Antarctic timeline

close

1772 - 1775

Captain Cook and his crew became the first people to cross the Antarctic Circle.

Captain Cook <br/>© Royal Geographical Society

 

After crossing the Antarctic Circle they continued to 71˚10’S.

Antarctic map showing Arctic circle

1820

The first ever sighting of Antarctica, by Fabian Bellinghausen (Russian).

Bellingshausen's map
Bellinghausen’s voyage - South Circumpolar Chart
© Royal Geographical Society.
» Enlarge

1820-1821

Edward Bransfield and William Smith saw the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Royal Navy sends Edward Bransfield with William Smith (who had discovered the South Shetland Islands) as pilot, to search the waters south-east of the South Shetlands. It is claimed that they are the first to see the Antarctic Peninsula.

Cloud formation as seen from Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula
Cloud formation as seen from Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.
© British Antarctic Survey, Gavin Burns

1822

Captain James Weddell sailed to 74˚15’S and found the Weddell Ice Sheet and Sea.

James Weddell

 

The Weddell seal got its name during these expeditions.

l seal

1828-1831

Henry Foster found Deception Island.

Water boat on Deception Island, Antarctica Peninsula.
Carole Rawlinson, Royal Geographical Society

1830-1832

John Biscoe found islands around Graham Land.

Graham Land and the Antarctic Peninsula
» Enlarge

1839-1843

Captain James Clark Ross discovered the coast of Victoria Land, sighted Mount Erebus (which is an active volcano) and found the Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf.

James Clark Ross
Captain James Clark Ross
© Royal Geographical Society
Map showing Victoria Land,Mount Erebus and the Ross Sea and Ice Shelf
Map showing Victoria Land, Mount Erebus and the Ross Sea and Ice Shelf.
Satellite picture of Mount Erebus showing its lava lake, Ross Island, Antarctica.
PD-USGOV-NASA

1872-1876

Charles Wyville Thompson studied the ocean depths.

Challenger lab
The natural history workroom on the Challenger.
Charles Wyville Thompson
Charles Wyville Thompson

1898-1900

Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian, led the British Antarctic Expedition, funded by an English publisher.

Carsten Borchgrevink
Carsten Borchgrevink
© Royal Geographical Society

He was the first to overwinter on the Antarctic mainland at Cape Adare. The prime purpose was to determine the magnetic South Pole. He also surveyed the coast of Robertson Bay and collected specimens of birds, fish, seals and penguins. They were the first to use dogs to transport them.

Sledge and dogs farthest south
Sledge and dogs farthest south
© Royal Geographical Society
The flag at Cape Adare
The flag at Cape Adare.
© Royal Geographical Society

1901-1904

Captain Robert Falcon Scott led the National Antarctic Expedition which was partly funded by the Royal Geographic Society under its President Sir Clement Markham.

Officers and scientific staff of 'Discovery' before departure, 1901
Officers and scientific staff of 'Discovery' before departure, 1901
© Royal Geographical Society

Markham and the RGS declared it ‘an opportunity for research and advancement in scientific knowledge concerning magnetism, meteorology, biology and geology’.

The expedition sailed in the specially built Discovery and achieved many ‘firsts’ such as the first aerial reconnaissance by means of a balloon, a journey to Cape Crozier, the ascent of the Polar Plateau and a record journey south by Scott, Shackleton and Wilson. They covered 5,000km until illness and snow blindness forced them back.

The collections went to the British Museum of Natural History; their statistical material to the Royal Society; and their journal ‘South Polar Times’, written by the men during the long winters, to the RGS.

