Remembering Robert Falcon Scott

by Rebecca Priestley / 24 March, 2012
Rebecca Priestley travels to Antarctica 100 years after Scott died in freak conditions in a place that now has much to tell us about climate change.

On his second journey to Antarctica, Robert Falcon Scott travelled south on the Terra Nova, sailing out of Port Chalmers in December 1910. The journey was tough. One dog and two ponies, as well as valuable supplies of coal and petrol, were lost overboard. But by January, the party of 30 men, 34 dogs and 19 Siberian ponies disembarked at Cape Evans, on Ross Island, where they assembled their prefabricated hut on a sandy flat in view of Mt Erebus.

On Scott’s first expedition to the southern continent, he had travelled up the Ferrar Glacier and onto the Polar Plateau. This time, as well as pursuing scientific goals, Scott planned to reach the South Pole. By November 1911, after months of planning and laying supply depots, he and his support team of men, dogs, ponies and sledges were on their way.

One hundred years later, after a five-hour flight from Christchurch, I’m at Scott Base enjoying the all-day sunshine and views of Mt Erebus, the Transantarctic Mountains and the endless white expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf. It’s unseasonably warm. On December 7, I make a meteorological observation with science technician Nita Smith, who describes the 9.00am conditions – it’s minus 2.1°C – as “pretty damn tropical”.

It was warm on this day 100 years ago, too, but it was blowing a blizzard. Scott and his men – Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Edgar Evans would accompany him to the Pole – were stuck in a camp 20km from the Beardmore Glacier.

“The storm shows no sign of abatement and its character is as unpleasant as ever,” Scott wrote in his diary. “Surely few situations could be more exasperating than this of forced inactivity … To be here watching the mottled wet green walls of our tent, the glistening wet bamboos, the bedraggled sopping socks … the saddened countenances of my companions – to hear the everlasting patter of the falling snow and the ceaseless rattle of the fluttering canvas – to feel the wet clinging dampness of clothes and everything touched, and to know that without there is but a blank wall of white on every side …”

The weather was unpleasant, but not life-threatening. The worst was to come. After a 1300km journey across the Ross Ice Shelf, up the Beardmore Glacier, and across the Polar Plateau, Scott’s party reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912. Here, they found the Norwegian flag; Amundsen had beaten Scott to the pole by 33 days. It was minus 30°C and they now had to face the journey home, knowing they had failed in their quest. “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority,” wrote Scott.

On the return journey, after the descent of the Beardmore Glacier, Evans fell into a coma and died from the combined effects of hunger, frostbite and a head injury. The remaining four continued across the Ross Ice Shelf. On March 17, Oates walked out of their tent and into a blizzard, telling Scott, “I am just going outside and I may be some time.”

Scott, Wilson and Bowers marched through the bitter cold for another few days before they were confined to their tent by a blizzard, just 18km south of a depot holding a bounty of food and oil. On March 29, 1912, 100 years ago this month, the three men died, exhausted, malnourished, cold and badly frostbitten. “Our wreck,” wrote Scott a few days before his death, “is due to the sudden advent of severe weather which does not seem to have any satisfactory cause.”

In the decades following his death, Scott was revered as a hero, but over time criticism grew. Amundsen was praised as being well-trained and well-equipped; Ernest Shackleton, who in 1915 led his men on an epic journey from Antarctica to South Georgia after his ship was crushed in pack ice, was portrayed as a hero and great leader; Scott became known as an inept bumbler, a rigid thinker whose old-fashioned leadership style, foolish errors and arrogant attitude killed him.

Arguments over where Scott went wrong and whether he was a hero or a fool take place on Antarctic bases most evenings, but in the past decade, opinions have moved in Scott’s favour, partly thanks to Susan Solomon, whose 2001 book The Coldest March squarely pinned blame for Scott’s demise on the unseasonably cold weather.

The journey across the Ross Ice Shelf should have been a relatively easy part of the return journey. But in the first three weeks of March 1912, says Solomon, Scott and his party struck bitterly cold temperatures – minus 40°C at night, as much as 13°C colder than usual – and windless conditions (the expected southerly would have helped their progress). As well as compounding the men’s physical discomfort, the cold temperatures made dragging the sledges almost impossible: it was too cold for friction to melt the ice beneath the runners and it was like “pulling over desert sand”, wrote Scott.

