Part of the What Do You Know About That series
by Ruth Orr
ANTARCTICA — A little over a year ago (and where the heck did that time go?) I wrote a WDYKAT about Australia and how it got its name. In it I mentioned that European explorers were just absolutely certain that there had to be a big chunk of land in the southern hemisphere. That goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, specifically our guy Aristotle, who speculated that thre had to be a matching amount of land in the south as there is in the north in order to keep the world balanced. He was wrong— roughly 68% of the planet’s landmass is in the northern hemisphere— but that didn’t stop a bunch of dudes from drawing a big squiggly mess on the bottom of their maps to represent the presumed Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown southern land.
Through sheer dumb luck, those early mapmakers weren’t entirely wrong, and while it is certainly not big enough to balance out all the land up north, there is in fact a big piece of property sitting at the south pole: the continent of Antarctica. They would not know for sure until 1820, when a Russian expedition became the first people (as far as we know) to ever actually see the new continent. Even then, it took another year before anyone actually put their foot on previously-only-penguin-touched ice (and the veracity of that claim is still debated).
The term Antarctica literally just means ‘opposite the arctic’, which I think is a bit unfair and it deserves its own name, but nobody asked me, so we’re still using the phrase coined by Marinus of Tyre all the way back in the 2nd century CE, roughly 1900 years ago.
Real quick side note— there are some who think that the Māori people native to New Zealand may have found it sooner— there are stories of Hui Te Rangiora who went out with his crew early in the seventh century and found a frozen ocean. Others dispute the tale, saying that later historians embellished tales of Hui Te Rangiora’s expedition with details learned from European whalers and teachers. More recently, Ngāi Tahu scholars have agreed that it is unlikely that any Māori or Polynesian vessels made it to the Antarctic. But worth keeping in mind that just because Europeans were the ones who came in and wrote everything down doesn’t prove that nobody else was ever there first. Food for thought.
At any rate, it took a long time for Europeans to bother poking their noses into the southern hemisphere, partially due to want of technology, and partially because they just didn’t need to. Trade routes were established linking China all the way across through India and the Middle East to England, and from the bottom of Africa on up. We had to wait until 1418, when European nations got greedy enough (looking at you, Portugal) that they wanted to find a faster, better way to get their stuff, which they figured they could do by just, ya know, going around all the problematic land bits, like the entire continent of Africa. The Portuguese first managed to cross the equator in 1473, and they were off from there. The mapmakers went wild, connecting the still-mostly-incognita terra to every other piece of land they found, often linking it to every other chunk of land in the south, forming a supercontinental blob. It took centuries of people making dangerous sailing expeditions for cartographers to slowly and laboriously paint an image of a wholly separate landmass at the bottom of the world.
It was famed British explorer Captain James Cook (the first European to find Australia, New Zealand, Hawai’i—which he named the Sandwich Land—and more) who determined after several attempts to break through the sea ice that any land that may exist south of the 60th parallel was virtually inaccessible and of no economic value. Harsh, but at the time true enough.
After a hundred years of advancements however, those obstacles that kept Cook from advancing further and claiming Antarctica for England weren’t quite as insurmountable. At the end of the 19th century, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exp0loration kicked off. International attention turned south once more, and ten different countries all launched expeditions. Whaling ships actually were a big part of the process, but took along naturalists on their voyages who documented everything and collected specimens to bring home, delighting and fascinating the public and scientists alike. In August 1895, the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London passed a resolution calling on scientific societies from around the world to push for Antarctic exploration. The race for the pole was on.
In 1898, the Belgians led an expedition and became the first men to spend the winter on Antarctica— though they didn’t plan to set that record when they left. Their ship, the Belgica, became trapped in the ice on February 28, 1898. They were able to finally break out on March 14… 1899.
In 1910, two different expeditions set out with the goal of making it to the South Pole. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat the British to the pole by a month, arriving on December 14, 1911.
Okay, cool (get it?) so lots of people from lots of countries were interested in the continent, and more than a few of them were managing to get out, explore, survive there. Why weren’t any of the colonial superpowers flexing their muscles to claim the new continent for themselves? Well, they were trying.
As far as Argentina and Chile believed, the Spanish Empire were the rightful owners of the continent, since in 1539 the King of Spain specicially say all lands south of the Straits of Magellan were theirs. Argentina and Chile today both still claim a sliver of Antarctica as their own, though modern Spain does not. The Brits were of course in on it too, claiming as many territories in the South Atlantic as they could, and saying they also owned everything south of those islands— so they get a sliver of Antarctica too. They did try to call dibs on the entire continent (aside from the little pockets Chile, Argentina, and France already claimed). As part of the British Empire, Australia and New Zealand got chunks of Antarctica, the same way Chile and Argentina did. Ever unhappy with the British, France didn’t want to be left out and claimed their own strip. Norway wanted in on the place, worried about the Brits hogging all the good whales.
The claiming wasn’t neat and easy and there was a lot of arguing about it, especially as the world fell into a couple big wars and everybody was mad at each other. The Nazis actually went so far as to attack Norwegian whaling ships in Antarctic waters. The US started sniffing at the continent just before WWII and started sending their own expeditions down. But after those wars, global politics cooled down too far, and we ended up in the Cold War. As everybody got weird and worried about more big fights, it was decided that maybe we should all do that standard thing moms do when kids are arguing over a toy: “if you can’t share it, I’m taking it away and nobody gets it”.
To that end, on December 1, 1959, twelve nations (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the US, and the USSR) all signed the Antarctic Treaty. Basically it says that Antarctica is for everybody, and that as long as you’re there for international scientific collaboration, you’re alright, but any military activity on the continent is a no-no. Countries are also not allowed to exploit the continent for mineral resources. The entire place is reserved for peace and science, which is super cool (man, I need to get a new pun).
The treaty also froze all territorial claims, ensuring no other nations could try to get in on the prize. Today only Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom own a sliver of the pie. Yes, you read that right, the good ol’ U.S. of A. does not currently have any claims.
That being said, there is a big chunk of Antarctica, a region known as Marie Byrd Land, which remains unclaimed by any nation. And the Antarctic Treaty comes open for revision in 2048, which means that other countries (cough cough, us) may try to muscle in and claim Marie Byrd Land. Or the nations involved may decide to throw the peace and science out in favor of making cold hard cash. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed they don’t. Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth that’s still wild.