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Exploration Of The Continent

Greek philosopher Aristotle hypothesized more than 2,000 years ago that the earth was round and that the southern hemisphere must have a landmass large enough to balance the lands in the northern hemisphere. He called the probable but undiscovered land mass "Antarktikos," meaning the opposite of the Arctic.

The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy called Antarctica "Terra Australis Incognita" or "unknown southern land" in the second century A.D. He claimed the land was fertile and populated but separated from the rest of the world by a region of torrid heat and fire around the equator. This concept was believed for several centuries, and the continent remained a mystery until James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle and circumnavigated the continent in 1773. While he stated that the land was uninhabitable because of the ice fields surrounding the continent, he noted that the Antarctic Ocean was rich in whales and seals. For the next 50 years, hunters exploited this region for the fur and oil trade.

As hunting ships began traveling farther and farther south in the early 1800s to find fur seals, it was inevitable that the continent would be encountered and explored. Three countries claim first discovery rights to Antarctic land: Russia, due to explorer Fabian von Bellinghausen, on January 27, 1820; England as a result of English explorer Edward Bransfield, on January 30, 1820; and the United States by way of American sealer Nathaniel Palmer, on November 18, 1820. In actuality, American sealer John Davis was the first person to actually step onto the continent, on February 7, 1821.

James Weddell was a sealer who traveled to the continent on January 13, 1823. He found several previously unknown seal species, one of which later became known as the Weddell seal, then took his two ships—the Jane and the Beaufoy—farther south than any explorer had previously traveled. He reached 74° south latitude on February 20, 1823, and the vast sea he had entered became known as the Weddell Sea.

In 1895, the first landing on the continent was accomplished by the Norwegian whaling ship Antarctic. The A glacier system in Antarctica. JLM Visuals. Reproduced by permission. British were the first to spend a winter on Antarctica, in 1899. By 1911, a race had begun to see who would reach the South Pole first: the South Pole is an imaginary geographical center point at the bottom of the earth. Again, it was a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, who was the first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Robert Scott of England and his four men arrived a month later. While the first team made it home safely, the Scott team ran out of food and froze to death on their way home.

Airplanes first landed on Antarctica when Australian Hubert Wilkins flew 1,300 mi (2,092 km) over the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1920s, viewing terrain never before seen by another human. American Richard Byrd, the first person to fly over the North Pole in 1926, took his first Antarctic flight in 1929 and discovered a new mountain range he named Rockefeller. Thereafter, the continent was mapped and explored primarily from the air. Byrd continued his explorations to Antarctica over the next three decades and revolutionized the use of modern vehicles and communications equipment for polar exploration.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ambiguity - Ambiguity to Anticolonialism in Middle East - Ottoman Empire And The Mandate SystemAntarctica - Antarctica—an Overview, Geology, Climate, Plants And Animals, Exploration Of The Continent, Scientific Exploration