Saturday, 13 October 2012

1912: The year the World Discovered Antarctica

While the past year has seen a whole series of events to mark the centenary of Captain Scott's death in Antarctica, few are aware that his expedition was just one of five exploring the continent in 1912. Of course there was Roald Amundsen's Norwegian South Pole expedition but there was also a Japanese team led by Nobu Shirase, a German one led by Wilhelm Filchner and Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic enterpise.

The story of the five teams can be found in a new book, 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica, by Chris Turney. Not all were there to ‘race to the pole’, but rather their aims were to map the continent and record what they found. It is these scientific achievements that Turney champions in the book.

The first chapters are devoted to the early history of Antarctic exploration and the scene is set for 1912 with Ernest Shackleton’s expedition of 1907-09 that came close to reaching the South Pole. Naturally there is the familiar tale of the Scott and Amundsen rivalry, but Turney provides good summaries of the events, covering all perspectives.

It is the lesser know expeditions that are most fascinating though. The Japanese ‘Dash Patrol’ encountered indifference at home, hostility (at least at first) in Australia and the team had little polar experience. Their first attempt at getting to the continent had to abandoned, as the news report below (not from the book) explains.

Manchester Guardian, May 7 1911
However, they tried again the following year and this time were more successful. They found volcanic rock samples on King Edward VII Land that supported the idea of rifting in the Earth's crust, as well as charting new territory. Much important oceanographic work was carried out by Wilhelm Filcher’s German party although the expedition was marked by mutiny and discontent while the ship was trapped in sea ice for eight months.

As for the Australasian expedition, Turney writes: 'Mawson's venture gave the world its first complete scientific snapshot of the new continent’.  Their meteorological work showed how weather systems in Antarctica could have an impact on conditions in the rest of the world, while geologist Edgeworth David disproved the theory that Antarctica and New Zealand had once been connected by a land bridge, laying the groundwork for the theory of plate tectonics. But that’s not to forget  Mawson’s unbelievable feat of endurance that included having to strap the frozen soles of his feet back on each day with Lanolin, during the desperate trek back to Cape Denison after surveying King V Land.

Manchester Guardian,  February 27 1914

In the final chapter, Turney, a professor of climate change, goes into greater detail about the scientific findings of the expeditions. He also reveals that Scott’s death may partly have been the result of a food shortage - caused by the final returning party, led by Teddy Evans, his second-in-command, eating more than their fair share of food.  This may well have been the case although other polar historians have written about the desperate state of Evans’ party which could explain the need to break into the supplies.

Chris Turney strikes the right balance between telling the stories of these unique characters and writing about the science in an accessible way - while maintaining a sense of adventure throughout the book. On top of this, he enlivens the text by peppering the chapters with newspaper reports from the time, and anecdotes from his own visits to Antarctica. A fine addition to the polar exploration library.

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