Antarctica: The Edge of the Earth

It’s the land at the edge of the world. A howling emptiness of jagged mountains, broken
icebergs, and endless snow. It’s a song of ice and, well, more ice. A land that’s the coldest, driest, windiest,
and most uninhabitable of anywhere on Earth. Those who went there knew it as the Great
White Silence, the Southern Land, the end of the world. But you know it by its far more ancient name:
Antarctica. The last continent to be discovered, Antarctica
was for a long time a mystery shrouded ice. For centuries, the ferocious Southern Ocean
stopped even the hardiest explorers from catching a glimpse of this frozen land. Today, of course, Antarctica has been tamed. There’s a population of scientists, visits
by tour groups, and you can even take yoga classes at the Pole. But how did we get here? How did we conquer Antarctica, and why does
no country own it today? In today’s video, we’re embarking on an
epic voyage to the edge of the Earth. Birth of a Legend
In the early 2nd Century AD, Marinus of Tyre made history. At the time, it was fashionable to believe
that the known world was not all that existed. That, somewhere down south, a vast continent
might be hiding, waiting to be discovered. To this hidden world, Marinus gave the name
that we know it by today: Antarctica. But while Marinus christening Antarctica makes
for a fine point to start a video on the subject, the actual history of Antarctica begins much
earlier. How much earlier? Try 600 million years ago. In the Late Precambrian era, the endless shifting
of tectonic plates resulted in the appearance of a landmass known as Gondwana. An ancient supercontinent, Gondwana was huge. Seriously, we’re talking so big, even yo
momma’s waistline would have trouble competing. Just listen to the modern-day places that
made up Gondwana: South America, Africa, Arabia, India, Madagascar, Australia – places that
are themselves ridiculously big even now. At the heart of this vast landmass was Antarctica. But don’t go thinking it was anything like
the Antarctica you know. Plant fossils tell the story of an Antarctica
covered in lush rainforest. Even when Gondwana disintegrated and Antarctica
began its lonely voyage south, it remained hot and humid and bustling with life. Dinosaurs roamed the plains of the interior. Forests covered the mountains. At Antarctica’s edges, 6ft tall penguins
waddled around, presumably looking both adorable and terrifying. This stayed true even as Antarctica settled
over the pole, isolated from the other continents. It stayed true even as hundreds of millions
of years sped by. Then, 35 millions years ago, the first ice
sheets unexpectedly appeared. Quite how they formed is a bit of a mystery. What’s not in doubt is that they were soon
growing to cover the continent. As the ice sheets grew, life around them began
to shrink away. It happened slowly, so slowly it would’ve
been impossible to detect. Yet, happen it did. As the millennia slipped past, life found
itself pushed further and further to the edges. The forests retreated. Larger forms of life were pushed into extinction. Eventually, all that remained of tropical
Antarctica was a narrow ring around the coast. A narrow band of life, clinging to the edges
of an inhospitable wasteland. But even that couldn’t last. Around three million years ago, Antarctica
reached a tipping point. The cycles of gentle warming that had kept
the last ice sheets at bay simply stopped. The continent plunged into deep freeze. Sheets of ice 3km thick covered its surface. The last traces of life vanished. Finally, the Antarctica we know today had
arrived. A couple of million years later, a group of
bipedal apes in Africa evolved brains big enough to make themselves top of the food
chain. They moved out of Africa, discovered things
like writing and geography, settled around the eastern Mediterranean. Eventually, a civilization we know as Ancient
Greece arose. Its geographers became the first to speculate
that there might be another land far to the south, hidden from view. In the twilight of the Hellenistic era, an
ape known as Marinus finally came up with a name for that land. He called it Antarctica. The Coming of Man
For the next several hundred years, Antarctica remained a figment of our imaginations. The idea that there was another land to the
south was still popular. In the Middle Ages, map makers even began
including a vast, blank super continent over the South Pole. Incidentally, in those days the fabled southern
land was known mostly as Terra Australis Incognita. But the discovery of Australia kind of used
up that name, so, well, back to Antarctica. Despite appearing on maps, no-one had ever
seen Antarctica. The closest anyone came prior to the 19th
Century was the legendary explorer James Cook. Well, probably. There is a Maori legend about an ancient war
canoe that got blown off course and wound up in the sea ice around Antarctica, but that’s
pretty difficult to prove. Anyway, Cook spent the years 1772-75 circumnavigating
the globe at high southern latitudes, meaning he basically went in a perfect circle around
Antarctica without ever quite seeing it. What he did see were fur seals. Lots of them. And so we come to the first stage of the great
human story of discovering somewhere cool and new and exploiting the living Hell out
of it. The Sealing Era lasted almost from the moment
Cook returned home and said “guys, you wouldn’t believe how many seals are down there!”
