Life at ANTARCTICA
Life on the Antarctic Ice
Life in the Antarctic
With no indigenous human population, Antarctica is unique. But we should not assume this was always well understood. One insightful vignette comes from Otto Nordenskjold’s Swedish expedition (1901-1904), when the soot-covered men from a lost party were at first thought to be Antarctic natives until their colleagues recognized them. The idea that soot-covered men were judged to be indigenous is a great deal en Peninsula ling, but perhaps they had read fictional novels such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Poe speculates about the existence of black natives residing at the South Pole, and they eventually slaughter all but two of the American expedition who encountered them. Poe was not the only one to speculate that there might be secret and long-lost civilizations residing in the Antarctic awaiting discovery and encounter. Subterranean fiction, more generally, proved adept at representing the Polar Regions as entry points into a hollow Earth brimming with settlement possibilities.
In reality, the first semi-permanent human inhabitants were British and American sealers who lived on South Georgia from the late 18th century onwards. For the next 200 years, whalers and sealers, many of them Norwegian, made their home there, and hunted in the waters of the South West Atlantic. Today, governments maintain research stations, and historic huts and stores offer reminders of past and present encounters. The number of people residing on the polar continent and outlying islands varies with the summer and winter seasons. During the summer season (October–March), the numbers of scientists, and support and logistical staff, increase, up to 5,000. In the winter months, this number decreases to around 1,000 as most depart before the onset of the winter weather. The first ‘indigenous’ child born south of the 60° parallel was an Argentine boy called Emilio Marcos Palma, in 1978, at a research station located on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. His parents, along with some other families, had been sent by the Argentine government, to cement the Argentine claim to this particular part of the Antarctic. Since that period, more than ten children have been born in Antarctica in the Argentine and Chilean bases of Esperanza and Frei Montalva respectively. Apart from the scientific community (and the military and naval personnel either living on bases or patrolling on ships) who enjoy a semi-permanent status in the Antarctic; the main inhabitants are marine and terrestrial life. Given the relatively recent isolation from other continents, and with less than 1% of land surface free of permanent snow and ice, plant communities are limited in number and scope compared to, say, a hundred million years ago. Freezing temperatures, modest soil quality, low rainfall, and a general lack of sunlight for six or more months do not represent ideal growing conditions. But plant and microbe species exist, nonetheless. It is estimated that there are something like 200 species of lichen, over 100 species of mosses and liverworts, 30 species of macro-fungi, and a profusion of algae. The short summer season is key, and even flowering plants are to be found in the milder Antarctic Peninsula. There is much research on the manner in which these species became established and indeed survived the harsh and isolated conditions in and around the polar continent. Given the limited opportunities for photosynthesis and access to water, some plant life may be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, with very slow rates of growth and reproduction. One of the most remarkable environments within the Antarctic where evidence of life has been found is the so-called Dry Valleys, which are located on the border between East and West Antarctica. The three valleys, named Victoria, Wright, and Taylor, encompass some 3,000 square kilometers and are unique in the sense that there is no ice or water to be found. It was once thought that rain had not fallen for at least two million years, but scientists recorded some precipitation in 1959, 1968, 1970, and 1974. The Dry Valleys were created when the terrain was uplifted in a manner whereby it actually exceeded the capacity of glaciers to cut a path through, and eventually the glaciers simply r a great deal en Peninsula ceded. When Robert Scott and his party first encountered them, they observed, ‘It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glacier which once pushed through it has withered away.’ Latter-day scientists discovered that Scott and his party were a touch premature, even though it must have been easy to imagine that nothing would survive this vast, arid, desolate place. In the 1970s, algae, bacteria, and fungi were found to be living inside the rocks scattered around the Dry Valleys. Some of these plants may date from around 200,000 years ago and survive because the rock protects the organisms from drying while at the same time enabling some moisture and light to permeate the rocks. Evidence of life has also been discovered in some of the lakes situated within the Dry Valleys, including Lake Hoare, where algae is to be found on the bottom of the lake itself. One major concern for those who study the microbes of the Dry Valleys is human disturbance, as the fragile rock and soil ecosystems are extremely vulnerable, and further change may occur if alien species and soils introduced from other continents enter the Antarctic and cross-contaminate. Sub-glacial lakes represent another extraordinary environment within the Antarctic that might contain evidence of life. These lakes are located underneath large ice sheets. Over 150 have been identified by scientists and owe their origin to localized melting, pressure points, and geothermal heating from the earth. While ongoing research does not expect to uncover evidence of larger creatures, there may well be microbes within these sub-glacial lakes that endure an environment in which there is no light, extraordinary pressures due to the weight of the ice sheet, and temperatures that are always below zero. Sediments on the bottom of the lake might provide a food resource for such microbes. Studying these environments is an immense challenge, especially as scientists are eager to avoid any cross contamination. When considering the water and aerial environments, the presence of birds, seals, penguins, whales, fish, and smaller creatures such as krill is noteworthy. The Southern Ocean is immensely rich in micro-organisms such as algae and plankton and contains the coldest and densest water in the world. Consequently, more oxygen is dissolved in the sea and currents help to bring nutrients from the seabed to the surface. The surface-level algae provide food for shrimp-like krill, which in turn provide nourishment for fish, seals, whales, and birds. A marine food chain enables a reproductive cycle maintained by interdependent species. The marine ecosystem in the waters surrounding the Antarctic is comparatively simple but at the same time varied, given the life forms also found on the bottom of the ocean and sea floor such as sponges, star fish, and the like. The bird life found in the Antarctic includes penguins and albatrosses. The penguin family includes the Adélie, Chinstrap, King, Emperor, Gentoo, Macaroni, Rockhopper, and Royal Penguin. Thanks to films such as The March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, many readers will be familiar with the Emperor Penguin, which is the largest member of the penguin family and the only one to breed on the Antarctic continent during the winter season. An adult Emperor can stand over 1 meter tall and weigh 40 kilograms and towers above the diminutive Rockhopper. Other birds include petrels, terns, skuas, and the famous albatross family, including the Amsterdam, Black-Browed, Grey-Headed, Royal, and Shyqongovernment and Wandering varieties. The Wandering Albatross, associated with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is the bird of the Southern Ocean. It is truly majestic to watch as its 3.5-metre wingspan allows it to gracefully float above the sea. It is estimated that there may be around 20,000 breeding pairs scattered around the islands of the Southern Ocean such as South Georgia.
However, concern has been expressed that fishing activities are having a deleterious effect on the albatross due to so-called long line fishing, whereby the birds are caught up in fishing lines and subsequently drown. Like the penguin family, krill and fish are vital elements in the diets of lbatross. Some albatross can remain at sea for years, and thus never land until breeding. Seals are a major element in the Southern Ocean and, despite being subject to intense rounds of resource exploitation alongside whales, are to be found in sizeable numbers. The species include the Fur, Crab eater, Leopard, Ross, Southern Elephant, and Weddell. While they vary in size and breeding characteristics, the Leopard Seal enjoys a formidable reputation. Adults can be over 3 meters long and weigh some 400-500 kilograms. They are largely solitary creatures, living as they do around the pack ice in the summer and sub-Antarctic islands in the winter. They eat penguins as well as other seals’ pups and also fish. Some 200,000 Leopard Seals are believed to exist within the Antarctic. Under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS), formerly hunted seals such as the Ross and Fur varieties are now afforded protection. Whales make the Southern Ocean a seasonal home, and were hunted in great numbers, especially in the first part of the 20th century. The Blue, Fin, Humpback, Killer, Minke, Sei, Southern Right, and Sperm varieties feed and breed in and around the Antarctic. The summer population of the Orca (Killer Whale) may exceed 80,000, and this distinctive creature with its black and white markings and tall dorsal fin was last commercially harvested in 1979-1980. Other whales such as the Humpback, Blue, and Southern Right were also targeted for exploitation. The Southern Right, a slow-moving and inshore visiting species, was ‘right’ because it was relatively easy to kill and helpfully remained afloat once slaughtered. Oil could then be exploited in sizeable quantities, especially given that an adult Southern Right could exceed 17 meters and weigh in the region of 80–90 tons. In the mid-19th century, whalers targeted this whale and continued to do so for another hundred years. The politics of whaling is controversial as rival states continue to argue over conservation and scientific research measures.