Ice thermometer, knife and medal
Ice thermometer, knife and medal
© Royal Geographical Society
Sledge party
Sledge party
© Royal Geographical Society

Evelyn Forbes, daughter of expedition geologist Hartley Travers Ferrar, talks about the expedition

Evelyn Forbes, daughter of expedition geologist Hartley Travers Ferrar, talks about working with Captain Scott
H.T. Ferrari, geologist on the 1901-1904 National Antarctic Expedition, Father of Evelyn Forbes
© Royal Geographical Society
Evelyn Forbes, daughter of expedition geologist Hartley Travers Ferrar, talks about finding gold
Evelyn Forbes, daughter of expedition geologist Hartley Travers Ferrar, talks about laying the foundations of Antarctic geology
Cover of the South Polar Times
Cover of the South Polar Times
© Royal Geographical Society
Using a compass on board the Discovery
Using a compass on board the Discovery
© Royal Geographical Society
Some notes on Penguins, South Polar Times
Some notes on Penguins, South Polar Times
© Royal Geographical Society
Balloon ascent, 1902
Balloon ascent, 1902
© Royal Geographical Society

1902-1904

Scottish Antarctic Expedition

Dr William Spears Bruce led the Scottish Antarctic Expedition on board the Scotia under the command of Captain Thomas Robertson. The expedition was supported and promoted by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and funded by the Coats brothers of Paisley textile firm.

Omond House
Omond House, erected in 1903 on Laurie Island in the South Orkney Islands to house shore-based members of the 1902-1904 Scottish National Antarctic Expedition.

The primary objective of the expedition was to do extensive hydrographic work in the Weddell Sea during the summer of 1903 and 1904 and to survey the South Orkney Islands and study their wildlife. Despite being stuck in the ice for long periods the expedition discovered Coats Land and the first permanent meteorological station was set up on Laurie Island in the South Orkney Islands.

1902

Otto Nordenskjold a Swedish geologist and five other men undertook the first exploration by sledge.

Otto Nordenskjold
British Antarctic Territory Stamp of Otto Nordenskjold with the ship Antarctica

They covered 650 kilometres in the area of Paulet Island and made a winter camp at Snow Hill south of Seymour Island. In the meantime their ship was crushed and they were forced to spend two winters in Antarctica until they were rescued by an Argentinean ship.

Snow Hill Island
Snow Hill Island
© Royal Geographical Society

1907-1909

Ernest Shackleton led the British Antarctic Expedition on the Nimrod to try to reach the South Pole, this time accompanied by Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams.

Union Jack Hoisted at South Magnetic Pole
Union Jack Hoisted at South Magnetic Pole
© Royal Geographical Society
Map of the voyage of the Nimrod
Map of the voyage of the Nimrod
© Royal Geographical Society

Although they got further than Scott's team, illness and hunger forced them to give up just 180km from their destination where they planted a Union Jack and a canister to mark the point. Work on meteorological observations continued as did studies of penguins and seals. Members of the party were also the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton
© Royal Geographical Society
Mount Erebus
Mount Erebus
© Royal Geographical Society
Shackleton with a sledge
© Royal Geographical Society

1910-1912

Norwegian Roald Amundsen and four other men were the first to reach the South Pole on 12 December 2011 thanks to a new route that only took them 57 days.

Amundsen at the Pole
Amundsen at the Pole
© Royal Geographical Society

Amundsen planted a Norwegian flag and wrote two letters - one for the King of Norway and one for the British Antarctic Expedition team led by Robert F. Scott. The prime objective of their expedition was to reach the South Pole first: they did little scientific experimentation.

1910-1913

Captain Robert Falcon Scott led the British Antarctic Expedition aboard the Terra Nova with the aim of reaching the South Pole as a major and public objective.

Taking meteorological observations
Taking meteorological observations
© Royal Geographical Society

There was also an extensive programme of scientific experiments and explorations. The expedition was led by Captain Scott and included a scientific staff of twelve. From the base camp hut set up at Cape Evans on Ross Island, the scientific staff carried out investigations in a wide range of fields, including meteorology, building on the research of the 1901 - 1904 National Antarctic Expedition.

