Monday, January 16, 2012

Opinion - Remember Scott's legacy of Antarctic science

<i>(Image: Andrzej Krauze)</i>
(Image: Andrzej Krauze)

OF ALL the hills I have climbed, the one I remember most vividly is Observation hill in Antarctica, a mound of volcanic rock a mere 250 metres high. It was December 2007 and the summer sky was a clear, deep blue. From the summit I could see the frozen McMurdo sound and the sprawling McMurdo Station, the US base on the Antarctic coast. In the other direction lay the Ross ice shelf, a glistening expanse of white that stretched interminably towards the horizon, beyond which lay the South Pole.
Near the summit stood a large wooden cross erected in 1913, on which were etched the names of five explorers: "Capt. R. F. Scott, Dr E. A. Wilson, Capt. L. E. G. Oates, Lt. H. R. Bowers, Petty Officer E. Evans... who died on their return from the pole March 1912". Below it was the last line of Tennyson's poem Ulysses: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Scott's team reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, 100 years ago next week, only to find that Roald Amundsen had got there first. Despondent, Scott pondered the bleak return trip in his diary: "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it." They couldn't.
Evans died on 17 February, weakened by a fall into a crevasse. Oates walked out of his tent into a blizzard on 16 March and was never seen again. Scott, Bowers and Wilson froze to death in their tent two weeks later. They were just 18 kilometres from a depot full of fuel and food, and just 240 kilometres from McMurdo.
When a search party reached Scott's tent in November, they found the three dead men, their diaries - and about 15 kilograms of rocks. Had the geological samples slowed down the team? Had Scott endangered his men in a misguided pursuit of science? Such charges have been levelled at Scott, among others, to undermine his reputation as a heroic leader of men (New Scientist, 1 October 2011, p 30).

Scott got a lot of things wrong, the pursuit of science wasn't one of them. Science was an integral part of his Antarctic expeditions. His first, Discovery (1901-1904), was as much about charting the magnetic properties of the Antarctic region as it was about geographic exploration. From Ross Island, the site of McMurdo station today, Scott's men mounted an expedition to the magnetic South Pole. They didn't reach it, but were the first to scale the Transantarctic mountains and glimpse the immense East Antarctic sheet.
Science became even more of an obsession during Scott's fatal second expedition, Terra Nova (1910-1913). In the winter of 1911 three members of his team - Wilson, Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard - undertook a near-suicidal mission to find a rookery of emperor penguins. The trio trekked in almost complete darkness, often sledging in knee-deep snow and repeatedly falling into crevasses. Their sleeping bags would freeze solid, and they spent hours making them pliant enough to sleep in. All this for a few penguin eggs.
Emperor penguins were thought to be primitive birds. The idea was to collect embryos and see if any vestiges of reptilian ancestry could be discerned in the various stages of development. If so, it would link reptiles to birds and make a strong case for Darwin's theory of evolution. Sadly, the men only collected three eggs and returned frost-bitten, battered and bruised. "This journey had beggared our language: no words could express its horror," wrote Cherry-Garrard in his aptly titled memoir The Worst Journey in the World.
Cherry-Garrard never fully recovered, but Bowers and Wilson rebounded to join Scott on the ill-fated race to the pole. Even when they discovered that they had lost, the men did not forget the scientific aims of their expedition.
By early February they had reached Beardmore glacier. But instead of pressing on to the Ross ice shelf, they stopped to study a nearby moraine. Wilson sketched exposed rock formations despite his snow blindness. Scott wrote about "perpendicular cliffs of Beacon sandstone, weathering rapidly and carrying veritable coal seams." Then they loaded up with fossils and rocks. Would they have made it back to the depot had they not slowed down for science?
We'll never know. But the fossils turned out to be precious. They gave scientists a glimpse into Antarctica's past, and set in motion the spirit of scientific enquiry that is still inspired by the continent today. As Francis Spufford notes in The Antarctic, his anthology of writings about the frozen continent, "carrying [the rocks] along was, perversely, among the most forward-looking things Scott ever did. It anticipated the coming time when scientists, not explorers, would be Antarctica's defining inhabitants; when understanding, not surviving, would be the most pressing human business there."
Today, the scope of Antarctic science is deep and broad. Ice cores drilled from its ice sheets are giving us a glimpse of our past - and our possible future in a warming world. From Observation hill you can watch the launch of NASA's 300-metre-high long-duration balloons, which carry 2-tonne telescopes to the edge of the atmosphere. At the South Pole you find scientific instruments galore, from radio telescopes studying the afterglow of the big bang to IceCube, which monitors a cubic kilometre of ice for neutrinos from outer space (New Scientist, 19 April 2008, p 34)
 Elsewhere researchers are studying sub-glacial lakes to glaciers, biology to weather.
In stories of the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, when the pursuit of personal glory and national pride fuelled expeditions, Scott often comes out as second best: Amundsen was the explorer par excellence and Ernest Shackleton the brave, natural leader. But it is Scott's legacy of scientific study that has left the most enduring mark on Antarctica. The cross on Observation hill is a poignant reminder.

Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for New Scientist

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