The Southern Ocean contains more than 250 species of fish. These include some fish such as the Antarctic Ice Fish that possess an ability to survive sub-zero temperatures by producing anti-freeze glycopeptides in their blood. Other fish such as the Patagonian Tooth fish have grabbed the headlines in recent years due to their intense commercial exploitation. This fish is found in cold temperate waters of the Southern Ocean, especially on seamounts and continental shelves around the sub-Antarctic islands such as Prince Edward and South Georgia. Patagonian Toothfish are slow-growing, but an adult can weigh about 10 kilograms, and mature varieties might exceed 100 kilograms. They can survive for up to 50 years and have been sold worldwide under a variety of labels such as the Chilean Sea Bass and Mero. Tooth fish feed on krill, squid, and smaller fish. Finally, we must recognize the humble 5–6-centimetre-long krill, a shrimp-like marine crustacean.
Krill feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, and their collective estimated biomass is thought to be around 500,000,000 tons. Krill is food for whales, seals, penguins, squid a great deal en Peninsula, and fish, as it migrates up and down the water column. Commercially, krill harvesting is carried out in the Southern Ocean, and something like 150,000 to 200,000 tons is harvested annually, mainly around the Scotia Sea. Krill is used in aquaculture, pharmaceuticals, and in sport fishing as bait. Japanese and Russian consumers also eat krill, but the volume consumed has declined since the 1980s and 1990s. At their peak, something in the order of 400,000 tons of krill was harvested in the summer season. Conservation measures were put in place in the early 1990s in order to stabilize the total catch after fears were expressed that this was another living resource being over-exploited by fishing vessels registered to the former Soviet Union and Japan. The latter remains the most important exponent of krill harvesting both in the Southern Ocean and the waters around Japan. The geological and biological characteristics of the Antarctic are important to grasp. Antarctica’s historical evolution is one fundamentally shaped by mobility not rootedness. Rather than being remote and isolated, scientists have over the last hundred years demonstrated that the Antarctic is intimately connected to a series of physical systems including the atmosphere, geology, sea level, and the evolution of planet Earth and the solar system. One example that relates well this sense of interconnectivity is the discovery of meteorites in the Antarctic. The first meteorites were discovered in 1912, and since then more have been discovered in a variety of locations. Some 25,000 discovered specimens are helping us to better understand the creation and evolution of the solar system. The Allan Hills region is particularly fecund because it is an area in which old ice is to be found, held back by the mountains and kept snow-free by constant winds. These areas, in other words, gradually end up revealing their meteorite hoards. Many others simply drift out towards the Southern Ocean as ice sheets calve into icebergs.
The Antarctic meteorites are well preserved, and this collection of samples has been used by scientists to consider how bits of the Moon, and even Mars, may have ended up in Antarctica, after asteroids and comets impacted on those celestial bodies. One of the most famous is the ALH84001 meteorite, a Martian rock, which has been linked by American scientists to possible evidence of ancient biological activity. Scientists attached to the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) programme demonstrated that the Antarctic provides a rich source for experimenting and contemplating the four billion-year-old solar system and the evolution of the planetary system. As John Carpenter’s fictional film The Thing (1982) postulated, extra-terrestrial life might have visited the Antarctic before us. Other writers and artists, including H. P. Lovecraft in his novella At the Mountains of Madness (1936), speculated on the existence of past civilizations and ancient life forms once residing in the Antarctic. The figure of the scientist, such as the fictional geologist William Dyer, is critical to making sense of evidence of past life.
The Antarctic is not the Arctic
The Antarctic is not the Arctic. The two Polar Regions are distinct, and are connected with one another only in certain ways such as the migratory patterns of wildlife and, in the case of the United Kingdom, a tendency to study ‘cold places’ comparatively. The creation of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in the 1920s is a case in point. In other parts of the world – Canada, for example – the idea that one would study the inhabited Arctic together with a region without an indigenous human population would be treated with skepticism, and even hostility.