Scott's miniature chemical laboratory
Scott's miniature chemical laboratory
© Royal Geographical Society

The men used green-tinted goggles to combat snow-blindness, skis and a mixture of ponies, dogs, motor sledges and man-hauling to reach the Pole. The party made up of Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, 33 days after Amundsen’s party. Bad weather made the return from the Pole increasingly difficult and Scott and his party died only 18 kilometres from a supply camp which might have saved them.

Geologist Frank Debenham surveying
Geologist Frank Debenham surveying
© Royal Geographical Society
McCarthy at the wheel
McCarthy at the wheel
© Royal Geographical Society

Maps, geological specimens, photographs and diaries were collected from the camp by a search party in the following spring. More about the expedition can be found at unlockingthearchives.rgs.org

Ponting photographing the Terra Nova
Ponting photographing the Terra Nova
© Royal Geographical Society

One scientific journey in search of birds, to Cape Crozier, was undertaken during the Antarctic winter and is described in the book: ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

book cover
"The Worst Journey in the World"

1911

Wilhelm Filchner’s expedition

Wilhelm Filchner
Wilhelm Filchner

Wilhelm Filchner led an expedition on board the Deutschland to determine if Antarctica was a continent. He planned to cross Antarctica but failed. However the expedition did discover Luitpold Land and the Filchner Glacier.

1911-1914

Douglas Mawson led the Australian Antarctic Expedition about the Aurora.

Douglas Maswon
Douglas Maswon awarded the RGS Gold Medal in 1915
© rgs

The main aim was to investigate a stretch of essentially unknown Antarctic coastline and to undertake a scientific programme which included an investigation of the ocean and its floor between Australia and Antarctica.

The main base was at Cape Denison in the Commonwealth Bay from which Mawson and two others set off to explore the far eastern area of their survey. Despite atrocious weather, with winds averaging over 60mph, much new information was discovered and new lands surveyed. It was also the first time radio was used in Antarctica.

Mawson's hut
Mawson's huts at Cape Denison today

1914-1916

Ernest Shackleton led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard the Endurance.

Midwinter dinner on board the Endurance
Midwinter dinner on board the Endurance
© Royal Geographical Society

The aim of the expedition was to cross Antarctica from sea to sea via the South Pole. It would be an historical event and would also contribute to scientific knowledge as over half of the 1,800 mile journey would be over unexplored territory.

The Trans-Continental party would not be able to carry all their supplies so another group would be based on the Ross Ice Shelf laying depots towards Beardmore glacier. Glacial and geological studies would take place both on the journey and by scientists at the bases.

The Endurance, carrying Shackleton’s party, became stuck in the ice and nine months later eventually sank. The men were marooned until the ice broke up enough for them to get to Elephant Island, where Shackleton, along with Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent set sail in the James Caird, one of the lifeboats from the Endurance, to seek the rescue of all the men. The boat sailed through mountainous seas in gale force winds and eventually reached South Georgia. The boat was not sea worthy enough to sail to the whaling station in the north of the island, so Shackleton, Worsley and Crean set off to cross the island on foot over mountains and glaciers for 36 hours to the whaling station from which a rescue could be mounted.

Endurance in full sail, in the ice
'Endurance' in full sail, in the ice
© Royal Geographical Society
The crew of the Endurance on the ice
The crew of the Endurance on the ice
© Royal Geographical Society
Frank Wild looks on at the wreck of the Endurance
Frank Wild looks on at the wreck of the 'Endurance'
© Royal Geographical Society

More information can be found at www.unlockingthearchives.rgs.org/themes/antarctica

1914-1917

Ross Sea Party led by Aeneas Mackintosh on board the Aurora.

Shackleton and team members from the Aurora
Shackleton and team members from the Aurora
© Royal Geographical Society

The Ross Sea party was a component of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–17. The Ross Sea Party had the task of setting supply depots from McMurdo Sound to the Beardmore Glacier to provide supplies for the Trans-Continental party led by Shackleton.

Members of the Ross Sea Party from an album by Ninnis
Members of the Ross Sea Party from an album by Ninnis
enlarge |
© Royal Geographical Society

Most of their supplies were on the ship and when she broke free and drifted away from Antarctica they were marooned. They survived by using supplies left in the hut by the Scott expedition in 1912.

