Discovering Antarctica

Antarctica was discovered last of the seven continents. Early explorers endeavored to prove that it was there. Some hoped to find new territory to hunt for seals and whales. Other explorers desired to be the first to reach the continent and the South Pole. Since the discovery of Antarctica, there have been over 300 expeditions. Today, the white continent and the Southern Ocean are a unique ‘natural laboratory’ for vital scientific research, important in its own right and impossible to achieve elsewhere on the planet.

A map of Antarctica, drawn in 1991.
A map of Antarctica, drawn in 1911.

1772: Captain James Cook from England is the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle by ship. But heavy ice prevents him from ever reaching land.

1820: on two different expeditions, Edward Bransfield and William Smith of Britain and Fabian Bellinghausen of Russia first set eyes on the new continent.

Late 1800’s to 1900: many expeditions attempt to land on the continent and explore it. Many fail, trapped in pack ice and halted by the cold, snow blindness and/or scurvy. During this heroic age of Antarctic exploration, the first bases on the continent were established, already with scientific aims.

December 14, 1911: Roald Amundsen of Norway becomes the first person to reach the South Pole.

January 18, 1912: Captain Robert Falcon Scott of Britain reaches the South Pole to discover he has been beaten by Amundsen. The Englishmen and his team members freeze to death on the return trip when they run into a terrible blizzard.

1914-18: Ernest Shackleton leads a famed British expedition on the Endurance in an attempt to complete the first crossing of the continent. The ship is crushed by ice and destroyed. The team drifts on ice masses for five months before being rescued.

The Endurance was crushed in ice and sank in November 1915

1947: The United States sends the largest ever expedition of over 4700 men, 13 ships and 23 airplanes to Antarctica. Most of the coast is photographed for cartography.

1957-58: It is the International Geophysical Year. Twelve nations establish over 50 stations in Antarctica. Today, Antarctica is ideal for studying a myriad of topics, such as ecosystems and biodiversity, evolution, atmosphere, ice, ice dynamics and ice sheets, climate, palaeoclimate and climate change, space weather, geology and geophysics, palaeo environments, and polar ocean.

1959: The Antarctic Treaty is signed, stating in particular that it is «in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.”

1991: the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty is agreed upon in 1991 and is implemented in 1998. It is best known for its ban on commercial mining in Antarctica; it also protects Antarctic flora and fauna, sets the rules for waste disposal and management, protects against marine pollution; and provides

special area and heritage protection.

1994: the last dogs are removed from Antarctica. Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty Environmental Protocol, all non-indigenous species are to be removed from Antarctica because of potential threat to indigenous species.

2014: scientists set six priorities for Antarctica research: define the global extent of the Antarctic atmosphere and Southern Ocean; understand how, where and why ice sheets lose mass; reveal Antarctica’s history; learn how Antarctic life evolved and survived; observe space and the Universe; recognize and mitigate human influences.

Sources: Time for Kids, British Antarctic Survey, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research,