“They had planned the return quite carefully,” said Solomon, speaking from Idaho this month. “They thought they understood the meteorological conditions that they would face, but as sometimes happens, winter can hit you hard and it can hit you early. You can argue that they cut their margins too closely, that they should have allowed for extra time, or that they should have had extra food, or more depots … but the fundamental reason, the primary driving reason for their deaths, was clearly the very cold early winter.”

Solomon, an American atmospheric chemist who in 1986 made the fundamental discovery that the Antarctic ozone hole was caused by reactions involving polar stratospheric clouds and chlorofluorocarbons, spent several seasons in Antarctica in the late 1980s. After reading the diaries of Scott and his companions, she became convinced Scott had been unfairly accused of ineptitude. She used the weather observations made by George Simpson, the meteorologist on the Terra Nova expedition, and expedition members’ measurements, to create a record of weather conditions on Scott’s journey and compared it with data collected from the same locations in the years since. Winter, she discovered, came early in 1912.

“Simpson, who was a brilliant meteorologist, said that he thought that Scott and the polar party would have made it in nine years out of 10, but struck the unlucky 10th one. I don’t know how he came up with that number but he was just about exactly right. That’s what my research has shown.”

The summer of 1911/12 was one of El Niño conditions. In the Ross Sea part of Antarctica, says Niwa climate scientist James Renwick, El Niño usually provides more settled conditions, but in a place where windier often means warmer, that can be bad news. “Because the surface is so cold, the coldest air lies near the ground. So winds stirring the air can warm up the surface by bringing warmer air down to ground level, while calm conditions maintain the pool of cold air near the ground.”

Other scientists have suggested that the El Niño conditions that made for such a cold season for Scott and his men were also responsible for a warm Northern Hemisphere that saw numerous icebergs calve off the west coast of Greenland. On April 15, 1912, less than three weeks after Scott and his men died, the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg; there were more icebergs reported in the North Atlantic that season than in the previous 50 years.

Even in a La Niña season, such as this summer, which creates warmer and wetter conditions in this coldest and driest of continents, people are still at the mercy of the weather. There are now dozens of automated weather stations across Antarctica, and many satellites look down on the continent, but the weather is still notoriously difficult to predict. One seasoned Antarctican tells me, “They haven’t got a clue when it comes to the weather here. They just make it up. Anything could happen.” It’s best to be prepared; the clothing and boots issued by Antarctica New Zealand are designed to keep you comfortable down to minus 60°C.

Scott’s Terra Nova expedition had a strong scientific focus and his team made enduring discoveries in geology, zoology and meteorology. But Antarctica did not became a continent devoted to science until after 1957, dubbed International Geophysical Year, when the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was established, as well as Scott Base and McMurdo Station, just 2km apart on Ross Island. Scientific bases from many other countries, including Argentina, Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom and Italy, are now dotted around the edges of the continent.

The Antarctic ozone hole that first brought Solomon to Antarctica is no longer a global concern. “The ozone hole has stabilised; it’s not getting worse year upon year, as it had been doing into the early 90s,” she says. “It will take until about 2050 for the ozone hole to close and probably until 2020 before we’re able to say it’s beginning to get better. So maybe you can think of it as the ozone hole is in remission but it’s not out of the woods yet.” The planet has avoided a bleak future – a thinner ozone layer means more skin cancer, more cataracts and damage to the plants and plankton at the bottom of the food chain – because the politicians listened to the scientists.

“The nations of the world decided rather quickly to phase out the production of chlorofluorocarbons and as of now, every country of significance has signed on and is honouring that agreement, which is really quite a remarkable success story for science and policy.” But what about climate change? Solomon doesn’t do Antarctic fieldwork any more, but most of her work is concerned with climate-change modelling and data analysis, an area of research where Antarctic science is crucial. “If the Antarctic ice sheet were to become unstable, it would have a huge effect on sea-level rise, so that’s a matter of tremendous interest.”

