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Polar Exploration

Viking settlement, National Geographic article, Arctic oceans, Polar Exploration, scientific curiosity

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Polar Exploration, history of European and American attempts to reach the North Pole and the South Pole, and the exploration of the surrounding Arctic and Antarctic regions.

In the 1400s Europeans set out to explore the world, launching the great Age of Exploration. Europeans eventually mapped most of the globe. However, the polar regions remained a mystery. For centuries Europeans imagined—and to some extent, feared—what would be found there. The Age of Exploration had long since begun by the time explorers set their sights on reaching the poles. It was not until the 18th century that explorers ventured with any real success into the Arctic polar region. Antarctica, the last continent to be discovered, remained hidden behind barriers of fog, storm, and sea ice until it was first sighted in the early 19th century. Even today it remains largely unexplored.

The dangerous and inhospitable conditions of the polar regions demanded a special breed of explorer—those willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of knowledge and glory. While most survived against all odds, some performing seemingly superhuman feats, many lost their lives as well. As Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen wrote, “Nowhere has knowledge been purchased at greater cost of privation and suffering.”

For some ambitious and courageous explorers, the adventure outweighed the danger. During the so-called Heroic Age of exploration, from about 1900 to 1916, scientific curiosity and nationalistic rivalries often intermingled as motives. British explorer Ernest Shackleton summarized his motives for leading his second expedition to Antarctica in a 1909 National Geographic article: “Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices,’ the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.”


The Arctic regions of North America and Siberia (a vast region in Asia) have been populated since ancient times by indigenous peoples such as the Inuit. The Greeks of the 4th century bc were aware of the Arctic. The first Europeans to explore and settle lands in the region were the Vikings, whose own lands in Scandinavia reached into the Arctic. The Vikings, skilled navigators at sea, discovered and began to settle Iceland, which borders the Arctic Circle, in about ad 860. (According to some accounts, a colony of Irish monks was established there first, in the early 800s.) Sailing from Iceland, Vikings discovered the large ice-covered island they named Greenland, situated between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Erik the Red established the first Viking settlement there in about 985. By the early 1400s, however, the settlements in Greenland had vanished, and all European contact with North America had been lost.

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