1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica

1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica

by Chris Turney

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“The South Pole discovered” trumpeted the front page of The Daily Chronicle on March 8, 1912, marking Roald Amundsen’s triumph over the tragic Robert Scott. Yet behind all the headlines there was a much bigger story. Antarctica was awash with expeditions. In 1912, five separate teams representing the old and new world were diligently embarking on scientific exploration beyond the edge of the known planet. Their discoveries not only enthralled the world, but changed our understanding of the planet forever. Tales of endurance, self-sacrifice, and technological innovation laid the foundations for modern scientific exploration, and inspired future generations.

To celebrate the centenary of this groundbreaking work, 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica revisits the exploits of these different expeditions. Looking beyond the personalities and drawing on his own polar experience, Chris Turney shows how their discoveries marked the dawn of a new age in our understanding of the natural world. He makes use of original and exclusive unpublished archival material and weaves in the latest scientific findings to show how we might reawaken the public’s passion for discovery and exploration

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619021372
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 11/02/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 361
Sales rank: 548,888
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

CHRIS TURNEY is an Australian and British geologist, described by the Saturday Times as ‘the new David Livingstone’. He is Professor of Climate Change at the University of New South Wales and the author of Ice, Mud and Blood: Lessons from Climates Past and Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of when Things Happened. In 2007 he was awarded the Sir Nicholas Shackleton Medal for outstanding young scientist for pioneering research into past climate change and dating the past and in 2009 received the Geological Society of London’s Bigsby Medal for services to geology.
Twitter: @ProfChrisTurney / www.christurney.com

Read an Excerpt



Early Ventures South

No man will be a sailor who had contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned …A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

In 1520 the explorer Ferdinand Magellan was one year into his quest to find a westward route from the Atlantic to the Spice Islands of the western Pacific. The expedition to the Indonesian islands known today as the Moluccas was funded by the Spanish, in an attempt to break Venice's stranglehold on the lucrative European spice trade. Leading a Spanish-financed and-crewed expedition was a major undertaking for the Portuguese captain. Not only had he lost a ship, dashed against the rocks while surveying, but he was constantly staving off the threat of mutiny. Reaching 53°S off the southeast coast of South America, Magellan found a passage that he hoped would allow his four wooden vessels to sail to the other side of the Americas.

Magellan's crew were not thrilled to find themselves beating a path down the 570-kilometre-long strait. Their journey was arduous: wild seas and 'williwaw' winds roared off the land, a ship was lost through desertion, and fire-loving locals came perilously close to attacking. Thirty-eight days later, though, the three surviving ships reached the other side of the Americas having negotiated a passage through the 'Land of Fire', Tierra del Fuego. The strain was almost too much for Magellan, who reputedly broke down and cried: against tremendous odds he had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and into the relatively peaceful Pacific.

From a survivor's account of the voyage, the world learned that the Strait of Magellan is 'surrounded by very great and high mountains covered with snow'. Magellan's travels appeared to confirm the existence of the mythical continent on the southern side of the strait, Antarktikos — or, as it later became known, Terra Australis Incognita, the 'Unknown South Land'. However, the great navigator did not live to enjoy the fame his discoveries brought, dying — as did most members of the expedition — on the way back to Spain.

Tales of what lay to the south had fascinated ancient and medieval Europe. Stories were told of Prester John, a Christian king who ruled over a fantastical country surrounded by pagan states in the Far East, and within which four rivers of Paradise flowed from an inaccessible mountain of great height at the centre. For centuries speculation about the south continued, untroubled by evidence.

The sixteenth century saw expeditions geared for trade and territorial expansion ploughing new routes into the Southern Ocean. Magellan provided the first point on the map, and cartographers around the world enthusiastically incorporated his discoveries. Terra Australis Incognita was an ideal home for the undiscovered Christian country and, using stories of Prester John and others, mapmakers prepared frighteningly detailed charts of the supercontinent's alleged coastline and vast interior. This fantasy persisted over the next hundred years or so, connecting the southern part of Tierra del Fuego, northern Australia and sometimes even Indonesia.

Half a century after Magellan discovered the strait that bears his name, an English adventurer stumbled on the fact that something was amiss. Sir Francis Drake is best known today for playing bowls when the Spanish Armada sought to invade England during the heady summer of 1588, but a decade earlier he was halfway to emulating Magellan's achievement of circumnavigating the globe, and this time surviving. Drake had steered through the strait in a swift seventeen days, and with a happier crew than his unfortunate predecessor, before a huge northwesterly gale blew up. He was pushed back around the tip of South America, considerably further south than anticipated. Where Terra Australis Incognita should have been, there was just sea: the great continent in the south was, it seemed, a lot smaller than most had imagined.

Competition in the Netherlands soon led to a spate of discoveries. With the Dutch East India Company holding a strictly enforced monopoly on the only known trade routes of the time, the Strait of Magellan and the south African Cape of Good Hope, other explorers set out to search for an alternative trade route: a Southwest Passage. In 1599 ships in a small Dutch fleet searching off the South American coast for this fabled path became separated, and the Dutch captain Dirk Gerritsz of the Blijde Boodschap reportedly found himself at 64°S, where he saw a land of high mountains covered in snow, 'like Norway'. No one knew what to do with this finding, and it was largely dismissed. However, another expedition, led by Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten, was not so easy to ignore. In 1616 the two Dutchmen showed it was possible to sail around Tierra del Fuego, and in doing so discovered a mountainous land in the fog that appeared to be a peninsula. This Staten Land seemed to confirm Drake's discovery, and it pushed the northern coastline of Terra Australis Incognita further south.

These discoveries took some time to filter through. Explorers and cartographers were reluctant to give up on the idea of a southern landmass, and they continued to join up small pockets of land across vast areas of the southern hemisphere, desperate to make sense of what lay there. A classic example is the Dutchman Abel Tasman, who in 1642 became the first European to sail along the southern coast of Australia, discovering Tasmania in the process. On reaching what we know as New Zealand, Tasman proclaimed his find Staten Land, believing it was connected to the same landmass his compatriots had seen in 1616. The following year the South Atlantic Staten Land was found to be just a small island with plenty more sea to the south. The supposed southern continent was becoming ever smaller.

With unsubstantiated reports and wild rumour continuing to emanate from the south, one of the greatest explorers came to the fore. Captain James Cook was appointed by the oldest scientific society in the world, the prestigious Royal Society in London, to make a thorough search for Terra Australis Incognita. On his first voyage he had sailed around New Zealand and shown there was yet more sea polewards. On his second Pacific expedition, between 1772 and 1775, Cook took the HMS Resolution further south, probing for a route through the sea ice and bergs. He was hundreds of kilometres inside the Antarctic Circle — and decades ahead of his time. Cooped up for months on a small wooden vessel dwarfed by towering icebergs that seemed to fill the ocean, Cook and the crew were increasingly on edge. Eventually it was too much: having reached 71ºsS, Cook turned the Resolution and headed for home.

Having worked his way through the icebergs and circumnavigating Antarctica without seeing it, Cook returned to Britain with tales of new islands and large seal colonies, pack ice and freezing conditions in the Southern Ocean. His achievement attracted attention around the world. At most longitudes, Cook's record southern latitude is actually part of the Antarctic continent. Cook had pushed the limits of his craft — and men — as far as possible, but was in the wrong area to see any land; he was desperately unlucky not to discover Antarctica.

In 1777 he wrote: 'I strongly believe that there does exist land close to the Pole, from which must proceed the greater part of the ice which we find spread across this vast southern ocean … It would have been folly on my part to risk all we had achieved on this voyage merely for the sake of discovering and exploring a coast which, once discovered and explored, would have proved useful neither to navigation, nor to geography, nor, in truth, to any other science.' He went on: 'Should anyone possess the resolution and fortitude to [push] yet further south ... I make bold to declare that the world will derive no benefit from it.'

