10 Things About History of Antarctica

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The first murder in the history of Antarctica happened earlier this week. Two Russian scientists were involved. One of them, an engineer, stabbed the other, a welder, after the welder kept spoiling the end of the books held by the research station’s library.

The southernmost continent and the least inhabited, Antarctica’s history is brief. “Antarctic” as a term was first used by Greek mathematician and map-maker, Marinus of Tyre, in the second century AD. Amazing, Antarctica was not discovered in an official capacity until January of 1820, when two admirals in the Imperial Russian Navy - Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev - spotted the shoreline of Antarctica during a global circumnavigation exercise.

By the end of 1820, British, American, and French explorers had swarmed the continent, annexing and claiming land for their imperial dominions like there was no tomorrow. It’s quite possible that Antarctica had been known to humans before the official sightings began. Smugglers, hunters, pirates, and others who may have wanted to keep their commercial interests tight-lipped probably avoided the spotlight of discovery and fame for good reason. All speculation aside, once the discovery of Antarctica was announced in 1820, it became a part of the historical record. Here are 10 things to know about the southernmost continent:

10. Commercial and geopolitical interests took precedence in early Antarctic exploration. From discovery onward, until about 1840, the burst of activity in Antarctica from countries like Russia, France, the U.K., Japan, and the United States did not stem from scientific curiosity. It was driven by commercial interests (most countries still had massive, inefficient “trading companies” like the British East India Company, in 1820) and geopolitical considerations (the acquisition of territory was still thought to be strategically advantageous in 1820).

9. After the Ross expedition (1839-43), Antarctic exploration all but disappeared for the next 50-60 years. British Naval officer James Clark Ross led a four-year expedition that was aimed at finding the magnetic South Pole. Ross led two powerful warships into Antarctic waters and spent four years studying as much about the southernmost continent as he and his scientific colleagues possibly could. Ross named two volcanoes after his warships, and some of the botany research done by scientists on the expedition is still used by scientists today.

8. “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” (1897-1922). In the late 19th century, non-commercial interest in Antarctica began to pick up again, in part because because of Europe’s “long peace” and in part because of Europe’s territorial claims in Asia and Africa. Antarctic explorers became national heroes and were lavished with taxpayer-funded prizes. While nationalism was an important driver of this exploratory push, it was completely non-violent. Nineteen people died altogether (mostly of illness, freezing or starvation), but by 1922, technological gains made scientific research and exploration relatively easy.

7. The Norwegians. With five million citizens today, the relatively small society of Norway has played an outsized role in Antarctica’s short history. The logic is easy to follow, though: Norway has a long history with the Arctic earth and Arctic Ocean. Norway produced the first person to reach the reach the South Pole, the first person to be buried in Antarctica, the first person to develop a mental illness in Antarctica, and the first person to ski in Antarctica. Due to Norway’s political status in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (it was part of both Denmark and Sweden until 1905, when it declared unilateral independence), Norwegians performed most of their Antarctic tasks under the flags of imperial powers, though there was one notable exception (discussed below).

6. The Gauss Expedition (1901-03). The Germans got in on the Antarctic act, too, even though Germany only formed as a country in 1871. The Gauss Expedition got trapped by ice for 14 months, but the gas balloon that the Germans brought along was put to good use while they were trapped. The photo above was taken in a balloon the Germans floated above their trapped ship. Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss, by the way, is one of history’s most important mathematicians, and many rank Gauss second only to Newton in mathematical importance.

5. Carl Anton Larsen. A Norwegian by birth, Larsen was responsible for bringing formal whaling interests into Antarctica. Larsen founded the largest whaling station in the Antarctic region, giving it the Swedish name “Grytviken,” and ran it from the British-controlled South Georgia Islands. In other words, a Norwegian founded a Swedish port in British territory, which gives as good an impression of Antarctic society as anything. Larsen was also the first person to ever ski in Antarctica, and has a large ice shelf named after him.

4. Chile and Argentina. These two Latin American countries began claiming territory in Antarctica in the 1940s. The problem was that the territory these two countries claimed were also claimed by the British Empire. The disputes that arose from their claims led to two Antarctic firsts: a visit from a head of state (Chile’s President opened a base in 1948) and a volley of machine gun fire (Argentinian troops fired over the heads of British scientists in 1952). An Argentinian citizen was the first human to be born on Antarctic soil (in 1978). The Latin Americans and the British partially worked out their differences through the Antarctic Treaty System.

3. The race to the South Pole: Amundsen vs. Ross. This is probably the most well-known fact about Antarctica. The Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen beat the British party led by Robert F. Scott by 34 days. Amundsen had previous experience in Antarctica working for an official Belgian expedition that became, by happenstance, the first in history to “overwinter” in Antarctica. Amundsen received a grant from the newly-independent Norwegian government to claim the South Pole, and Scott’s team soon thereafter got a green light from London. The Norwegians all returned home safely, but the British team perished on the way back, knowing they had been beaten by the Scandinavians.

2. Ingrid Christensen. The first woman to set foot on Antarctic soil, Ingrid Christensen is my great, great, great-grandmother on my father’s side, twice removed. Just kidding, just kidding, just kidding. Christensen was the daughter of a wealthy Norwegian shipping magnate, and became part owner (along with her husband) of one of the largest shipping companies in the world when she married. Christensen made four trips to the Antarctic region, and was also the first woman to fly over Antarctica, which she accomplished in 1937.

1. Tourism (and research) today. The short but intense history of Antarctica has led to an interesting state of current affairs: a tourism industry that’s focused on extreme sports and exotic sightseeing. While Argentina pioneered tourism in Antarctica in the 1970s, today every country hosts tourists from around the world hoping to discover something new. Cruise ships lazily peruse the coastlines of Antarctica, and athletes from around the world routinely challenge themselves in Antarctica. Just recently, in 2013, a race to South Pole via cycling was completed, with Maria Leijerstam accomplishing the feat in 10 days. Tourists have skied, bicycled, and walked all over the continent. Scientists have not been left out in the cold, of course. One of the “coolest” things scientists are doing right now is treating Antarctica as they would an alien world, like Mars or Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Have a great weekend!


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