As the southernmost continent on Earth, Antarctica is one of those places we know little about. Because of how remote it is, and the sort of terrain there, it is sparsely populated. It is all at once the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and, throughout the year around 2,000 people reside there in research stations. We are constantly striving to know more about Antarctica, and it has a truly fascinating history.
To learn more about Antarctica, we must first look at how the continent came about, and the role it played throughout history. Antarctica is the polar opposite of the Arctic Circle, situated in the North Pole. We all know the popular (though inaccurate) claim that Christopher Columbus discovered America. But, can you name the people who discovered Antarctica? Probably not. But then, that’s true of most people, so we’re going to look more closely at the history of the Earth’s least populated continent.
Back in the day
It’s speculated that Polynesians made canoe journeys to the Antarctic as far back as 650 AD though this is unlikely. It’s more probable that European explorers actually discovered the continent some while later. Way back when, there were theories, whisperings, of a giant continent known as Terra Australis, which many people believed existed in the Southernmost part of the world. Many explorers spoke of ice islands directly south of South America, but it wasn’t until 1773 when anyone actually experienced it.
That was the year in which intrepid explorer James Cook and his crew circumnavigated the Antarctic Circle. Though he never spotted the continent, he did pass close by it and was far enough South to know there was land over the South Pole. During his expedition, Cook made a note of the large numbers of whales and seals he encountered. This was a big deal at the time, as people would often extract oil from marine animals. This set in motion events that would eventually lead, indirectly, to the discovery of Antarctica.
The continent is discovered
Sealers (those who hunted seals) began to take voyages to the South Pole to check out Cook’s claims of vast numbers of seals and whales. Not only did they find him to have been right, but, they also came across a brand new continent – Antarctica. In 1820, an American sealer named Nathanial Palmer is thought to have been the first person to sight Antarctica, though this is widely disputed. What is more accepted is that a sealing crew from the US made a landing in Antarctica in 1821.
By the late 1800s, explorations of Antarctica were underway, and the aim was a race to reach the South Pole first. The most famous person to have taken part in this was Englishman Robert Scott, but it was actually a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen who was the victor, in 1912. Since this time there have been many other expeditions to the Antarctic, by sea and air, and attempting to claim some of the territory became an obsession for many people – Hitler even tried to become involved!
The Antarctic is still such a mystery to us because it’s just so cold. Yes, there are plenty of people living there in research facilities to study the area, but there will never be a steady population on the continent, at least not anytime soon. Nevertheless, Antarctica is still a wild, fascinating place, and we should always look to know more about it.