In Cook's view, even if Terra Australis Incognita was there, it was of little significance. But not everyone agreed.

* * *

Cook's report of abundant marine life in the freezing polar waters of the southern hemisphere whipped sealers and whalers into a frenzy. The world was hungry for fur and oil, and the North Atlantic could not keep up with demand. Soon fleets of vessels rushed south to mine what seemed an inexhaustible resource. In their enthusiasm to head south, the hunters often reached unexplored areas years before scientific expeditions. For most, this was a commercial exercise: many took the view that science had little, if any, role to play in their operations. The locations of rich pickings were jealously guarded; ships' routes were left deliberately vague, for fear of giving away lucrative spots on an otherwise blank map. Fantastic stories, no doubt sometimes embellished to draw competitors away from richseal colonies, were retailed. Yet with the push south there came a series of discoveries that restored some faith in the idea of a southern continent.

One of the first significant finds was made by a British captain, William Smith, who was exploring the seas around South America in his brig, the Williams, in February 1819. Blown off course by the region's now-infamous strong winds, Smith found himself far south of Cape Horn and alongside a small cluster of ice-covered islands, which he called New South Shetland. He returned to the islands that October and, finding a landing place, took possession of the land for his monarch, King George III, before heading to Valparaíso, on the Chilean coast, where stories of what he had found soon circulated among sealers.

The British captain tried to convince the Royal Navy officials in Chile of his discovery but they were suspicious of the claims. Nevertheless, Smith and his ship were put under the command of a young naval officer, Edward Bransfield, and sent back south. By January 1820 they reached the islands Smith had claimed and planted the British flag again, this time officially. At the end of the month they probed further south, and at 64°S spotted land. It was late in the summer and the weather was poor —'the most gloomy that could be imagined,' one of the men aboard reported, 'and the only cheer the sight afforded was in the idea that this might be the long sought Southern Continent …The land [was named] Trinity Land in compliment to the Trinity Board.'

Word of Smith and Bransfield's find got out, and suddenly everyone seemed to be discovering parts of Terra Australia Incognita. Americans, Russians, British, Norwegians and Australians began tripping over one another to find new seal colonies in the icy southern Atlantic. A Russian explorer, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, recorded a sighting of land at 69°S, laying claim to being the first person to see the Antarctic continent. Then, a year after Smith returned from Trinity Land, the American sealing captain Nathaniel Palmer reported having seen, independently, the same piece of ground as his British counterpart. Discoveries were a source of national pride as ever more finds were made in this new part of the world. And yet, perversely, the next notable revelation had little to do with land.

In 1823 the British sealer James Weddell was commanding two 'small, insignificant' ships, the Jane and Beaufoy, in the search for seals to the immediate east of William Smith's route to the south. Others who had been in the region had complained bitterly of impregnable, icecovered ocean. Like Cook, Weddell was way ahead of his time. Keen to mix science with business, he reported a series of observations while exploring, including the temperature of the ocean, the geology of the islands he visited en route and the wildlife he saw — all with accurate geographical fixes. Pushing as far as his supplies would allow, Weddell reached a latitude of 74°15'S and declared this the Sea of George the Fourth.

Not only was this the furthest south achieved in the South Atlantic — a feat that remained unsurpassed until 1912 — it was the furthest south reached anywhere. Most importantly, Weddell had found no land. Realising his discovery might provoke controversy back home, on his return Weddell had his chief officer and seamen swear to the accuracy of the log before naval officials. He believed that sea ice was only formed in the vicinity of land and, as none had been found within 20° of his furthest south, there was most probably an open ocean all the way to the South Geographic Pole. His discovery and its implications constituted a case against an ice-covered Terra Australis Incognita. But, with later explorers finding the Sea of George the Fourth choked with ice, and reports of coastline in other parts — albeit not so far south — Weddell's claims were openly questioned. The British captain had been extremely lucky: it was not until the 1960s that the sea he found would be so clear of ice again.

