LVII: The Southern Land

History is full of “discovered” continents — North America by Bjarni Herjólfsson and Leif Erikson around 1000 C.E., Central and South America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 C.E., Australia by Willem Janszoon in 1606 C.E. It’s hard to say a place was “discovered” when there were already several million people living there in a firmly established civilization. Very few places on Earth have never been inhabited before, mostly small islands far out in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with harsh climates and no reachable mainland. But there is one place, a huge landmass 5.5 million square miles in area with no indigenous human population whatsoever that really was discovered when it was seen by human eyes for the first time in the history of this planet in 1820 C.E. — Antarctica.

The existence of Antarctica (whose name means “opposite of the Arctic” or, as I discussed in this previous post, “not the land of bears”) has been hypothesized since ancient times, although no one could confirm it until 200 years ago. Ptolemy suggested in the 1st century C.E. that a large landmass must exist in the Southern Hemisphere to balance out the mass of Europe, Asia, and North Africa; he called this hypothetical continent Terra Australis, meaning “southern land”. In the late 17th century, following the European exploration and colonization of South America and Australia, many people believed that these newly-mapped lands were the fabled Terra Australis. In fact, British explorer Matthew Flinders gave the name to Australia in 1814, stating that “There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude.” However, many still believed that a larger southern continent had to exist to balance out the Northern Hemisphere. It was believed to be similar in size to Asia — 17 million square miles. It is also interesting to note that in fact the landmasses of two hemispheres do not balance out — 68% of Earth’s landmass is in the Northern Hemisphere.

In 1773, Captain James Cook and his ships crossed into the Antarctic Circle for the first time and came within an estimated 75 miles of the Antarctic landmass before the Antarctic ice field (which extends many miles beyond the landmass of the continent) forced them to turn back. Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (yes, trust me, he’s Russian) and Mikhail Lazarev came within 20 miles of the Queen Maud Land region of Antarctica and spotted the Fimbul ice shelf in 1820, and three days later Captain Edward Bransfield of the British Royal Navy spotted the actual landmass for the first time. At 5.5 million square miles, it was over twice the size of Australia, the supposed Southern Land.

It would take another 75 years for mankind to actually set foot on the landmass Bransfield had spotted, although American seal hunter John Davis claims to have landed there in 1821. The first confirmable landing took place in 1895 at Cape Adare, south of New Zealand. The Nimrod Expedition, lead by Sir Ernest Shackleton of the United Kingdom, was the first to reach the Southern Magnetic Pole in 1907. Shackleton would also lead the first expeditions to cross the Ross Ice Shelf, explore the Transantarctic Mountains, and see the South Polar Plateau. Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team were the first to reach the Southern Geographic Pole in 1911.

What we know as the South Pole is actually the Southern Geographic Pole. It is the point where Earth’s rotational axis meets the planet’s surface in the Southern Hemisphere, located here. The Southern Magnetic Pole is the point in the Southern Hemisphere where Earth’s magnetic field is measured as pointing directly north, straight through the planets center, and is located at these locations — it moves over time. Neither of these are to be confused with the lesser South Geomagnetic Pole — the southern end of the axis which best dissects Earth’s dipole-shaped magnetic field — which is located here, and also has a tendency to move over time.

With between 1,000 and 5,000 regular residents and no permanent residents at any point in its history, Antarctica is the least populated continent on Earth and one of the very few places that can truly claim it was discovered.

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