Essay

Cold currents

Tracking the ebb and flow of knowledge

WHEN ROBERT FALCON Scott reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, he immediately knew he had been beaten. The first sign was a black flag whipping in the wind; the second was the green tent of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen standing dark against the snow. Ducking inside, Scott found it empty aside from two letters: one addressed to the King of Norway, announcing Amundsen’s successful arrival at the pole a full month prior, and one addressed to Scott, asking if he could please post the letter to the king on his way out.

‘A note from Amundsen, which I keep, asks me to forward a letter to King Haakon!’ Scott exclaimed in his journal.

But he never had the chance to mail it.

By that point, Amundsen’s team was long gone. By the end of January, they’d set sail for Hobart to take their news to the world; by the end of March, Scott’s party of five had perished en route back from the South Pole, succumbing to hunger and cold.

Both the Englishman and the Norwegian had travelled 3,000 kilometres or more to the pole and back, carrying all their food, fuel and equipment in punishingly – and uncharacteristically – cold conditions. Both had crossed the Ross Ice Shelf, both had found safe passage through the Transantarctic Mountains and both had reached the much-­dreamed-­of South Pole. But only one team returned.

Scott’s failure was once heralded as one of the great tragedies of Antarctic exploration, but in years since, many of his choices have been questioned. At first glance, he had much to his advantage: he’d covered a lot of the expedition’s ground previously on an attempt on the pole in 1902, when he had travelled across the Ross Ice Shelf, and he’d scrupulously studied Ernest Shackleton’s account of ascending the Transantarctic Mountains via the Beardmore Glacier in 1908. And yet Amundsen was arguably much better prepared to meet the conditions. He had never set foot in Antarctica before, but his attempt on the pole took advantage of knowledge imported from the frozen north to the frozen south.

 

THE NORWEGIAN’S ANTARCTIC expedition followed a three-­year journey to the Arctic in 1903–06, where he became the first to successfully sail the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. While Amundsen could have made this trip in a single good season, he instead overwintered for two years to take continuous readings of the North Magnetic Pole. His crew holed up in a small harbour near an Inuit community, the Netsilik of Gjoa Haven in northern Canada. The Norwegians learnt their language, gave them knives, needles, matches, wood and metal and became fascinated with Inuit culture. The two groups visited each other’s camp, hunted together, learnt from each other. Crucially, over those two winters, the Netsilik taught the Norwegians how to survive.

‘Built an igloo this morning together with Teraiu and H. approx 14 ft. in diameter and 10 ft. high,’ Amundsen wrote in his journal on 3 February 1904. ‘It is a great sight to behold. It is quite remarkable to watch the Eskimos’ skilled hands at work in the snow.’

A month later, he wrote of learning how to reduce his sledge’s friction against the snow:

Teraiu taught us to prepare the sledge runners using ice. He does this by spitting a mouthful of water into a bearskin mitten, which he then rubs along the runners. It seems the sledges run smoother using this technique. We are going to experiment with it.

The Netsilik also shared their knowledge of how to make warm, light fur clothing, kitting Amundsen out with a full set of clothes that weighed just two kilograms – three kilograms lighter than the clothes worn by some of the other men.

‘I stopped using my old clothes, wearing only my Eskimo garb now,’ Amundsen wrote on 10 February 1904:

Both the inner garments and outer anorak hang loosely around my trousers to allow air to reach my skin. The inner and outer trousers are fastened around my waist with a cord and they hang freely over the knees above my [boots] so the air also moves freely there. I think it is excellent and the only way to wear such hides if one wants to avoid sweating. Now I can move as I please. I stay warm but I never sweat.

By the time he was bound for Antarctica, Amundsen and his men knew not only how to correctly dress for polar conditions but also how to drive dog sleds, build functional igloos and stave off scurvy by eating fresh meat – seal and penguin in the south. They also all had the advantage of being expert skiers, having learnt from childhood in Norway. To haul their supplies to the pole, they purchased more than 100 well-­trained dogs from Greenland and took them south. They weren’t the first to do so – the British Antarctic Expedition had first taken dog-­sled teams to Antarctica in 1898, and dogs were just one of many foreign species brought south over the years, from rats to rabbits, sheep to reindeer.

But Amundsen was strategic. In 1911, he selected fifty-­two dogs to set off for the South Pole. Hardy in the cold, they allowed the team to leave their coastal base earlier in the season than Scott and serendipitously avoid the unusually severe weather that the Englishman then encountered. The dogs were fast, allowing the expedition to take greater rest periods, and their presence meant the party could travel lighter – because they were killed one by one to provide food for both the men and the other dogs. In this brutally efficient way, Amundsen took an ever-­diminishing number of dogs all the way through the Transantarctic Mountains and across the polar plateau to arrive at the South Pole for the first time on 14 December 1911.

Scott – who on 14 December was only just preparing to ascend the Beardmore Glacier – had ignored advice to rely on dogs. Though he took a handful, his team had no experience driving them, and he instead used stout Manchurian ponies and sixteen of his own men to haul supplies. The weight and thin legs of the ponies meant that they plunged through the top layer of snow and so could not travel earlier in the season, delaying the team’s start. Though Scott had brought Scandinavian-­style equine snowshoes, disagreements with the party’s horse handler led to the snowshoes being left at base when the expedition set off for the pole; not only were ponies a poor choice for the conditions, but they too were severely underprepared. As a result, several died of exhaustion early on. At the base of the Transantarctic Mountains, the rest were shot for food as planned. In small groups, the support party peeled off and returned to their coastal base on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, taking all the dogs and the only expert skier on the expedition.

Alone, Scott’s final team of five pushed on to the polar plateau, towards Amundsen’s tent, towards disappointment – and towards their deaths.

 

EARLY IN THE December of 1912, on a wind-­scoured plateau more than 1,000 kilometres from where Scott and his men had perished earlier in the year, Englishman Frank Bickerton scooped a small black rock out of a depression in the Antarctic snow. Weighing in at a hefty one kilogram, the object fit comfortably in the palm of Bickerton’s hand – and he suspected, correctly, that he was holding a relic of the beginnings of the solar system.

He was part of a sledging party on Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which had arrived in the same year as Scott and Amundsen; in fact, on his return from the pole, Amundsen gifted his eleven remaining dogs to Mawson. Bickerton – an explorer, an aeronautical engineer and a treasure hunter – had joined the Australian party in 1911 just months after leading a fruitless expedition to Cocos Island to hunt for Robert Louis Stevenson’s fabled ‘Treasure Island’. But he did not come south seeking that same kind of treasure – this expedition saw no sense in making a dash for the pole for the sake of glory. Instead, the trip’s science goals brought the continent into a new focus, exploring and mapping some of its remotest stretches, studying its weather and its oceans, taking readings of the Earth’s fluctuating magnetic field and collecting biological samples and rocks – including, as Bickerton had just discovered, one from beyond this world.

Dubbed the Adelie Land meteorite, Bickerton’s find was later classified as a stony chondrite, which is now recognised as far and away the most common type of meteorite plucked from the Earth’s surface. But this particular specimen marked a milestone in Antarctic exploration. It was the first meteorite found on the continent – an astrophysical visitor, perfectly preserved in its new home. Covered in an eggshell-­thin black layer that was formed during the meteorite’s fiery flight through the atmosphere, its few cracks reveal a mottled interior speckled with flecks of nickel-­iron.

Though they rain down on the Earth in random patterns every day, meteorites normally disappear into lakes and oceans or lie exposed to the weather, eroding and fragmenting into pieces. But in the natural freezer of Antarctica, meteorites not only remain pristine, but the dynamics of the landscape itself work to aggregate them atop the ice. When meteorites strike snow, their fall is cushioned. Over time, they’re buried deeper and deeper into the ice sheet, until pressure embeds them like jewels in a crown. The meteorites and the ice sheet flow together until they encounter an obstacle – say, a continent-­spanning mountain range – and are then forced upwards, flowing towards the light, where wind sculpts away the ice and exposes the celestial rocks to the sky.

Bickerton did not know this in 1912, but if you can read how the landscape moves, if you know the locations of bedrock and how ice responds to the tug of gravity and the currents of katabatic winds, then you can find the place where the meteorites gather. Sorting the space-­born from the Earth-­born, you can begin to map the geography of the asteroid belt and weave together the natural history of the solar system – an out-­of-­this-­world gift of knowledge in a place that already feels, to humans, like another world itself.

Today, meteorite hunters scour the base of the Transantarctic Mountains for these glimpses into eons past, to a time when worlds were still forming. It’s lonely work. There’s scarce biology here – no tracks of animals to spot in the snow, no birds cutting arrows across the sky, no plants leaning towards the sun, no gurgle of flowing water. There are no inhabitants embedded in the country with millennia of hard-­won knowledge of how to listen to and work with the landscape.

Amundsen, when faced with this frozen and alien place, had looked north for guidance, listening to the Netsilik of Gjoa Haven to help him survive the deep south. But his only goal was to be the first to stand on a specific patch of ice on a near-­featureless plateau, almost indistinguishable from every other patch of ice around it, to ‘strike the Antarctic monster – in the heart’, as he wrote in his account of his South Pole expedition.

At the same time, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was documenting new marine species and collecting data to understand weather patterns, and Amundsen’s narrative of domination was beginning to change. The continent would soon become a place of science: a place to investigate questions that cannot be answered anywhere else on Earth. Humans are still out of place there, as foreign to the mountains and ice as the Adelie Land meteorite, but in seeking their answers, scientists are increasingly learning to be in-­place – to pay close attention to the knowledge offered by the land itself.