In a literal sense, however, ‘the Antarctic’ owes its origins to the Greek word for the Arctic. The Ancient Greeks named the North Pole Arktos (the bear), and the region lying opposite was termed as the ‘Anti-Arctic’, or as we know it, the Antarctic. So, at least one further way to define the Antarctic is to invoke its geographical and literal opposite. Fundamentally, the Antarctic and the Arctic are very different kinds of spaces and places. The Antarctic consists of a pole-centered continent that is mountainous and ice-covered. An ocean surrounds it. The Arctic is a polar ocean basin, which is surrounded by land, including the Euro-Asian and North American continents. The Arctic is considerably warmer than the Antarctic because so much more of the region is at sea level rather than several kilometers above it.
Biologically, too, the Antarctic is quite different to the Arctic. Whereas four million people live in the Arctic region, there is no indigenous human population in the Antarctic. Flora and fauna generally are more isolated, and there is less evidence of trans-polar migration, at least of land-based organisms, though animals such as penguins, whales, and albatrosses do migrate over sizeable distances, even connecting the Arctic and Antarctic in terms of their migratory patterns. Economically and politically, the two Polar Regions are very different. The Arctic region is heavily exploited in terms of hydrocarbon commoditization alongside other forms of resource development, while the Antarctic is more limited to the realms of fishing and tourism. There is no timber sector in the Antarctic, for example. Politically, the Antarctic is governed by a treaty-based system, which prohibits all forms of mining, encourages science, and ensures that the region is demilitarized. The Protocol on Environmental Protection bans all forms of mining, even if quantities of coal, iron ore, copper, chromium, and uranium have been discovered. No one owns the Antarctic, and the international community does not recognize the seven claimant states (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom). The Arctic, by way of contrast, continues to be militarized and governed by Arctic states such as Canada and Russia.
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) isTH-CENTURY BRITAIN
Discovering the Antarctic
Acts of discovery are never politically innocent. Even in the uninhabited Antarctic, Argentina, Britain, Russia, and the United States continue to stake their claims as discoverers. The UK-based Antarctic Place Names Committee reminds interested parties that, ‘The naming of places in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic goes back to 1775 when Capt. James Cook, RN, discovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.’ So Britain, it is expected, should be considered primus inter pares when it comes to the discovery of the Antarctic.
States press their interests by publicizing discovery ‘firsts’, preserving historical huts, mobilizing memories of past explorers and their deeds, promoting contemporary tourism, and maintaining memorials (such as Lenin’s bust at the Russian-based Pole of Inaccessibility research station, and the Richard Byrd bust at the American McMurdo station). Antarctic discovery and exploration are profoundly gendered, radicalized, nationalized, and civilized. European and North American white men are lionized while women perform a distinctly subservient service through place names and/or providing ‘Antarctic babies’ for particular nationalist regimes. Non-white men are written out of the script. How many people know, for example, that the Maori Te Atu (who changed his name to John Sacs) travelled with the US Exploring Expedition in the early 1840s? For centuries, moreover, Maori believed that a white land lay to the south of contemporary New Zealand.
Initial European exploration and discovery
In the 16th and 17th centuries, European explorers and geographers were ruminating over the possible existence of a Terra Australis, a concept postulated as necessary since classical antiquity. European voyages around Africa demonstrated that this southerly territory was not attached to the African continent. Likewise, the voyages of Ferdinand Magellan in the 1520s, Sir Francis Drake, and the Dutch explorers Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten in the second half of the 16th century proved that it was not connected to the southern tip of South America. If there was another continent to be discovered, then it must reside somewhere in the poorly mapped Southern Ocean.
Although the English merchant Antonio de la Roche first discovered the island of South Georgia in 1675, the first landing was not actually made until 1775, when Captain James Cook claimed the territory for Great Britain, and named it after King George III. Cook’s voyages on board HMS Adventure and HMS Resolution aimed to survey and investigate the Southern Ocean. During the second voyage of 1773, Captain Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle and came within only 70 nautical miles of the Antarctic coastline, but were forced to turn around when confronted with unrelenting sea ice.