Solomon’s own recent work links the ozone hole, which creates colder conditions in and below it, to a strengthened circumpolar wind and the dramatic warming of the Antarctic Peninsula over recent decades. “That cold air gets bottled up over Antarctica and there are fewer surges of cold air out towards the peninsula, particularly in summer.” As a consequence, some spectacular ice shelves have broken free from the Antarctic Peninsula, including Larsen B, which disintegrated in 2002.

Many of the New Zealand scientists working in Antarctica are studying climate change, a key focus of Antarctica New Zealand’s science strategy. The Andrill (for Antarctic Drilling) project involves drilling deep into Antarctic sediments to investigate climate over the past 65 million years. Richard Levy, from GNS Science, says the most significant finding so far is that the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctic Ice Sheet “retreated, or collapsed, many times between three and five million years ago, under climatic conditions that were similar to those projected for our short-term future”.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed and margins of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, they discovered, when global average surface temperatures were 3°C warmer than today and CO2 levels were 400-420ppm (today they’re at 391ppm and climbing by 2ppm each year). The Greenland Ice Sheet disappeared at the same time and the global sea level rose up to 20m.

Other projects are focused on finding out how quickly the ice sheets could melt. This summer, Nancy Bertler, from GNS ­Science and Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre, led an international team at Roosevelt Island. Over the two-year project, they plan to drill 750m through the ice at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, down to bedrock, to gather information about climate and sea levels over the past 30,000 years, a time when the planet emerged from the last Ice Age, global temperatures warmed and the Ross Ice Shelf retreated by about 1000km. “But we don’t know how this ice shelf disintegrated. Did it take 50 years or 500 years?” says Bertler.

If the international response to the ozone problem was “a remarkable success story for science and policy”, what of the response to climate change? “I think what’s really important is for people to understand that the world has gotten warmer and we have very good evidence that the primary driver of that warmer world is the greenhouse gases that we’ve put in,” says Solomon. “I would really like it if everybody would move on past trying to cast stones at that line of argument because it’s a very robust line of science.

“I think the reason we’re having so much difficulty coming to grips with it is because we don’t really know what the impacts are and we are not sure what to do about it. With ozone depletion, the impacts were much easier to see and, frankly, the cost of doing something about it was much, much less.” So what do we need to do? “Let’s talk seriously about what the impacts are going to be, how much will it cost to fix it, and when do we have to start fixing it – if we choose to. We should bear in mind that it’s a societal decision because it will be expensive. It’s a big, big decision.”

When a team from Cape Evans found the tent and the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in the spring of 1912, they took their diaries and letters, as well as rolls of film, fossils and meteorological logs, and buried the tent with a snow cairn topped with a simple cross.

The Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans is now the subject of a major restoration project by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. A few years ago, snow and ice build-up was causing structural damage, and a century of freeze and thaw cycles was accelerating the decay of the artefacts inside. But the trust has now carefully restored the site, excavating snow and ice from beneath the hut and drying and repairing the timber walls and floors. Conservators – camped in a row of yellow tents beside the hut – have spent the summer working on items inside.

The interior is dark, cold and grim. A wall of wooden crates marks the much-criticised division Scott imposed between the officers and scientists and the other men. Herbert Ponting’s lantern plates and bottles of chemicals for fixing and developing photographs line the shelves of his tiny darkroom. Glass test tubes, spirit burners and microscope slides are scattered across the bench where the biologists worked.

Across from the kitchen area, with its boxes of Fry’s Pure Cocoa, Sunlight Soap and Colman’s Mustard, is another table, where a stuffed emperor penguin lies beside a copy of the Illustrated London News. They may not have reached the pole, but Scott and his men made significant discoveries about the continent’s geology, biology and climate, providing baseline data for many scientific studies that followed.

Scott’s frozen tomb, now covered with decades of snow, has become part of the Ross Ice Shelf, slowly moving away from the continent and towards the open sea. Glaciologists estimate it will get there around the end of the 23rd century. But perhaps a warming climate will ensure Scott and his men are released into the ocean before then.

Rebecca Priestley travelled to Scott Base on Antarctica New Zealand’s media ­programme:
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