Posts Tagged ‘Robert Falcon Scott’

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Quest for Frank Wild’ by Angie Butler in Geographical, October 2011

September 30, 2011

One of only two men to ever be awarded the Polar Medal with four bars, Frank Wild was a giant of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He went South on five expeditions: once under Scott and Mawson and three times under Shackleton, eventually completing the Quest expedition after the death of the Boss. No serious aficionado of polar history doubts the significance of Wild’s contribution, so it’s something of a mystery that until now his memoirs have remained unpublished.

What little we know of Wild’s life after Quest seems to indicate that it was all downhill. If we believe contemporary newspaper accounts, Wild returned to southern Africa, tumbling from one failed farming project to another, taking dead-end jobs in hotel bars, scraping a living out of mining and railway projects. For decades the world, if it has noticed at all, has seen post-Antarctica Wild as a broken alcoholic who died in penury, the whereabouts of his remains unknown.

Sensing an injustice to the man, Butler sets out to find the real story behind the reports. She finds out that her instincts are good, but only to a point. Wild’s is a sad tale, but one with an unexpected outcome. In the process of metaphorically looking for the man, Butler, on her seventh visit to South Africa, finds his ashes. We probably all join her in the hope that they will one day be taken to Antarctica.

While it’s fascinating to see Butler’s spirited defence of Wild, her biographical sketch is really the curtain raiser for his previously unpublished memoirs. It seems inconceivable that it has taken so long for them to come to light, but the wait was worth it. It’s a shame that the memoirs were never finished, cut off abruptly with a cliff-hanging tale of life on Elephant Island during the Endurance expedition. At least that chapter in Wild’s life has a happy ending.

The Quest for Frank Wild, by Angie Butler, Jackleberry Press, pp214, £25

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Shackleton Letters’ in Bookdealer magazine, November 2009 edition

November 5, 2009

Yours faithfully, Ernest Shackleton

Nick Smith reviews

The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition

By Regina W Daly, Erskine Press, HB, £27.50

The trouble with history of course is that it’s not really very good at telling you what happened. It creates reputations and myths that so often seem to have so little to do with the facts. When it comes to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration we are traditionally served up two protagonists – Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – and as the wheel goes around one takes the ascendancy at the other’s expense. At the moment Scott is in the doghouse and Shackleton is in the firmament, and if you had only read Regina Daly’s The Shackleton Letters you would have no difficulty in seeing why. Whether by accident or design, the way it falls out portrays the Boss, or ‘Shackles’ as he often signs off, as a decent bloke in love with his men, his ship and his wife (in that order), while an imperious (and I think misunderstood) Scott comes across, in the argot of the day, as a thundering ass. Of course, these letters were written a hundred years ago, when people wrote letters and didn’t have phones to shout down, but on the other hand there isn’t and never was any compulsion to write with such vaunting self-aggrandizement as Scott does.

There had always been a history between the merchant seaman and the naval officer. As far back as 1902 Scott is supposed to have called Shackleton a ‘bloody fool’ to which the Irishman retorted: ‘You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that you will get it back.’ This was on the Discovery (‘National Antarctic’) Expedition 1901-4, where Scott was the leader and Shackleton was his third lieutenant. It seems that this extraordinary insubordination – if it ever took place – was soon overlooked, because by Christmas they were lying in their sleeping bags reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to each other (not ‘Origin of the Species’, as Daly erroneously calls it). By the time Shackleton was scouting around drumming up funds for an expedition of his own, their relationship was under strain again due to a conflict over rights to an existing expedition base in Antarctica. Scott’s letters are arch and seem to accuse Shackleton of upstartishness, while Shackleton, who feels more sinned against than sinning, never once loses his thoroughly infectious charm (‘My Dear Captain Scott, To make everything clear as regards our arrangements… I am following your suggestion and writing it down.’) Incidents like this have lead commentators – especially Roland Huntford – to surmise that each man was the antithesis of the other. If only it were this convenient and it were true that Scott was an iconoclast and Shackleton a loveable rogue punching above his weight, how much easier our lives would be. But, the truth is that they were both fallible human beings whose passions for the Polar Regions informed their extraordinary lives and dramatic ends.

