Antarctic exploration: basic geography

February 7, 2011

To understand the early exploration of Antarctica, it is worthwhile to take a few minutes to understand the basic geography of the place.

Source: BBC

Antarctica is approximately circular in shape, and is centered roughly over the South Pole. The most significant geographical feature inconsistent with this general picture is the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches north toward South America. Because the Peninsula reaches further north than any other part of the continent it is the easiest to access, and was the first part of Antarctica to be discovered.

Two areas of Antarctica were especially important for early explorers. The first was the Weddell Sea, which fills the large bay east of the Antarctic Peninsula.  I believe that in the winter the Weddell Sea is frozen, but in the summer the water opens up — sometimes — to permit ships passage.  (It was here, during just such an attempt, that Shackleton and the Endurance were frozen into the ice.) The innermost coast of the Weddell Sea is covered by the Ronne Ice Shelf, which is the second largest ice shelf in Antarctica.

The other important area is the Ross Sea, west of the Peninsula. A portion of this sea is permanently frozen into what is called the Ross Ice Shelf (which, as I remarked in an earlier post, is as large as France). It was from this region that the first attempts on the South Pole were made. The Pole-trekkers headed south from the Ross Sea, crossing the ice shelf until they reached a mountaineous escarpment which, once surmounted, deposited them on the Antarctic Plateau, the mostly flat and featureless snow-plain that stretches south to the Pole and beyond. (The escarpment can be seen quite clearly on the RADARSAT image I included in this post.)

Ross Island. South is toward the bottom of the map. (Source: Wikipedia)

On the west side of the Ross Ice Shelf is Ross Island, which is perhaps the single most important site for early Antarctic expeditions. The water on the west side of the Island — on the left in the map above — opens up in summer to permit access, and this was where the bases for several early expeditions were located. Ross Island is notable for the two large volcanos, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, that dominate it. On the south-west of the Island is Hut Point Peninsula, its name derived from the hut built on its southern tip during Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition in 1902. This is also the modern location of McMurdo Station, a research base operated by the United States.

On the east side of the Ross Sea is the Bay of Whales, which is the spot from which Roald Amundsen began his journey to the South Pole.

Location of the Bay of Whales. (Source: Wikipedia)

Admittedly, one can get through life without knowing these things, but if one is to do any reading about Antarctic exploration the basics presented here will stand one in good stead.

4 Responses to “Antarctic exploration: basic geography”


  1. […] and conducted surveys and studies in meteorology, geology, and zoology. Its base was established on Ross Island, at the southern tip of Hut Point Peninsula. The hut in question was constructed by the expedition, […]


  2. […] place, and the Nimrod Expedition set sail. Early in 1908 they established a base at Cape Royds, on Ross Island, and settled in for the winter. As the Antarctic spring came, they prepared for the […]

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