At the bottom of the world is a frozen world known as Antarctica.
Here is a world like no other. It is a land of mystery, with a past filled with heroism and tragedy. A world that is not for the faint of heart. So let's summon our courage and go there!
Way down south
Even in ancient times, there was the notion of a Terra Australis Incognita or an “unknown land of the South.”
The idea was as simple as it was unproven. They knew of the Indian Ocean and how at the top it was bounded by, well … India and the rest of Asia.
Shouldn't there be a landmass on the south side of this ocean? In fact in those days, before Africa was fully explored, it was believed by some that the bottom of Africa connected to this southern land.
1570 map showing the unknown land south
With the coming of the age of exploration ships of exploration had to sail below Africa and later South America on their way to China. This brought some of the islands off the coast of Antarctica in their path. But the honor of being the first to see the new continent goes to Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen from Russia in 1820.
Getting to know me
It may not come as a surprise that most of the early exploring of Antarctica itself was by sealers sailing in those waters. In fact, it was the captain of a sealing ship, John Davis, who claimed to first set foot on Antarctica in 1821. However interest in exploring the interior of Antarctica began in earnest in 1893 with a lecture by a scientist named Dr. John Murray where he promoted exploration of the southernmost continent.
The “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” was off!
Here are some highlights:
A Belgium expedition in 1898 became the first to winter in Antarctica when their boat got trapped in ice. Make no mistake to the danger they were in; expanding ice can easily crush a boat and all in it (as we'll see later).
Also in 1898, the Southern-cross expedition set off for a two-year exploration. This was the first time sled dogs were used there.
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first team to reach the South pole on December 14, 1911.
Amundsen and team by their tent at the South Pole
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, was to be the first crossing all the way across Antarctica. Their epic voyage went to ruin early with their ship being crushed by pack ice, leaving the team stranded on the ice. This began a heroic fight to survive and get rescued – a fight that would involve sailing the southern waters to the south George island, Elephant island, and their final rescue.
Sled dogs look on as the crushed remains of the ship Endurance is about to sink under the ice.
In 1928 the cherry of top of Antarctic exploration came with the first airplane flight over the continent.
Research still continues today, but nothing like the heroic efforts of these early explorers.
A strange world of ice
In some ways Antarctica is like its northern sibling, the Arctic; both are worlds of ice, both spend half the year in a constant day and the other in an eternal night. But wheres the arctic is a floating sheet of ice, the southern continent is solid ground that is largely covered in ice.
But don't let all that ice fool you, it holds a few surprises of its own.
Fire in the heart
The ground under Antarctica is surprisingly active. A study in 2017 concluded that there are no less than 138 volcanoes down there. But what's even more bizarre is about 90 of them are called Subglacial volcanos – volcanoes that come up only to the ice. The ice and lava erupting from these volcanoes stays trapped under the ice sheet.
A river runs through it
It may come as a surprise to many, including myself, that there are hundreds of lakes, rivers, and even some waterfalls way down south. To be sure, these only flow in the summer months, but they are still there.
The longest river, the Onyx River, flows for 20 miles.
Lake Vanda and the Onyx river
Life down below
Life in the Antarctic world must face some very harsh realities. Plantlife is mostly little more than mosses and the like. There are however two flowering plants, such as the Antarctic Hair Grass.
Photo by “Lomvi2”*
As far as animals go, the chief resident is the penguin, most notably the Emperor Penguin as well as seals.
Of course, the waters about are teeming with life such as whales.
Perhaps it is most fitting that the title of Emperor be bestowed on the penguins. Perhaps there can be no more fitting creature to preside over this cold, strange world. A world where we humans venture at our own peril.
This is the world of Antarctica.
On the web
Antarctica - A Frozen History
A video briefly following the history of Antarctica, its discovery, and exploration.
In Antarctica, a town that thrives despite the shivers
Believe it or not, there is a town in Antarctica, with families and even a school.
Survival! The Shackleton Story
A video telling the story of The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.
*Shared under creative commons license 3.0
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