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Antarctica - History

Remote, inaccessible, and inhospitable, Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered, and knowledge of the south polar region was accumulated slowly. Until the 20th century the interior of Antarctica was unknown, and even the continental margins had been seen in only a few places. Of the worlds 61,000 nonfiction papers and books published about the Antarctic since the earliest papers dating from the 1600s up to 1997, 91 percent had been published since 1951.

That some great land existed near the South Pole seems to have been guessed at centuries ago. It is hard to see on what the belief rested, but it lasted until Captain Cook's second voyage. The ancients surmised that land existed somewhere below the Equator and this belief descended as a sort of legend in books and maps. There is no apparent evidence, however, to show that, before the third voyage of Amerigo Vespucci, any ideas about the far southern regions were based on anything but imagination.

To Aristotle (384322 BC) must be given the distinction of founding scientific geography - he demonstrated the sphericity of the Earth. Aristotle, too, gave greater definiteness to the idea of zones conceived by Parmenides, who had pictured a torrid zone uninhabited by reason of heat, two frigid zones uninhabited by reason of cold, and two intermediate temperate zones fit for human occupation. Eratosthenes, in fact the Alexandrine philosophers, believed in southern lands. Aratus, Strabo, and Geminus held opinions similar to Aristotle. Pomponius Mela stated that the earth was divided into five zones, of which the middle one is burnt up with heat, those at the ends are frigid with a terrific cold, and that of the remaining two are inhabited.

Pythagoras had speculated as to the existence of antipodes, but it was not until the first approximately accurate measurements of the globe and estimates of the length and breadth of the oekumene were made by Eratosthenes (c. 250 BC) that the fact that, as then known, it occupied less than a quarter of the surface of the sphere was clearly recognized.

Baeda Venerabilis, who was born probably in 672 and died 26 May 735, believed apparently that the poles were regions of eternal cold, because the sun never shone there. In the north he thought there was an ocean, but in the south a great land. Roger Bacon held that the greatest part of the southern hemisphere must be land.

The earliest published maps showing southern lands are in some of the Ptolemies. In the 1478 Ptolemy, the general map of the world gives "Indicum Mare" as a closed sea with a "Terra Incognita "about twenty degrees south of the Equator joining Asia beyond "Magnus Sinus" which is a gulf just beyond "Aurea Chersonesus". But Martin Behaim's famous globe of 1492 shows no antarctic land.

Probably the first discovery of land in the Antarctic was by Amerigo Vespucci. In his letter to Pier Soderini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence, he narrated in his third voyage that, after leaving the coast of South America either in 320 or 400 south latitude, his ship reached 520 south latitude in April 1502 and that they sighted a new and rough coast along which they sailed for twenty leagues. Vespucci wrote "we beheld therein neither any harbor nor any people, because, as I believe, of the cold which was so intense that no one in our fleet could fortify himself against it nor endure it". This discovery does not appear, however, to have attracted much attention at the time.

From the beginning of the sixteenth century until about the middle of the eighteenth century, maps and globes in accordance almost surely with how nearly the cartographer drew from the reported facts or depended on the authority of the past sometimes do and sometimes do not show the great "Terra Australis."

The French geographer, Philip Buache, was the first to introduce isobathic or equal temperature curves in a map published in 1737, and was the first to give serious attention to the study of the conditions of the ocean. Buache, whose name as a geographer is justly celebrated, was the first to fully recognise the great importance of contours, and he prepared a contoured map of the Channel in 1737, and suggested that the same system might profitably be extended to a delineation of the relief of the land.

Buache published Carte des Terres Australes comprises entre le Tropique du Capricorne et le Ple Antarctique o se voyent les nouvelles dcouvertes faites en 1739 au Sud du Cap de Bonne Esperance (Map of the Southern Lands contained between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Pole, where the new discoveries made in 1739 to the south of the Cape of Good Hope may be seen). It happens that there are two versions of the map, both bearing the same date. One shows the southern continent with its central sea, the other does not.

The historian Kenneth J. Bertrand (Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, American Geographical Society, 1971) writes that the success of recent operations in unveiling Antarctica with the aid of modern technology does not negate the importance of earlier efforts. Present accomplishments have been built on the past, developed step by step since 1674, sometimes haltingly and sometimes failing.

