Antarctic science and conservation — The historical background

James Cook in his voyage of 1774–1775 is generally credited with the discovery of the Antarctic. He was soon followed by fur sealers who by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century had severely reduced the stocks of fur seals. Besides sealers, there were purely scientific expeditions to the Antarctic in the early 1800s. Exploratory whaling voyages began in 1873–1874, but the Antarctic whaling industry was not established till 1904. Whaling developed quickly, despite attempts to control its growth. These were frustrated by the invention in 1925 of factory ships which could operate on the high seas. Successive attempts to regulate whaling were unsuccessful, and following the reduction of the stocks of whales, the industry has collapsed. The development of whaling was accompanied by scientific exploration and research. The “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration saw the successful discovery of the Pole by the Norwegian Amundsen in 1911. Antarctic exploration developed between the two World Wars. After the Second World War there was a resurgence of interest in the Antarctic. Territorial claims caused political tensions, but these were temporarily assuaged during the International Geophysical Year, 1957–1958, when 12 nations cooperated to establish 47 research stations in the Antarctic. This scientific initiative was so successful that steps were taken to preserve this opportunity for scientific cooperation under the aegis of the Antarctic Treaty, signed at Washington in 1959. This treaty, together with two other associated instruments, provides the legal framework for present-day conservation in the Antarctic.


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Authors: Bonner, W.Nigel

1 January, 1987
Environment International / 13
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