to 1830, when there were almost no fur seals left at all. Hundreds of commercial ships from dozens of
nations raced into the ice sheets surrounding Antarctica, trapping and killing as many seals
as possible. In fact, they killed so many seals that it’s
been speculated the first person to set foot on Antarctica may not have been some heroic
explorer, but an anonymous sailor who was too busy whacking a seal on the head to notice
he’d made history. Still, the romance of an undiscovered land
gripped the public imagination. By 1798, talk of Antarctica was prevalent
enough that Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it as the setting for his epic poem Rime of the
Ancient Mariner. The tale of a vessel blown off course that
winds up in Antarctica, the Rime is chiefly remembered today for boring literature students
with its bizarre obsession with albatrosses. But its invocation of Antarctica is still
haunting. Lacking any sightings to draw on, Coleridge
created a land covered in jagged sheets of green ice that appeared like a wasteland of
broken glass. (NOTE TO EDITORS: Possible image to use here: It was a fantastical image, one that captured
the minds of many. However, it was about to be replaced by the
real deal. In 1820, three men from three different ships
registered to three different nations all became the first ever people to see Antarctica. Like characters in a fairytale, each man witnessed
a fragment more, uncovered a little extra. The first was Russian naval officer Fabian
Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, who caught sight of a shelf edge of continental ice. Not two days later, the second man, British
expedition leader Edward Bransfield, caught sight of terra firma that may have been part
of the mainland. Finally, American Nathaniel Palmer saw the
mainland itself, rising from the frozen seas, distant and terrifying. But rather than live happily ever after, all
three men then spent the rest of their lives squabbling over who saw Antarctica first. Still, the veil had been lifted. Humanity had confirmed a whole other land
existed at the South Pole. Now all we needed to do was actually visit
the damn place. Hollow Earths and Heroes
If you need an illustration of how mystifying 19th Century people found Antarctica, look
no further then Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. An 1838 novel about a group of mutineers caught
on a lifeless ship, the tale climaxes with the survivors reaching Antarctica. There, they find not only a tropical microclimate
beyond the ice, but other humans and – eventually – a gigantic white figure that may be protecting
the entrance to a hollow Earth. It sounds ridiculous now, but in Poe’s time
it was no crazier than the other theories about Antarctica. Decades after Nathaniel Palmer’s 1820 sighting,
people were still arguing over what Antarctica really looked like. It could be a tropical rainforest surrounded
by a barrier of ice. It could be a series of islands, rather than
one giant landmass. It could house Gods, demons, monsters, whatever
humanity wanted. It helped that the 19th Century mostly saw
explorers get close to, but never quite land on Antarctica. That finally changed in 1895. That year, a half-English, half-Norwegian
with the glorious name of Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink managed to do what no-one else
had done before. He landed a boat at Cape Adare, a grim and
lonely little peninsula poking out Antarctica. As he stepped onto shore, he became the first
person in recorded history to stand on Antarctic soil. At least, that’s Borchgrevink’s version. Onboard the ship was 17-year old New Zealander
Alexander von Tunzelmann, who maintained until his death that he was first out the ship and
first to actually touch Antarctic soil. 19th Century explorers, guys. Not very good at sharing. Whoever was really first on land, there was
no doubt that Borchgrevink’s mission marked the beginning of the scramble for Antarctica. The era that Borchgrevink ushered in is commonly
known as the Heroic Age of Exploration, mostly thanks to guys like Scott, Shackleton, and
Amundsen. But before we can discuss their excellent
adventures, we have to walk you through something we’re gonna call Carsten Borchgrevink’s
Bogus Journey. After either landing on Antarctica first,
or landing on it second and then stealing all the credit, Borchgrevink was itching to
get back down south. In 1898, a Belgian captain had accidentally
got trapped in Antarctic ice over winter, thereby proving you could survive the punishing
cold, and Borchgrevink was determined to be the first to do it intentionally. In 1899, he returned to the southern continent
and built the hut now recognized as Antarctica’s first permanent structure. Then he and his men settled down for winter. It would be the longest winter any of them
