UK in Antarctica
The History and Activity of the United Kingdom in Antarctica
United Kingdom has one of the longest and most
involved histories in Antarctica of any country.
From the very earliest days of exploration,
and onto the commercial activities of the sealing and then whaling days.
Britain also provides some of the most compelling
stories from the Heroic Age and was a leading
light in the International Geophysical Year,
IGY leading to the Antarctic Treaty.
The UK was the very first signatory nation
of the Antarctic Treaty in 1960 and is a
consultative party with voting rights able
to make decisions about Antarctica.
are a number of modern British scientific
bases going back nearly 70 years which are currently
at the forefront of modern research in Antarctica.
75° 35' S, 26° 39' W
1956 - present
67° 34’ S, 68 ° 08’ W
1975 - present
Cumberland Bay, South Georgia
54° 17′ S, 36° 30′ W
1909 - present, not continuous
54° 00′ S, 38° 03 ′W
1957 - present, not continuous
60° 43' S, 45° 36' W
1947 - present, not continuous
71°20' S, 68°17' W
1961 - present, not continuous
Summer only, logistics facility
74° 51' S, 71° 34' W
1995 - present, not continuous
Summer only, logistics facility
Survey BAS - 1961 - present. Arising
from the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey
on the advent of the Antarctic Treaty in
1961. BAS exists to manage the United
Kingdoms interest in Antarctica. It
currently does this at the research stations
detailed in the table above.
There are also two dedicated ice
strengthened ships, the RSS James Clark Ross
and the RRS Ernest Shackleton for
station supply, logistics and
oceanographic research. Small aircraft, a
Dash 7 and Twin Otters are used to supply
and support personnel away from bases in the
BAS headquarters is located in Cambridge,
England. In 2011-2012 the budget was
£48 million. £13 million was spent directly
on the science programme, with the remaining
£35 million scientific support including
ongoing costs of the ships, aircraft and
The UK is an Original Signatory
and a Consultative Party of the Antarctic
Treaty in 1960. This means that it is one of
the countries that play an active role in Antarctica,
it is engaged in substantial scientific research activity
- only the consultative parties have voting rights and can make decisions about
The current British Halley Base
and sightings pre 1900
Cook reaches 71°10'S on the 31st
of January 1774, he is the first to cross the Antarctic
Circle and circumnavigates Antarctica,
he doesn't sight land though deposits of rock seen in icebergs
showed that a southern continent exists.
Cook said: "I make bold
to declare that the world will derive no benefit from it".
Sealers soon made for another of his
discoveries, South Georgia where they
rapidly depleted the seal population.
William Smith a
merchant ships captain discovers the South
Shetland Islands in 1819 off the
Antarctica Peninsula at 67°17'S. His reports
of large numbers of seals and whales led to
an immediate exploitation with voyages by sealers
starting later the same year to
take advantage of the resources. In the
1820-1821 season 80,000 seals were taken
from the South Shetlands alone.
Edward Bransfield and
William Smith sight the Antarctic Peninsula
January 30th 1820. Royal Naval
hydrographer Bransfield and sealing captain
Smith circumnavigate and chart the recently
discovered South Shetland Islands, then sail
further south and see the Antarctic
Peninsula. Who first saw the peninsula and
so the continent of Antarctica is not
agreed, these is one of the strong
contenders for the title.
First wintering party
in Antarctica in 1821.
An officer and ten men from the British sealing ship the Lord
Melville spent an involuntary winter on King
George Island in the South
Shetlands. The ship had
been driven offshore and did not return to pick them up again. They
were rescued the following summer.
whaler James Weddell
discovers the sea now named after him in 1823 and then reaches the most southerly
point at that time 74° 15' S. No one else manages to penetrate
the Weddell sea again for 80 years.
James Clark Ross, circumnavigated
Antarctica in 1841-1842 reaching a furthest
south of 78°11' he named the Ross Sea
and Mount Erebus and Terror amongst many
other features, the last two after the two
ships he sailed in.
"Few people of
the present day are capable of rightly appreciating this heroic
deed, this brilliant proof of human courage and energy. With two ponderous
craft - regular "tubs" according to our ideas - these men sailed
right into the heart of the pack, which all previous explorers had
regarded as certain death ... These men were heroes - heroes in the
highest sense of the word."