 

THE POLAR COLLECTION at the South Australian Museum is dominated by Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic explorations. But displayed among the sledges and stuffed dogs from his 1911–14 expedition is an eighteen-­foot kayak, seemingly misplaced from one end of the world to the other. This sleek, one-­person boat belonged to John Riddoch Rymill, an Australian ­farmer’s son turned explorer who paddled it during two expeditions to Greenland in 1930–31 and 1932–33.

The kayak was crafted by Inuit hands using traditional materials: sealskin that had been treated with urine and stretched over a wooden frame. Historically these frames were made of driftwood or sometimes whalebone in the largely treeless eastern Arctic, bent into a single-­chine hull and tapered to narrow points at both stern and bow. The deck behind Rymill’s narrow cockpit is rumpled where the sealskin was stitched and joined, while the front deck is crisscrossed with leather thongs, used to strap down harpoons, lances or, more recently, guns.

For thousands of years, northern peoples have sliced through Arctic waters in qayaqs (hunters’ boats). With their ability to shed waves, handle in changeable conditions and sneak up on prey, these sophisticated skin boats were in use across 100,000 kilometres of northern coastline – as far west as Siberia, among the Chukchi and Koryak peoples, and as far east as Greenland and Labrador, among the Inuit.

The people of Greenland and the Aleutian Islands in particular – on opposite sides of the North American continent – took the kayak to an apex of design and fully integrated it into their culture. Each kayak was built to personalised dimensions: an exoskeleton designed to extend the capabilities of its occupant and adapt their body to the environment, like the marine equivalent of skis. Hunters wore a purpose-­made jacket to seal them into the cockpit and were trained from childhood to be master paddlers, including learning to roll to survive, using the technique to duck-­dive under oncoming waves like seals.

They became, by most senses of the definition, marine mammals.

As the Western world pushed north and south into the harsh realities of polar environments, the technological advancement and knowledge of Indigenous peoples was recognised by a select few explorers. Rymill was taught to paddle by an Inuit community near the settlement of Tasiilaq in south-­eastern Greenland. He also studied ice conditions and learnt to dog sled and to hunt both on the treacherous sea ice and from kayaks. During his first expedition in 1930–31, this knowledge allowed Rymill and his team to strike out on multiple lightweight trips to chart coastline and record meteorological conditions, often relying on kayaks to hunt seals and birds for food.

Late in the summer of 1931, Rymill and a companion made a 640-­kilometre crossing of Greenland, from Tasiilaq on the east coast to Sisimiut in the west. They used a combination of dog sledging and kayaking, transporting the boats across the ice on the sled and then paddling the last 160 kilometres down a fjord on the west coast. Here, a swift current tipped Rymill upside down in his boat and swept him under ice. Though he emerged unhurt in an open stretch of water further on, for a moment he was subject to the vast and dispassionate power of nature. For all its usefulness, his kayak was just a single handspan deep; sitting in the cockpit, Rymill’s body would have been largely below the surface, encased in a mottled sealskin shell that separated him from the ocean by mere millimetres. To travel the landscape was to subject himself to it.

This remains a challenge in our continued explorations of Antarctica: how do we forge a relationship with this most southern world that is outside a framework of domination? The Antarctic Treaty System goes a little way towards addressing this. It holds, for example, that while each meteorite plucked from the ice is a treasure, the scientists who find them are not treasure hunters – their names are not even noted down next to each collected specimen. The rocks are simply slipped into sterile bags to avoid contamination, removed from context and shipped off to laboratories around the world. In this way, the meteorites don’t belong to an individual person or country; they belong collectively to each nation that is a signatory to the treaty.

And yet, if we were truly listening, perhaps we’d know that these meteorites don’t belong to us at all.

The kayak hanging in the South Australian Museum is the only remaining evidence of the craft that Rymill used in his polar explorations. It looks out of place here, so many decades out of the ocean, a world away from the clear waters and endless light of the Arctic summer. Perhaps it would have adapted seamlessly to Antarctic conditions – but Rymill never took it south.

In 1934, following the success of his Arctic ventures, he led a surveying expedition to Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula. Grainy photos show his six-­foot frame washing sled dogs in a metal bucket, strolling among a group of penguins, standing at the driving handle of a sled, taking his dogs for a boat ride by a snow-shrouded shore.

Though he chose not to paddle these southern waters, Rymill no doubt brought with him many lessons from his Inuit teachers, applying 10,000 years or more of knowledge to the only landscape on Earth that is not home to Indigenous peoples with knowledge of their own to share. Among this wisdom, he may have carried a humbleness: a recognition that in order to learn from the more-­than-­human world, you must submit yourself to its currents.

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