History of Antarctica

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The history of Antarctica emerges from early Western theories of a vast continent, known as Terra Australis, believed to exist in the far south of the globe. The term Antarctic, referring to the opposite of the Arctic Circle, was coined by Marinus of Tyre in the 2nd century AD.

Painting of James Weddell's second expedition, depicting the brig Jane and the cutter Beaufoy

The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries proved that Terra Australis Incognita ("Unknown Southern Land"), if it existed, was a continent in its own right. In 1773, James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time. Although he discovered new islands, he did not sight the continent itself. It is believed that he came as close as 240 km (150 mi) from the mainland.

On 27 January 1820, a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev discovered an ice shelf at Princess Martha Coast that later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf. Bellingshausen and Lazarev became the first explorers to see and officially discover the land of the continent of Antarctica. Three days later, on 30 January 1820, a British expedition captained by Irishman Edward Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, and ten months later an American sealer, Nathaniel Palmer, sighted Antarctica on 17 November 1820. The first landing was most likely just over a year later when American Captain John Davis, a sealer, set foot on the ice.

Several expeditions attempted to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century, during the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration". Many resulted in injury and death. Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally reached the Pole on 14 December 1911, following a dramatic race with the Briton Robert Falcon Scott.