- Roald Amundsen describing the voyage of Ross
Borchgrevink - Southern Cross -
British Antarctic Expedition
British expedition though led by a Norwegian and largely Norwegian crewed. Landed men at Cape Adare
in the Ross Sea and built huts.
This was the first time that anyone had wintered on
the Antarctic landmass. Believed
by some historians to be the first confirmed landing on continental
Discovery - The
British National Antarctic Expedition
Scott's first Antarctic expedition
to try to reach the South Pole in the purpose built ship,
Discovery. Along with Ernest Shackleton and Edward
Wilson, Scott was forced to turn
back after a trek of two months having reached 82° south,
480 miles from the Pole, suffering
from snow blindness and scurvy. Much exploratory and scientific
work was also completed.
Bruce - Scotia - Scottish
National Antarctic Expedition 1902-04
An almost purely
scientific expedition with no grand plans of
exploration or reaching new geographical
goals. Bruce and his party sailed into the
Weddell Sea and became stuck in the ice
blissfully unaware of the dangers of the
ship being crushed, they were released
unscathed. They wintered on Laurie Island in
the South Orkneys group. For the second
winter three Argentinians were brought in
from Buenos Aires being relieved by the
Argentinians after the Scotia had sailed for
home, the beginning of a continuous
Argentinian presence that extends to the
Antarctic Expedition 1907-09
Shackleton's second expedition to the
Antarctic and the first one as leader.
Amongst the scientific and exploratory goals
were attempts on the South Pole and the
South Magnetic Pole. In attempting to reach
the South Pole, a group of four including
Shackleton came within 97 miles at
88°23'S when they turned back,
had they continued, they would have probably
reached the pole, though would have been
unlikely to return alive. The
Southern Magnetic Pole was reached by Edgeworth David, Mackay and Mawson.
Terra Nova -
British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13
expedition and the one that cemented the
heroic failure of "Scott of the Antarctic"
as a historical figure. Scott's fame led to
8,000 volunteers from all over the world
wanting to go with him. The expedition had a
wide and varied scientific programme and
also a goal of reaching the South Pole.
Scott thought his attempt on the pole would
be the only one when he was planning it,
finding out later that the Norwegian
Amundsen was planning his own attempt at the
same time causing talk of a "race to the
pole" that Scott had never intended. Scott
and four others reached the pole on the 18th
of January 1912 to find they had been beaten
a month earlier by Amundsen. The whole party
died on the way back to base camp at the end
of March 1912, their bodies weren't
discovered until November that year.
- Endurance -
British Trans-Antarctica Expedition 1914 - 17
The South Pole
having been already reached , Shackleton
planned to cross the Antarctic continent
from coast to coast via the pole. His was
another greatly over-subscribed expedition.
The expedition came no-where near achieving
its aims with the ship, the Endurance being
sunk before even reaching its first landfall
at the edge of the Weddell Sea. The story
remains one of the most incredible
adventures of all time with all members of
the ships crew brought safely home by
Shackleton against a whole range of
unfavourable odds .
Shackleton - Quest
Shackleton - Rowett Expedition 1921-22
last expedition, originally planned to be to
the Arctic and changed to the Antarctic due
to delays, an ambitious range of activities
were planned. Again many thousands of
applicants, Shackleton was very famous by
now, 8 of the crew were old shipmates from
the Endurance. After more delays
the expedition arrived at South Georgia
where on the 4th of January 1922 Shackleton
died of a heart attack at the age of 48.
Thus the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration
came to an end.
Bases and Research after 1922
Investigations 1925 to 1951. A
series of oceanographic voyages in the
Antarctic Ocean funded by taxes on the
whaling industry by the RRS Discovery,
the ship built for Scott's 1904-1907
expedition and later, the Discovery II
another purpose built ship though this time,
steel hulled and stronger. Initially the
purpose was to find what was needed to
preserve the whaling industry by charting
inshore regions and by carrying out ship and
land-based investigations into whale
biology. In January 1925 Discovery House was
established at King Edward Point, South
Georgia to accommodate scientists working on
the whale carcasses that were being
processed in the whaling station of Grytiven
that was nearby. The findings over the
period were published in an extensive though
irregular series of Discovery Reports, the
Discovery Investigations became part of the
Institute of Oceanography in 1951.
British, Australian and New Zealand
Antarctic Research Expedition 1929-31.
BANZARE - Douglas Mawson. The
French had in 1924 laid claim to Terre
Adelie or Adelie Land in the sector directly
south of Australia. What became popularly
known as BANZARE was an attempt by (now Sir)
Douglas Mawson and others in Australia to
encourage the government to file a similar
claim. After a meeting in London, a joint
expedition was proposed, partially privately
funded, it used the RRS Discovery and had a
small floatplane. The expedition didn't
overwinter in Antarctica but consisted of
two summer cruises in 1929-30 and 1930-31,
surveying and mapping by ship and from the
air. Land was claimed as British territory.
It led to the establishment of the
Australian Antarctic Territory.
British Graham Land
Expedition 1934 - 1937. A small low
budget expedition in a 130 ton schooner, the
Penola. A very successful
expedition that explored Graham Land at the
tip of the Antarctic Peninsula using ships,
a small aircraft and sled dogs. Mainly
famous to my mind though for the invention
of the string vest.
Operation Tabarin 1943
- 1945. A secret Royal Navy wartime
operation intended to stop enemy ships using
Antarctic waters. With little else to do
while waiting around much biological,
geological and meteorological data was
gathered. At the end of the war
responsibility for Operation Tabarin was
transferred from the admiralty to the
Colonial Office and became the Falkland
Islands Dependency Survey.
Dependency Survey - FIDS 1945 - 1961.
An ongoing British expedition to occupy,
administer and survey the sector of
Antarctica including the peninsula claimed
by Britain. A continuation of the wartime
Operation Tabarin, bases were given a name
and a code letter. Base A was at Port
Lockroy on the west side of the Antarctic
Peninsula, it was actually the second base
to be established, the first was base B at
Deception Island in the South Shetlands
established on the way to what would be base
A (picture left).
Expedition 1949-1952. Swedish led two
year long expedition to Dronning Maud Land,
an area that had only previously been
photographed from the air and not explored
on the ground. An overwintering team of 15
supported by 60 sled dogs and 3 weasels
(tracked vehicles for travel over snow)
pursued a programme of exploration and
surveying along the coast and deep inland.
Seismic surveys showed for the first time
the complex mountainous terrain that lay
beneath the covering of ice.
Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955
- 1958. Funded by the governments of
Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South
Africa, this was an attempt to do what
Shackleton had set out to do in 1914, to
cross the Antarctic Continent from sea to
sea via the South Pole. Led by the British
Vivian Fuchs from the Weddell Sea and New
Zealander Edmund Hilary from the Ross Sea.
Hilary arrived at the Pole on the 4th of
January 1958, Fuchs on the 19th, they both
reached the Ross Sea again on the 2nd of
International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957 - 1958.
Britain was one of the
leading nations in this international event
that was pivotal in establishing Antarctica
as a continent for peace and science leading
to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in
1961. The still fully functional Halley
Research Station was established on the
Brunt Ice Shelf in 1956 in preparation for
Survey BAS - 1961 - present. See top
There is a historical claim by the UK dating
back to 1908 of that area of Antarctica
between 20°W and 80°W and stretching as
far north as 60°S.
The UK is one of
seven nations that made a claim to land in
Antarctica before the Antarctic Treaty of
1961, these being Argentina, Chile, the
United Kingdom, France, Australia, New
Zealand and Norway. The UK, France,
Australia, New Zealand and Norway all
recognize each other's claims, these are
non-overlapping. The UK claim wholly
includes the Argentinian claim and includes
about half of the Chilean claim.
The Antarctic Treaty, Article IV § 2 states:
“No acts or activities taking place while
the present Treaty is in force shall
constitute a basis for asserting, supporting
or denying a claim to territorial
sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or
enlargement of an existing claim, to
territorial sovereignty shall be asserted
while the present Treaty is in force”.
So the Antarctic Treaty does not suspend or
defer existing claims, though it does state
- No activities occurring after 1961
can be the basis of a territorial claim.
- No new claim can be made.
- No claim can be enlarged.
Practically though territorial claims
have been effectively suspended since 1961.
Image used courtesy
license via Wikimedia Commons