June 22, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Despite none of them making it home, the scientific legacy of Captain Scott and his team remains strong 100 years on. Here are just a few of the discoveries that can be traced back to Scott’s tragic Antarctic expedition.

2011 marks the 100-year anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. It was an undertaking with dual purpose; to claim the Pole, a last, wild frontier, for the great British Empire, but also to extend the reach of science. Scott’s expedition germinated from a gauntlet thrown down at a Geographical Congress in 1895 describing the Antarctic as “the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken”, and voicing that it would bring about “the addition of knowledge to every field of science.”

This was a fantastic claim, but one that was realised. Today scientists may explore their work in the omniscient realms of the internet, or inside microscopic cells, but in the 19th Century Antarctica represented 15.4 million square miles of unexplored territory. A Terra Astralis (Southern Land) had been suggested or observed from the times of Ptolemy (90AD-168AD) but never fully investigated. As in all good science, controversy abounded over whether it was a true continental land mass or a constellation of ice islands. Several key predecessors, including Shackleton ten years previously, had successfully reached the magnetic South Pole, but Scott’s journey would take him to the deep geographical South.

The volume of information and scientific knowledge acquired by Scott’s party is staggering and underappreciated. This article will present a few key discoveries that helped build founding principles for the century of flourishing scientific endeavour that followed.

1. Penguins
Penguin eggs were of seminal significance to Biology in the early 20th Century; it was believed penguin embryos could shed light on the evolutionary relationship between birds and reptiles; particularly as it was then believed the embryo went through each stage of evolution before hatching. Scott’s notes recall conversations with the men who undertook the long five-day journey to Cape Crozier, the heart of the Emperor Penguin colony . The explorer recalls his amazement at the lectures on penguins’ early divergence from bird life; as Giant Penguin fossils from the Eocene/Miocene periods showed little difference to modern penguins (despite standing 6’ tall), it was considered that penguins were descended almost directly from the Jurassic-age lizard-bird Archaeoptyrex. These theories were later replaced but penguin behaviour, particularly those of the Adelie penguin, was extensively recorded by Scott’s team. The Adelie were described as obstinate and pig-headed, with no regard for their own safety; they would jump onto the team’s ice floes, curious about the dogs. As Gallard noted “and with an unfortunate red splotch on the snow, the incident would be closed.” He also noted how the Adelies would assemble en masse at the edge of the ice, waiting for one penguin to be pushed off, they would then all peer over to determine if they would be safe in the water.

2. Killer Whales
Scott’s party was also one of the first to document ‘Habits of the Killer Whale’. In his log, Scott notes how the whales worked together to break thick ice in order to drown his team mate and some dogs. “One could hear the booming noise as the whales rose beneath the ice and struck it with their backs, over and over.” He remarked on their intelligence and cunning; “acting in unison to break ice more than 2 ½ feet thick”. His closing comments are “it is clear they are possessed of a singular intelligence, and in future we shall treat that intelligence with every respect.” These are some of the earliest observations on Orca behaviour and appreciation of social and hunting interaction, about which little is still understood.

3. Technology & Weather
Scott’s was the first polar expedition to use cameras and record every moment of their breath-taking journey. One team member, Ponting, was able to show how Weddell seals bored holes in the ice using their teeth, disproving theories about their making of air holes. Furthermore Scott’s journals describe the weather fluctuations in painstaking detail, particularly taking note of the Arctic winds from Mt. Erebus. The team Meteorologist’s meticulous weather forecasting would still be considered accurate for most Antarctic winters, despite the perilous cold snap in which Scott’s team, also victims of food, fuel and transport difficulties, sadly perished. Simpson’s calculations were fundamental to current understanding of how wind currents interact across the Southern hemisphere. Scott’s diaries note “Simpson remarks on how a great feature of the weather conditions here is the seeming reluctance for the air to ‘mix’ – the fact seems to be the explanation for the curious fluctuations in temperature.”

4. Dry Valleys
In the western mountains of Antarctia lies the world’s most extreme desert; the Dry Valleys, first charted by Scott and his team. Roaring katabatic winds – at 200 mph, the progeny of cold, dense air rushed downhill by the force of gravity – sweep through the valleys and evaporate everything in their path. Incredible organisms are found only here; photosynthetic bacteria and bacteria existing on unique iron and sulphur metabolisms that potentially give clues into the genesis of life. Many meteorologists feel this dry, unforgiving landscape is the closest terrestrial model of Mars, and thus a valuable source of insight into potential for extraterrestial life.

5. Fossils
On Scott’s fatal return journey from the South Pole the team stopped to explore a moraine under Mount Buckley. They had a very specific goal in mind. Geological theories suggested the Antarctic had once been part of a super continent called Gondwana (along with South America, Africa, Madagascar, India, Arabia, Australia and New Zealand) with a climate mild enough to support trees. Alongside Scott’s body was a Glossopteris indica fossil – a type of beech tree that went extinct 250 million years ago – matching fossils found in South America. This was a cataclysmic piece of evidence for our understanding of Earth’s geographical history.

These are but a fraction of the Terra Nova team’s gifts to science, past and present. They also recorded heights and positions of over two hundred mountains, collected thousands of specimens, described new marine species, mapped and named the polar landscapes, found Ross Island’s island nature and observed that the formidable Ice Barrier (the size of France!) was a colossal ice sheet rather than a land mass. Penguin skins that the team collected were used in the 1950s as controls to demonstrate that the pesticide DDT had since spread to polar regions. Ironically, some of the huts Scott’s team used are now growing rare and unprecedented species of fungi.

Despite its exotic and ferocious setting, Scott’s tale of scientific endeavour is not so far from the morals of present-day research; teamwork, competition, pain-staking detail and observation. Terra Nova may have been pipped-to-the-pole by the Russian polar expedition, but the team’s efforts over that long, savage winter were not in vain. Scott’s final journey, taking him to the edge of that very final journey, were only the beginning of a rich century of discovery.

Every day some new fact comes to light – some new obstacle which threatens the gravest obstruction. I suppose this is the reason which makes the game so well worth playing. – Captain Robert Falcon Scott

Scott’s words are insightful and relevant, be it a polar expedition, a lengthy experiment, discoveries in the field or the latest romantic crisis! We may never all go to Antarctica but it is unlikely you will live unaffected by the discoveries made there, now one century ago.

More > 5pm Girl takes a look at an exhibition of Ponting’s photographs.