had ever experienced. As hurricane force winds howled outside and
temperatures dropped to levels that brass monkeys have nightmares about, Borchgrevink
and his men sank into acute cabin fever. The whole hut stank of penguin droppings. The only food available was penguin meat. Fuel meant wading through thick guano to catch
another damn penguin. Everything was permeated with the stench of
penguin poop, penguin flesh and burning penguin fat. Tempers frayed. A fire nearly burned the hut down. One man fell ill and died. By the end, Borchgrevink later wrote, the
bitter silence between the men was “deafening”. Still, Borchgrevink did the job. By going, he sparked enough interest in Antarctica
that another man was appointed to lead a British follow up expedition. His name was Robert Falcon Scott, and he was
about to go down in history. The Age of Heroes
If you were alive in early 1911, it would have looked to you like the British were on
the verge of conquering Antarctica. It was now ten years since Scott’s first
expedition, the Discovery, had set off for the southern continent. In that short space of time, our conception
of Antarctica had been transformed. While Borchgrevink had contented himself farting
around the coast, eating any penguins he could get his hands on, Scott had led history’s
first trek into the Antarctic interior. He’d mapped previously unknown mountain
ranges, crossed the Ross Ice Shelf (then known as the Ice Barrier), explored the frozen plateau,
and taken a hot air balloon up to make the first observations of the continent from the
air. Nor was it just Scott. One of Scott’s comrades on his Discovery
expedition, a guy named Ernest Shackleton, returned for his own 1909 expedition, which
saw him get within 97 miles of the South Pole. Commercially, too, Antarctica was opening
up. In 1904, the first major whaling stations
opened on the island of South Georgia, bringing fleets of vessels to the waters around the
continent. From a land shrouded in mystery just 15 years
earlier, Antarctica was suddenly becoming somewhere we knew we could get to. Somewhere we could survive. So it was with a spirit of great optimism
that Scott’s second expedition to Antarctica set off from Cardiff, in June, 1910. Known as Terra Nova, it had two goals. One was to advance scientific understanding
of Antarctica. The other was to become the first to reach
the South Pole. At the time he set off, Scott was pretty certain
he would achieve both goals. The only other person on Earth who could probably
have challenged Scott for the Pole was a Norwegian dude called Roald Amundsen, and he was off
doing his own thing at the North Pole. Or so Scott thought. When the Terra Nova arrived in New Zealand,
Scott received a telegram from Amundsen, effectively saying “sorry, dude, decided to beat you
to the South Pole. Good luck eating my dust!” The race for Antarctica was on. No-one could have predicted it would end in
tragedy. “I’m going out for a walk…” The following January, 1911, Scott and his
crew landed at Ross Dependency, where they established base camp. With winter approaching, there was no point
racing for the Pole, so the team settled in, doing their science stuff and chasing penguins
for fun. (NOTE TO EDITORS: Penguin chasing footage
shot by Herbert Ponting really exists and could be cool to use here)
Come October, Scott was ready to begin the grueling trek to the Pole. It was a lesson in disaster. After 50 miles, the motorized sledges broke
down and Scott was forced to switch to dogs, only for the dogs to start dying in droves. Incidentally, Amundsen’s expedition had
the same problem. But where Scott and his men felt sympathy
for their exhausted dogs, Amundsen’s crew ate their dead dogs, or fed them to the other
dogs for energy. Yikes. Scott’s progress was painfully slow. All through December, he inched his way up
glaciers and onto the empty plateau leading to the Pole. By January 3, it was clear the team needed
thinning. Scott selected Dr. Edward Wilson, Lawrence
Oates, Henry Bowers and Edgar Evans to accompany him for the final dash. None of them would ever be seen alive again. On January 17, 1912, nearly three moths after
setting off, Scott’s team finally reached the South Pole. A note from Amundsen was waiting for them. In a masterful burn, it simply asked Scott
to inform the King of Norway that Amundsen had reached the Pole first. The date on the letter was December 14. Amundsen had won by 33 whole days. The return journey was as miserable as you’re
probably imagining. Frozen by unseasonable cold, battered by winds,
the party limped back towards safety. As they descended the Beardmore Glacier that
February, Edgar Evans collapsed and died. Unable to take his corpse with them, the rest
of the party carried on. But a hopelessness hung over all of them. They’d failed to reach the Pole. And now they’d pay the price. By March, Captain Oates had developed gangrene
