“Great God! This is an awful place….”

Jan 14, 2008 5:37pm

Ninety-six years ago this week, Robert Falcon Scott and his four comrades walked to the South Pole and found the first structure ever put there–a tent, half-buried in the snow, left by Roald Amundsen and his team.  The Norwegians had beaten the British by a month.  You probably know the rest of the story–of how Amundsen, first to the pole, was eclipsed by Scott, who died with his men as they struggled back to their base on the Antarctic coast.  The research station at the pole is named Amundsen-Scott, in honor of both of them. Now the National Science Foundation has finished building a new version, based on the harsh lessons learned over the years about how to survive in the perpetual cold.  The polar plateau is actually a desert: little snow falls, but when it does it never melts.  What’s more, it blows around in the biting winds, burying almost anything the scientists have the temerity to build there. The first building at Amundsen-Scott, put up in 1956, is now completely lost in the snow.  It was replaced in 1975 by a geodesic dome–but the dome is falling apart, and the station’s staff spent much of its time digging the thing out.  Fuel for their snowplows had to be flown thousands of miles from the north, in cargo planes that gulped their own fuel, and the NSF decided the whole effort was costly, wasteful, and environmentally unfriendly. The new research station cost $153 million, and there’s an interactive graphic plus more information HERE.  There’s also a slide show, to be found HERE.  The building is on stilts, and its profile is inspired by that of an airplane wing.  It faces into the prevailing wind, and the shape, designers believe, will naturally scour out any snow that piles up underneath. Why go to all this trouble for a place clearly not meant for human beings?  Amundsen, Scott and other explorers wrote of "conquering" the unknown, but times have changed.  The NSF says Antarctica, that least-populated of continents, is a hotbed of research.  Major clues about climate change have come from there.  It’s also a good place for astrophysicists, far from the radio noise on the rest of the planet and shrouded in darkness for up to six months at a time. This being an anniversary, the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in England is displaying, for the first time, it says, the last letter Robert Falcon Scott is believed to have written from his tent as he lay dying with his last two comrades.  It is addressed "To My Widow," and begins, "Dearest darling — we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through." "Dear it is not easy to write because of the cold — 70 degrees below zero and nothing but the shelter of our tent — you know I have loved you, you know my thoughts must have constantly dwelt on you and oh dear me you must know that quite the worst aspect of this situation is the thought that I shall not see you again."  The full text is HERE. Parts of the letter were published along with Scott’s diary — which made him far more famous in death than in life.  But this, says the institute, is the first time the actual letter has been put on display.  It is as chilling as the Antarctic wind.
(Images: Top: Scott and his party at the South Pole, Jan. 18, 1912, courtesy University of Cambridge.  Middle: Schematic of new Amundsen-Scott Station, courtesy NSF)

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus