What Was the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was a period in the history of Antarctica marked by numerous exploratory expeditions, many of which attracted a great deal of public attention. During the Heroic Era, as this period is sometimes called, numerous expeditions came to grief in the hostile environment of Antarctica, and members of expeditions which managed to make it safely back home often became celebrities in their communities; several even went on to become famous authors.

Many people agree that the inauguration of this age occurred in 1895, during a meeting of the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London, England. Attendees of the meeting generally agreed that Antarctica represented the final frontier, and encouraged the formation of expeditions to explore the continent, in the hopes of perhaps mapping it by the turn of the century. Explorers around the world responded to the resolution in droves, kicking off a frenzy of expeditions, many of which were unfortunately poorly planned and badly executed.


Four big names stand out in accounts of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration: Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson, Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton. Amundsen was first to the South Pole, a notable achievement, but he later died during a rescue mission. Mawson led another expedition to the South Pole, suffering extreme deprivation along the way, but he lived to tell the tale, and to die at 76 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Scott is famous for being beaten in the stampede to the South Pole by Amundsen, only to perish on the Ross Ice Shelf, while Shackleton participated in one expedition and led three more, ultimately dying of a heart attack in 1922 on the way to attempt to travel around Antarctica by sea.

The end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration came in 1917, when global attention began to be much more focused on the growing fury of the First World War, leaving little time to dedicate men and resources to Antarctic exploration. Future expeditions had the advantage of communications systems, mechanized transport, and much better awareness of the environment of Antarctica, making them much less dangerous, and today numerous nations have research facilities on Antarctica.

This era in Antarctic history is particularly interesting because, unlike many previous explorations into unknown lands, it was heavily documented. Numerous photographs, drawings, paintings, logs, and journals survive from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, testifying to the events which occurred on Antarctic expeditions, and many expeditions were closely followed in the media and widely publicized in books. Some people consider this period to be a bit anachronistic, featuring larger than life men questing forth into the unknown in a style which would have been more fitting in the 18th century than the 20th.


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