The Age of Science and Exploration

The idea of another International Polar Year (the last being in 1932-33) was first discussed in 1950, and quickly broadened into an International Geophysical Year (IGY), to include research in meteorology, geomagnetism, seismology and research into the physics of the upper atmosphere. As simultaneous observations would need to be taken around the world, the need for international cooperation would be paramount.

1957 - 1958

The IGY was planned to run from June 1957 to December 1958, covering a period when a peak in sunspot activity was expected. Several nations built research stations in readiness for the IGY, including the United States, who in 1955 launched Operation Deep Freeze to establish bases at McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales and the South Pole, as well as carrying out scientific work and reconnaissance. By 1957, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Byrd Station had also been opened (McMurdo Station had been established in 1956 along with the Soviet Union’s Mirny Station and France’s Dumont D’Urville Station).


The IGY was a success, with scientists from sixty-seven countries involved around the world. Twelve countries worked in the Antarctic (Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK, US, and USSR), and fifty-four stations were in operation. Scientific data was shared between the different nations and programs, and before it had finished moves were being made to continue international scientific cooperation in Antarctica. In 1958 the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research was set up to coordinate scientific programmes in Antarctica. Still in existence today, this body initiates, develops and coordinates international scientific research in the Antarctic region, as well as advising on scientific and conservation issues affecting Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.


At the successful completion of the IGY it became clear that those nations involved would continue their presence in Antarctica despite any rival territorial claims to the area. In 1959 the twelve countries that had participated in the IGY signed the Antarctic Treaty, establishing Antarctica as a region for peaceful cooperation and the world’s first international scientific laboratory, accessible to all who wanted to use it for genuine research purposes. Made up of just fourteen Articles and placing all territorial claims in abeyance, the Treaty bans the disposal of radioactive waste, weapons testing and all military activity except in the support of science, and came into force on 23 June 1961 after ratification by all twelve countries.

Ongoing Successes

Since then it has been supplemented by further measures including the ongoing designation of Historic Sites and Monuments (HSMs) in Antarctica, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1959), and the Protocol on Environmental Protection (1991), which designated Antarctica ‘as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. Measures have also been put in place to limit the impact of tourism to the area. The Antarctic Treaty remains in force today, with fifty-three current ‘Parties to the Treaty’ all agreeing to abide by its measures, and standing as one of the most remarkable and successful international agreements to date.

Frequent Expeditions

Since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, frequent expeditions to Antarctica have continued alongside scientific research, with the Norwegian Boerge Ousland becoming the first person to cross Antarctica unsupported in 1997. Varied scientific investigation has continued at bases throughout Antarctica, in areas including climate change, geology, zoology, medical research and astrophysics.

Notable Projects

Notable projects have included the use of ice cores to examine past climates and air content, the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer (1985), and current research testing the effects of isolation on humans in preparation for space travel. There are currently around fifty-four occupied bases in Antarctica, some permanently occupied throughout the year and others for just the austral summer. The British Antarctic Survey operates two permanent research stations on the Antarctic continent; Halley at 75°S on the Weddell Sea coast, and Rothera at 67°S on Adelaide Island. Signy on the South Orkney Islands is a summer station, and there are also two research stations on South Georgia: Bird Island and King Edward Point.

Increased Public Awareness

The IGY and signing of the Antarctic Treaty had a further, unintended effect, by increasing public awareness and interest in Antarctica. In 1956 Chile flew the first tourists to Antarctica, whilst during the IGY 414 people paid to visit Antarctica by ship, and forty-seven flew over the Continent. Expedition cruises began in 1969 when Lindblad built the world’s first expedition ship, specifically designed to carry tourists to Antarctica, and since 1966 tourist expeditions have visited Antarctica every year. In the 1974-75 summer season 4,929 tourists visited Antarctica by ship; in the 2007-08 summer season this peaked at 42,265. Air tourism numbers also slowly rose until the Air New Zealand crash in 1979, which halted flights over the continent until 1994. The majority of tourists continue to visit the Antarctic Peninsula area by ship.


In 1991, seven tour operators active in Antarctica formed the International Association of Antarctica Tour-Operators (IAATO) in order to ‘advocate, promote and practice environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica’. Now with more than 100 member-organisations, IAATO has established procedures and guidelines that aim to set the highest possible tourism-operating standards in order to protect Antarctica, including site and activity guidelines, staff training and briefings, emergency plans and more.

British Involvement

British involvement in Antarctica spans well over 200 years. Whilst exploration and commercial exploitation of seals and whales were dominant early activities, scientific research, starting in the 18th century, has continued ever since. William Bruce of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition established a meteorological station on the South Orkney Islands in 1903 which was later transferred to Argentina. This station still operates: the oldest observatory in the Antarctic. Since 1944 Britain has maintained a continuous presence carrying out scientific research. This scientific tradition and the quality of British Antarctic research are second to none. It has generated considerable international respect and has given Britain a strong, influential position in the affairs of a continent of increasing global importance.


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

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