Unfortunately for Weddell, his trip was not as lucrative as his employers had hoped, and once home he was cited for a debt of £245, lent by the Commercial Bank in Edinburgh. This was probably the cost associated with Weddell's scientific equipment, and his ship owners washed their hands of him. He fled just before he was due to collect a prestigious fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from the illustrious Sir Walter Scott. The British authorities remained sceptical of the explorer, and it was only in 1904 that a German geographer suggested the body of water be named the Weddell Sea in honour of the great pioneer.

* * *

James Weddell championed the idea of sailing directly to the bottom of the world, but it was the search for a different pole that had piqued the interest of most scientists and the public during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although the geographic poles mark the location on the surface of the Earth around which the axis of our planet rotates, there are many others. There is a pole for the greatest distance from a coast (the Pole of Inaccessibility), one for the most frigid place (Cold) and even one for the spot with the greatest range in atmospheric pressure (Variability). In Weddell's time it was the magnetic version that fascinated. Spurred on by the British Royal Navy's desire to understand how the world's compasses might be better used, science gained equal footing with exploration, and became less dependent on enthusiastic amateurs and haughty employers.

The eleventh-century Chinese discovery that the mineral lodestone would naturally point north–south if freely suspended had led to the development of compasses that enabled navigators to plan and explore routes around the world with increased confidence and safety. But navigating by compass was not foolproof. Over time compasses subtly changed the direction in which they pointed; and the further you went polewards, the more erratic they seemed to become. For a country such as Britain, dependent on ships for trade and military muscle, the situation was serious: a drifting pole could become a hazard for ships.

New data was needed, to test the scientific community's understanding of the planet's magnetism and exploit it. More accurate hydrographic surveys and maps showing magnetic field irregularities would improve the accuracy of navigation, reducing passage times and preventing disaster — and helping in sovereignty claims. The pressure for this data only increased with the shift from wooden craft to metal shipping, further distorting the magnetic signal.

The first to raise the issue was Robert Norman, who in 1581 published a book called The New Attractive after he became frustrated at the way compass needles would incline below the 'plaine of the horizon': no matter how carefully he prepared his needles in London, once they were magnetised the north-facing part would dip without fail. Norman found he had to snip the end off the north-seeking part of his needles, thereby allowing them to balance on the pivot. He went on to measure this effect by setting up a magnetised needle vertically and reading the angle of magnetic dip. His dipping needle showed they always pointed to 72–. Norman felt it was something inherent to the needles themselves.

In 1600 Queen Elizabeth I's physician and scientist, William Gilbert, proposed a different, revolutionary idea. It was not the needles themselves that caused the dip, Gilbert argued. Instead, the phenomenon could best be explained if the planet had something akin to a powerful bar magnet inside it. Gilbert did not understand the cause, but we now know the magnetic field is produced by a solid inner iron core surrounded by fluid iron. It is this outer part that acts like a spinning conductor in a bicycle dynamo. Rather than frantically peddling, though, the Earth's system is run by heat from the decay of radioactive elements left over from our planet's formation. The resulting swirling molten iron in the outer core is electrically charged, creating a continuously changing electromagnetic field.


Excerpted from "1912"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Chris Turney.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1: Looking Polewards Early Ventures South,
CHAPTER 2: An Audacious Plan Ernest Shackleton and the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–1909,
CHAPTER 3: A New Land Robert Scott and the Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–1913,
CHAPTER 4: Of Reindeer, Ponies and Automobiles Roald Amundsen and the Norwegian Bid for the South Pole, 1910–1912,
CHAPTER 5: The Dash Patrol Nobu Shirase and the Japanese South Polar Expedition, 1910–1912,
CHAPTER 6: Locked In Wilhelm Filchner and the Second German Antarctic Expedition, 1911–1912,
CHAPTER 7: Ice-cold in Denison Douglas Mawson and the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911–1913,
CHAPTER 8: Martyrs to Gondwanaland The Cost of Scientific Exploration,
APPENDIX: Lord Curzon's Notes,

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