Another area where history seems to get Polar exploration all wrong is in its insistence that we remember Shackleton above all else for his impossibly romantic Endurance (‘Imperial Transantarctic’) expedition, 1914-17. This was the one in which he lost his ship in the ice and famously (although not strictly true) never lost a man. With a handful of men, Shackleton set forth in the plucky little whaler – the James Caird – across the seas of the world to fetch relief for his crew. Although this is without doubt one of the greatest stories ever told, we must remember that it was a rescue mission, and that Endurance in essence achieved nothing. As with Dunkirk, the British heart has never been so proud of something that shouldn’t have happened. But on the other hand the earlier Nimrod (‘British Antarctica’) Expedition 1907-1909 – the subject of The Shackleton Letters – was a triumph. Among its many successes were the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the attainment of the South Magnetic Pole and the publication of the first book on the White Continent, Aurora Australis.

As we celebrate Nimrod’s centenary, Daly’s new book couldn’t be better timed or more welcome, especially as the true significance of the expedition seems to have been lost on some sectors of today’s exploration community. In terms of the range and diversity of the material assembled, both written and photographic, it’s hard to see how this anthology could have been any better, although the stickler might complain that it could have been better named. After all, many of the 165 letters, reports and telegrams collected here aren’t by, or to, Shackleton (although in fairness to Daly, they perfectly satisfy the book’s sub-title – ‘Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’). In the section of Letters called ‘Kudos, Criticism and Rumours of a New Expedition’ there are epistles from Charles Dorman to Emily Shackleton, from Roald Amundsen to J Scott Keltie, from Robert Scott to Major Leonard Darwin, from Clements Markham to Keltie, from Markham to Darwin, from Fridtjof Nansen to Emily, from Nansen to Darwin, from Markham to H.W.Feilden and even a report from Markham to the Royal Geographical Society (‘letter’ 124). But there is very little either to or from the Boss himself, and while this all makes for interesting – compelling even – background material, it is hardly sufficient to allow for the title The Shackleton Letters. The counter-stickler might argue that this isn’t the first time a book has set sail under the wrong flag, and that to judge a book by its title might be only one step away from judging it by its cover. But titles and covers set up expectations, and here sadly it’s all gone a little bit awry.

For all these niggles, The Shackleton Letters should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This is the first time this collection of documents has appeared between one set of boards, arranged thematically, specifically to deal with the Nimrod expedition, and so it will prove useful to the scholar and the historian for years to come (especially if a second edition is graced with an index). Daly has done a good job tracking down and compiling the material and her historical sketches that set the papers in context are superb distillations of some of the classic Shackleton analyses by the likes of Hugh Robert Mill, Margery and James Fisher, Roland Huntford and Beau Riffenburgh.

Above all The Shackleton Letters is important because it gives the Nimrod expedition the credibility and attention that it so richly deserves, allowing us into the methodology, planning and execution of a grand scale expedition the way it used to be. And it’s quite comforting to realise how little has changed. Behind the scenes there is still the same mad scramble for sponsorship and patronage, the begging letters, the broken agreements, lonely wives and expectant public. Perhaps even more reassuringly, in the wings the cast of explorers still comprises the same unsung geniuses and braying bigheads, dignified elder statesmen and chancy upstarts, men of iron and posturing fraudsters as it did in the Heroic Age. And there’s not a damned thing history can do about that.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

Nick Smith’s interview with Pen Hadow in E&T magazine (Catlin Arctic survey – pre-departure)

May 19, 2009

Techno explorers take to the ice

This month a team of explorers lead by Pen Hadow will set off on foot for the North Pole. Man-hauling ice-penetrating radar instrumentation for more than 1,000km, the expedition will relay back to the scientific community crucial data about how climate change is affecting ice thickness in the Arctic. By Nick Smith

Sitting in his expedition headquarters in Leadenhall Street in London’s financial district, Arctic explorer Pen Hadow is at the centre of operations of his latest mission. His Catlin Arctic Survey is about to head off to the Arctic – hauling their own bodyweight of monitoring equipment across the ice – to do something satellites and submarines can’t.

