Palmer Station History

You are here

Historical Perspective

Figure 1: Nathaniel B. PalmerCaptain James Cook, an English mariner and great explorer, sailed two voyages to the Southern Ocean and around Antarctica between 1772 and 1775. He came within 81 miles of the Antarctic continent to 71˚10 S. having never actually laid eyes on it. It was not until January 1820 - 1821 that the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula was spotted. Off of the northwest tip of the Peninsula is a large group of islands known as the Palmer Archipelago extending from Tower island down to Anvers island. It is separated by roughly one hundred miles of the Gerlache Strait.  At age twenty, a young, American fur seal hunter named Nathaniel B. Palmer and his 13 year old brother Alexander, left Stonington, Connecticut to command a forty-seven foot, one mast sloop called Hero. The ship crossed the wild stretch of ocean known as the Drake Passage, explored the South Shetland islands extensively and cruised further south in search of additional fur seal rookeries. On November 17th, 1820, Nathaniel Palmer sighted “land not yet laid down on his chart.” Log books have reported Palmer reaching as far as 68˚S. He described the area as having,”a great glaciated peninsular mountain range (an extension of the Andes Mountains), very sterile and dismal, more heavily loaded with ice and snow than the Shetland islands.  There were no fur seals spotted and the coast was bound in ice even in the mid-summer season.” This place would later become known as Palmer Land on the continent of Antarctica. President Franklin D Roosevelt took an active role in supporting two U.S. Antarctic Service Expeditions in the Antarctic Peninsula area between 1939 - 1941 near Stonington Island. The Palmer site was about 250 miles south of the current station.


Figure 2 & 3: Old Palmer, 1965 ;   Palmer Station, 2014


Later, when the U.S. renewed its interest in the Peninsula it sent the first survey team back into the region in 1963. After examining about thirty potential sites, the Arthur Harbor area of Anvers Island emerged as the most promising due to its central location and proximity to the southern limit of favorable summer sea ice conditions. The original “Old Palmer” site on Norsel Point was the first main station, built as an interim facility until the permanent station was constructed in 1965.   It accommodated 15 persons.  In 1967/68, the U.S. Navy began new construction approximately one mile east of the original site.

In 1990, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs, in collaboration with the Division of Environmental Biology, designated Palmer as the first polar biome Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in the Southern Hemisphere. Today, the station currently supports twenty people year-round and up to forty-four in the austral summer.  

Later in 1992, NSF decided to name its newly chartered 94-meter-long antarctic research icebreaker, completed by Edison Chouest Offshore in Louisiana, the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The brand-new ship headed for its first assignment, to rotate and later remove research crews from the U.S.- Russian Ice Camp Weddell.  

This brief timeline of historically significant events in the discovery of the Antarctic peninsula, has brought to life the great age of global exploration that began back in the fifteenth century and remains a unique achievement in American history.  Ships like the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer and also the R/V Lawrence M Gould continue to support research in the science disciplines to the Antarctic Peninsula.  The ships transport researchers through some of the toughest waters of the Southern Ocean in an effort to continue the legacy of great exploration, and to further study the Antarctic ecosystem.