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Early Winter Doomed Famous Polar Trek

9 November 1999 6:00 pm
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An unexpected bitter cold snap appears to have damned British explorer Robert Falcon Scott's turn-of-the-century South Pole expedition. Although historians have blamed everything from the loss of pack ponies to scurvy for the ice-bound deaths of Scott's five-man team, a new study suggests they were simply victims of bad timing: a stretch of unseasonably cold weather.

The race to be the first person to reach the South Pole began in the antarctic spring of November 1911. Scott's team arrived there in January, only to find a Norwegian flag planted one month earlier by Roald Amundsen. But there was no time for tears; a life-or-death race with the oncoming winter had begun. By the time Scott complained in his last diary entry on 10 March 1912 that "the weather conditions are awful," he had walked and skied 1600 miles across one of the harshest and most desolate landscapes on Earth. Two team members had already died of frostbite and his sled-dragging ponies were dead. The team's careful records showed that temperatures had plummeted in less than a week from a relatively mild -10 degrees to -37 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wondering how that cold spell compares to recent times, atmospheric scientists Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aeronomy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, and Chuck Stearns of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tracked the average monthly temperatures over the last 15 years at a series of four automated weather stations located, by coincidence, along Scott's return route. From the end of February until their final hours as they froze to death huddled in a tent, Scott's team endured steady temperatures nearly 20 degrees below those recorded on average days in the 1990s, the researchers report. "It is clear they experienced an early winter," says Solomon, "And it happened when they needed to be warm. They were tired out and trying to beat the winter." What caused the sudden temperature drop is unclear, but Solomon and Stearns speculate that El Niño-like conditions could have disrupted weather patterns in Antarctica.

The question of why Scott's party floundered "is a big issue," says University of Southern California antarctic expert Donald Manahan, who says historians still debate whether poor planning, disease, or just plain bad luck doomed the party. Scott carried Ernest Shackleton's diary of an earlier expedition and regularly commented in his own diary that Shackleton had much better weather, says Manahan, who believes Scott's team did run afoul of unusually harsh weather before perishing.

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