“Circumstances are changing up in the Arctic Ocean so quickly that it’s just not possible to get the technology into space on time,” says Hadow

Satellites could easily carry ice-penetrating radar and, orbiting overhead, complete a survey in a fraction of the time that it will take Hadow and his team to cross the late-winter ice that surrounds the North Pole. But the difference lies in the phrase “on time”. It takes years to assemble and launch a satellite. The bleakest plausible prediction that says there will be no seasonal ice left to measure in just five years. “The shrinkage and thinning is happening at a pace that’s outstripping our ability to get new technology onto satellites.”

Getting up close and personal to the Arctic ice is worthwhile, Hadow explains. “There isn’t, and never has been, an accurate enough method of determining by satellite what’s going on with the ice.”

Existing satellite technology is able to measure the thickness of the ‘freeboard’ – the combined depth of ice and snow above sea level. The presence of snow is not relevant in the prediction of ice meltdown, but it does have a nasty habit of contaminating remote telemetry measurements. This is because radar cannot differentiate between the two, and so we can’t tell how much snow is depressing the ice cover. As the end reading is an extrapolation based on the assumption that the freeboard represents only one-ninth of the total ice thickness, any errors caused by snow become magnified to produce wildly inaccurate results. Submarine-based surveys are better at estimating the ice thickness, because their onboard technology measures the much larger draft of the ice. But even extrapolations based on these readings aren’t accurate enough. And, besides there’s hardly any submarine data available. So, it’s back to people hauling instruments on sleds in scenes that have not changed much since the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when the likes of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott were gunning for the South Pole.

Hadow’s business card says director and head of surveying, and it’s been his full-time job since he drew a line under his high-profile 2003 expedition, when he became the best-known polar explorer of his generation. That year, he became the first person to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole, then regarded by the polar community as the last of the classic uncompleted challenges. A shadow was cast over his success at the pole by a media controversy that inaccurately depicted Hadow’s delayed scheduled airlift from the pole as a ‘rescue’.

For Hadow, the 2003 expedition was an eye-opener. In all his years exploring the north polar icecap, never before had the explorer seen so much thin ice and open water in the Arctic. “To travel my route in a straight line to the pole – 478 miles as the crow flies – I found myself needing an amphibious option.” Hadow equipped himself with an immersion suit and, in order to keep the route as short and straight as possible, when he encountered water he simply swam across it.

During the course of his research for his book Solo, his account of the 2003 trip to the pole, Hadow “started to better understand the process that was bringing about this increased open water and sea ice: global warming”. He also discovered that there was one critical data set that scientists did not have if they wanted to predict when the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean would disappear more accurately.

For Hadow, the solution was simple. He would check the existing data by dragging an ice-penetrating radar, its associated instrumentation, computers and communications technology across the Arctic. “Many of my previous expeditions have been about achieving something for me, seeing what I could do. Now I think that what we’re doing with the Catlin Arctic Survey is real exploring, going out into the field and gathering data that could be vital to our understanding of climate change. This data could provide our science partners with what they need to convince those in government that something needs to be done about how to manage fragile environments sustainably.”

Although going solo is something Hadow is used to, there is simply too much work to be done on this trip to go it alone. To assist him he has enlisted the help of two fellow explorers, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley. Daniels is in charge of field operations – handling navigation and other logistics – while Hartley is the expedition photographer and filmmaker. Hadow will pull the sledge containing the radar equipment and computers. Apart from the ice-thickness readings, the on-ice team will conduct 50 different sets of measurements and samples, from the water column, the ice sheet and the atmosphere. Some devices will record the data continuously; other measurements will be taken hourly, daily or weekly. Getting across the ice is hard enough without having to do the science as well. “It’s going to be hard work,” says Hadow.

