Scientists and the Heroic Age
One hundred years after Scott reached the South Pole, hundreds of researchers now work in Antarctica every year pursuing scientific questions pioneered in the Heroic Age
Since Captain Scott perished on his return from the South Pole a century ago, hardihood, endurance and courage have come to define the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. But what became of the scientists who sailed south, and the ambitious programme of research they embarked on?
From biology, oceanography and meteorology to magnetism, geology and glaciology, science was central to the three British Antarctic expeditions of the early twentieth century — Discovery, Nimrod and Terra Nova.
According to Professor Edward Larson of Pipperdine University: “If the race to the South Pole eventually consumed Scott, it was never at the expense of science. His two expeditions and Shackleton’s 1907—1909 venture carried enormous scientific baggage.”
“These expeditions were complex enterprises. Science wove through every part of them,” he wrote in An Empire of Ice. “I know of no better way to understand the whole of these expeditions than through the lens of their research.”
Published in Nature, Scott’s science programme for Discovery covered geology and terrestrial magnetism as well as geographical exploration. The ship carried all manner of magnetic instruments, weather gauges, drift nets and dredging equipment and Discovery herself was purpose-built for magnetic research, as the local newspaper observed when she arrived in New Zealand in November 1901.
“The object of this expedition is not primarily to discover and exploit new lands. The members will rather endeavour to tell people more about the wonderful world in which they live,” the Star reported. “It is a coy love this magnetic pole in whose quest the knights of the ocean are to sail. She must be wooed in a wooden ship.”
Seven years later, Shackleton made do with a 40 year-old former sealer, Nimrod, but in Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson and Raymond Priestley, his expedition boasted the finest team of geologists yet to study the Antarctic.
Born in Yorkshire in 1882, Douglas Mawson grew up in Australia. After studying mining engineering and geology in Sydney and teaching mineralogy at the University of Adelaide, he approached Shackleton as he journeyed south in 1907, and was invited to join Nimrod as the expedition’s physicist.
“Bound up with the mystery of this seventh continent are volumes of data of vital importance to science”
As well his glaciological and geomagnetic research, Mawson was part of the team that reached the summit of Mount Erebus in 1908 and, the following year, the South Magnetic Pole. These firsts, along with Shackleton’s farthest south, were Nimrod’s major successes, and marked the start of a distinguished scientific career for Mawson.
Turning down an invitation to join the Terra Nova and Scott’s South Pole party, Mawson launched his own Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911. Best known for its epic sledge journey, which claimed the lives of his companions BES Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, the expedition was replete with science.
So vast was the amount of data gathered — from geology and meteorology to geomagnetism and marine science — that the results filled 22 volumes and took until 1947 to complete. From the outset, Mawson was confident of the value of Antarctic research. In The Home of the Blizzard, his popular account of the expedition published in 1915, Mawson wrote: “Bound up with the mystery of this seventh continent are volumes of data of vital importance to science.”
After the First World War, he returned to the University of Adelaide, becoming professor of geology in 1921 and lead the British, Australasian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE) of 1929–30 and 1930–31 on the Discovery. Majoring in marine biology and oceanography, the expeditions also mapped 2,500km of Antarctica’s coastline, laying the foundations for the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Where Mawson had declined Scott, George Simpson accepted a position as meteorologist on the Terra Nova. Born in Derby in 1878, Simpson became the first person to lecture in meteorology in a British university (Manchester) and from 1906 worked for the Indian Meteorological Service.
Bringing with him a well-calibrated set of instruments, Simpson recorded temperatures and wind for two years from 1911 at Cape Evans, where he experimented with met balloons. In his diary in April 1911, Scott wrote: “Simpson has been practising with balloons during our absence. This morning he sent one up for trial. The balloon is of silk and has a capacity of 1 cubic metre. It is filled with hydrogen gas, which is made in a special generator.”
After Scott’s death, Simpson returned to his job in India in 1912. served as meteorological adviser to the British Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia (southern Iraq) and in 1920 became director of the Meteorological Office in London. Until his retirement in 1938, his research focused on atmospheric electricity, ionization, radioactivity and solar radiation, and he established the Simpson wind force scale — a modification of the Beaufort scale — still in use today.
Mawson and Simpson were both colleagues of geologist and glaciologist Raymond Priestley. Born in Gloucestershire in 1886, Priestley was in his second year of geology at Bristol when he joined Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, and returned south with Scott on Terra Nova.
Overshadowed by Scott’s death, Priestley’s party too came close to disaster. While Scott was making his bid for the Pole, Terra Nova landed the Northern Party for summer fieldwork exploring the Victoria Land coastline.
But ice prevented the ship from returning for them, forcing the six men — with summer gear and eight weeks’ rations — to overwinter in an ice cave they dug in a snowdrift using Priestley’s geological hammer. After seven months, they walked 200 miles back to Cape Evans and the news that Scott and his party were dead.Terra Nova geologist Frank Debenham, founded the Scott Polar Research Institute before joining the University’s administrative staff.
After a turbulent tenure as vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, Priestley returned to the UK as vice-chancellor and chancellor of the University of Birmingham. When Vivian Fuchs departed in 1952 on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Priestley became acting director of British Antarctic Survey (then the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey) until Fuchs’ return in 1958. Priestley was instrumental in improving the way Antarctic research was conducted.
His time at FIDS gave Priestley — then in his 70s — the chance to return to Antarctica, first with Prince Philip on the Royal Yacht Britannia and then with the US Navy operation Deep Freeze IV.
Speaking in 1966, he reflected on the extraordinary progress made in Antarctic research in the half century that separated his final visit south from his time with Shackleton and Scott. “I saw more of the Antarctic coastline in two months than I had seen 50 years ago in three years. It is a measure of the technological progress that has been made,” Priestley said.
Today at BAS, that progress continues. With this year’s field season under way, scientists from BAS will be using radar and seismic techniques at a remote field camp on Pine Island Glacier to find out how the area’s most rapidly thinning glacier is contributing to global sea level rise.
At the nearby Larsen and George VI ice shelves, another group will drill through the ice to deploy oceanographic instruments to sample the ocean underneath.
And in preparation for next season’s ground-breaking mission to drill into the subglacial Lake Ellsworth, this season an engineering team is delivering over 70 tonnes of equipment to the drilling site.
Whatever secrets they discover, you can’t help feeling that scientists from the Heroic Age would marvel at what a century of science in Antarctica has achieved – and at what the continent can still teach us about how our world works.
Feature by Becky Allen