Antarctica is one of the seven continents of the Earth, and the only one that is not inhabited by humans long-term. Because of the harsh terrain and unforgiving climate, it would be impossible for humans to live here, well, not for a long while at least. There are, of course, research bases dotted about, where scientists stay during their time here.
The history of Antarctica is a fascinating one, and the more we learn about this inhospitable continent, the more we wish to know about it. Looking at who first saw the ice of Antarctica, and who discovered the continent, are just a couple of the interesting things to consider. Here is a short guide to the story of the Earth’s southernmost continent.
Break-up of Gondwana
More than 200 million years ago, Antarctica was not a separate continent. In fact, it was joined together with India, Australia, Africa, New Zealand, and South America, in a massive supercontinent known as Gondwana. Eventually, Gondwana underwent the slow process of separating – due to moving tectonic plates – and the landmasses moved to create separate continents. The Drake Passage opened up, and, eventually, Antarctica settled in its current position as the world’s southernmost continent. However, it would not see human life for quite some time to come.
James Cook was an important figure in the history of Antarctica, namely because he was the first person to successfully circumnavigate the continent. From 1772 to 1775, his government-funded expedition determined that there was land beyond the South Pole. Though he never cited land – we would have to wait until 1820 for this – the discovery proved that there was something there, and set in motion countless explorations and ventures of discovery. Cook also discovered large volumes of whales and seals in the Antarctica Seas, leading to increased interest and private voyages that capitalized on this.
Cook laid the groundwork for the eventual discovery of Antarctica, and the citing of land. This was eventually done by sealers, traveling to the southernmost oceans to secure seals and supply the demand for oil. US sealer Nathaniel Palmer is thought to have been the first person to actually sight Antarctica, in November of 1820. However, this is disputed, and the credit is generally given to Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and his Russian expedition in 1821. However, due to the hostile environment, no landing could take place, and very few successful expeditions occurred for most of the rest of the century. The first official Antarctica landing was believed to have happened in 1895 and was conducted by a team of Norwegian sailors.
As you can see, there is a lot involved in the history of Antarctica, and it is one of the most fascinating continents on Earth. The harsh weather and unmanageable conditions meant that it was not discovered until the late 1800s, and this was even with multiple failed expeditions. It’s clear that, without the discoveries of James Cook, and the determination of sealers, we may never have even known about the existence of Antarctica to begin with.