The words “Arctic” and “Antarctic” both come from the Greek word Arktos, which means “bear,” and refers to the constellation Ursa Major (“Great Bear”) in the northern sky. Although bears certainly populate the Arctic (the North Pole), they are entirely absent from Antarctica (the South Pole). Antarctica was the last continent to be explored by man, and its history is one of human adventure and scientific exploration.
Known as the 6th continent, Antarctica was the last land mass to be explored by humans.
“Adventurers” take possession of the continent
The first scientific explorer, James Cook, discovered the South Polar Circle in 1773 while on a mission for the British Crown. During the next three years, he made three attempts to determine the precise contours of Antarctica, convinced it was a continent, but unable to prove it.
It ultimately fell to Russian explorer Fabien von Bellingshausen to establish, in 1820, that Antarctica was indeed an ice-covered continent and not simply a vast ice pack. Dispatched by Tsar Alexander I, Bellingshausen’s mission was to follow in the footsteps of James Cook. Two ships were chartered for the purpose: a 600-ton corvette, the Vostok (117 men), and a transport sloop, the Mirnyi (72 men). The expedition lasted 2 years, from 1819 to 1821.
The first men to actually reach the South Pole, the Earth’s axis of rotation, were the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team, on December 14, 1911.
In the late 1950s, a world-wide scientific project known as the International Geophysical Year triggered an era of Antarctic science. In the late 20th century, the continent once again became a destination for adventurers. In the 7 months between July 1989 and March 1990, French physician Jean-Louis Etienne co-led the longest overland crossing of the South Polar Circle ever accomplished, 6,300 kilometers, using three sleds, each pulled by twelve dogs, to transport equipment and food supplies. This six-man team from the four corners of the globe covered the distance at a rate of 33 kilometers per day, skiing alongside the dog teams. Five years later, Norwegian cross-country skier Liv Arnesen became the first woman to reach the South Pole, skiing the 1,200 km between the Hercules Inlet base on the Antarctic coast and the South Pole in fifty days, solo and unsupported. In 1997-1998, Belgian adventurers Alain Hubert and Dixie Dansercoer followed in their footsteps by crossing the Antarctic from north to south (3,924 km) using skis and snow kites.
The frozen continent still holds many untold secrets and continues to attract more scientists and fascinated adventurers attempting to test the limits of the unknown.
Penguins, whales, and seals share the meager resources of Antarctica.
The Antarctic: a unique environment for research
Research in Antarctica addresses such diverse topics as glaciology, meteorology, geology, astrophysics, and ecology. The continent is uniquely suited to studying the impact of global warming, whose effects are more “visible” there. These include: the breaking off of giant plates from the ice pack, the arrival of species generally accustomed to warmer climates, and the decrease in Antarctic krill biomass, the keystone species of the Antarctic ecosystem.
Another advantage of the Antarctic as a research site is its location beneath the infamous “hole in the ozone layer” discovered in the 1980s. The erroneously named “hole” is actually a thinning of the ozone layer that is being closely monitored by scientists.
Be it in boats or at polar bases, scientists may be found around Antarctica all year long. The polar schooner Tara, for example, has dropped anchor there to study marine plankton. The frozen continent is home to thirty-two research bases, including the Belgian polar research station Princess Elisabeth, which has the distinction of being the first-ever “zero emission” station!
Tourists also explore the frozen continent by boat.