The drift of the Aurora
The drift of the Aurora
enlarge |
© Royal Geographical Society

Despite this, atrocious weather and illness caused by poor diet, they continued with the task of depot setting. They covered 1356 miles in 6 1/2 weeks, carrying some 4500lb of supplies, making it one of the longest land journeys undertaken to date.

Ninnis, Richards and Hooke returning from laying a depot
Ninnis, Richards and Hooke returning from laying a depot.
© Royal Geographical Society

Before the group were rescued by the refitted Aurora in a relief operation planned by the RGS, three of the party had died including Mackintosh. Shackleton provided an epitaph ‘Things done for gain are not, but good things done endure.’

1920-1922

British Expedition to Graham Land led by John Cope.

An ambitious expedition was planned to circumnavigate Antarctica and undertake the first flight over the South Pole. Funding was difficult, so a small four-man party set out. Eventually two men, Bagshawe and Lester were left in Antarctica over the winter, their shelter being a converted water boat in Paradise Harbour, now renamed Waterboat Point. They undertook meteorological and zoological observations and collected data for a whole year for the first time.

Graham Land and the Antarctic Peninsula
» Enlarge

1925

UK Discovery Investigations of the Southern Ocean begin.

whale

These were a series of British funded, scientific studies taking place around the Antarctic Southern Ocean. They were names after R.S.S. Discovery, first used by Scott at the beginning of the 20th Century. The purpose of the investigations was to develop a better understanding of conservation of stocks and the ocean food chain. The investigations continued until 1951 and form the basis of an understanding of modern marine systems. They mark an important stage in British oceanographic studies of the marine ecosystem by employing new techniques in large scale multi-disciplinary study. The investigations were taken up again in the Offshore Biological Programme in 1978. Find out more about these important investigations at Discovery Investigations

1929-1931

Douglas Mawson led the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, or BANZARE for short, on board the Discovery.

Evelyn Forbes, daughter of expedition geologist Hartley Travers Ferrar, talks about meeting Mawson
Cheering the flag on Proclamation Island, 13th Jan 1930.
© Royal Geographical Society
Hoisting the flag on King George Land, January 5th 1931.
© Royal Geographical Society

1934-1937

British Graham Land Expedition led by John Rymill aboard the Penola.

The aims of the expedition were undertaking scientific research, assessing the economic potential of the area and reasserting British sovereignty in the Antarctic Peninsula. Funding came from the British government, while the RGS and SPRI endorsed the expedition.

The Northern Base was set up on the Argentine Islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula which were of exceptional biological interest. The party then moved south mapping and surveying the coast and setting up the Southern Base in the Debenham Islands, where they made preparations to travel inland during the summer months in George VI Sound, looking for a route to the Weddell Sea and undertaking geological investigations. Their research proved that the area was a peninsula and not an archipelago of islands as had previously been thought.

Colin Bertram, biologist, talks about how he became involved with the expedition
British Graham Land Expedition photo

© Scott Polar Research Institute
British Graham Land Expedition photo

© Scott Polar Research Institute

More information can be found at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

1935

In 1935, Caroline Mikkelsen, wife of a Norwegian whaling captain, became the first known woman to set foot, briefly, in Antarctica.

Caroline Mikkelsen
Caroline Mikkelsen

1943-1945

Operation Tabarin

Extract from film taken by Len Ashton at Hope Bay Base in 1945 during Operation Tabarin. This clip shows Dr Back, the meteorologist, going to take reading from the instruments in the Stevenson screen. (From British Antarctic Survey Archives Service, ref AD5/16/1946/6)

In 1943 the British Government sent a party to report any enemy naval activities in the Antarctic region. Bases were established on Antarctica for the first time and other bases were rapidly built. As well as maintaining a permanent presence on the continent, exploration, survey and research were carried out. This was the basis for the modern era of research.

