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History of Antarctica

After splitting from Gondwana, Antarctica drifted slowly to its present position over the South Pole. It has been covered with ice since approximately the beginning of the Pliocene, about 5 million years ago.

In the Western world, beliefs in a Terra Australis -- a vast continent located in the far south of the globe to "balance" out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and north Africa -- had existed for centuries. European maps continued to show this land until Captain James Cook and the crews of his expedition's ships, Resolution and Adventure, crossed the Antarctic Circle three times between 1772 and 1775, dispelling the myth. However, ice packs prevented Cook and his men from seeing the actual continent, which was smaller than had long been thought. In 1513, admiral Piri Reis drew a map that has been said to show part of the Antarctic continent.



The first confirmed sighting of Antarctica cannot be accurately attributed to one single person. It can, however, be narrowed down to three individuals. According to the National Science Foundation[1], United States House of Representatives member Peter DeFazio[2], NASA[3] and the University of California San Diego[4], Fabian von Bellingshausen (a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy), Edward Bransfield (a captain in the British navy), and Nathaniel Palmer (an American sealer out of Stonington, Connecticut) all sighted Antarctica within days or weeks of each other. Bransfield supposedly saw Antarctica on January 27, 1820, three days before Palmer sighted land. For sure is that on January 28, 1820 (New Style) the expedition led by Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev on two ships reached a point within 20 miles (40 km) of the Antarctic mainland and saw ice-fields there. On January 30, Bransfield approached Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland, and went ashore on a pinnace.

The first American landing on Antarctica was arguably only slightly more than a year later by Captain John Davis, a sealer. Davis claimed to have set foot on Antarctica on February 7, 1821[5][6][7].

After the North Magnetic Pole was located in 1831, explorers and scientists began looking for the South Magnetic Pole. One of those explorers, James Clark Ross, identified its approximate location, but was unable to reach it. He also mapped the Ross Ice Shelf, which was later named after him.

In 1897, an expedition led by Belgian Adrian de Gerlache left Antwerp, Belgium for Antarctica. The multi-national crew included a Romanian zoologist (Emile Racovitza ), a Polish geologist (Henryk Arctowski), a Belgian navigator/astronomer (George Lecointe ), several Norwegians, including Roald Amundsen and an American surgeon, Dr. Frederick A. Cook . In 1898, they became the first men to spend the winter on Antarctica, when their ship BELGICA became trapped in the ice. They became stuck on February 28, 1898, and only managed to get out of the ice on March 14, 1899. During their forced stay, several men lost their sanity, not only because of the Antarctic winter night and the endured hardship, but also because of the language problems between the different nationalities.

The National Antarctic Expedition (1901 - 1904), led by Robert Falcon Scott, came to within 857 km (463 nautical miles) of the South Pole.

Ernest Shackleton, who had been a member of Scott's expedition, organized and led the British Antarctic Expedition (1907 - 1909), again with the primary objective of reaching the South Pole, and came within 180 km (97 nautical miles) before having to turn back.

On December 14, 1911, a party led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to reach the South Pole, followed by Robert Falcon Scott over a month later. Scott's party later died on the return journey after being delayed by a blizzard. The Amundsen-Scott base was later named for these two men.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914, led by Ernest Shackleton, set out to cross the continent via the pole, but their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed by pack ice before they even landed. The expedition members survived after an epic journey on sledges over pack ice to Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others crossed the Southern Ocean, in an open boat called the James Caird, and then trekked over South Georgia to raise the alarm at the whaling station Grytviken.

US Navy Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd led five expeditions to Antarctica during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He overflew the South Pole with pilot Bernt Balchen on November 28 and 29, 1929, to match his overflight of the North Pole in 1926. Byrd's explorations had science as a major objective and pioneered the use of aircraft on the continent. Byrd is credited with doing more for Antarctic exploration than any other explorer. His expeditions set the scene for modern Antarctic exploration and research.

It was not until October 31, 1956 that anyone set foot on the south pole again; on that day US Navy Rear Admiral George Dufek[8] (and others) successfully landed a R4D Skytrain (Douglas DC-3) aircraft.

During the International Geophysical Year of 1957 a large number of expeditions were mounted.

New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary led an expedition using farm tractors equipped for polar travel and arrived at the Pole in late 1957, the first expedition since Scott's to reach the South Pole over land. Hillary was laying supply depots for the British Trans-Antarctic expedition and in typical Hillary style "detoured" to the pole because the trip had gone well. Then in 1958, British explorer Vivian Fuchs led a successful overland transpolar expedition that completed the journey that Shackleton had first envisaged.

Antarctic Treaty & Recent History

The Antarctic Treaty was signed on December 1, 1959 and came into force on June 23, 1961.

A baby, named Emilio Marcos de Palma, was born near Hope Bay on January 7, 1978, becoming the first baby born on the continent. He also was born farther south than anyone in history. The mother had been sent there by the Argentine government as to become the first country with a child born there.

On November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 on a sightseeing trip crashed into Mount Erebus on Ross Island, killing all 257 people on board. The accident effectively put an end to commercial airlines operating sightseeing flights to the continent, due to perceived risks and remoteness from search and rescue services.

In March 2002 the 5,500 km2 (2,120 square statute mile) Iceberg B-22 broke off from the Thwaites Ice Tongue and the Larsen B ice-shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, and shattered into small fragments. The ice shelf was 200 metres thick and had a surface area of 3,250 square kilometres.

External links

eBooks on Project Gutenberg

Last updated: 10-11-2005 11:06:45
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