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Can you hear me now?
Lisa Rossbacher

The March 1912 log concluded: “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott and his team had arrived at the South Pole two months earlier, on Jan. 16, 1912, hoping to be the first people to stand at the iconic point. But Captain Scott’s log from that day read: “The worst has happened, or nearly the worst.” Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his four-man team had beaten Scott’s team to the South Pole by one month.

After Amundsen reached the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911, he used the only form of communication available: He left behind a letter addressed to King Haakon VII of Norway, describing the crew’s accomplishment. As quoted in his 1913 book, The South Pole, Amundsen wrote: “The way home was a long one, and so many things might happen to make it impossible for us to give an account of our expedition. Besides this letter, I wrote a short epistle to Captain Scott, who, I assumed, would be the first to find the tent.”

He was.

It is hard to imagine the world then — a world in which such a simultaneous defeat and victory would not be instantly broadcast globally. But the lines of communication were vastly different in Scott’s and Amundsen’s time than they are today.

Poor connection

Amundsen and Scott had waited out the previous winter in Antarctica, both anticipating the race to the pole, just 720 kilometers (450 miles) away from each other on the ice sheet. Neither knew where the other was, nor did anyone back in their home countries.

On their journey back from the pole across the continent, all five men in Scott’s expedition died. We know of their tragic trip and their ultimate fate because Scott was a Navy man to the end, writing logs that recorded his team’s travails. Shortly before he died in Antarctica, Scott wrote letters to friends and to relatives of his doomed men, giving them credit for their commitment and bravery. He also wrote a “Message to the Public” in which he detailed the team’s misfortunes: miserable weather, soft snow, the illness and death of a key member of the party. The facsimile of the last page of his journal, reproduced in Scott’s Last Expedition, is as chilling today as the weather outside his tent must have been in March 1912.

At the same time Scott was writing his last log entry, the Norwegian success in reaching the South Pole was communicated to the world when Amundsen’s team reached Tasmania.

Scott’s letters and notebooks were found underneath his shoulder eight months later by a search party. Outside were about 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of rock samples from the Beardmore Glacier moraine that the team had refused to leave behind.

Enduring interruptions

As disastrous as the conclusion of Scott’s expedition was, the team did make a major advance in communications on Antarctica. The crew rigged a telephone connection between two huts and conversed over a distance of about 24 kilometers.

Still, for these early 20th century explorers, logs and letters were the most effective forms of communication. British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s two expeditions to Antarctica, for example, were recorded in photographs and handwritten notes. His most famous story — of the Endurance being crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea while on a voyage to be the first to cross the southern continent — has been featured in books and movies, including a silent film captured by Frank Hurley, a photographer on the expedition.

After his ship was crushed, Shackleton left some of his crew on the deserted Elephant Island and took five men on an 800-mile ocean voyage in an open boat to South Georgia Island to seek help. He ultimately found help from a Norwegian whaling station on the opposite side of the island. In his book South (1920), Shackleton wrote, “The record of the voyage to South Georgia is based upon scanty notes made day by day.”

All of the archival records were physically carried out after the remaining crew members were rescued from Elephant Island. No one on the outside knew what had happened to the men until Shackleton’s group walked into Stromness Whaling Station in May 1916. The entire crew survived the adventure.

Speaking up

In 1930, Richard Byrd led his first Antarctic expedition to the Ross Ice Shelf. His expedition introduced radios, allowing communication between groups on the ice and with their ship. Messages could be relayed to New Zealand and from there around the world. The opportunity for real-time communication would change the nature of Antarctic exploration forever.

Byrd wrote in Little America (1930): “The radio beyond doubt has ended the isolation of this ice cap. As a practical thing, its help is priceless. But I can see where it is going to destroy all peace of mind, which is half the attraction of the polar regions.”

When we fast-forward 80 years, Byrd’s words ring eerily true. The world of communication is completely different from what the early explorers of this continent experienced — one full of constant connection.

From November 2005 to January 2006, 13 scientists spent nearly eight weeks in the Antarctic, as part of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program (ANSMET), which is supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation. McMurdo Station has e-mail and Internet access. The team members had walkie-talkies, and several had satellite phones.

One of the members of the ANSMET Team, Mike Kelley of Georgia Southern University, posted blogs and uploaded photographs, creating a modern-day real-time journal of the expedition (cost.georgiasouthern.edu/ansmet). He narrated the exploration, engaged in a lively Q&A with schoolchildren back in the states, and sent photographs and movie clips of the activities. He uploaded the logs using an Iridium satellite phone, which also received text messages less than 160 characters long (how students forwarded their questions to the team).

When my home phone rang on Jan. 1, Mike’s voice said, “Happy New Year from Antarctica!” How the world has changed!


Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

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