17 November, 2001
The first thing I did this morning was to investigate why the flight to McMurdo was again canceled. The culprit this time was a large cyclone hovering over the cold waters just south of New Zealand. Passing time while exploring more of Christchurch, I found myself looking southward and wondering, “Why is Antarctica so elusive?”
The earliest speculation of Antarctica’s existence began in the ancient Greek civilization. Believing that the Earth was round and symmetrical, it was suggested that there must be a southern continent to balance the inhabited northern regions. Over 2000 years later, adventurous Europeans began epic ocean voyages exploring the New World and territories located in the South Ocean.
The closest any of these European explores came to actually finding the mythical continent of Antarctica was during the time that the United States was beginning its quest for freedom from the British Empire. An English explorer, Captain James Cook, who is considered the widest ranging explorer who ever lived, actually circumnavigated Antarctica. Amazingly, he never spotted the frozen continent. Antarctica had yet to be discovered.
Antarctica was finally sighted for the first time on January 26, 1820. Fabian von Bellingshausen, an Estonian who was a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy, made the sighting. Bellingshausen was able to able to approach Antarctica because his boat’s hull was sheathed with copper, provided protection from the frozen ocean and icebergs that guard Antarctica’s coast.
The first human to set foot on Antarctica is claimed to be by a Norwegian whaler named Henrik Johan Bull. Bull set out to Antarctica strictly for profits to be gained from the reported rich whaling grounds reported to exist in Antarctic waters. Although Bull did not find many whales, he did land a place in history by landing on the continent in 1895.
Over the next few years, a few hardy explorers reached the continent’s edge, setting off a race to be the first to reach the South Pole. Two famous Antarctic explorer’s, Robert Scott and Earnest Shackleton, set out to reach the South Pole on November 2, 1902. The expedition reached as far as 82°South, but they had to turn back due to the miserable conditions found on the Antarctic Plateau.
Scott was determined to reach the South Pole, and he set out on another expedition in 1910. At the same time, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, hearing the race to the pole was on, decided to secretly head his ship south and try to beat Scott. Scott and five men arrived at the South Pole on January 17, 1912, after an extremely difficult overland traverse. To Scott’s disappointment, when he arrived at the South Pole, there was a Norwegian flag and a note left my Amundsen. We will never know the magnitude of Scott’s disappointment, for he and the members of his party died on the return journey…only 11 miles from a food depot left for them. Unfortunately, the harsh storms so frequent to this part of the world keep them trapped in their tents. Scott’s last dairy entry was on March 29, 1912.
With the South Pole won by Amundsen, other explorers set out for other firsts on the continent, such as being the first to traverse the continent. Traversing Antarctica was the intention of Sir Earnest Shackleton, which turned out to be the greatest story of human endurance ever. The unpredictable climate of Antarctic trapped Shackleton’s boat in the sea ice. The boat eventually lost it’s battle with the ice and was crushed, and on November 21, 1915, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, leaving Shackleton and 22 men trapped.
Shackleton and his men, traveled on the pack ice for five months before finally arriving on Elephant Island. Since the island was uninhabited, Shackleton and five others were forced to sail in a 21-foot boat, constructed by the expedition’s carpenter, across the treacherous Antarctic Ocean for any attempt at rescue. Using the stars to navigate, the small boat amazingly arrived at South Georgia Island 16 days later, where a known whaling station was located. Unfortunately, the men landed on the south side of the island and had to traverse the uncharted interior. The men hiked for 36 straight hours over mountains and crevassed glaciers. Finally, on May 20, 1916, the men arrived at the station. On August 30, 1915, Shackleton returned to Elephant Island and rescued the remaining men from his expedition. Despite being lost for such a great length of time in the harshest environment on Earth, all members of the expedition survived.
Although there are other amazing stories related to Antarctic expeditions, the continent was largely forgotten, partly due to the World Wars. When World War II ended, interest in Antarctica grew once again, partly due to the cold war brewing between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States military began mapping Antarctica and conducting operations to give our troops experience in polar environments. As growing interest in Earth and atmospheric sciences arose, works were underway to protect Antarctic from its greatest threat…humans!
In 1957, the International Geophysical Year was declared. The objective was to study outer space and the whole Earth, and 66 countries parcticipated. The international cooperation that grew from the International Geophysical Year resulted in the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty, which applies to all areas south of 60°, simply sets aside Antarctica for peaceful purposes only. The treaty guarantees freedom of science and promotes the exchange of scientists and research results. Evidence of the treaties success can be seen in the amount of research projects occurring in Antarctic involving more than one nation.
The last fifty years in Antarctica have been peaceful, visited primarily by scientists and explorers. Antarctica, as we know it, is young. But, it holds a tremendous wealth of history and scientific understanding. Though it has only been recently explored, there are still parts of the continent that are unknown, parts that no human have seen. The frozen continent though known, still remains elusive and mysterious. I know this firsthand, as I gaze southward from my room in New Zealand, I wonder, “when will this elusive continent allow me to set foot upon it?”
My thoughts are interrupted by a knock upon my hotel room door, followed by an envelope being slide under the door. The envelope contains a fax that I am to report to the airport at 5:15 am tomorrow morning for my flight to Antarctica.
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