Stages of Antarctic exploration

as proposed by Robert Headland (Scott Polar Research Institute)

Several stages in the progressive process of the exploration of, and other human activities in, far southern regions have been proposed from a variety of opinions. For many purposes these form a useful classification, although overlap occurs between most such divisions. Below are concise notes on some of the stages of exploration which may usefully be distinguished for Antarctic regions. The names applied indicated the predominant theme only which may obfuscate many other activities; the dates are generalisations – there are no ‘watertight compartments’ in the historical continuum. Several other authors have proposed schemes like this but which differ in emphasis and divisions. This one is thusto be considered as an essentially personal analysis and commentary.

Terra Australis (until 1780~)

The early period consisted mainly of explorations and voyages penetrating to far southern regions. A consequence of this is the progressive reduction of the hypothetical ‘Terra Australis’, with its separation from Australia. Charts of the Antarctic progressively showed less land as speculations were steadily disproved. Investigation of archives held in the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, several Latin-American countries and elsewhere may reveal more far southern voyages in these times. This period may be regarded as concluding with the voyages of James Cook and Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec.

Sealing Period (~1780 – 1892~)

During the period from the publication of the reports of the voyages of Cook and Kerguelen until early in the 1900s the majority of visitors to Antarctic regions were sealers, who discovered many and visited nearly all the peri-Antarctic islands and wintered on several. They were also active in many adjoining regions, notably: Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, Stewart Island, and Tasmania. The peak of the industry was during the 1800s. Sealers, who were nearly all from Britain, Cape Colony, France, New South Wales, New Zealand, Tasmania, or the United States (New England states), made the first landings on Antarctica (1821) and were the earliest to winter in Antarctic regions (notably those who did so involuntarily on the South Shetland Islands, 1821 and 1877). Extended series of consecutive winters were spent on some peri-Antarctic islands where remains of huts and other habitations may still be found. The Enderby Brothers, a London company, were particularly notable in combining commercial enterprises with exploration. The first recorded sighting of Antarctica was in 1820, during this period and at least five landings on the Antarctic continent were made by sealers. There were also exploring and scientific expeditions from many countries, several of which were associated with determination of the magnetic poles (1837-43), the Transit of Venus (1874), and first International Polar Year (1882-83). Charts of the Antarctic progressively showed more land as discoveries accumulated. During this period approximately 1175 sealing voyages but only 25 scientific expeditions are recorded.

Continental Penetration (~1893 – 1918~)

The period from the first Jason voyage until the end of the First World War includes the expeditions of the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration together with the beginnings of the modern whaling industry. During the period interest in Antarctica was strong and is exemplified by and Antarctic resolution adopted by the fifth International Geographical Congress in 1895. The earliest winterings were made south of the Antarctic Circle (1898, aboard Belgica) and on Antarctica (1899, at Cape Adare). The last of the peri-Antarctic islands was discovered (Scott Island in 1902) and the general limits of Antarctica became known during this period. The South Pole was reached twice in the 1911-12 summer (33 days separated these events). The earliest Antarctic sound recordings were made in 1902 and successful ciné films in 1908. Twice in 1902 aircraft (balloons) were used for aerial reconnaissance. Radio communications were established between Antarctica and Australia in 1912, through a relay station on Macquarie Island. In 1903 the first permanent meteorological station was opened (on the South Orkney Islands) and in 1904 the first shore whaling station was established (on South Georgia). Coincidentally at least 17 determined, but unsuccessful, attempts to reach the North Pole were made during this brief, but intense, period. 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. Once can conjecture that calving of some major ice shelves must have occurred. Ten of the historic huts of the Antarctic date from this period.

Whaling Period (~1919 – 1943~)

Thereafter, between the First and the Second World Wars, the majority of vessels operating in the Southern Ocean belonged to the Norwegian whaling fleets and to scientific investigations associated with the industry (which began in 1904 and continued to 1987). Other scientific expeditions of several nationalities were active, often assisted by the whaling fleets. Whalers were responsible for discovering many coastal regions of Antarctica, especially during the 1930-31 summer. The first successful use of aircraft, heavier than air, in Antarctica was made in this period, a development which greatly facilitated inland exploration and mapping.