Cook’s Second Expedition of 1772–1775 was instrumental in accelerating exploration, and his report published in 1777, A Voyage towards the South Pole, revealed his geographical ambition. Venturing into the ice-filled Southern Ocean was not for the faint-hearted: Thick fogs. Snow storms. Intense cold and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous, one has to encounter and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressible horrid aspect of the country, a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sunrays, but to lie for ever buried under everlasting snow and ice. However, his observations about an abundant number of seals and whales played their part, perhaps unintentionally, in representing the Antarctic not as ‘doomed nature’ but as ‘plentiful nature’. This was to prove significant in triggering further discovery and exploitation of the Antarctic, and highlighted the importance of explorers, scientists, and sailors in bringing back their stories and images of this remote land to domestic audiences.
The first generally recognized sighting of Antarctic land occurred in the 1820s. Three individuals and their ships have been credited with this particular geographical ‘first’, although the islands of South Shetland and the Antarctic Peninsula are likely to have been discovered earlier by anonymous sealers. During the boom years of seal hunting, geographical knowledge was commercially sensitive and not for free exchange. It is widely accepted that the actual accolade belongs to the Estonian-born Fabian von Bellingshausen, who reported land on 27 January 1820. His expedition, involving the ships Vostok and Mirnyy, circumnavigated the polar continent, and charted the ice shelf in the northerly portion of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Irish-born Edward Bransfield’s sighting, on 30 January 1820, of what was termed ‘Trinity Peninsula’ encouraged further reported sightings by sealers, including one Nathaniel Palmer and on his voyage in and around November 1820. It is sometimes claimed that another American sealer, John Davis, was the first to land on the polar continent in February 1821, but this is a matter of dispute amongst polar historians. The competing claims to priority have long been resources for nationalists, and continue to inform positions of the United Kingdom, United States, and Russia in relation to territorial sovereignty in the Antarctic to this day.
Sailors, scientists, and sealers contributed to the exploration and early mapping of the Antarctic Peninsula and outlying islands, many given names – like the South Shetlands and South Orkneys that evoked the land of their discoverers. The South Shetland Islands, again claimed on behalf of the British crown, were roughly charted. Invoking King George IV, Edward Bransfield took possession of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which was named Graham Land after the then First Lord of the Admiralty, James Graham. This was followed up by later exploratory voyages and what we might term ‘claimant labour’ by Henry Foster, John Biscoe, and in the 1840s, by James Clark Ross. The first three to four decades of the 19th century established a pattern of engagement with the Antarctic which proved remarkably persistent. Resources, research, and recognition proved durable bedfellows. The United States was a noteworthy player from the start of the 19th century, and the US Congress sanctioned a major initiative to improve commercial and scientific understanding of the Pacific Ocean, but also the southerly portions of the world’s major oceans. The United States Exploring Expedition (USEE) (1839-1942), organized by the US Navy, sailed from Australia to explore further the possible existence of a polar continent. Traversing the Antarctic Ocean, rather than the Southern Ocean as we now describe it, the expedition gave its name to Wilkes Land – a substantial chunk of what is now called East Antarctica. Charles Wilkes was one of the explorers connected to the USEE and later had the dubious honour of being charged with ‘immoral mapping’ in September 1842. The charge related to his involvement in the expedition, and his claim that he had sighted a ‘vast Antarctic continent’, protected reportedly by an ‘impenetrable barrier of ice’. Having in Buenos Aires Peninsula sighted, mapped, and named it ‘Wilkes Land’, he was later to be accused by the British explorer Sir James Clark Ross of cartographical deceit. Wilkes, it is believed, may have unintentionally been tricked by a cloud mass, which to all appearances looked like a landmass.
Whatever his cartographic merits, Wilkes’s naming of a portion of the polar continent remains his legacy on the Antarctic map, as do the nineteen published volumes of the expedition that contributed to the collection of objects and ideas by the newly established Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC (1846).
