A Brief History of Antarctica

A Brief History of Antarctica

On Dec. 1, 1959, representatives from a dozen countries, including the U.S., Japan and the U.K. met in Washington to sign a treaty intended to keep the Cold War out of the coldest place on Earth. Fifty years later, the Antarctic Treaty is still in effect, making it one of the world’s most successful international agreements, with its member nations still meeting once a year.

The pact calls for keeping Antarctica a continent free of weapons and reserved for scientific research alone; its signatories vow to refrain from making any claims to the territory, which is considered neutral ground. The pact fulfilled a longtime goal of its brainchild, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who feared the remote region could one day become an area for military competition. “The Antarctic Treaty and the guarantees it embodies constitute a significant advance toward the goal of a peaceful world with justice,” he said the day the treaty was signed.

More often associated with penguins and whales than science and peace, 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice — much of which is a mile and a half deep. The continent holds the record for the coldest temperature in recorded history: a numbing -128.6F on July 21, 1983, in the middle of the southern hemisphere’s winter. Nearly one and a half times as large as the United States, Antarctica is geologically classified as a desert, garnering less than an inch of precipitation each year. It is the coldest, driest and windiest continent, not to mention the highest — Antarctica’s average elevation is 7,544 feet . The name Antarctica comes from the Greek word antarktik meaning “opposite to the north.”

Scientists have suspected the existence of a southern landmass that balanced the globe’s northern continents since as early as 150 A.D., when Greek astronomer Ptolemy suggested the existence of a “unknown southern land.” But no humans actually set eyes on Antarctica until 1820. In a great race to the bottom of the world, ships from Russia, Britain and the U.S. all spotted the landmass within months of one another in 1820. The first explorer to discover Antarctica is widely believed to have been Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, whose expedition first spotted land in January 1820. But further interest in the continent waned in the 1800s and Antarctica largely went unexplored until the final decade of that century, when some 16 expeditions explored the area.