Distant shot of a large iceberg, Antarctica.
Distant shot of a large iceberg, Antarctica.
Photograph by Herbert G. Ponting, Nat Geo Image Collection

100-Year-Old Photos Reveal Antarctica Like You've Never Seen It

Pictures captured by photographer Herbert Ponting in the early 20th century show the coldest continent before climate change took hold.

With our polar regions rapidly shrinking—and more bad news this week—it can make one nostalgic for an Antarctica that was, well, intact.

The windiest, coldest, and driest place on Earth, the continent has long attracted explorers on a quest for adventure. National Geographic Magazine in particular has a history of fascination with Antarctica, publishing its first story on the region in 1894.

In 1907, National Geographic published some of the first-ever photos of the icy world. Years later, an issue published in 1924 featured photographs by Herbert Ponting and showed an intimate look at the region few had ever seen. The British photographer also documented parts of the Terra Nova expedition, led by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott from 1910-1912. (See rare pictures of Scott's expedition on the anniversary of his death.)

His black-and-white images show men exploring a striking yet desolate land, clad in bulky clothing with rudimentary equipment and sled dog teams for transportation. Ponting also captured the men's daily lives in their 50-foot-long wooden hut (they ate exotic foods, like penguin and seal), giving people a glimpse of a place few ever go.

Scott and his expedition party perished in 1912 while returning from the South Pole—Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beat them to it, becoming the first person to set foot at Earth's southernmost point. (Read "Race to the South Pole" in National Geographic magazine.)

But Ponting, who had stayed behind, returned to the continent in the 1920s to document more of the harsh territory. He died in 1935 back in his native England.

Many of Ponting's Antarctica photos never ran in the magazine, and were later obtained in auction. They show an Antarctica not seen by many—and one we may never see again. (See pictures of our melting world in National Geographic magazine.)

Ponting's pictures, University of Manchester historian Max Jones said in a previous interview, present Antarctica as "a natural fortress to be besieged and conquered by man."

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