane, Fokker Universal and a Fairchild monoplane, were much more significant as they were made in higher latitudes and were linked to the ground surveys.

The first flight over Antarctica was undertaken by Byrd along with pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot/radioman Harold June, and photographer Ashley McKinley in a Ford Trimotor on November 28, 1929. Because the aircraft was incapable of flying over the Queen Maud Mountains (which rise to over 4,500 metres), Byrd navigated through a gap in the range to reach the ice plateau.



Whaling ships started using aircraft to spot whales and contributed to the exploration of Antarctic Coast.


1933 - 1935

A number of "firsts" were accomplished during the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition; it was the first time that automotive transportation proved to be a valuable asset. Results from the first seismic investigations in Antarctica provided the initial evidence of the extent to which the Ross Ice Shelf was aground or afloat.


On February 1, 1934 the first human voices were transmitted from Little America, the name given to the American base that Byrd established during the first expedition. Later a weekly broadcast was carried over the Columbia Broadcasting System in the United States. This expedition also marked the first time that cosmic rays and meteor observations were taken in such high southern latitudes.


1934 - 1937

The British Graham Land Expedition to Graham Land in Antarctica between 1934 to 1937 was a geophysical and exploration expedition under the leadership of John Riddoch Rymill. The expedition lasted two years and determined that Graham Land was a peninsula. The expedition team used traditional and modern practices as part of their exploration, using both dog teams and motor sledges as well as a single-engine de Havilland Fox Moth aircraft for exploration. 


November 23 - December 5, 1935

Lincoln Ellsworth, an American explorer along with his pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon discovered the Ellsworth Mountains of Antarctica when they made a trans-Antarctic flight from Dundee Island to the Ross Ice Shelf in a Northrop Gamma aircraft named "Polar Star". Hollick-Kenyon demonstrated the practicability of landing and taking off in isolated areas which was a major contribution to the techniques of Antarctic exploration.


1939 - 1940

Richard Evelyn Byrd 's third expedition also known as the United States Antarctic Service Expedition was his first one on which he had the official backing of the U.S. government. The expedition was jointly sponsored by the United States Navy, State Department, Department of the Interior and The Treasury along with donations from the public, corporations and institutions. The expedition carried out extensive studies of geology, biology, meteorology and exploration.


1946 - 1947

Richard Evelyn Byrd 's fourth and final expedition, Operation Highjump, was the largest Antarctic expedition to date. US Navy Secretary James Forrestal assembled a huge amphibious naval force for the Expedition. There were 15 ships in the armada including the flagship USS Mount Olympus, aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea and thirteen US Navy support ships along with six helicopters, six flying boats, two seaplane tenders and fifteen other aircraft. The were a total of 4000 personnel involved. They arrived in the Ross Sea on December 31, 1946, and made aerial explorations of an area equalling half the size of the United States.  As part of the multinational collaboration for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957-58, Byrd commanded the U.S. Navy Operation Deep Freeze I in 1955-56, which established permanent Antarctic bases at McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales, and the South Pole.


1947 - 1948

Finn Ronne, an American explorer, originally from Norway, led the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, the last privately sponsored expedition from the United States. The expedition explored and mapped the last unknown coastline on earth and determined that the Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea were not connected.

The expedition, which operated from a base at Stonington Island was the first to take women to over-winter. Finn Ronne's wife, Edith Ronne was correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance and chief pilot Darlington also took his wife.


1949 - 1952

The Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition was the first Antarctic expedition to involve an international team of scientists. The expedition was led by John Schjelderup Giæver, a Norwegian scientist. The goal was to establish whether climatic fluctuations observed in the Arctic were also occurring in the Antarctic. Their base known as Maudheim was established on the Quar Ice Shelf in February 1950. 


1955 - 1956

Operation Deep Freeze was the codename given to the American missions to

Antarctica, beginning with "Operation Deep Freeze I" in 1955-56, "Operation Deep Freeze II", "Operation Deep Freeze III", and so on. This was to mark the beginning of constant US presence in Antarctica and "Operation Deep Freeze" has come to be used as a general term for US operations in Antarctica. Richard Evelyn Byrd was in command of the operation but effective control of the operations were under Rear Admiral George Dufek.

On October 31, 1956 - George Dufek boarded a ski-equipped R4D aircraft "Que Sera Sera" piloted by Conrad Shinn. They headed for the South Pole and landed successfully. This was to be the first step to establishing the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.


1957 - 1958

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) - July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958
This marked the end of a long period during the Cold War when scientific interchange between East and West was seriously interrupted. All major countries participated with the exception of China and Taiwan.

The International Geophysical Year (IGY), as it was called, was modelled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933 and allowed scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. 

The IGY encompassed eleven Earth sciences. They were aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude precision mapping, meteorology, oceanography, seismology and solar activity.
The International Geophysical Year leads to the establishment on numerous temporary and permanent Antarctic research stations by many nations.



Between 1908 and 1943, eight nations including the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile, and Argentina claimed large, pie-slice-shaped chunks of Antarctica as their own. In 1959, to prevent escalating disputes over these claims, these nations and four others signed the Antarctic Treaty. Along with several later agreements, known collectively as the Antarctic Treaty System, The Antarctic Treaty System committed signers to peaceful scientific activity and limited military activity to the support of peaceful endeavours such as science.


Some important provisions of the Treaty include:

- Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only (Art. I)
- Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end shall continue (Art. II)
- Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available (Art. III)


The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington on 1st December 1959 by the twelve countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. It entered into force in 1961 and has since been acceded to by many other nations. The total number of Parties to the Treaty is now 48.