The last blank spot on the map
The period between the 1840s and 1890s represents a hiatus in the exploration and discovery of Antarctica. Whalers and sealers continued to journey to the Southern Ocean, and landings and charting were carried out across the sub-Antarctic, including the Prince Edward Islands and Heard and Macquarie Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. With seals being depleted, the rationale for further investment was less clear-cut, and public attention in Europe and North America in particular was turning northwards towards the Arctic. This was only to change in the 1890s when fresh appeals were made for a new round of exploration. The 1895 International Geographical Congress in London was a pivotal event, as geographers and cartographers appealed for fresh information about one of the world’s remaining blank spaces. It was ‘the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken’. John Murray, the noted cartographer, put the appeal in the following terms in 1899: I always feel a little bit of shame that civilized man, living on his little planet – a very small globe - should, in this nineteenth century of the Christian era, not yet have fully explored the whole of this little area; it seems a reproach upon the enterprise, civilization, and condition of knowledge of the human race.
The resource value of the Antarctic also played a part in stimulating this swelling of interest in what Joseph Conrad termed a more ‘militant geography’. Over-exploitation of Fur Seals, which led to the 1893 Bering Sea arbitration and the decline of the Greenland whale fishery, focused attention on the Antarctic. At the moment when Frederick Jackson Turner was appealing for Americans to ‘close’ the American frontier, a coterie of explorers and exploiters descended on the Antarctic. Seven major expeditions were organized within the period between 1898 and the 1910s involving a multi-national cast of characters and sponsors. These included: the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897–1899), the British Antarctic Expedition (1898–1900), the German Antarctic Expedition (1901–1903), the first expedition by Captain Robert Scott (the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904), the Swedish Polar Expedition (1901-1904), and the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-1904) led by William S. Bruce. The net result of this extraordinary burst of endeavour was to ensure that European and North American men were exploring ever-greater expanses of the polar continent and surrounding seas, and that Antarctica would become integrated in the Western imperial economic system through whaling and meteorological observations, to give just two of the most prominent examples.
Both public and private funding played critical roles in the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ (1898–1916) of Antarctic exploration. Some of the most notable explorers, such as the Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, were privately funded (even if his initial experience came from being a participant of the Discovery Expedition in 1901-1904). Shackleton led the Nimrod Expedition (1907–1909), funded by the Scottish industrialist Sir William Beardmore, and in January 1909, he and his three companions trekked across the polar continent and reached the furthest southerly point thus far achieved. At latitude 88°S, they were approximately 110 miles from the South Pole (the publicly disseminated figure of 97 miles was judged to have more of a dramatic ring to it). They also made the first ascent of Mount Erebus and claimed to have reached the South Magnetic Pole, though later evaluation showed the three-man party’s calculations were probably in error. King Edward VII knighted Shackleton for that extraordinary achievement, appropriately termed by fellow expedition member Frank Wild as ‘the great southern journey’. Famously, the decision to turn back from their final destination, the South Pole, was immortalized in the expedition account, The Heart of the Antarctic, as a decision based on a judgment that it was better to be ‘a live donkey than a dead lion’. These words were to acquire a prophetic quality.
The cumulative impact of this exploratory endeavour was mixed. On the one hand, these overwhelmingly European expeditions sponsored by a combination of industrialists, commercial companies, government departments, and academic societies led to ever greater areas of the Antarctic being visited, explored, and studied. On the other hand, the reported discoveries were of variable quality, with complaints that maps and charts were incomplete and irreconcilable. The physical geography of the Antarctic remained confusing and confused. As a consequence, there appeared to be plenty of new geographical milestones to strive for, none greater than the geographic pole.
