Exploration of the Antarctic - Part 1
See also Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.
Over two thousand years ago, Greek philosophers, well aware that the Earth was a sphere, asserted that a great continent existed in the Southern Hemisphere in order to balance the lands in the Northern Hemisphere; that is, a continent "opposite to the Arctic". The Roman mathematician, astronomer and geographer Ptolemy held the same belief when he produced his great summary of Greco-Roman geography, Geographia and included a vast Terra Australis or "Southern Land" in his description of the world. For the next 1,500 years, map makers simply drew a large southern landmass without any evidence for it. Myths about this unknown continent populated it with strange people, and envisioned it as suitable for settlement.
When European explorers began to sail into southern waters many discoveries of new land were interpreted as evidence of the great southern continent, only to be revealed later as parts of smaller or larger islands.
When Ferdinand Magellan passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan in 1520, it was commonly believed that the land on the south side, Tierra del Fuego was connected to the southern continent.
In 1578, ships commanded by Sir Francis Drake, were blown to the south of the Pacific end of the Straits where they found open water. Drake guessed that far from being another continent, as previously believed, Tierra del Fuego was just an island. In 1616, Dutch merchants looking for an alternative to the Strait of Magellan sailed south around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and proved Drake right.
In 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed south of Australia (then called "New Holland") and proved that it too was not part of the fabled vast continent extending over the south pole.
In 1700, British Astronomer Edmund Halley led an expedition far south into the Atlantic Ocean and discovered not land, but the 'convergence' where the transition from the Atlantic to the Southern Ocean is marked by a rapid drop in sea and air temperatures. There Halley observed the large flat-topped, tabular icebergs characteristic of Antarctica and frequently mistaken for islands.
The British explorer James Cook, on his first voyage of discovery (1768-1771), circumnavigated the south island of New Zealand to demonstrate that it was not part of a southern continent.
On his second voyage of discovery (1772-1775), Cook looked carefully and systematically for the southern continent by circumnavigating the world at high southern latitudes for the very first time. His two ships entered the Antarctic Circle (66 degrees 33 minutes south) for the first time on January 17, 1773, and a year later probed south to 71°10’S at 106°54’W before being blocked by pack ice.
We now know that Cook was about 90 miles (150 km) north of the Antarctic coast and he was also unfortunate to choose a longitude where the coast lies farther south than at most latitudes. Had he probed south elsewhere, he undoubtedly would have discovered the continent.
At the conclusion of his expedition, Cook maintained his belief in a major land mass at the South Pole. This belief helped explain (correctly) the much colder climate of the Antarctic compared to that observed in the Arctic, and also the vast tabular icebergs of the Southern Ocean—which he believed could only be caused by thick ice built up on or near land.
The path of the expedition and Cook's reports of frequent and harsh storms, of bitter cold, vast tabular icebergs that dwarfed ships, thick fogs, and extensive ice pack capable of trapping ships, dispelled the popular antarctic myth of a vast continent extending into climates hospital to settlement.
Perhaps because of Cook's reputation as an explorer, who accomplished as much as was possible in his time (a reputation undiminished to this day), it is not surprising that nearly fifty years would pass until anyone would attempt to follow his path south and see the continent that lay waiting, frozen in the ice.
- The Journals of Captain Cook, James R. Cook and Philip Edwards, Penguin Classics, 2003 ISBN: 0140436472.
- Antarctica: Exploring the Extreme: 400 Years of Adventure, Marilyn J. Landis, Chicago Review Press, 2001 ISBN: 1556524285.
- South Pole: A Narrative History of the Exploration of Antarctica by Anthony Brandt, NG Adventure Classics, 2004 ISBN: 0792267974.
- Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226.
- Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 1997 ISBN: 0393039498.
- Index to Antarctic Expeditions, Scott Polar Research Institute, retrieved November 1, 2008
- Antarctic History, Antarctica Online, retrieved February 16, 2009
- The Antarctic Circle, retrieved February 16, 2009