A Short History of Antarctica

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Antarctica is the globe's southernmost continent and it is made up of the geographic South Pole. It is located in the Antarctic area of the Southern Hemisphere, almost completely south of the Antarctic Circle and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. It is the fifth biggest continent in the world and roughly 98% of it is covered by ice which extends to all but the northernmost regions of the Antarctic Peninsula. This is the windiest, driest and coldest continent with the highest average elevation. As of 2016, there were roughly 135 permanent inhabitants but about 1,000 to 5,000 people live there throughout the year at research stations located all over the continent.

There are speculations and myths about a Terras Australis (Southern Land) dating back to antiquity. Antarctica has, however, been noted as the last area on the globe in documented history to be discovered and colonized by humans. The continent was first discovered in 1820 by the Russian expedition of Mikhail Lazarev and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen on Vostok and Mirny, who spotted the Fimbul ice shelf. Antarctica, however, remained neglected throughout the 19th century due to its unfriendly environment, isolation, and lack of easily accessible resources. It was in 1895 when the first confirmed landing was carried out by a team of Norwegians.

The continent is a de facto condominium ruled by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System that have conferring status. Twelve states signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and it has been signed by thirty eight other countries since then. This treaty forbids nuclear waste disposal and nuclear explosions, forbids mineral mining and military activities, protects the continent's eco-zone, and supports scientific research. A brief history of the continent has been discussed below.

First sighting of Antarctica

Ice formation in Antartica, SourceAs mentioned earlier on, Antarctica was first spotted by Admiral Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. It is, however, important to note that the first confirmed spotting of mainland Antarctica cannot be correctly attributed to only one person. It's sighting can be narrowed down to three people who sighted the continent of the ice shelf within days or months of each other: Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, captain in the Russian Imperial Navy; Edward Bransfield, captain in the Royal Navy; and Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealer from Stonington, Connecticut. Fabian Gottlieb sighted the Fimbul ice shelf on 28 January 1820, Bransfield the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost end of the Antarctic mainland on 30th January 1820, and Palmer spotted the mainland in the southern area of Trinity Peninsula in November 1820.

Exploration of Antarctica

Since 1821 to about 1958, a number of expeditions were done to Antarctica. The first was on 7 February 1821 by the American Captain John Davis. In 1923, a British sealer called James Weddell sailed into what is currently referred to as the Weddell Sea. In 1840, Charles Wilkes, a commander of the United States Navy explored the continent and spotted what is presently known as Wilkes Land.

James Clark Ross, a British naval officer, pinpointed the location of the South Magnetic Pole after the North Magnetic Pole was sighted in 1831. He was , however, not able to reach  the pole during his trip in 1841. He commanded the British ships Erebus and Terror and was able to approach what is now the Ross Ice Shelf. He also explored eastward along the Southern Antarctic coast and discovered mountains that he named after his ships: Mount Terror, and Mount Erebus, the most active volcano on the continent.

The first recorded landing on the mainland of East Antarctica was at Victoria Bay by Mercator Cooper an American sealer on 26 January 1853.

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration started at the end of the 19th century and came to an end with Ernest Shackleton's Imperial trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1917. During this era, the Antarctic became the focus of a global attempt that resulted in rigorous geographical and scientific exploration. This period was characterized by 17 Antarctic expeditions from ten countries such as Belgium, Britain, Germany, Sweden, France, and Norway just to mention a few.

More explorations were done by air from 1929 to the 1950s, earning this era the name 'Mechanical Age.'

Political history of Antarctica

In 1833, the United Kingdom strengthened sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic and was able to maintain a constant presence there. In 1908,  the British government expanded its territorial claim by proclaiming sovereignty over the Sandwich Islands, the South Shetlands, the South Orkneys, and Graham's Land, located in the South Atlantic Ocean.            All these regions were governed as Falkland Islands Dependencies by the Governor of the Falkland Islands from Stanley.

Admiral Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen discovered AntarticaUnder the leadership of Leopold Amery, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Britain tried to integrate the whole continent into the British Empire. The initial step was taken on 30 July 1923 when an Order in Council was passed by the British government under the British Settlements Act 1887. The Order in Council then appointed the Commander-in Chief and Governor-General as the governor of the region. The United Kingdom went on to claim Enderby Land in 1930. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster was passed, and the United Kingdom had to renounce all control over the government of Australia and New Zealand.

Besides the United Kingdom, other countries, for instance, French also laid claim on the continent. In 1924, the French government laid claim to Adélie Land which had been discovered by the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1840.

In 1929, a Norwegian expedition led by Nils Larsen and Ola Olstad landed on Peter I Island and claimed the island for their country. Another Norwegian expedition led by Finn Lützow-Holm and Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen names the continental land mass Queen Maud Land, after the Norwegian queen Maud of Wales.

The encroachment of the region by foreign countries caused a lot of discomfort to the neighboring South American countries such as, Chile and Argentina. Chile's president, Pedro Aguirre Cerda took advantage of the second world war and decreed the formation of the Chilean Antarctic Territory  in territories that had already been claimed by Britain.

In 1904, Argentina started a permanent occupation in the region with the buying of a meteorological station on Laurie Island founded in 1903  by Dr. William S. Bruce's Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. In 1906, Argentina communicated to the global community the formation of a permanent headquarter on South Orkney Islands which belonged to the British. The two parties reached an agreement granting Argentina permission for only a year. In 1913, there were negotiations between Argentina and Britain for the possible transfer of the island to the Argentineans. The talks were not successful but Argentina went ahead to establish its sovereignty in the region, and in 1943 the country was able to establish Argentine Antarctica.

The MS Explorer was sunk in 2007 after hitting an iceburg, SourceThere was a lot of friction between Britain and the Latin American countries which continued even after WWII had ended. In 1948, Royal Navy warships were dispatched to deter naval invasions. It was before and during WWII that the United States became politically interested in the continent. From 1939-1941, the United States Antarctic Service Expedition was sponsored by the government. Institutions, corporation and even private citizens gave additional support to the expedition whose main objectives were to establish two bases: West Base in the environs of King Edward VII Land, and East Base in the environs of Charcot Island. American interest was, however, rekindled after the war and it now had a geopolitical objective. From 1946-1947, Operation Highjump was organized and its main objective was to develop the Antarctic research base Little America IV, so as to train personnel and test equipment in glacial circumstances and to amplify available stores of knowledge of geographical, hydrographic, electromagnetic and meteorological propagation conditions in the region.

In 1948, negotiations towards the development of a global condominium over the continent commenced and seven claimant powers were involved in the process. These included Argentina, Chile, Norway, France, New Zealand, Australia, and Britain. The United States also participated in the negotiation.

The International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) was a very significant impetus towards the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1959. The year experienced global scientific cooperation that set off a 18-month duration of extreme  Antarctic science.

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 and entered into force in 1961. The Treaty set aside the Antarctic continent as a scientific preserve. It also prohibited military activity on the continent and developed freedom of scientific investigation.

On 7 January 1978, a baby by the name Emilio Marcos de Palma was born near Hope Bay.  He was the first baby to be born in Antarctica.

In 1991, a convention among member states of the Antarctic Treaty on how to control drilling and mining was proposed. This resulted in the implementation of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, now referred to as the Madrid Protocol. All mineral extraction was prohibited for 50 years and the continent was set aside as a natural reserve, dedicated to science and peace.

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