and was slowing everyone down. The night of his 32nd birthday, Oates told
his companions “I’m just going outside and may be some time,” and walked out the
tent and into a blizzard. His body was never found. The finale came just three days later. On March 20, a blizzard pinned the party down
just 11 miles from a supply depot. For over a week, the storm battered their
tent, the gales outside sounding like mocking laughs. On March 29, Scott wrote his final diary entry:
“Every day we have been ready to start for our depot… but outside the door of the tent
it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better
things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are
getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write
more. R. Scott. Last entry.” The death of Scott, and his failure to reach
the Pole first, came as a shocking blow to the British. Although Scott was elevated to the status
of national hero, his story still shook the nation to its core. Yet, Scott’s death wasn’t all in vain. One of the reasons the party was so slow was
that they refused to jettison the scientific samples they’d picked up along the way. Unlike Amundsen, who didn’t carry a single
unnecessary pound, Scott was lugging back a pile of Glossopteris indica fossils he’d
wasted a day collecting. These same fossils would later be used to
prove that Antarctica had once been connected to India and South America, to prove Gondwana. Even in death, Robert Falcon Scott was able
to change science forever. The End of Mystery
The death of Scott wasn’t the end of the Heroic Age, but it might as well have been. The next great expedition was also one that
ended in failure, when Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance got stuck in pack ice in winter,
1914 and starvation looked certain. But while Scott would die of exposure, Shackleton
was able to pull off a crazy escape. In a small boat, he and a few men were able
to row for 14 straight days across the Hell of the Southern Ocean until they reached South
Georgia. There, they walked for miles across frozen
jagged terrain, before finally scaling down a sheer cliff face to arrive at the safety
of a whaling station. It was the sort of feat of endurance that
would make your average ultrarunner break down and weep. Yet how did fate reward the men who made it? It sent them all off to fight in the inferno
of WWI. Out of the frying pan… and into the meatgrinder. The real end of the Heroic Age came with the
end of WWI. The war had seen innovations in aircraft that
opened Antarctica up to aerial exploration for the first time. Teams of frostbitten men being pulled along
by weary dogs (or, in Amundsen’s case, eating those dogs) were replaced with guys in airplanes. In November 1929, not 20 years after Scott’s
lonely death on the ice, Richard E. Byrd was able to fly over the South Pole and drop an
American flag onto it. He was probably back in base camp in time
for lunch. It was around now that the mystery of Antarctica
finally dissipated for good. In February and March of 1931, H.P. Lovecraft wrote what was probably the last
great piece of speculative fiction about Antarctica. At the Mountains of Madness follows an expedition
deep into the Transantarctic range, where they discover the frozen ruins of an ancient
alien city. But the real Antarctica was by then already
shrinking in human imagination. As technology developed, countries began staking
their claims on the continent. Planting a flag here. Putting up a sign there. In 1939, the German Antarctic Expedition even
flew a plane over Queen Maud Land. The scientists onboard dropped large metal
swastikas over the endless snow, claiming it for the eternal glory of Adolf Hitler. But it was in WWII’s aftermath that Antarctica
would see its biggest expedition. In 1946, the US government became concerned
that they had no basis for a territorial claim to Antarctica. What followed was Operation Highjump, a vast
flotilla of ships that visited the southern land to map it more extensively than anyone
ever had before. 4,700 men spent countless hours monitoring
and photographing Antarctica within an inch of its life. 49,000 aerial photos were taken, minutely
mapping 60 percent of the coastline. No mean feat when you realize Antarctica is
the size of the whole of Europe and India combined. So, that’s it then, huh? The rest of the history of Antarctica is just
technology improving and people taking more and more pictures until we get to the present
day? Not quite. Remember how we said in the introduction that
no country today owns Antarctica? Well, there’s a good reason for that. And it took humanity almost to the brink of
WWIII. The Fight for the Frozen Land
It’s often forgotten amid the stories of Amundsen and Scott, but the Heroic Age of
