What Was the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Antarctica is a dangerous place, making its exploration a heroic endeavor.
Antarctica is a dangerous place, making its exploration a heroic endeavor.

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.

Exploration of Antarctica was undertaken in the hopes of mapping the whole continent.
Exploration of Antarctica was undertaken in the hopes of mapping the whole continent.

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.

Ernest Shackleton was famous for his Antarctic expedition.
Ernest Shackleton was famous for his Antarctic expedition.

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.

Roald Amundsen was the first explorer to reach the South Pole.
Roald Amundsen was the first explorer to reach the South Pole.

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.

Antarctica's ice sheet contains about 70 percent of the world's fresh water.
Antarctica's ice sheet contains about 70 percent of the world's fresh water.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discuss this Article

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: