Antarctic Exploration

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.


Dear Fellow Explorers,

It's neat to think that there are some places on Earth we have not visited. Many people think of outer space as the next frontier–but there is still much to learn and understand about Antarctica, the deep ocean, the microscopic world–and even our own back yards! Sometimes I wonder if some of the places I work in Antarctica have been visited before; many of the maps we use of the ocean floor have large blank areas and there are no records that they have been explored.

Antarctica was the very last continent discovered. Though its existence was predicted for thousands of years, no one actually knew it was there! In the days of the Greek and Roman philosophers, people imagined that such a continent needed to exist at the bottom of the world to balance the top-heavy Northern Hemisphere. The Greeks named this mythical land "Antarktikos," land "opposite the Bear." The Great Bear constellation of "Arktos" was above the North Pole, and the Greeks and Romans imagined this hypothetical continent being opposite from it. (By the way, that Great Bear is known today as the Big Dipper.)

As explorers began to fan out across the globe from Western Europe, the mythical continent of Antarktikos was the target of many expeditions. The early explorers spent months, sometimes years, at sea searching for the elusive continent. They fought illness, hunger, loneliness, and bad weather, driven by dreams of tropical land masses and riches, seeking to fulfill desires for wealth, national pride, personal fame, and scientific discovery.

In the late 1700's, Captain Cook led a two year expedition that circumnavigated the Southern Ocean–and killed the dream that the Antarktikos was a tropical land mass filled with riches. Cook's crew never even saw Antarctica; they battled through thick pack ice, fog, and bad weather for two years before giving up and returning home to England. Cook and his crew concluded that if the continent did indeed exist, it was farther south, covered with ice, and virtually inaccessible. Despite their grim reports, many expeditions of sealers and whalers set out for the Southern Ocean to find the rich hunting grounds. Interestingly, these expeditions did not add much to our knowledge of the region because they wanted to protect their best fishing spots.

The next phase of exploration was driven by national pride and personal fame. Explorers set out for the glory of their own countries, each striving to be the first to reach the farthest point in the Southern Ocean, the first to discover the South Magnetic Pole, or the even more fertile fishing grounds that could bring wealth to the nation, the first to reach the South Pole, or the first to cross Antarctica.

These early explorers faced incredibly difficult conditions with far less preparation than we have today. The explorers of the 1800's and early 1900's knew far less about the lands they were exploring, and they had less technology to help them. (Of course, what we know now will be overshadowed by our technology and discoveries in the future!) Early explorers did not know the Antarctic environment and did not have the special foods, fabrics, and types of transportation we have in Antarctica today. Their courage, discoveries, and failures provided knowledge that would help future explorers prepare for their expeditions. Scott and his field team perished because, in part, they started for the pole too late in the summer season; knowledge of the seasonal temperature distribution would have aided their planning. Mawson's expedition lost one member and valuable supplies in a crevasse; today's expeditions often have maps of crevasse fields and experienced mountainers. Shackleton's ship Endurance was crushed by sea ice in the Weddell Sea, a difficult region to navigate; sea ice now can be monitored on satellite images and photography acquired by fly-overs, allowing ships to carefully plan their courses.

Scientific exploration, aided by new technology, really got underway in the 1920's. In 1929, Admiral Richard E. Byrd flew over South Pole–it was the first time much of Antarctica had been seen by air! Byrd's expedition ushered in rapid aerial surveys and aerial photos mapping of Antarctica and helped to establish advanced communications by radio.

Until 1950, explorers worked mostly in solitude, and mostly for the glory of just one country. But a group of scientists realized that exhaustive research could only succeed if teams began to pool talents and findings. In 1950 the International Council of Scientific Unions received a proposal for a collaborative study of Antarctica, called the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Sixty-seven countries were to participate, with Antarctic investigation as one of the two objectives–the second objective of the IGY was to explore aspects of outer space. The IGY began in 1957.

The cooperation of the IGY participants, and concerns that countries would make claims on the land, helped to bring about a more lasting form of international government. It began with the creation in 1957 of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) to manage the way scientists in Antarctica shared their research. Today, SCAR continues to offer guidance on issues of Antarctic scientific research and environment.

An even stronger resolution came about in 1959, when representatives of twelve nations met at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C. to create the Antarctic Treaty. The Treaty, which took effect since 1961, outlines international cooperation for scientific study in Antarctica. Among its mandates is the designation of Antarctica as a space for scientific, not military, research. The Treaty also puts aside any claims on Antarctica territories; the treaty does not resolve territorial claims and does not impact any existing claim in any way. In addition, no new claims can be made while the Treaty is in effect.

Today, many views of Antarctic ownership exist, but they fall into four basic groups.

  • Countries that believe Antarctica belongs to no nation, but is available for traditional claims on new territories (Argentina, Chile, Australia, France, New Zealand, Norway, United Kingdom)
  • Countries that do not recognize the claims (above), but reserve the right to make claims in the future (Russia, United States)
  • Countries that neither recognize claims by other countries nor make claims of their own
  • Countries that believe Antarctica is part of the common heritage of all humankind

Under the Antarctic Treaty, no country actually owns Antarctica or parts of Antarctica, and no country can exploit the resources of the continent while the Treaty is in effect. Periodically, the Treaty is reviewed and renewed. Other components are added, after the countries agree. Over time, the Antarctic Treaty has developed into the Antarctic Treaty System. The Antarctic Treaty System includes protection of seals and marine organisms and offers guidelines for the gathering minerals and other resources.

Twenty-six countries–the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties–oversee the Antarctic Treaty System. These nations have always had an active presence in Antarctica, and they maintain voting rights on Antarctic issues. Fifteen nations maintain "observer" status. Observer countries attend the meetings but cannot vote.


original antarctic treaty consultative parties
Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States
additional antarctic treaty consultants
Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States
observer countries
Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Columbia, Cuba, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Papua New Guinea, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Romania, Switzerland, Ukraine

Antarctica's international "government" is truly unique–what other area is totally governed by an international panel? What other region is protected for scientific investigation–for peaceful purposes only? I wonder why we can't use this model of government across the rest of our globe!

Exploration in Antarctica today is vastly different from its beginnings. Perhaps most notably, though the early explorers were all men from Western Europe, today, men and women (including me!) of all nationalities investigate the secrets of this last continent. Today's expeditions are founded on the discoveries made by earlier explorers; they are also made possible with advances in technology, rigid safety training and guidelines, and a cooperative international pursuit of understanding. And yet, while all of this has advanced our ability to comfortably visit this remote continent, the extreme conditions of the coldest, driest, windiest, highest continent, the same conditions that challenged the earlier expeditions, still challenge explorers today!

Well, that's all for now–I'm off to continue my exploration, and I hope you enjoy yours!

All the best,