Video Lecture, Conferences and Web Sites Trace History of Polar Science and Exploration

Adm. Dufek in Antarctica

Rear Adm. George Dufek views site of Little America V
Credit: Department of the Navy


From the earliest days of navigation, explorers have sought out the Earth's most distant and coldest extremities; to map them, to describe them, and, more recently, to use the scientific method to understand not only what makes them unique but also to comprehend their roles in the global ecosystem.

The following resources focus on significant historical milestones in that process--largely outside the IPY framework--with an emphasis on U.S. contributions to the larger international history of polar exploration and science.

A separate page about the history of the international polar years exists elsewhere on this site.


Illustrated Video lecture: "The Poles," a History of Polar Exploration and Science

Donal Manahan is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California. He studies the environmental physiology of development of marine invertebrates and served as the chief scientist for more than 15 scientific expeditions to Antarctica.

Early Polar Exploration

Early Polar Exploration

The Race to the Pole

The Race to the Pole

Polar Exploration Today

Polar Exploration Today

Indulging his personal interest in the history of polar exploration and particularly the scientific aspects of that history, he has written and delivered numerous lectures on various aspects of polar history to audiences worldwide, including to the community at McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation's logistics hub in Antarctica.

This lecture, which highlight the efforts of various nations in both the Arctic and Antarctic, was given at the Italian embassy in Washington D.C. and traces polar exploration from its earliest days to the present.

The lecture is divided into three segments of approximately 15 minutes each. (These videos require the free RealPlayer plug-in.)




The Antarctic Treaty

A direct off-shoot of the 1957 International Geophysical year (IGY), the Treaty officially went into effect in June of 1961 and uniquely set aside Antarctica as continent for peaceful scientific exploratrion. It was later was amended to add signifcant envirionmental protections for the southernmost continent.

Oral Histories from the Archives of the Byrd Polar Research Center

The archives hold transcripts of discussions with a wide array of people, including scientists, pilots, filmmakers and equipment operators--both civilians and military-- who have played significant roles in modern polar exploration.

The interviewees range from from U.S. Navy Capt. William R. Anderson, who sailed the submarine USS Nautilus under the North Pole in 1958, to Norman Vaughn, who was a dog driver for Adm. Richard E. Byrd's first Antarctic expedition, to Edith "Jackie" Ronne, who was one of the first two women to spend a winter in Antarctica.

U.S. Polar Explorers

The Quest for the North Pole

Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson

History of Antarctic Traverses

The Web site for the Norwegian-U.S. Traverse of East Antarctica, supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, contains a section about previous Antarctic overland crossings that laid the groundwork for the upcoming joint project.

The site also has recently added an entry about Plateau Station, a U.S. National Science Foundation- and U.S. military engineering corps-built base in the central Antarctic Plateau, that served as a meteorological observation station and as a logistical support base for the South Pole-Queen Maud Land Traverses through 1969.

Capt. Michael Healy's Arctic Scientific Legacy Lives on in a Namesake Ship

The USCGC Healy, the Coast Guard's Arctic icebreaker equipped for conducting science, carries on the legacy of her namesake Capt. Michael A. Healy. The son of an Irish plantation owner and a former slave, Healy played many key roles in the Arctic of the 1880's. Even in the early days of Arctic operations, science was an important part of the Coast Guard's mission; naturalist John Muir made a number of scientific voyages with Healy.

The U.S. Navy's contributions to Polar Exploration

The Naval Historical Center, The official history program of the Department of the Navy, maintains a section on its Web site about the U.S. Navy's exploits in the Polar regions.

The United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 was an American scientific milestone, not least because it penetrated Antarctic waters and proved that the landmass was a continent, rather than a group of islands.

The Smithsonian Institution's Libraries Digital Collection has an comprehensive Web site devoted all aspects of the "Ex Ex," including its polar discoveries.

Operation Deep Freeze

Operation Deep Freeze I was the codename for a series of scientific expeditions to Antarctica in 1955-56. The impetus behind these expeditions was the International Geophysical Year 1957-58. IGY, as it was known, was a collaboration effort between forty nations to carry out earth science studies from the North Pole to the South Pole and at points in between.

The United States, along with Great Britain, France, Japan, Norway, Chile, Argentina, and the U.S.S.R agreed to go the South Pole--the least explored area on Earth. Their goal was to advance world knowledge of Antarctic hydrography and weather systems, glacial movements, and marine life. The U.S. Navy was charged with supporting the U.S. scientists for their portion of the IGY studies.

The Naval Historical Center's Web site contains a gallery of artworks produced by Commander Standish Backus (1910-1989) and civilian artist Robert Charles Haun (1903-1975) that documents all aspects of Deep Freeze One, from Clothing in Antarctica to Seabees at Work.

Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the First to Fly Over the South Pole

In 1929, naval aviation pioneer Richard E. Byrd, became the first person to fly over the South Pole, dropping a flag to mark his achievement and breaking the isolation of the skies over the Pole for the first time since the age of the dinosaurs.

His successful flight produced an outpouring of public celebration in the United States and around the world that had seldom been seen before. Books, feature films and the popular press all celebrated the accomplishment with a fanfare that, while almost passé today, was rare at the time.

Byrd could not have imagined that aircraft a hundred times more powerful than his own would, less than 50 years later, make flights to the South Pole nearly as routine as commercial flights to less populated areas of the United States. Today, more than 100 such flights annually cross the roughly 900 miles between McMurdo Station (NSF's logistics hub in Antarctica) and the South Pole.

Read an National Science Foundation Web special report about the Byrd flight and a 75th anniversary commemorative flight, flown by the New York Air National Guard.

The Byrd Polar research Center at Ohio state University maintains an on-line collection of Adm. Byrd's papers and photographs as well as a chronology of his life and achievements.

Que Sera Sera

Que Sera Sera

Que Sera Sera: The First Plane to Land at the South Pole

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 31, 1956, a tiny U.S. plane landed at the South Pole, opening a logistical gateway that 50 years later allowed the National Science Foundation to build a world-class science station at the axis of the Earth, 9,300 feet above sea level.

On Oct. 31, 1956, at 8:34 p.m. local time, the first aircraft ever to touch down at the South Pole skied to a halt atop the Antarctic ice sheet at 90 degrees South latitude. The U.S. Navy R4D, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Conrad C. "Gus" Shinn, had been christened Que Sera Sera.

Read about that groundbreaking flight and its 50th anniversary

NOAA's History of the First International Polar Year

The first IPY was inspired by Austrian Explorer Carl Weyprecht, who in turn took his inspiration from his experience as a scientist and co-commander of the Austro-Hungarian Polar Expedition of 1872-74.

Through that experience he became aware that solutions to the fudnamental problems of meteorology were to be sought near the Earth's poles.

The records of the first International Polar Year 1881-1884 offer a unique opportunity to study the Arctic as it existed prior to the present era of environmental change.

NOAA's multi-faceted Web site collects meteorological data from the first IPY and presents them to the public for the first time. The site also contains an extensive documentary image collection.

Polar History Conferences

Smithsonian Institution
Making Science Global: Reconsidering the Social and Intellectual Implications of the IPYs and IGY, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2007

This NSF-supported conference examined the impetus for the 1882-83 and 1932-33 polar years and the 1957 International Geophysical Year and their impacts upon science, society and culture.

The conference included sessions on Polar History in the 19th Century; The Emergence of Global Science: From the IPYs to the IGY; Perspectives on International Politics during the IGY; and The IGY in Outer Space.

The final session of the conference, Polar History: Perspectives on Globalization in the Geosciences, served as the plenary session of the annual meeting of the History of Science Society.

History of Science Society
Polar Plenaries Opened Annual Meeting, Nov. 1, 2007

Polar History: Perspectives on Globalization in the Geosciences will feature C. Stewart Gillmor, Weslyan University; Fae Korsmo, NSF; F. Sherwood Rowland, University of California Irvine; and Stephen J. Pyne, Arizona State University. James R. Fleming, Colby College, chaired the panel.