Members of Operation Tabarin aboard HMS Eagle at Deception Island
© British Antarctic Survey, IM Lamb

1945-1961

Beyond Operation Tabarin

After the end of the war in 1945, Tabarin’s three bases and its scientific work were transferred to a new organisation - The Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS). The number of bases was increased and extensive scientific and surveying journey made.

Bernard Stonehouse, meteorologist and zoologist, talks about the crash of an aircraft.
Bernard Stonehouse, meteorologist and zoologist, talks about working at Alexander Island, Antarctica
Sir Vivian Fuchs, geologist and expedition leader, talks about travelling long journeys in Antarctica.

1947

The first women to winter on the continent were Americans Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington, wives of Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition members in 1947.

Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington

1949-1952

The Norwegian - British - Swedish Expedition (NBSAE) of 1949-52 was the first expedition in Antarctica involving an international team of scientists.

Their main objective was to explore whether the climatic fluctuations observed in the Arctic were also occurring in Antarctica. The party was led by the Norwegian Captain John Giaever, with each country in charge of a different aspect of the expedition.

On 23 February 1951 the expedition was hit by tragedy when three of the expedition died. Poor weather had caused the party in one of the weasel tractors to misjudge they position and they plunged over an ice cliff into the sea. Only one of the four occupants was able to swim to safety reaching an ice-flow from which he was rescued thirteen hours later.

Find out more about the expedition at the Scott Polar Research Institute

Sir Charles Swithinbank, glaciologist, talking about working in Antarctica after the accident.
Charles Swithinbank in a weasel
© Scott Polar Research Institute

1950

Surveying the Antarctic Peninsula

Researchers describe some of the transport and surveying journeys made at this time. The maps resulting from these surveys provide base maps on which scientists could plot their results and plan future work.

Ken Blaiklock, surveyor, talks about travelling to Antarctica on the John Biscoe.
Ken Blaiklock, surveyor, talks about arriving at Stonington Base.
Bernard Stonehouse, meteorologist and zoologist, talks about working in Antarctica.

1955-1958

The Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Vivian Fuchs and supported by Sir Edmund Hillary undertook the first crossing of the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole. Sir Vivian Fuchs was sometimes known as Bunny Fuchs.

Sir Vivian Fuchs
Sir Vivian Fuchs

Although not part of the IGY, valuable scientific research was undertaken. The expedition was not without difficulties. A party of eight men were left at Shackleton base to over-winter and set up the base, but valuable stores were left on the ice during a blizzard and were lost when the ice shelf broke up.

Sir Vivian Fuchs, geologist and expedition leader, talks about setting up the advanced party of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Ken Blaiklock, surveyor, talks about the early stages of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Ken Blaiklock, surveyor, talks about the first winter of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

The following summer Fuchs returned and Hillary's team set up Scott Base in McMurdo Sound on the Ross sea.

Sir Vivian Fuchs, geologist and expedition leader, talks about choosing the route for the crossing of Antarctica.

Fuchs’ job was to set up depots on the Polar Plateau using air reconnaissance and tractors. Hillary continued overland to the South Pole becoming only the third party to reach the Pole overland and the first to do so in vehicles.

Fuchs’ team reached the Pole from the opposite direction on 19 January 1958. Fuchs then continued overland, following the route that Hillary had laid, while Hillary flew back to Scott Base. The overland party finally arrived at Scott Base on March 2, 1958, having completed the historic crossing of 3,473km (2,158 miles) of previously unexplored snow and ice in 99 days. In December 1957 four men from the expedition few one of the planes, making the first non-stop trans-polar flight across the Antarctic continent from Shackleton Base via the Pole to Scott Base, following roughly the same route as Fuchs’ overland party.

