4:01am

Thu December 15, 2011
Science

South Pole Science - 100 Years On

100 years ago yesterday, Norway’s Roald Amundsen beat England’s Robert Scott in man’s race to reach The South Pole.  A mission of science propelled many of these early expeditions, and such inquiry continues as the remarkable endeavor of polar scientists today.  

On their ill-fated return, Robert Scott’s group of men tragically succumbed to a combination of accidents, lack of food, and long dreadful blizzards.  Yet it was not the race-winning Norwegian team but rather Scott’s expedition that left a lasting scientific legacy, including finding fossils demonstrating the interconnectedness of continents according to Pulitzer-winning author, Edward Larson:

"Scott's expeditions and the expeditions by Shackleton -- they discovered that a true continental land mass existed at the South Polar region, that it governs the ocean climate and ocean currents; they recognized that the ice sheet on Antarctica had retreated significantly, that built into our later discoveries of global warming."

This science today is more vibrant than ever. After World War Two, advances in aviation and icebreakers opened up South Pole research to more than a dozen countries.

As reported in "The New York Times," The National Academy of Sciences just published a study on the current pressing topics for this research.  For example, the continent’s role in global warming: as ice melts and recedes, there is less reflection of sunlight resulting in more warming and rising sea levels are expected. Governments need this scientific data to inform their decisions.

Only recently have scientists determined that the South Pole’s mountain range, larger than the Alps, constitute the remains of a collision of continents a billion years ago.  The next step is to drill through thousands of feet of ice sheet to obtain the first rock samples of this continent. 

Penguins and seals native to Antarctica have evolved unique physiologies adapted to extreme conditions -- this could offer insight in reducing heart attacks and strokes in humans. And the remote darkness of the South Pole -- it’s thin, clear atmosphere -- is an astronomer’s paradise. New telescopes are providing early warning of solar eruptions, the storms in space.

So science continues as the legacy of that international race to reach the South Pole a century ago.   

You can hear more from Morning Edition's piece about a British woman solo-crossing Antarctica on skies, and our interview with Professor Larson.