Territorial Claims and Permanent Occupation

From the time Antarctica had been first been sighted in 1820, territorial claims on behalf of various nations had been made by the explorers, scientists, sealers and whalers who had explored its lands and coasts. By the start of the Second World War in 1939, official claims to territory in Antarctica had been made by Britain (1908), New Zealand (1923 when administration was passed from Britain), France (1924), Norway (1929 and 1939), and Australia (1933 when authority passed from Britain), although it was Argentina that occupied the only permanently-manned base; the Orcadas Base, which had been purchased from William Spiers Bruce in 1904 and occupied ever since. During the Second World War and beyond, it was these territorial claims that drove many government-backed expeditions to Antarctica, and would eventually lead to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.

Admiral Richard Byrd

In 1939, Admiral Richard Byrd, the American explorer who had been the first to fly over the South Pole, returned to Antarctica to lead the US Antarctic Service Expedition, the first US-Government backed expedition to Antarctica since Charles Wilkes’ expedition in 1838. Its main aim was to set up two bases and make written claims and deposit them around the area, to assist in supporting any sovereign claim made in the future by the United States Government. It was also to carry out mapping and geographical discovery, as well as meteorological, biological, geological and other scientific research.

East Base

East Base was set up on Stonington Island in Marguerite Bay, whilst West Base was established at Little America III at the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf in early 1940. As well as a successful scientific programme, the use of planes and sledging parties from both bases resulted in a large amount of discovery, survey and photography work, and the first high-altitude meteorological station in Antarctica was operated near Stonington Island. In late 1940 however, as the Second World War raged on and international tension continued to rise, the decision was taken to close both bases, and by 1941 the entire expedition was on its way home.

Operation Tabarin

In 1940, Chile made an official claim to territory in Antarctica, followed by Argentina in 1942, whose warship Primero de Mayo also left flags, plaques and records of its visit at Antarctic sites. With these claims overlapping that made by Britain in 1908, the British ship HMS Carnarvon Castle retaliated in 1943 by flying British flags and removing Argentine records, only for Primero de Mayo to return that same year and replace these with their own. Not wanting to set a precedent that might encourage incursions elsewhere in the Empire, but also not wanting outright conflict with Argentina as the war dragged on, the British launched the secret mission Operation Tabarin in 1943 to establish a permanent presence in Antarctica.

Hope Bay

In 1945 a third base was established at Hope Bay. As well as providing a permanent presence in what was considered to be British Antarctic territory, a programme of scientific investigation including geology, glaciology, meteorology and botany, as well as sledging expeditions and mapping, was carried out at all three bases.

Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey

At the end of the war, administration of British Antarctic activity was taken over by the Colonial Office and Operation Tabarin was renamed the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), with its new mission focused on science and exploration. Renamed the British Antarctic Survey in 1962, FIDS was the first national scientific body to be established in Antarctica. Between 1945 and 1962 FIDS continued to expand its scientific programme and presence, and by 1962 is had established nineteen stations and three refuges in Antarctica.

US Navy Antarctic Developments Program

In 1946, the United States returned to Antarctica launching the US Navy Antarctic Developments Program, codenamed Operation Highjump and followed up with Operation Windmill the following year. Organised by Richard E Byrd, its aims were to research the feasibility of maintaining sites in Antarctica and to consolidate sovereignty over Antarctic territories, as well as the training of men and equipment and a program of scientific investigation and mapping.

Chile's Frist Antarctic Expedition

In 1947 Chile launched its first expedition to Antarctica and established it first permanent base, Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, in February 1948. The base was inaugurated by the Chilean President at the time, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, who became the first head of state to set foot on the Antarctic continent. In the same year, Argentina set up its second base, Melchior Base, on the Antarctic Peninsula. With the conflicting territorial claims of Argentina, Britain and Chile, letters of protest were often exchanged between each nation’s personnel, although on the ground relations on the whole remained cordial, and assistance and hospitality was often offered between expedition groups.

Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition

In 1947, Finn Ronne led the privately-sponsored Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE), using East Base on Stonington Island to explore the coasts of the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, and discovering the coastline of the Ronne Ice Shelf. However, in 1946 the British had also built a base on Stonington Island and initially the two expedition groups were ordered not to fraternise with each other. Relations improved over the season and eventually the two groups cooperated in operations, with the British sledging teams lending support to the US air operations. The RARE expedition included the wives of the expedition leader and pilot, Jackie Ronne and Jenny Darlington, who became the first women to overwinter in Antarctica.

Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition

The first international scientific expedition took place in 1949, when the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition was launched to undertake glaciological and geological research and determine whether climatic fluctuations observed in the Arctic were also occurring in the Antarctic. Working in Queen Maud Land, one of the expedition’s main discoveries was that the world’s sea level was principally controlled by the state of the Antarctic ice-sheet.

Early 1950s
New Research Bases

In the early 1950s new research bases continued to be built in Antarctica, with Australia opening Mawson base in 1954, and the US, USSR and France building stations (respectively McMurdo Station, Mirny Station, and Dumont D’Urville Station) in 1956. With permanent bases now established by several nations in Antarctica, and the first international scientific expeditions having taken place, the groundwork was in place for more international scientific cooperation. This would take place during the International Geophysical Year and lead to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, heralding in an age of science, exploration and international cooperation in Antarctica.

Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition

In 1955 the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE) took place, an expedition led by Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary and supported by the governments of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US. This three-year expedition completed the first successful overland crossing of the Antarctic Continent, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole, making valuable scientific observations along the way including gravity and seismic readings, and supported at times by personnel taking part in the International Geophysical Year (IGY).


Go back to our Antarctic history timeline here to learn more about Antarctica and its rich human history.

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