Discovery, exploration and conservation of Antarctica

Antarctica has been terra incognita for most of Earth’s history. The actual discovery of the continent started about 200 years ago. During two centuries mankind succeeded in exploring and gaining access to its remote regions. An impressive international treaty on its use for peaceful purposes and protection has developed since the mid-20th century.

Table of Contents


The quest begins

In the 15th century Europeans developed a great interest in the world beyond Europe. Just like the ancient Greeks, the people at that time believed there must be a massive continent to balance the land masses they knew in the northern hemisphere. They called this unknown continent “Terra Australis” (South Land), and it was drawn in on maps as a mythical landmass at the South Pole long before its discovery. It would be many, many decades, however, until the discovery of the continent.

1519: Ferdinand Magellan sails south along the coast of South America and makes passage to the Pacific Ocean through the strait which was later named after him. He believes the landmass which he discovered in the south (Tierra del Fuego) to be the northern tip of Terra Australis.

1578: Francis Drake discovers that Tierra del Fuego is an island and can therefore not be a part of Terra Incognita Australis. He pushes further forward than Magellan and discovers where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. He fails, however, to find either islands or land to the south of Tierra del Fuego. Drake did not yet advance far enough south to be able to see the Antarctic continent.

1773: The British explorer James Cook and his crew are the first Europeans to cross the Antarctic Circle. Two years later he discovers the southern Antarctic island of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands.

1790: The first seal hunters arrive in South Georgia.


First sighting of the unknown continent

1820: The Englishman Edward Bransfield is the first to see the Antarctic Peninsula, followed by the just 19-year-old American fur trapper Nathaniel Palmer and the voyager Gottlieb von Bellinghausen.

1821: The German-Baltic seafarer and officer in the Russian Navy Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen circumnavigates Antarctica as the second European after James Cook. The seal hunter John Davies is the first man to set foot on the Antarctic mainland.

1823: The Englishman James Weddell is the first to reach 74°S latitude. The sea which he discovered is named after him.

1840: Charles Wilkes discovers Wilkes Land, Frenchman Dumont d'Urville names a part of its coast after his wife: Adélie Land.

1841: Sir James Clark Ross and his vessels Erebus and Terror reach the Ross Sea. He discovers the ice shelf named in his honour and Victoria Land. The two vessels in Ross’ expedition are also perpetuated: the southernmost active volcano on Earth is named Mount Erebus after the expedition’s flagship; an extinct volcano located 20 kilometres away is named Mount Terror.

1873: Eduard Dallmann explores new regions and passages in Antarctic waters on the Grönland, commissioned by the newly founded German polar shipping company. His route includes the Wilhelm Archipelago off the western end of the Bismarck Strait along the Biscoe Islands. The Grönland is the first steamboat to travel in Antarctic waters.

1892: The first Antarctic fossils are found, proving that Antarctica must have had warmer climate once.

1898: The Belgica becomes trapped in the pack ice near the Antarctic Peninsula. Adrien de Gerlache and his crew become the first to survive an Antarctic winter.

1899: Carsten Borchgrevink and his crew land near Cape Adare to become the first expedition to overwinter on land.

1901: The Gauss Expedition led by Erich von Drygalski is the first German expedition to Antarctica. The ship and its crew are trapped in the ice for more than a year. He will later publish 22 volumes of scientific reports and material documenting the expedition.

1902: A geological expedition led by Otto Nordenskjöld begins the first long sledge journey, lasting for two Antarctic winters.

1902: Discovery Expedition - Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton attempt to reach the South Pole but reached their Furthest South at 82°S.


Race to the South Pole

1908: On his second attempt to reach the South Pole, Ernest Shackleton reached a point only 150 kilometres from the Pole but he and his companions were forced to turn back.

1909: Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson and Alistair Mackay become the first men to reach Earth's South Magnetic Pole.

1911: Roald Amundsen and his four companions become the first men to reach the geographic South Pole. They raise the Norwegian flag on the Pole on 14 December.

1912: About one month later, the Brit Robert Falcon Scott and his team reach the Pole on 18 January. The entire expedition dies of starvation and cold on the return journey.

1915: Ernest Shackleton plans the first trans-Antarctic expedition. However, his vessel, the Endurance, is crushed in the Weddell Sea ice. He and 21 survivors are rescued two years later.

1928: Hubert Wilkes ventures on the first flight to Antarctica.

1929: Richard Byrd and three other pilots are the first to fly over the South Pole. A joint research expedition by Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand embarks on a two-year effort to map the Mac. Robertson coast.

1935: The American Lincoln Ellsworth makes the first trans-Antarctic flight.

1947: US Operation Highjump involves 4,700 people, 13 ships and 23 aircraft at the Little America base in McMurdo Sound, marking the largest Antarctic expedition ever. More than 70,000 aerial photos revolutionize the mapping of Antarctica. Finn Ronne flies over the shelf ice named in his honour and discovers the Vinson Massif.


Protection of Antarctica gains importance

1947: US Admiral Richard Byrd drops flags of all the UN member states over the South Pole to dedicate the continent to the ideal of the brotherhood of man.

1957/58: The International Geophysical Year involving scientists from 67 countries provides the impetus for negotiations on the Antarctic Treaty.

1959: Twelve states (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Soviet Union, the Union of South Africa and the United States of America) sign the Antarctic Treaty.

1961: The Antarctic Treaty enters into force in Washington, DC, the first international agreement signed after the Second World War. By signing the Antarctic Treaty, which covers the entire territory south of 60°S latitude, the Parties agreed that the area is to be used for peaceful purposes and that military activity is prohibited, on freedom of international scientific exchange and free exchange of information, and on the suspension of several countries' territorial claims.

1964: Catalogue of measures to preserve Antarctica's flora and fauna
In the 1980s the Consultative Parties attempted to establish regulations on mineral resource activities in Antarctica. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have been making efforts to declare Antarctica a world park ever since.

1989: A United Nations resolution calls for a resolution to establish Antarctica as a world park for nature conservation.

1991: The Protocol of Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and Annexes I-IV are concluded following long negotiations in Madrid (Madrid Protocol). The Protocol represents the most exacting and comprehensive environmental protection regulations ever formulated in an international treaty for any region on Earth. The State Parties prohibit any activity relating to mineral resources in Antarctica. Furthermore, they declare the continent a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.

1998: The German Act Implementing the Environmental Protection Protocol (AUG) enters into force upon ratification of the Protocol of Environmental Protection by all the Consultative Parties.