Much of the scientific and communications equipment the explorers will be using has been developed specially for the survey, with more data – including audio, video and biotelemetry – being transmitted than on any other polar expedition before. Taking up the most room and perhaps most important to the expedition is ‘Sprite’. The name is short for “surface penetrating radar for ice thickness establishment”, but Hadow says the name also doffs its cap to the Scott Polar Research Institute, one of the science partners that has played an influential role in the survey.

Not surprisingly, Sprite is robust. The team will drag it across fields of rubble and send it tumbling down pressure ridges over a total distance of more than 1000km. The impulse radar unit is a mere 4kg – 25 times lighter than equivalent radar systems used in aircraft surveys. It is mounted behind the survey’s sledge boat, effectively converting the sledge into a survey vessel, called the Lady Herbert, after the wife of one of the greatest polar surveyors ever, Sir Wally Herbert.

Built by Cambridge-based scientist Michael Gorman, Sprite will take a high-resolution cross-profile of the snow and ice every 10cm along the route. Sprite’s own computer will then process the raw data before transferring it to the central data unit, otherwise known as the ‘onboard sledge computer’. Here the data is compressed and sent using the Iridium network of orbiting communications satellites back to the survey HQ. There it will be reformatted and distributed to the Survey’s science partners.

Iridium is the only satellite network available in the Arctic and but explorers do not much like it. It’s narrow bandwidth channels result in a low data-transmission rate. The sledge computer, developed by Andrew Jackson, has to use a custom-built multi-modem data uplink system that can receive, format, store, compress and transmit the data back to the UK on a live, ‘delayed live’ or overnight basis.

While out on the ice, the team will be communicating with each other, and the UK HQ, using a three-way person-to-person communications system developed by IET member and independent engineering consultant Perran Newman. Designed especially for the survey, the rig consists of an ear-mounted, jawbone-sensing headset and separate throat microphone, connected through a wiring harness built into the sledging suit, to a belt-mounted control box. Team members’ control boxes are networked via radio links to allow three-way voice communications. The boxes are also linked to a radio-transceiver mounted on the Lady Herbert, containing the uplink facility to the Iridium array. Toggling between control box functions is by push-button, meaning that the explorers won’t have to risk frostbite by uncovering their hands to operate the system. Other features include voice-activation, and a ‘live commentary’ link that will allow armchair explorers to follow the expedition on the survey’s website.

The explorers will also be wearing a chest-belt with integrated biosensors that will measure and record physiological data such as heart rate, respiration rate, skin temperature and body orientation. Developed by Hildago, the Equivital system has been adapted from telehealth applications aimed at first responders and paramedics. Its use on the Catlin Arctic survey will provide an opportunity to assess how the body responds in the polar environment. Team members will also be taking ‘tablets’ that contain miniature temperature sensors, batteries and radio transmitters that will transmit information about their core temperature, as the pill negotiates its way through the stomach and the intestines.

By linking reportage-style web-cam footage and live audio commentaries to data generated from body-worn bio-monitors it will be possible to not just follow the team’s progress but to experience it too. Anyone passing the survey’s HQ in Leadenhall Street should watch out for the huge screens Hadow is planning to put in the windows of the offices donated to him by his main sponsor. Those in the City worrying about the economic climate will over their lunchtime lattes also have the opportunity to worry about the real climate.

Unlike so many modern adventures into the Polar Regions, the Catlin Arctic Survey has a real scientific mission as its main objective, and has more in common with the polar exploration of the Heroic age than any other recent expedition. This small team of explorers is going out onto the ice at great personal risk to themselves because there is no other way of getting the data. If they succeed, everyone on the planet stands to benefit. “There are times when I feel quite overburdened by the significance of the survey, and there are others when I just want to get on with it”, says Hadow.

