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March 2006 Meeting Report

The subject for the March meeting of the SVHS was "Polar exploration" and was enthrallingly given by Bob Headland who is the archivist of the Scott Polar Research Institute and had just completed a visit there. Intriguingly there are at least eight other Polar oriented research groups in the Cambridge area, including the British Antarctic Survey and the International Whaling Commission.

The Antarctic is larger than Europe with an area of 14 million square miles in summer, increasing to about twice that in winter and has about 90% of the worlds ice, Greenland having about 9%. It is also very remote, the closest point being over 1000 miles south of Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America

The proof of the existence of the continent of Antarctica was made by James Cook during his epic sea voyage in 1773 when he circumnavigated the continent. Although the land was not observed rock deposits on icebergs were noted. A Russian navel explorerer, rejoicing in the name of Fabian von Beyringhausen also circumnavigated the continent in 1821 and discovered some of the Antarctic Islands. In the same year ten British sailors from a sealing boat were forced to winter on King George Island and were rescued the following year.
James Weddell gave his name to the Sea he discovered in a whaling ship in 1823, having reached the most southerly point in Antarctic exploration at that time.
In 1840, James Ross led a naval expedition in the two ships Erebus and Terror and was stopped 80 miles from the coast by an enormous ice barrier, now called the Ross Ice Shelf. He also discovered the only active volcano in the Antarctic which he called Mount Erebus. During this predominantly scientific voyage, 145 new species were identified.
The continent was now being greedily exploited for its seals, whales and penguins and numerous colonies were established on the many Antarctic Islands, including South Georgia.

What is now sometimes called the "heroic age of Antarctic exploration" was started in 1898 by a Belgium, Adrien de Garlache whose ship, the Belgica, was trapped in pack ice and was the first expedition to survive an Antarctic winter. The dubious distinction of actually being the first to spend a full winter on the Antarctic land was a British expedition led by Carsten Borchgrevink in 1899.
In 1902 Scott led his first Antarctic expedition, accompanied by Shackleton and Wilson, amongst others and reached 82 deg South before being forced to turn back. In 1907 Shackleton led his first expedition to within 97 miles of the South Pole before making the bitter decision to turn back rather than continue to a certain death.
An Aussie expedition, led by Douglas Mawson reached the South Magnetic Pole in 1909 and was later the first to use a radio in the Antarctic by sending a message to his base in Commonwealth Bay in Morse code.
In 1911 Roald Amundsen led a Nowegian expedition which reached the Pole on December 14th, with Scott's team some 5 weeks later. We all know the tragic circumstances in which Scott, Bowers, Evans, Oates and Wilson died, just 11 miles from the nearest supply depot.
In 1915, Shackleton managed to get the go ahead to make a further trans Antarctic expedition. This led to what has to be the most remarkable epic and heroic journey of the 20th century. His ship, the Endurance was crushed by pack ice so Shackleton rowed, with a small group, over 1000 miles, to South Georgia. He then had to force his team over the mountain range to the whaling station on the other side of the island. Remarkably, when at last he managed to get a rescue boat to Elephant Island where his remaining men were marooned, they had all managed to survive.

Of course, there have been numerous further expeditions but now there are bases established on the continent and modern technology removed some ( but not all ) of the inherent dangers of Antarctic exploration.
In 1961 the Antarctic treaty was signed by 12 nations who agreed to cooperate in their scientific research which ensures (hopefully) that the Antarctic is not exploited for commercial or military gain ensuring that Antarctica remains a "non national continent".
This talk was illustrated with many fascinating slides of this frigid continent which included both earlier artistic impressions and later stunning coloured photos.

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