From the unknown to scientific research, see how the mystery of Antarctic exploration has unfolded throughout the years.
For years, it had been speculated there was a continent at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, which was dubbed Terra Australis Incognita—Latin for “unknown southern land.” But it wasn’t until the early 19th Century that humans actually reached Antarctica, and its extreme environment made exploring the continent a particularly daunting challenge. Here’s a timeline of the expeditions that amassed knowledge about the coldest continent.
British explorer James Cook spent three years on a quest to find the rumored southernmost continent. He managed to cross the Antarctic Circle, but found the icy Southern Ocean too difficult to navigate. He eventually concluded that even if there was indeed a land mass down there, it simply wasn’t worth the trouble to reach it. But his accounts of plentiful seals in those waters attracted ships full of men who wanted to hunt them.
Motivated by Cook’s accounts of plentiful seals and whales in the Antarctic, several expeditions probed deeper into the mysterious region. A voyage led by Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen was the first to glimpse the continent. But the Russian’s ships weren’t strengthened enough to get through the ice, and he couldn’t get any closer.
American explorer James Davis and his team were the first to actually reach Antarctica, landing on the shoreline of Hughes Bay. But after that, interest in the Antarctic waned for about 50 years, because hunters had slaughtered so much of the seal population that there was little incentive to go there.
Whaling ships began looking southward to find more animals to hunt, triggering a resurgence of interest in the Antarctic. Decades later, just as the U.S. and the Soviet Union would compete in the 1960s Space Race, explorers from various countries strived to become the first to reach the South Pole.
An expedition led by British explorer Robert Scott, Dr. Edward Wilson, and Ernest Shackleton got to within 463 miles of the South Pole. Scurvy, frostbite and a shortage of supplies forced Scott’s team to turn back, and in their desperate struggle to survive, they had to kill and eat their sled dogs.
Another British explorer, Ernest Shackleton, managed to get to within 97 miles of the South Pole six years after Scott’s expedition. But after they ran low on supplies, Shackleton reluctantly decided to turn back rather than risk the lives of his team. As he wrote to his wife Emily: “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”
Two teams—one led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the other by Scott—raced to reach the South Pole. Amundsen, whose men were adept at both skiing and driving dog sleds, managed to cover up to 40 miles each day, and reached the South Pole first. They celebrated the culmination of their 1,400-mile journey across the ice with bottles of champagne. A month later, Scott--whose progress was slower because he did scientific research along the way--arrived and discovered the Norwegian flag that Amundsen had planted. Their disappointment was followed by tragedy, as accidents, bad weather and a shortage of food claimed the lives of Scott and his four companions.
British geologist Sir Douglas Mawson and colleagues Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, who were part of an expedition exploring an unknown section of Antarctica, west of Cape Adare on the Ross Sea, suffered a disaster when Ninnis fell into a crevice and vanished, along with the trio’s food and tools. Mawson and Mertz were forced to eat their sled dogs. Mertz died from vitamin A poisoning after eating dog liver, leaving Mawson alone. The geologist hiked 100 miles to the base camp, just in time to see the expedition’s ship, the Aurora, sailing away. Somehow, he managed to survive nearly a year before finally being rescued.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Shackleton, which aimed to be the first to cross Antarctica by land, nearly ended in disaster. A shipwreck forced the explorer and five of his men to sail more than 800 miles in a small open boat—in the dark of the Antarctic night to reach a supply depot where a ship, the Nimrod, arrived to save them. All of the crew survived, and Shackleton returned to England to a hero’s welcome, and eventually was knighted for his bravery.
The development of the airplane made it possible to explore Antarctica from above, and American aviator Robert Byrd led the way, flying over the South Pole for the first time. Over the next three decades, Byrd made numerous flights over the continent. Byrd also conducted scientific experiments in the Antarctic, and helped shift explorers’ emphasis from finding natural resources to amassing knowledge.
An expedition led by New Zealand explorer Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to visit the South Pole since Scott reached it in 1912, and his team went on to complete the first overland crossing of Antarctica.
Since the 1950s, the establishment of permanent bases in Antarctica has eliminated much of the danger that the early explorers faced. Instead of being driven to venture where no one has gone before, today’s Antarctic explorers are more concerned with advancing scientific knowledge.