Race for the pole was just the start of a long voyage of discovery for science

Prof Jane Francis, at the School of Earth and Enviroment Leeds
Prof Jane Francis, at the School of Earth and Enviroment Leeds
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A CENTURY ago this week, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his four-man team became the first people to reach the South Pole, beating Captain Robert Scott’s British expedition by just a matter of weeks.

The story of the race to the earth’s southernmost point has since entered popular folklore – Amundsen returning home a hero, while Scott and his courageous team perished on the icy continent just a few, agonising miles from safety, their remarkable diaries a lasting testament to their valiant journey.

A hundred years after these intrepid men reached the continent’s hitherto unexplored heart, Antarctica has become a breeding ground for scientific research, with teams of geologists, botanists and glaciologists attempting to unlock some of our planet’s secrets.

Professor Jane Francis, based at the Leeds Centre for Polar Science at Leeds University, says although Amundsen and Scott both desperately wanted to reach the South Pole first, the Briton was also there for scientific reasons.

“Amundsen’s task was simply to reach the pole, he didn’t stop and takes notes, so there’s hardly any record of his trip whereas Scott went there for science and he recorded whatever he could along the way,” she says. “Before leaving Britain, Scott had a fundraising dinner at Manchester University where he met Marie Stopes, well known today for her work on contraception and family planning, who in her earlier life was a botanist and geologist.

“She was interested in a theory about continental drift and she knew that fossil leaves had been found in Africa, South America and Australia and she predicted they would also be found on Antarctica and if Scott found them it would prove that all these land masses were once joined together.”

Stopes failed to persuade Scott to take her on his expedition but she did convince him to look for evidence of fossil plants. “When Scott realised they’d been beaten by Amundsen it must have been incredibly depressing but their scientific studies became even more important and on his way back down the Beardmore glacier he and his team stopped to study some rocks and found fossil plants.

“Even though they were cold and hungry and were on their last legs, they carried this box of fossil plants all the way back with them to their final camp. These were eventually recovered and taken back to the Natural History Museum in London and they had found the evidence Marie Stopes had predicted.”

Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place on earth and temperatures there can reach a bone-chilling minus 80C while winds of 100mph aren’t uncommon. Prof Francis, a geologist who has made nearly a dozen trips to Antarctica over the past 20 years, says it can be both beautiful and deadly.

“Antarctica really does fill you with awe. On a bright day when there’s a clear blue sky and you see a huge mountain and the snow is glistening as if it’s covered with fairy lights, it’s absolutely fantastic.” The biggest problem is the wind chill factor. “It’s the wind that is cold in Antarctica and if that picks up cold air from the ice it goes right through your clothing and just rips all the heat away from your body. If you get hit by a blizzard and you’re stuck in your tent and your fingers are so cold you can’t even hold a pen it can be a really awful place.”

Scott and his companions were dogged by particularly bad weather. “Scott was really unlucky, they were quite late in the season when they started to come back down the Beardmore. In that region of Antarctica, February and March is winter and it’s known that they were hit by an unusually cold spell with lots of storms which must have made a big difference.”

These days scientists working on Antarctica wear thermal layers and polar fleece to prevent frostbite and hypothermia, but Scott and Amundsen didn’t have this kind of gear.

“I can’t imagine what it must have been like. They wore lots of this thick, heavy wool, which must have got really wet at times, it would have smelled terrible and been very heavy to wear. They also wore a lot of canvas which is good because it’s very windproof but if it gets slightly wet and freezes it becomes incredibly stiff, it would have been like wearing cardboard.”

A century after these men first set foot at the South Pole, Antarctica has become the “continent for science” protected by an international treaty. “It’s the only place on earth where countries have got together and agreed there won’t be any exploration for oil, or gas, or minerals and there won’t be any weapons testing.”

As a result, it has a flourishing research community. “In the summer, Antarctica is covered with scientists. There are geologists studying the structure of the rocks, there are people like me who look for fossils to try and understand what Antarctica was like before the ice came and there are biologists trying to find signs of life beneath the ice. You think the ocean beneath the ice would be sterile because it’s so cold, but there is fantastic life down there, things that grow very slowly like huge old sponges and amazingly coloured starfish.”

Prof Francis says the continent is crucial to our understanding of how our planet works. “Antarctica is a really key part of our global system, more so than people perhaps realise. We know by studying geological records that when the climate changes radically the first place that changes are the polar regions because they are at the extremes of the earth.

“Antarctica is important because it has this huge block of ice – three to four kilometres deep – sitting over the continent like a giant refrigerator and it supplies these really cold currents that flow all the way across the equator and into the northern hemisphere.

“This controls ocean circulation right across the planet and changes in sea levels around the world are closely linked to the amount of ice in Antarctica. If that all melted houses in the Pennines would become beachside properties and there wouldn’t be much of the UK left.”

Scientists there are making new discoveries all the time. “We’re still learning about Antarctica and some of the exciting work going on at the moment involves teams drilling through the ice to find out what’s below, because a big question in science right now is when and why did the ice develop?

“We know that 40 million years ago Antarctica was covered with forests and virtually ice-free and we know ice started to build up and that changed the world, it changed the atmosphere, it changed sea level and it changed life on earth quite dramatically. If we understand what caused that change from it can help us understand how stable the ice sheets are and whether they’ll melt again and whether we’ll go from icehouse to greenhouse. So it may give us a glimpse into what Antarctica could be like in the future if we keep warming up the planet.”

None of this would have been possible without early pioneers like Scott and Amundsen paving the way first. “Their parties made some of the earliest maps and some of the earliest records of weather. All of the British teams led by Scott and Ernest Shackleton had smaller groups that went out to map the rocks, measure the ice and currents and study the wildlife. They did the first scientific observations and everything we’ve done since has been built on what they discovered, so the work those men did was critical for the beginning of our understanding of Antarctica.”