Antarctica explored

February 11, 2011

Detail of Antarctic coastline, from Wilkes Map (1840). (Source: New Zealand History Online)

After the first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula, in 1821, further exploration proceeded slowly. A number of expeditions, often government sponsored, explored the waters around Antarctica, discovering the main island groups and mapping sections of the Antarctic coastline. It became gradually clear that there was a large continent at the Pole, not just a group of islands. Brief landings were made here and there, but no substantial exploration of the interior was undertaken.

In the 1840s a British naval expedition led by James Clark Ross made a bold approach to the continent. Ross was a seasoned polar explorer who, a decade previously, had been the first to reach the North Magnetic Pole. On his Antarctic expedition he ploughed through a very substantial ice pack and broke through to a previously undiscovered bay, now known as the Ross Sea in his honour. He charted the region carefully, and that area eventually became the preferred landing place for the later, more famous, British expeditions.

James Clark Ross in profile, with a map of the Ross Sea. (Source: Antarctic Overseas Exchange Office)

From roughly the turn of the twentieth century to roughly the end of the 1920s, a period now called the “heroic age” of exploration, there was a flurry of Antarctic activity. Expeditions from Britain, France, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Australia, and Norway all made their way to the southern continent, with various ambitions and various degrees of success. It would be too tedious and time-consuming for me to enumerate each of these expeditions — Wikipedia, in any case, lays things out very clearly — but let me draw attention to a few highlights:

  • In 1899 the British Southern Cross Expedition, led by Carsten Borchgrevink, was the first to spend a winter on the Antarctic mainland.
  • In 1902-3 the British Discovery Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, set a new record by trekking south to latitude 82°17′.
  • In 1908-9 the British Nimrod Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton, reached latitude 88°23′ before being forced to turn back. Other expedition members reached the South Magnetic Pole.
  • Late in 1911 a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole. Members of the British Terra Nova Expedition, again led by Robert Falcon Scott, achieved the same goal early in 1912. More on that anon.

As is clear from this brief list, the principal achievements were made mostly by the British. In those days before the First World War the idea of British Empire was still a living one, and they seem to have regarded Antarctica as somehow their own — not in any formal sense, but almost naturally. Few others, in any case, were willing to mount the effort required. I find it interesting to see that the Americans were entirely absent from Antarctic exploration in this period.

Before the month is through, I’ll return to some of these expeditions to look at them more closely. Without this post, however, there would have been an awkward gap between the initial discovery of the continent and the particular events of particular expeditions. I hope that the gap has been at least partially papered over now.

3 Responses to “Antarctica explored”

  1. KathyB Says:

    Which bank issues the Antarctica $2 bill? And what is it worth in Canadian $?
    (I thought the only preson who had ever issued antarctic currency was me, as a 10 year old)

  2. KathyB Says:

    Aha – I found that I can link from the photo. I think these people have a lot in common with the 10-year-old version of me. But I think my flag for Antarctica was cooler.

  3. cburrell Says:

    So you’ve discovered that it is not legal tender, just a souvenir.

    If an Antarctic flag should be anything, it should be cool.


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