Fuchs and Hillary shake hands at the South Pole
© Royal Geographical Society
Sir Vivian Fuchs, geologist and expedition leader, talks about meeting with Hillary at the South Pole.
Planning on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Planning on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition

1957-1958

International Geophysical Year

International Geophysical Year was an international scientific project that lasted from 1st July 1957 to 31st December 1958, with all major countries taking part in a variety of different scientific projects. These included research in Antarctica where 12 countries were engaged in research at 52 stations. The Halley Research Station was established in 1956 and the first permanent base at the Scott Amundson Base South Pole in 1957, using air transport as part of the programme. As a result of the international co-operation displayed through the programme, discussions which led to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty were begun.

Joseph MacDowell, meteorologist, talks about scientific expeditions.
Joseph MacDowell, meteorologist, talks about the importance of science in Antarctica.
General view of Halley Base from meteorological mast 1956-1957
© British Antarctic Survey
Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole

1959

The Antarctic Treaty was signed.

Find out more about the Antarctic Treaty.

1962

The Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey was renamed the British Antarctic Survey when the British Antarctic Territory was created as a separate British Overseas Territory following the Antarctic Treaty coming into force in 1961. Find out more about their current activities at the British Antarctic Survey website.

Colin Bertram, biologist, talks about being on the expedition.

1965

The International Antarctic Glaciological Project saw the first use of radio echo sounding equipment in Antarctica to measure ice thickness.

Sir Charles Swithinbank, glaciologist, talking about a radio echo sounding project.

1978

The start of ongoing British study of the Southern Ocean.

krill
Krill dominate the biological process in the Southern Ocean

The start of ongoing British study of the Southern Ocean through marine cruises by the Offshore Biological Programme, which later became the Pelagic Ecosystem Studies. These programmes and other international studies use modern methods to reveal the interactions between organisms in the Southern Ocean. This is especially important for the management of the Southern Oceans where a few species, notably krill, dominate the biological process. (See ‘Beneath the Waves’).

1979-1982

Transglobe Expedition led by Randolph Fiennes.

Transglobe expedition map

The 100,000 mile route took the Transglobe Expedition team across the Sahara via Tombouctou, through the swamps and jungles of Mali and the Ivory Coast, over huge unexplored crevasse fields in Antarctica, through the inhospitable North West Passage, graveyard of so many famous venturers, and into the unpredictable hazards of the Arctic Ocean. The expedition was in Antarctica from January 1980 to April 1981.

Read more about the Transglobe Expedition.

1979

Using photogrammetry to measure the velocity of glaciers.

Sir Charles Swithinbank, glaciologist, talking about measuring glaciers.

1982

Winter Weddell Sea Project.

Bernard Stonehouse, meteorologist and zoologist, talks about studying Emperor Penguins.

1985

Steep decline in ozone levels recorded.

The Dobson Ozone Spectrophotometer
The Dobson Ozone Spectrophotometer used to measure ozone from the ground at Halley VI Research Station with the impressive Aurora Australis display in the background. (Photo: Tom Welsh)

British Antarctic Survey scientists published results showing a steep decline in levels of ozone over Halley since the 1970s, particularly during the austral spring and the existence of the ozone hole was revealed. Since then the extent of the ozone hole has been monitored continuously using both ground-based and satellite-based techniques.

Read more about ozone level science at the British Antarctic Survey

1988

Setting up the Antarctic Digital Database (ADD)

Version 6.0 of the ADD went live on 1st June 2012

Sir Charles Swithinbank, glaciologist, talks about compiling the digital data bank.

1992

Ranulph Feinnes and Dr Mike Stroud became the first people to cross Antarctica unsupported.

1994

The last dogs were removed from Antarctica on 22nd February 1994.

Huskies in a trace about to pull a sledge during their last season in Antarctica, Reptile Ridge, Adelaide Island, 1992-3
© Pete Bucktrout, British Antarctic Survey

Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty’s Environmental Protocol all non-indigenous species had to be removed from Antarctica because of the potential threat to indigenous species, for example through the transmission of disease and killing animals for food for the dogs.

Find out more about the removal of sledge dogs

Find out more about environmental issues