At the turn of the 20th century, Antarctica remained the only continent untouched by humans. In 1895, the Sixth International Geographical Congress declared that Antarctica’s ice-choked seas and frozen peaks were the next frontier for scientific discovery, ushering in what has come to be known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Dozens of men, including famed expedition leaders Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott and Carsten Borchgrevnik, answered the call and trekked to the bottom of the planet. They erected prefabricated wooden cabins that served both as homes during the coldest months and laboratories for research into the local climate and ecosystem. Using these cabins as bases, the explorers traversed glaciers and scaled Mt. Erebus, the southernmost volcano on Earth. When World War II diverted the world’s attention, Antarctic investigation was abandoned, leaving behind several expedition huts on the continent. The small wooden buildings were built to withstand the drastic weather conditions only for the few short years that the explorers inhabited them, but, remarkably, after more than a century, the structures are still intact.
Portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra still hang inside Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Expedition Hut on Cape Royds in Antarctica. In Scott’s hut on Cape Evans, canned food sits on the shelves, the London Illustrated News lies carelessly tossed on a desk in one corner, and the darkroom of expedition photographer Herbert Ponting is intact with chemicals and plates. The explorers’ huts that dot the stark landscape of Antarctica provide a record of unique men in a unique place. Along with supplies, scientific equipment for measuring temperature and weather conditions was left abandoned in the cabins. The early 20th century readings of these instruments can be compared to current values to better understand the effects of climate change on Antarctica. The buildings remain shrines to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and its achievements.