Permanent Stations (~1944 – 1958~)

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). Many assertions of national sovereignty over Antarctic territories were reinforced during this stage. International law was strongly involved and some national politics became passionate; one instance of failure of diplomacy and resort to military force occurred. At the end of this period was the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), a major event in the development of science throughout the world. It included a cooperative concentrated research programme which was undertaken by the countries with existing stations in Antarctic regions and by several others which established observatories for the purpose, many of these subsequently remained open.

Treaty Period (~1959 – 1987~)

This division of Antarctic history began with the Antarctic Treaty. One of the consequences of the International Geophysical Year was a general appreciation of the efficiency of international scientific cooperation in Antarctica in general and establishment of the Special (later Scientific) Committee on Antarctic Research. This, with several other factors, promoted discussions which, in 1959, culminated in negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty by the twelve states then active in the Antarctic. It came into force in 1961 and has subsequently been a major influence on Antarctic affairs. For most of this period involvement in the Antarctic remained essentially specialized and was the concern only of countries which had experience in the region. From 1983 the United Nations Organization began to consider the Antarctic and many other countries, with little involvement in the region, associated themselves with the debates. The ‘Treaty Period’ was one when the quotation of Antarctica being the continent for science was essentially true, and when a Pax Antarctica began, which continues to prevail over the Treaty region (somewhat ironically Antarctica has been by far the most militarized continent, as a proportion of population, especially since 1944). The few covert military strategic deployments in Antarctic regions during this period were associated mainly with the ‘cold war’.

Regulatory Period (~1988 – Current)

This period of Antarctic history occurred after the pattern of informal cooperation gave way to and enormous increase in bureaucracy. The exaggeration of the sensitivity of Antarctic biota, passionately promulgated by specialized groups in several countries, came to affect local politics and subsequently national and scientific policy. Internationally this has manifested itself as instruments associated with the Antarctic Treaty, diverse ‘codes of practice’, and various other texts, both mandatory and hortatory. Various national laws have been enacted in response to these. The principal expression has been a proliferation of regulations, endeavoring to bind virtually all human activity in the far south, which vastly augmented the complexity, and consequently the fragility, of the Antarctic Treaty system (expulsion of sledge dogs provides one example). The period was one when remote ‘managers’ elaborated theoretical requirements and persons working in the Antarctic found many of them doubtful practicality. During the period the maximum number of winter stations (52) was open in 1989 with redundancy in research and observations (particularly on the South Shetland islands). After this year the number of stations decreased, mainly owing the financial restrictions and compliance with increasingly onerous environmental management and protection requirements. A large increase in tourist and yacht visits, and other recreational excursions occurred during this period. Private tenure in Antarctica was effectively asserted when individuals leased commercial wintering accommodation to visitors. The fishing and associated industries also developed rapidly and some of the resources were regarded as over-exploited. The ‘Regulatory Period’ is when the observation that the Antarctic became a continent for management became essentially true, to the increasing detriment of scientific research.

Succeding periods

It is interesting, but precarious, to consider what might follow in the history of the Antarctic. The peri-Antarctic islands will probably become more commercially significant as the third period of exploitation develops. It is probable that the current decline in number of scientific stations will continue during the next decade. Lodges for tourists and adventurers will probably be established, which might subordinate the priority of scientific research. Aircraft will displace ships as the principal transport, which will make continuation of such a chronological list impracticable. Discovery, and subsequent exploitation, of mineral or other economic resources (such as specific gene sequences and the like) may overwhelm the intricate regulatory mechanisms elaborated. Such burdens could cause the system of governance provided by the Antarctic Treaty to fail thus reviving the period of conflicts and sovereignty conundrums. Another perplexity involves the ramifications of some of the Law of the Sea principles and their discord with several provisions made with the Antarctic Treaty system. Perhaps the Pax Antarctica will endure in such different circumstances owing to the many its many beneficial aspects demonstrated for over 40 years.