Geologist almost lost his life mapping unknown Antarctic regions in ‘the Edwardian equivalent of space travel’
When Douglas Mawson plodded into base camp at Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica in February 1913 his fellow explorers barely recognised him. The geologist was in apalling physical shape after a harrowing journey into the Antarctic interior during which two of his fellow explorers had died. By the time his ship, the SY Aurora, arrived in December 1913 to take his team home, they had spent more than two years on the frozen continent – a whole year longer than planned.
Mawson’s was one of the major expeditions during what has become known as the “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration of a century ago. Unlike his more well-known contemporaries Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, he had no interest in racing to the South Pole, preferring to focus on scientific research. Two-thirds of his crew were scientists engaged in geological, marine and wildlife research and their measurements, carefully made in the face of tragic losses and horrendous conditions, are some of the most valuable scientific data in existence.
This Sunday, scientists will begin a month-long expedition to re-trace Mawson’s journey and examine how the eastern Antarctic, one of the most pristine, remote and untouched parts of the world’s surface, has responded after a hundred years of climate changes.”They collected a wealth of scientific data on this entirely new continent,” said Prof Chris Turney, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013. “As a result it provides this incredibly good baseline – we’re going to repeat the measurements and see how much has changed over the last century.”
The Guardian is the only newspaper travelling with Turney’s expedition, and it will be possible to follow the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013, as it happens, on the Guardian’s “Antarctica Live” blog. Mawson sent regular wireless messages from Antarctica for the first time in his original 1911 expedition; with the help of satellite connections. our website will have, for the first time, daily updates from every stage of the expedition, sent direct from the field
At the start of the 20th century, atlases printed large blank spaces in the bottom third of their southern hemispheres, stamped with the legend “unexplored regions”. No one knew what was at the bottom of the world, apart from some sections of coastline that had been spotted from ships. Whether these were islands or parts of a bigger continent was unknown.
After picking up the Antarctic bug on Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition in 1907, Mawson turned down an invitation from Scott to join the fateful 1910 Terra Nova expedition and decided to organise his own. By 1911, he had raised the necessary funds – tens of millions of dollars in today’s money – chartered the Scottish-built SY Aurora, borrowed some dogs from Amundsen and set off from Hobart in Tasmania. “Mawson wanted to know what lay south of Australia,” said Turney. “It was the Edwardian equivalent of space travel: they were off the map.”
Mawson was an innovator – on board Aurora was the first aeroplane to be taken to the continent, which he hoped to use for reconnaissance, and he was the first to set up wireless relay stations on Macquarie Island in the South West Pacific, around mid-way between New Zealand and Antarctica, to send back weather reports every day. “It immediately improved the forecast across that region. So much so that the Bureau of Meteorology maintained the station after the expedition had finally returned,” says Turney. “These things had immediate impact for people living back home.”
A century later, Turney’s scientists will set off from Bluff at the southernmost tip of New Zealand but make for the same place as Mawson, Commonwealth Bay in eastern Antarctica. Geological features of the area make this home the windiest place on earth – where the wind touches around 70mph on average in the summer, more like 200mph in the dark winters.
The 21st century expedition will conduct environmental research too. “We’re heading towards East Antarctica in an area that’s traditionally been thought of as very stable – you can do almost anything to it, environmentally and climatically, and it will just sit there. But in the last few years we’re realising that that’s clearly not the case. Parts of it are very vulnerable,” says Turney. “The ice thickness there is about 3km on average and you don’t need to do much to it to have a big effect globally, be it through sea level or climatic changes more generally.”
The scientists will measure the temperature and saltiness of the Southern Ocean in their journey to and fro, count bird populations every day and explore under the surface of the water using remote-operated vehicles equipped with high-definition cameras.
On Antarctica itself, they will use drones to fly over and map the surface, drill cores into the ice and drop temperature probes deep under the surface. But their big challenge will be to reach Mawson’s huts, built when the explorer first arrived in 1911 and which sheltered the team as they waited for their ship back home through 1913. Access to the huts will be difficult, because of a 78-kilometre-long iceberg, with a surface area of roughly 2,500 square kilometres, that has wedged itself on the coastline. “The result is that that’s completely disrupted the local ocean circulation,” says Turney. They will look at the impact on climate, oceanography and wildlife too.
Turney’s modern scientific equipment – everything from automated floats in the sea to underwater and aerial robots – will be able to collect more detailed measurements than anything Mawson could ever have managed. That the team will be able usefully to compare their high-tech data to the hand-collected measurements from a century ago is a testament to Mawson’s sheer force of will in maintaining a continuous log about his enforced year long sojourn on the continent, despite horrendous conditions.
In 1912, Mawson led a sledge team into the Antarctic interior as part of his mapping project. With a British officer, Bellgrave Ninnis, and a Swiss ski-champion, Xavier Mertz, he spent several weeks travelling into the continent in an effort to link up his mapping with the areas Scott had mapped during his expedition.
The team was travelling in single file across a field that they knew had a lot of crevasses. Mertz was at the front, then Mawson, then Ninnis. Most of their food supplies were on the final sledge, which was drawn by the best dogs. The thinking was that if a sledge fell down a crevasse at the front, their vital supplies would remain safe.
Unfortunately, the reverse happened. Ninnis’s sledge disappeared into a crevasse that the others had already walked over. The survivors were left with one and a half weeks’ worth of food, but were 500km from the coast. “They were in a lot of trouble,” said Turney. “They decided to return, with a real sense that they might not survive.”
Running out of food, Mertz and Mawson began eating the dogs, unaware that they were poisoning themselves. “They didn’t realise that dogs’ livers contained toxic levels of vitamin A, so their hair started falling out, they complained of enormous exhaustion,” said Turney. “The soles of Mawson’s feet fell off, he had to strap them on with lanolin every morning. Mertz suffered more than Mawson and, sadly, had a fit of insanity and bit off the tip of his finger and eventually died.” But, says Turney, noting his predecessor’s stocism: “In spite of all these things, he was still making weather observations.”
Now alone, Mawson pressed on towards the coast, where the Aurora was supposed waiting to take his team home. He got trapped in blizzards for days and, several times, fell down crevasses and hauled himself out. When he reached the coast, he saw smoke on the horizon – because the Aurora had left that morning.
The result was that Mawson was forced stayed on the ice for another year with five others who had elected to wait for him, carrying on with his scientific research programme through the dark Antarctic winter.
The data retrieved in the most extreme of circumstances will be crucial to the 2013 re-run of Mawson’s epic expedition, because it provides a record of conditions at the start of the 20th century to make comparisons against. “We have continuous observations from satellites, from the late 1970s, and yet here at Commonwealth Bay, we have two years’ worth of continuous observations in a really important part of Antarctica as baseline data,” says Turney. “It’s so precious.”
During the expedition, which runs until January 4, 2014, we will also give Guardian readers several opportunities to talk live and direct to people on board the ship as we sail through some of the roughest seas in the world, visit the windiest place on Earth and try (icebergs-permitting) to reach Mawson’s iconic huts, the heroic explorer’s base camp more than 100 years ago as he drew the first maps of this part of the world.
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