Explorations had been conducted for a variety of motives and sometimes accidentally, as was the case of the first discovery south of the Antarctic Convergence (where temperate and polar waters meet) of South Georgia in the 1670s when a commercial ship was blown off course. The true nature of the Antarctic as a frigid region of ice and snow was convincingly proved for the first time by the second voyage of the English navigator, Captain James Cook, between 1772 and 1775. Until then, there was general belief in a large, still undiscovered continent in the southern hemisphere suitable for European settlement. Cook circumnavigated Antarctica, much of his course south of 60S, and crossed the Antarctic Circle in three places. He failed to sight any part of the Antarctic continent, but disproved conclusively the existence of the mythical continent Terra Australis Incognita at latitudes north of 60S. Mariners who followed Cook into high southern latitudes were attracted to the harsh environment by his reports of great numbers of whales and seals, particularly the latter.

In 1820-1821 the American sealer Nathaniel B. Palmer of Stonington, Connecticut, saw the Antarctic Peninsula from his sloop Hero and met the Russian Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen commanding the two ships Vostok and Mirnyy on a major national expedition that circumnavigated Antarctica eastward. Three other great national expeditions were made between 1819 and 1843 by the French Admiral Dumont dUrville, who discovered the Adlie and Clarie coasts in 1840; by US Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who mapped 1,500 miles of Antarcticas coast south of Australia in 1839-1840, proving Antarctica a continent; and by Britains Sir James Clark Ross, who discovered the Ross Sea, Ross Island, and the Ross Ice Shelf in 1841.

Historians have not settled the question of who was first to see land in Antarctica. British, Russian, and US ships all were in the Antarctic Peninsula area in the early 1820s, and the first sighting occurred during that time. The first documented landing on the continent was on 24 January 1895, when the Norwegian whaling ship Antarctic landed a party at Cape Adare on the northern Ross Sea. The party consisted of Captain Leonard Kristensen, second mate Carstens Borchgrevinck, and H. J. Bull, who wrote a book about their adventure. Bull called being first on the Antarctic mainland both strange and pleasurable, although he thought the crew would have preferred to find a Right Whale even of small dimensions.

In 1895 a resolution by the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London promoted Antarctic exploration and set into motion a series of expeditions known now as the Heroic Era. Before the Great War halted this activity, 16 exploring expeditions from Australia, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Scotland and Sweden (but not the US) had visited Antarctica. This activity was exclusive of whalers. The magnitude of this activity was unprecedented for Antarctica, and, considering the state of technology and size of the worlds population and wealth, it probably was greater than that of the mechanical age that followed and comparable to the operations initiated with the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957-1958.

The best known of the Heroic Age expeditions were those led by Roald Amundsen (Norway) and Robert F. Scott (England), who separately reached the geographic South Pole (and were the first to do so) a few weeks apart on 14 December 1911 and 17 January 1912, respectively. Roald Amundsens and Robert Scotts teams arrivals at the South Pole in December 1911 and January 1912 concluded humankinds quest for the highest southern latitude, which had begun centuries earlier with the voyages of Drake, Cook, and others. Personal and national prestige motivated both Amundsen whose tent and flag stand here and Scott, whose party this is. Thus we plant thee, beloved flag, at the South Pole, Amundsen said, and give to the plain on which it lies the name of King Haakon VIIs Plateau. Scott and his party, arriving second, were bitterly disappointed to miss the reward of priority. They died on the return trek to the coast, having carried 31 pounds of geological specimens to the very end.

The International Geophysical Year [IGY], 01 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, was a cooperative endeavor by scientists throughout the world to improve their understanding of the Earth and its environment. Much of the field activity took place in Antarctica, where 12 nations established some 60 research stations. Laurence M. Gould, who was Richard E. Byrds chief scientist in Antarctica in the 1920s and 1930s and later chaired the National Academy of Sciences Polar Research Board and served on the National Science Board, called the IGY the most comprehensive scientific program ever undertaken and the first attempt at a total study of the environment. No field of geophysics, he wrote in 1958, can be understood or complete without specific data available only from this vast continent and its surrounding oceans.

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Page last modified: 10-06-2017 18:28:31 ZULU