All three members of the Catlin Arctic Survey – Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley – have been to the North Pole before, so there will be no need for personal ‘milestone bagging’ on this tour. Hadow says the team will focus entirely on securing the relevant scientific data and if that means they don’t get to the pole, then they don’t get to the pole: “we just want to ensure that we get the longest possible transect of meaningful data before we come home.”

But there is a very strong sense in which the real work won’t really start until they return. As Hadow says: “Were just the foot soldiers getting out into the field collecting the information that the scientists need to do their work.” And with the Arctic Ocean and surrounding High Arctic environment more responsive to climate change than most, the urgency for the Catlin Arctic Survey to get out there and do just that is greater than ever.

 

Chilling forecasts for ice meltdown date

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks that seasonal disappearance of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice will occur between 2050-2100. This is based on the best figures for the rate of the shrinking surface area and the IPCC’s long-range global climate forecasts. As if this weren’t scary enough, a super-computer model developed by the US Navy’s Department of Oceanography puts the meltdown date at within five years. Their calculations are based on the ice thickness estimates (as compared with surface area).

As Hadow says though, the accuracy of the models are merely a function of the quality of the data relied on. The data returned by the Catlin Arctic Survey will “allow for the re-evaluation of satellite and submarine digitised observations.

Climate Change modelers will be able to use the findings emerging from the survey to assist in validating or modifying projections made by the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis report. The survey data can be factored into related areas of scientific work that until now had been based on satellite and submarine data, but unverified by a ground-truth survey.

Evidence for an earlier meltdown date than the IPCC’s – the most frequently cited and widely accepted – would mean that the environment lobby could apply more pressure on governments to take sustainable and responsible management of the environment more seriously. When it comes to Global Warming international agreements are the only route to success. But agreements can only be made if scientists can provide policy makers with higher-resolution forecasts than they already possess.

 

Global impacts of climate change

The complete meltdown of the North Pole ice cap as a perennial global feature is a major marker in the progress of climate change. Here are some of the impacts anticipated from climate change in general for different regions of the planet:

* Scientists have major concerns about 15 cities across the globe, 13 of which lie in coastal plains. If current warming trends continue London, Bangkok, Alexandria and New York will end up below sea level, displacing tens of millions and causing worldwide economic damage if adequate flood protection measures are not put in place.

* Large numbers of people living along the coast in South and East Asia (as well as in West Africa and the Caribbean) are at risk of losing their homes and their livelihood.

* Sea levels are rising in the Bay of Bengal affecting villages in Orissa’s coastal Kendrapara district in western India.

* Between 15 and 20 per cent of Bangladesh lies within one metre of sea level. Predicted rises in sea level will affect between 13 and 30 million people, potentially reducing rice production by 50 per cent.

* Pacific islands such as Tuvalu are already being evacuated as people leave to escape the rising waters. Tuvalu’s highest elevation is 4.6m, but most of it is no more than a metre above the sea

* Concerns are mounting in Shanghai, China’s economic capital, as the northern Pacific Ocean could rise by 7000mm before 2050. This impact will be exaggerated by the fact that Shanghai is sinking due to exploitation of groundwater needed to supply the population of 18million.

* About 80 per cent of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands are no more that 1m above sea level – the archipelago’s 360,000 citizens could be forced to leave in the next 50 years or so

* A rise of between 8-30cms in sea level could lead to the loss of 2,000 of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands

* Global warming could cost the Brazilian rain forest up to 30 per cent of its biodiversity and turn large areas into savannah

* Maize production levels could plummet by as much as 25-50 per cent in the next 50 years in countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania due to rising temperatures and shifting rainfall pattern.

 

For more on the Catlin Arctic Survey visit www.catlinarcticsurvey.com

For more details about Pen Hadow visit http://www.penhadow.com

For more details about Ann Daniels visit http://www.anndaniels.com

To see more of Martin Hartley’s polar photography visit http://www.martinhartley.com