Antarctic Exploration also overlapped with another age: the Age of Colonization. From 1908, countries like Great Britain, New
Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, and South Africa all laid claim to vast tracts
of the Antarctic wilderness. While the US never formally claimed anywhere,
it did pass a law refusing to recognize anyone else’s claims. This left everyone else with the not unreasonable
feeling that the Yanks would soon come charging down and try to take everything. By the late 1940s, the situation had become
unmanageable. On the peninsula near South America, particularly,
the Argentines, Chileans, and British were all building “research” stations so obnoxiously
close to one another that all three accused the others of spying. But if there was the potential for a local
war to erupt over control of Antarctica, there was also the potential for something much
bigger. Since 1945, the US had become increasingly
concerned about Soviet activity around Antarctica. As the Cold War began to take shape, the fear
arose that the Russians might park nuclear missiles on the continent, triggering a whole
new arms race. By the time 1950 rolled around, diplomats
were frantically trying to stop the temperature around Antarctica from reaching boiling point. People began urgently discussing how to demilitarize
Antarctica. Another war was the last thing anyone wanted,
especially over some frozen rocks. Luckily, the sensible voices were about to
get a massive boost. The International Geophysical Year (IGY) is
something that’s largely forgotten now, but was massive at the time. Running from July 1957 to December 1958 – and,
yes, that’s more than a year, very observant – the IGY was an unprecedented push to scientifically
examine the entire Earth, with each set of data being released for any scientist in the
world to study. As the least-explored continent, Antarctica
became a focal point for the IGY. 12 nations pledged to establish 50 overwinter bases. Everything from cosmic rays to glaciology,
to oceanography was to be studied in minute detail. At first, the countries trying to claim Antarctica
were all like “wha-? You can’t do that on our turf!” But they were convinced that it was all in
the name of science. And, slowly, they began to work together. The cooperation seen on Antarctica during
the IGY was so incredible that it shifted everyone’s opinions. Suddenly, everyone wanted to maintain this
newfound peace down south. On May 2, 1958, the US officially proposed
keeping Antarctica solely for the purposes of scientific study. Barely a month later, the first meetings between
the governments involved began. By December 1, 1959, the Antarctic Treaty
had been born. Signed by Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile,
France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, Great Britain, and the USA,
it established Antarctica as somewhere that could only be used for peaceful, scientific
purposes. Cleverly, it included something called Article
IV, which stated that, while the treaty did not annul previous claims, it did suspend
them. It also stopped other nations from making
new claims. This meant the nations that had already gone
and planted their flags could sign the treaty without losing face. It was a fancy piece of diplomatic footwork. Even fancier was the clause allowing all signatories
to inspect one another’s bases without limit. This meant the Soviets and Americans could
drop in at any time and reassure themselves that the other side wasn’t installing nuclear
missiles down south. Considering when this treaty was signed, this
was an insane level of trust. Sputnik had just launched. A Communist revolution had just overthrown
Cuba’s government. Yet here east and west were, sitting down
and agreeing to cooperate over Antarctica. Today, there are 54 state parties to the Antarctica
treaty. In 1991, it was even amended to reflect environmental
concerns, setting the stage for the continent to become the first global park. Nowadays, Antarctica is a continent devoid
of cities, of permanent settlement, of exploitation. While the existence of places like bustling
McMurdo Station means the modern world hasn’t completely passed it by, the majority of Antarctica
is still a mostly pristine wilderness. Still a silent white desert. Still essentially unchanged since the days
of Scott and Amundsen. Sure, there are tourists now. Sure, you can take yoga classes there, or
even go to Metallica gigs – really, they actually played Antarctica in 2013. But unlike every other continent, Antarctica
still hasn’t lost its primal feel, the sensation that – by going there – you’re standing
on the edge of the Earth. It may not be a mystery any longer, but the
southern continent is still a place capable of haunting our imaginations.


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