It’s less than 200 years since people first stepped foot onto Antarctica. Explore this timeline to see some key dates in the early discoveries of this icy continent. 

Until 1780 - Terra Australis

The early period consisted mainly of explorations and voyages penetrating to far southern regions. A consequence of this is the reduction of the hypothetical 'Terra Australis'. Charts of the Antarctic progressively showed less land as speculations were steadily disproved.

1772 - Captain Cook’s southern voyages

Captain Cook’s order was to find the ‘southern land’, study rocks, plants and animals and make friends with native people. He never found Antarctica.

1820 - Edward Bransfield’s icy glimpse

On the 30 January 1820 Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland.

1821 - First landings

Sealers were the first to land and overwinter in Antarctica sometimes involuntarily, as the result of shipwrecks e.g. in 1821 and 1877. During this period there were approximately 1,175 sealing voyages but only 25 scientific expeditions recorded.

1831 - The magnetic North Pole

James Clark Ross located the North Magnetic pole in 1831 and came close to also finding the South Magnetic pole on his epic expedition of 1839-1843.

1837 - A Frenchman in Antarctica

Dumont d’Urville chartered part of the Antarctic peninsula in the ships Astrolabe and Zelée. He returned in 1840 to the opposite side of the continent where he named Terre Adélie (Adelie Land).

1839 - James Clark Ross' southern expedition (1839-1842)

Ross conducted geomagnetic surveys in Erebus and Terror. Penetrating the pack ice in sailing ships they found polynia (open water) of the Ross Sea, and determined the southern Magnetic Pole could not be attained by sea.

1882 - First International Polar Year (1882-83)

A joint effort of 12 countries to operate 14 stations surrounding the North Pole. Forty observatories across the world studied meteorology, geomagnetism, auroral phenomena, ocean currents and tides, structure and motion of ice and atmospheric electricity.

1892 - Icebergs ahoy

Icebergs were exceptionally frequent during several years, with major occurrences in 1892-94, 1903-04 and 1907-09 when almost every ship sailing between Europe and Australasia reported encounters with vast fields of ice.

1893 - The heroic age

The period between 1893-1918 includes many Antarctic explorations, together with the beginnings of the modern whaling industry. During this period, interest in Antarctica was strong, and in 1895, the Antarctic resolution was adopted by the 5th International Geographical Congress.

1898 - Bernacchi's Southern Cross expedition

The Australian physicist, trained in astronomy and terrestrial magnetism, endured the first winter on the Antarctic continent and collected a complete set of magnetic data over an annual cycle from observations at Cape Adare.

1902 - Balloons over Antarctica

Twice in 1902 aircraft (balloons) were used for aerial reconnaissance.

1903 - The first meteorological station

The region's first permanent meteorological station was established on the South Orkney Islands.

1907 - The famous Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton and his men were the first to bring motorised land vehicles to the Antarctic. With their base at Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound, they made the first ascent of Mount Erebus, discovered the Beardmore Glacier, reached a new farthest south of 88° 23' on the polar ice cap and were the first to approach the south magnetic pole located high in the Victoria Land interior.

1911 - Reaching the South Pole

The South Pole was reached twice (by Amundsen and Scott) in the 1911-12 summer (33 days separated these events).

1944 - Permanent stations in Antarctica

From the Second World War, regular annual expeditions from an increasing number of countries were the principal activity, and permanent occupation of Antarctica began in 1944 at Port Lockroy (Wiencke Island) and Hope Bay (Antarctic Peninsula).

1957 - International Geophysical Year

This event was a huge development of science throughout the world. It included a co-operative concentrated research programme by the countries with existing stations in Antarctic regions and by others that established observatories for the purpose. Many of these subsequently remained open.

1958 - Sir Edmund Hillary on ice

Edmund Hillary reached the South Pole on 4 January 1958 and landed later in 1985, together with Neil Armstrong, in a small plane at the North Pole. He became the first man to stand at both poles as well as the summit of Everest.

1959 - The Antarctic Treaty

One of the consequences of the International Geophysical Year was a general appreciation of the efficiency of international scientific co-operation in Antarctica. This promoted discussions that culminated in negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty by the 12 states then active in the Antarctic. It came into force in 1961 and has subsequently been a major influence on Antarctic affairs.

1983 - Pax Antarctica

From 1983, the United Nations organisation began to consider the Antarctica being the continent for science. Pax Antarctica continues to prevail over the Treaty region.

1988 - New codes of practice

In acknowledgement of the sensitivity of the Antarctic biota, various national laws have been enacted that bind virtually all human activity in the far south that affects the fragility of the Antarctic Treaty system (expulsion of sledge dogs is one example).

2007 - Looking into the future

The peri-Antarctic islands will become more commercially significant, the decline in number of scientific stations may continue to be replaced by tourist lodges. Discovery and exploitation of mineral resources may expand, which could form the basis of conflicts, but perhaps the Pax Antarctica will endure with its beneficial aspects demonstrated for over 40 years.

Useful link

Visit MOTAT to explore behind the scenes of Sir Edmund Hillary's Antarctic Expedition 1956-58.


    Published 30 September 2016