Racing to the pole
Coinciding with the invention of the modern Olympics, the ‘race to the pole’ was driven by a combination of geopolitical, imaginative, and scientific ambition. Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909) played a notable role in alerting others to the glaciated geography of the interior. As Edward Larson notes in his book An Empire of Ice, men like Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and the Anglo-Australian Douglas Mawson were agents of the British Empire but they were also curious about the environments they encountered. This was also the case for other Europeans such as the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the German explorer/scientist Wilhelm Filchner. Amundsen’s Fram/South Pole Expedition (1910-1912), involving four sledges, up to 52 dogs, and five men, arrived at the South Pole on 14 December 1911, and named the Antarctic Plateau, King Haakon VII Plateau. About the same time, the Japanese Antarctic Expedition (1910-1912) led by Nobu Shirase encountered Amundsen’s ship the Fram, which was moored in the Bay of Whales. The Japanese party landed on the continent and journeyed towards the South Pole to reach 80°S, and carried out some exploration of King Edward VII Land. While the Norwegian foreign ministry never really used Amundsen’s claiming in a legal sense, it did give symbolic depth to Norway’s claims. Japan was forced to renounce any claims to polar territory in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), led by Robert Scott, aimed explicitly to be the first to reach the South Pole and enjoyed the strong support of the Royal Geographical Society. The Society’s president, Sir Clements Markham, was a major sponsor. Scott and his party reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, but discovered that the rival expedition led by Roald Amundsen had triumphed some 33 days earlier. Scott confided to his diary that, ‘The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected … Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority.’
On their return journey, despite initially enjoying reasonable weather and decent progress, the five strong party encountered difficulties, including physical disintegration due to frostbite and malnutrition. Assailed by ferociously cold weather, sledging became akin to ‘pulling over desert sand’. With shortages of food and fuel, one member of the party, Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, sacrificed himself for the sake of the remaining three, after the early death of Evans. The final three, Scott, Wilson, and Bowers, trudged on and made it to 11 miles short of their main depot before a blizzard prevented further progress. Their bodies, journals, and other items, including rock specimens, were discovered some eight months later.
Scott’s diary dated 29 March 1912
Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God’s sake look after our people. As every British school child knows, or certainly did when I was growing up in the 1970s, the final Scott expedition, and while tragic, was also truly heroic. Whereas the Norwegians, familiar with the demands of the high latitudes, used dogs and seasoned Arctic clothing, Scott stood accused by his critics, sometime after his untimely demise, of being too rooted in inappropriate strategies such as man-hauling and a commitment to scientific investigation. Damningly, for some at least, his party even at their darkest hour never jettisoned their interest in scientific investigation. Antarctic science, while in its infancy, was a powerful spur to further exploration, and Scott’s party were interested in terrestrial magnetism, oceanography, geology, and palaeontology. Other members of Scott’s expedition made extensive journeys for geological and ornithological purposes, one party enduring - 70°C for the sake of collecting geological specimens and/or retrieving Emperor Penguin eggs. While an egg hunt may sound absurd, given it was not Easter and they were not made of chocolate, the penguin eggs were contributing to scientific debates about global evolution. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was read avidly by Scott’s party, and as one member, Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, noted, ‘We were witnessing a marvel of the natural world. We had within our grasp material which might prove of the utmost importance to science; we were turning theories into facts with every observation we made.’
The legacy of the Scott e in Buenos Aires en Peninsula expedition was profound. Scientifically, the Terra Nova Expedition with its multiple parties, including the less well-known Northern Party and Western geological parties, contributed greatly to the sum of human knowledge. Politically, notwithstanding the disappointment of being eclipsed by a Norwegian team, the Antarctic was appropriated for the imperial portfolio. Photographs, along with maps and charts, played their part in establishing proof of arrival and subsequent departure. In the aftermath of the First World War, this continued apace, with the Antarctic being ever more visualized as appropriated imperial territory, and pictures of imperial heroes such as Titus Oates being shown to British troops serving in the trenches in Europe. Economically, the expedition reaffirmed the resource value of the region, and helped to fire speculation about future mineral-based wealth. Finally, and most significantly, the loss of Scott and his party – disseminated through surviving diaries, photographs, and the films of Herbert Ponting - helped to cement in the British and wider imagination a vision of tragic heroic figures battling against the odds, enriched by a dedication to duty and to one another. Stung by this loss, coinciding as it did with another icy disaster involving the passenger ship the RMS Titanic, the British government and public played their part in ensuring that the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration was commemorated solemnly. A subsequent filmic treatment starring John Mills in Scott of the Antarctic (1948) reinforced for post-war audiences the stoical achievements of Scott and his final party, and interestingly used still shots from the Antarctic Peninsula, and members of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) were expected to dress up and reconstruct Scott and his party’s man-hauling exploits.