Introduction to People in Antarctica

Antarctica is the only continent with no permanent residents. Instead, over the last few hundred years there have been explorers, research scientists and ever-growing tourist numbers. The human presence in Antarctica is strictly controlled by a series of treaty’s, protocols and rules.

Here you will find an introduction to the people and Antarctica and you will find a link at the bottom of the page to the ESRI Storymap Collection.

You can also learn more in our ‘People in Antarctica‘ series of articles.

The Discovery of Antarctica

Artist's depiction of Captain Cooks voyage
Artist’s depiction of Captain Cook’s Second Voyage. Wikki Commons.

Despite the human presence in Antarctica having a short history, there have been lots of important events which have led up to the continent being like it is today.

The Antarctic continent is very distant geographically with conditions not suitable for early global explorers, thus prior to the 18th Century, the southernmost continent was only theorised. Antarctica’s human history began in 1773 with Captain Cook who set sail from Britain to the Antarctic Circle and was the first known voyage to do so [1]. Whilst Cook did not lay eyes on Antarctica, it encouraged proceeding explorers to attempt the discovery.

Caroline Mikkelsen was the first woman to set foot on Antarctica
Caroline Mikkelsen from Denmark was the first woman to step foot onto Antarctica in 1935. Ground Circle Travel

The first sighting of Antarctica

The first sighting of Antarctica was in 1820 by Admiral Bellinghausen of Russia, however conditions were too poor to reach the continent and thus the first landing was not for 75 years later in 1895 by Henryk Bull [1].

Since the initial sighting and landing, there have been a series of landmark events which has made Antarctica the place it is today, such as Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition, the first woman landing in 1935 (Caroline Mikkelsen), and the first African American man to reach Antarctica in 1940 [2].

Antarctica’s Geopolitics

Infographic of the countries who have signed the Antarctic Treaty

Antarctica is the most protected continent on Earth. The absence of a native population means that no single country or individual can take full claim on the continent.

Instead, Antarctica has seven claimant states: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom [3]. However, they don’t have full control on what can/cannot occur on their designated section due to the signing of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty is a document signed by 46 countries/states designating Antarctica as a continent for peace, science and cooperation. This ensures that in Antarctica there is to be no military action, nuclear testing and waste dumping and other environmental or geopolitical issues [3].

This treaty also has rules about wildlife, tourism and science. The signing of this treaty is the most unique example of global participation and geopolitics.

Antarctica’s Tourism

Whilst a trip down to Antarctica is not your usual holiday destination, it is becoming more and more popular. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), there were 73,991 visits to the Antarctic region between 2019-2020 [4]. Antarctica’s tourism began in the 1950s with passenger boats from Chile and Argentina and since then, numbers have continued to rise exponentially [4].  

Some tourists enjoying a local group of penguins
Tourists enjoying seeing a group of Penguins. Source: Wiki Commons

Antarctica’s fragile landscape holds great importance for wildlife, science and international geopolitics, so questions are often brought up about whether it is sustainable to keep having tourist visits. There have been steps but in place to limit the environmental impact of tourism.

Often tourists want to visit Antarctica to learn more about this unique landscape and have a holiday of a lifetime, but they leave Antarctica with much, much more. During their visit, many cruise ships and tour operators present lectures about the continent. They explain how it has been changing, the fragility of it and its importance. This means that when tourist return home they are knowledgeable.

Ambassadors for Antarctica

Many tourists who return also become ambassadors, spreading information about Antarctica’s importance. This is just one way tourism in Antarctica is becoming more and more sustainable, other ways include limiting numbers and taking waste back with them. Antarctica’s tourists can also have the opportunity to assist with science and ongoing research through citizen science such as Happy Whale, or through logistical support [4].

Working in Antarctica

People in Antarctica Collecting sediment samples for cosmogenic dating.
Collecting sediment samples from boulders in Antarctica

Lots of different people from different backgrounds can work in Antarctica. Typically, research scientists are dotted around the continent during the summer season. Workers can be taking sediment samples, extracting ice cores or monitoring wildlife. You can also get researchers such as meteorologists who are based in Antarctica for a whole year.

It is not only scientists who go to Antarctica however, there are teams of people with a large range of job roles such as chefs, carpenters, mechanics, and medical doctors, all playing an important part in ensuring everyone remains safe and happy in Antarctica.

There has been a gradual rise in the diversity of the people working in polar sciences, however the Polar Impact Network strives for more diversity. They have built a website with a host of resources for people of colour. These include upcoming student opportunities, children’s resources and tips for creating better working environments. You can find out more about their important work here and see how you can get involved.

Below is the link to the People and Antarctica StoryMap Collection.


[1] Discovering Antarctica Timeline. British Antarctic Survey. Available at: (last accessed 24/08/2021).

[2] Stein, G. (2010). The first African-American in Antarctica: George W. Gibbs Jr. Polar Record, 46(3), 281-282. doi:10.1017/S0032247409990507

[3] The Antarctic Treaty (2015). British Antarctic Survey Available at: (last accessed 25/08.2021

[4] IAATO Antarctic visitor figures 2019-2020. International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Available at: (last accessed 24/08/2021)


I am Laura Boyall, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway University of London. My PhD research focuses on reconstructing past climate using different statistical methods and computer models to help us understand more about the predictability of the climate system.

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