Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Amazing race to the bottom of the world

Scott's ship Terra Nova 1910 (Herbert Ponting)
Photo used in the book: Scott's Last Expedition...,
1913, Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York. Volume I, page 48.

From NYTimes

One hundred years ago, on Dec. 14, 1911, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and four companions trudged through fog, bitter cold and lacerating wind to stand at the absolute bottom of the world, the South Pole.
Nowhere was there a trace of their British rival, Robert Falcon Scott.
No Union Jack mocked them, no ice cairn bespoke precedence.
The Norwegians had won the race.

The Norwegian party pitched a tent as near to the actual pole as they could calculate.
Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Amundsen and Scott were commanding forces driving early exploration of Antarctica, the ice-covered continent almost half again the size of the United States and unlike any other place on Earth.
Both were driven by ambition to win fame by grabbing one of the few remaining unclaimed geographic prizes.
Each was different, though, in temperament and approach to exploration, which may have been decisive in the success of one and the undoing of the other.
Earnest and methodical, Amundsen had previously wintered over with an expedition in Antarctica and succeeded in the first navigation of the Northwest Passage, north of Canada, as he learned well how to prepare for work on the planet’s coldest, most unforgiving continent.
He knew from experience how indispensable well-trained dogs were for pulling sledges.
His next destination was to have been the North Pole.
But when he heard that two other groups claimed that triumph, Amundsen wrote that “there was nothing left for me but to try and solve the last great problem — the South Pole.”

Scott was a Navy officer and a gentleman who had led an expedition that fell well short of the South Pole because of poor planning and execution.
He had a romantic view of exploration as a self-affirming adventure, a kind of trial by ice.
Using dogs to pull all the sledges he thought unsporting: better, he wrote, “to go forth to face the hardships, dangers and difficulties with their unaided efforts.”
This the Scott party had to do.
Its motorized sledges and the ponies soon broke down, leaving them to pull the sledges all the way up a glacier to the high polar plateau.
When Amundsen’s men already were only a week away from their base camp at the Bay of Whales, to complete their 2,000-mile round trip, the exhausted British team arrived at the pole on Jan. 17, 1912, five weeks too late.
How deflating to see the Norwegian flag, alert to the wind.
In his diary, Scott wrote: “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”
Disappointment then turned to tragedy.
Stalled by a nine-day blizzard, weak from hunger and sledge-pulling fatigue on the return trek, Scott and his four team members perished by the end of March.
Most of the bodies were not found until November, at their last camp, among diaries and field notes and rock specimens they had gone perhaps too far out of the way to collect.
Scott may have lost the race to the pole, but in death, he prevailed in the narrative for much of the last century as the brave and stoic hero of legend.

Scientific Contest

The time of Amundsen and Scott was the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.
The adventurous were in part attracted to the ice because, as the British mountaineer George Mallory was to say of Everest, it was there: a recognized new challenge.
Even so, the same competitive spirit drove individuals and nations to seek to be first to make scientific discoveries, as Edward J. Larson, a Pepperdine University historian and author of the recent book “An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science,” describes in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Nature.

As early as 1900, Dr. Larson notes, the British, notably teams under Ernest Shackleton and to a lesser extent Scott, as well as German scientists, measured the movement of glaciers and mapped the coast and the interior.
From seabed sediments and outcrops they determined that Antarctica was a true continent — with a landmass underlying thick ice — in contrast to the Arctic, where the ice more thinly covers a wide sea.
From fossils they learned that the continent was once warmer and home to abundant life, all clues to its earlier link to other southern continents.

Advances in aviation, icebreakers and other technologies after World War II opened the Antarctic to wider and more sustained scientific research.
The United States and about a dozen other countries established permanent living quarters, supply depots and research facilities, the infrastructure for year-round living and increasingly ambitious research projects.
Now, from coastal ice shelves to the 10,000-foot polar plateau, from subglacial mountain ranges to pristine lakes sealed under ice, Antarctica is one vast international laboratory for research in sciences as diverse as astrophysics and climatology, geophysics and oceanography.
Looking ahead, the National Academy of Sciences has just published a study, “Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean,” identifying key questions that should drive research there in the next 10 to 20 years.

The report’s principal recommendations focused on researching the continent’s role in global climate change.
Polar scientists were not surprised.
“We’ve become very aware of the importance of polar regions in recent years as the harbinger of changes to come on a global scale,” said Raymond S. Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who primarily studies the Arctic and was not directly involved in the academy report.
“These regions are particularly sensitive to rising temperatures melting sea ice and glaciers,” Dr. Bradley continued. “
When sea ice recedes, it makes earth less reflective of sunlight, and this results in more warming and more changes in ocean and atmospheric circulation.”

Robin E. Bell, a senior research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who participated in the academy study, called attention to the report’s conclusion that a greater knowledge of rising temperatures and melting ice in some parts of the continent “will allow scientists to better predict” climate everywhere else.
“Antarctica is most critical to understanding the global climate system and creating models for predicting changes in the future,” Dr. Bell said.
The National Science Foundation asked the academy to prepare these recommendations as guides in deciding which projects to support with grants.
The government agency is spending $67.4 million this year on Antarctic projects.
Since the advent of satellite imagery in the 1970s, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have gathered much of the data calling attention to the continent’s involvement in climate change.

Scott Borg, director of the N.S.F. division of Antarctic sciences, said the new guidelines highlight research “we think is going to be important in at least the next five years” so that, if governments are to respond to the consequences of global warming, they will have “the best science possible to inform their decisions.”
Changes in the ice sheet, which covers roughly 97.6 percent of the continent, is already the subject of new research along the lines of academy recommendations.
An international team of researchers, financed by the N.S.F. and NASA, will travel by helicopter this month to the remote Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf.
The glacier, Dr. Borg said, “has begun to flow more rapidly, discharging more ice into the ocean, which could have a significant impact on global sea-level rise over the coming century.”

Scientists will use remote-sensing instruments to investigate the cavity beneath the ice shelf where it extends beyond the land and over the ocean.
They hope to determine how relatively warm ocean water enters this cavity and undercuts the bottom of the glacier, melting and releasing more than 19 cubic miles of ice into the sea each year.
Such research builds on activities started in the International Polar Year, 2007-9, which brought an infusion of fresh ideas and new projects to Antarctic science.
A seven-nation team of scientists, for example, investigated the mystery of the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, two miles beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet.
They used aircraft equipped with ice-penetrating radars, gravity meters and magnetometers to learn how a mountain range bigger than the Alps formed where it did.
In a report last month, the scientists concluded that the mountains are the remains of a collision of several continents a billion years ago.
Its traces extend from Antarctica across the ocean to India.
Dr. Bell of Columbia, one of the project’s leaders, said the next step will be to drill through the ice to obtain the first rock samples from Gamburtsev.

In addition to insights into earth history, scientists still find much to be learned from and about Antarctica itself.
The academy report noted the seals, whales and penguins native to Antarctica have evolved physiologies adapted to the extreme environment, and this “could hold the key to understanding and preventing a host of illnesses and conditions that plague humans, such as heart attacks, strokes and decompression sickness.”
For years, Russians have been drilling through the ice to Lake Vostok, the largest of more than 140 subglacial lakes on the continent.
They may finally break through next year to collect a sample of water presumably supersaturated with oxygen.
If there is life in the water, it evolved in cold darkness and under high pressure over millions of years.
Any sign of life in Vostok may strengthen the prospect of finding life on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which appear to have under-ice seas of liquid water.

The academy also emphasized the value of Antarctica as “an unparalleled platform for observing the solar system and the universe beyond.”
In the thin, dry atmosphere at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the clarity of light is an astronomer’s dream.
Several types of telescopes there observe some of the earliest events in the cosmos and are searching for clues to the nature of dark matter and dark energy that presumably constitute 95 percent of everything in the universe.
Other telescopes keep track of solar eruptions as an early warning system of stormy space weather endangering communications and navigation satellites.

The recently completed IceCube Neutrino Observatory.
NSF/B. Gudbjartsson

A new instrument known as IceCube Neutrino Observatory was completed to track the high-energy, nearly mass-less particles that are ubiquitous but so difficult to detect as they pass through Earth.
Neutrinos could provide insights into the longstanding mystery of the origin of ultra high-energy cosmic rays.
Nearby, seismometers are listening posts for earthquake reverberations bearing clues to the structure of Earth’s inner core and lower mantle.
About 700 miles east of the South Pole, China is developing the large Plateau Observatory.
The country’s astronomers, who had lacked high-quality observing sites, said they looked forward to research in the clear polar skies where the nights are four months long.

At the Finish

Amundsen spent an extra three days before leaving the South Pole.
He and his men — Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting and Olav Bjaaland, the one who took the classic picture of the other four at the pole — wanted to make sure they were really there, at the pole exactly.
The Americans Frederick Cook, in 1908, and then Robert E. Peary, a year later, claimed to have reached the North Pole, but the evidence they reported was disputed even then, and especially ever since.

The careful and methodical Amundsen was not about to leave room for a particle of doubt.
Lynne Cox, an author and long-distance swimmer inclined to frigid waters, recently published a kind of biography of Amundsen as well as his mentor Fridtjof Nansen, titled “South with the Sun: Roald Amundsen, His Polar Explorations, and the Quest for Discovery.”
She thinks it was “a really cool thing” (what other pun would you commit in a polar context?) that Amundsen had his men spend those three days skiing for miles out in all directions, taking sextant readings of the sun at different places and times of day to be sure they were close to or at 90 degrees South.
He reasoned that at least one of them would cross and record the exact spot.

Before leaving, the party pitched a black tent as near to the actual pole as they could calculate.
In the tent Amundsen left spare equipment Scott might need and a letter addressed to King Haakon of Norway.
It was his report of triumph.
In a separate note, he asked Scott to deliver the letter to the king, if the Norwegian party failed to survive the return trip.
These two things Amundsen did while at the pole — double checking where they were and recording the story of a deed done — seemed in character.
Of course, Amundsen made it back to his base in 99 days, 10 fewer than expected; of his 52 dogs, 11 had survived.
The other dogs, weakened over time, were sacrificed for meat to sustain the remaining ones and the men.
And Amundsen, as ever preparing for eventualities, made doubly sure the world would know of his success.
And Scott?
If Scott had returned alive, and the Amundsen party had not, it would presumably have been in character for Scott of the century-old legend to have stayed in character, too
He would have done the sporting thing.
The news would have been delivered to the King of Norway that his subjects were the first to reach the South Pole.

Links :
  • NYTimes : Captain Scott’s lost photographs
  • BBC : Norway marks Amundsen's south pole feat 100 years on
  • OurAmazingPlanet : 100 years on, Antarctic science going strong
  • NASA : a century at the South Pole
  • ScientificAmerican : Amundsen becomes first to reach South Pole, December 14, 1911

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