This Day in History: Explorations in Antarctica

On January 17, 1773, Captain James Cook explored the Antarctic Circle. Nearly 150 years later, Captain Robert Scott reached the South Pole—and a dark fate.
Gabriel Boric - Antonio Guterres in Antarctica
Gabriel Boric - Antonio Guterres in Antarctica / Anadolu/GettyImages

Antarctica is the only continent in the world that is almost entirely uninhabited, and there's a good reason for that. According to the World Fact Book, it is "the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth," with no land suitable for farming. However, it was little more than a myth for most of human history, as it wasn't possible to travel there safely, nor would it have been a safe place to visit.

As the Age of Exploration began, reaching Antarctica and reporting back on it provided a chance for glory. It was one of the only places on the planet that had truly never been charted. January 17 marks the anniversary of two major events in the discovery of Antarctica.

Engraving of Captain James Cook by William Holl II After Nathaniel Dance
Engraving of Captain James Cook by William Holl II After Nathaniel Dance / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

James Cook crosses the Antarctic Circle

From the 1500s to the 1800s, people increasingly began to wonder about what they called "Terra Australis," a continent or series of islands to the south of Australia. Explorer James Cook was tasked with exploring this possible land mass in his second great voyage to determine if it could provide the British with a new trade partner.

Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773, where he examined the terrain. Per his journals, there were multiple small islands of ice along with a massive land mass that was similarly frozen. Viewing further exploration as pointless at best, dangerous at worst, he continued on with his journey.

"This immense field was composed of different kinds of ice, such as high ills, loose or broken pieces packed close together, and what, I think, Greenlandmen call field-ice. A float of this kind of ice lay to the S. E. of us, of such extent that I could see no end to it, from the mast-head."

James Cook

In the end, Captain Cook did not have the opportunity to properly discover Antarctica, but he provided a lot of information about the climate and wildlife. While it was not a complete answer, Cook felt that he had done all that could be done.

"The risk one runs in exploring a coast in these unknown and Icy Seas, is so very great, that I can be bold to say, that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored."

James Cook
Scott's Party at the South Pole
Scott's Party at the South Pole / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Robert Scott becomes the second explorer to reach the South Pole

Despite Cook's insistence that Antarctica both should not and could not be fully charted, European explorers continued to pursue his original mission. Perhaps his warnings were even a motive for their journeys, as anybody who succeeded could claim they were better than Captain Cook.

In 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott not only reached the continent, but began to explore it on foot. While Norweigan explorer Roald Amundsen had actually reached the South Pole first, Scott became famous for the horrific fate he met just two and a half months after his team reached the Pole on January 17.

Scott had previously broken records in his explorations of Antarctica, and his 1910-1913 expedition was intended not just to reach the South Pole, but to conduct extensive scientific research while there. Even after arriving too late, they had the opportunity to revolutionize what the world knew about the Antarctic.

However, as Scott and his small team attempted to return to their base, they were trapped by a blizzard. They could not finish the journey, nor could anyone come rescue them, and the cold and lack of resources led to what must have been slow, painful deaths. Their bodies were found in November, along with a series of letters to tell their families and colleagues goodbye.

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for."

Robert Scott, Message to the Public

While they lost their lives and lost the race to the South Pole, Scott and his crew are still credited with discovering the first fossils in Antarctica, proof that the barren landscape once was capable of supporting life.

Unlike the cheery legends of Santa's Workshop at the North Pole, the South Pole is best known for being the most dangerous land mass on the planet for humans. While there are now between 1,000 and 5,000 people who live at Antarctica for research purposes, it is still not hospitable for long-term residence.

As we face the cold spells of January, it's a good time to remember these two dangerous expeditions to the coldest place on Earth.

Check back for more segments of "This Day in History" on Ask Everest.

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