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Polar regions today and yesterday


The ‘Heroic Age’ of Polar Exploration extended from the late 19th century until World War I, a period of about 20 years.

In the North Polar region, as in the South, the ultimate goal was the pole itself. However, because the North Pole was a hypothetical location in the midst of an ocean surrounded by land, once the goal had been achieved, there wasn’t much more to which an adventurer could aspire. The South Pole, by comparison was in the midst of the barren icy waste of Antarctica, a continent surrounded by an ocean; more than three times the size of the European Union, and somewhat larger than Continental Europe.

West Antarctic actually consists of submerged mountainous islands overlaid by an ice sheet. East Antarctic is a continuous landmass, also overlaid by a very thick ice sheet.

As will be seen from the map, the South Pole is not central to the continent, and East and West Antarctic are separated from each other by the Transantarctic Mountains extending roughly from Queen Elizabeth Land to Victoria Land. Attempts to reach the South Pole were staged from the west to try and take advantage of this proximity, despite the daunting terrain between Coats Land and the pole.

Today’s expedition cruise ships focus on the Antarctic Peninsula region because of its proximity to home ports in the southern tip of South America, Ushuaia being the most popular turn around port. In 2019, IAATO recorded only 4 ships and 6 visits to mainland locations. Most ships, and 99% of visitors, went to the Antarctic Peninsula. The season for cruise calls is, typically, October through February, with January being the warmest month. Meteoblue charts for Teniente R Marsh airport on King George Island show mean January temperatures ranging between 30-33oF during the day, dropping to about 23oF at night.

This means that visitors on cruise ships need to bundle up if outdoors, however the climate today is quite different from that experienced during the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. Consistent records of temperature and other factors did not commence until weather stations were established; the first (Orcadas) was set up by the Scottish National Expedition in 1902-04 on the South Orkney Islands. Although, as will be appreciated from the map, this is some distance from Antarctica itself, and thus weather records there are not necessarily, representative of, say, the Weddell Sea. Thus, for information on the climate experienced by early explorers, we have to depend on their experiences.

Early exploration, perhaps because of the region’s proximity to South America, also tended to focus on the west side of Antarctica. The Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897/98 using the ship Belgica reached Graham land in January 1898, and then sailed down the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, discovering the Gerlache Strait, but also finding there was not a channel into the Weddell Sea. They ended up becoming trapped in ice off Peter Island on 28 February 1898 and became the first expedition to winter in Antarctica. The expedition had two notable members; Roald Amundsen, who went on to be the first person to reach the South Pole and was first mate on the Belgica. Dr. Frederick Cook, who claimed[1] to be the first person to reach the North Pole in 1908, joined the ship in Rio de Janeiro as surgeon, anthropologist and photographer.

Peter Island is accessible today by ice-strengthened ships; photographs from ships that have visited the island show between 6-8/10ths ice, so while a zodiac landing is not feasible, ships equipped with helicopters can get close enough to land passengers for a brief visit. Polar regions have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ years, usually determined by ice conditions, and it is likely that Peter Island would not be accessible in a bad ice year.

In the North Polar region 2018 was a ‘bad’ ice year, and there were no Northwest Passage transits. Climate change is also influencing frequency of navigable ice seasons for the Northwest Passage. Prior to about 1970, ‘good’ ice conditions around Point Barrow and along the Alaskan coast might only be expected one year in seven; now it is unusual not to be able to undertake the passage.

In 1914, Shackleton was the leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which planned to undertake a traverse of Antarctica between the Weddell and Ross Seas, via the Pole. En route to the Antarctic, the Endurance made a planned call at the whaling station of Grytviken on South Georgia for supplies and information. The whalers advised that it was a ‘bad’ ice year, and he delayed his trip by a month to allow for better ice conditions. Eventually, Shackleton left Grytviken on 05 December 1914, intending to set up a base camp on Coats Land. The Endurance sailed through pack ice until it became trapped on 18 January 1915. The ship then drifted north before being crushed in the ice on 27 October and sinking nearly one month later on 21 November.

Endurance was discovered by a team on the SA Agulhas II, chartered by the Falkland Island Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic on 05 March 2022, lying upright over 3,000 metres below sea level. Paradoxically, the discovery was just over a century after Shackleton’s death on 05 January 1922, on yet another Antarctic Expedition.

Although often overshadowed by the loss of the Endurance, and Shackleton’s epic journey back to South Georgia, the efforts of Aeneas Mackintosh, and the Shackleton support expedition via the Ross Sea are sometimes overlooked.

After many problems in Australia, Mackintosh sailed from Hobart on 05 December 1914 and successfully set up his base camp in Scott’s old depot at Cape Evans in McMurdo Sound in January 1915. Mackintosh insisted on starting immediately with the task of laying the supply points for Shackleton, and managed to lay down one at 80oS soon after his arrival. However, on their return, the expedition only got as far as Hut Point because of unsafe sea ice conditions between them and Cape Evans. They eventually got back to Cape Evans in early June where they found that their supply ship, Aurora, together with 18 men, and most of their supplies had been blown away from its winter moorings in a gale.

Notwithstanding this loss, in September that year, Mackintosh and his group successfully laid supply points at 81o, 82o and 83o S as well as Mount Hope at 83o 45’S. Their return journey[2] was fraught by health and weather problems, and again the group stopped short at Hut Point on 18 March 1916. In May that year, Mackintosh together with, Hayward, another team member, set off to walk to Cape Evans. They were never seen again.

Shackleton’s biographers describe the efforts of Mackintosh and his expedition as ‘one of the most remarkable, and apparently impossible, feats of endurance in the history of polar travel.’

By Christopher Wright

[1] His claim has been contested, as has the 1909 claim by Peary that he had reached the North Pole.

[2] One of the team members, Spencer-Smith died on 09 March.


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