History

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made more than a third of a million images both public domain and searchable online. This is one of my current favourites:

An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford and painted in 1871.

An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871
An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871

If you look really closely you can see it is a steam assisted ship.

Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.
Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.

I really like the colours in the sea ice in the foreground. It's hard not to see that when you are in the sea ice.

Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.
Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.

And let's not forget the ice bear in the foreground.

 

Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.
Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.

The caption on the Met page makes clear they were hunting this bear:

In 1861 the marine painter William Bradford made the first of his eight expeditions to the Arctic. This painting, based on photographs and sketches produced during his final trip, in 1869, shows the artist’s steamer, Panther, plying its way through the summer ice along the northern coast of Greenland. Panther was one of numerous vessels engaged in the search for the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. According to Bradford’s journal, the ship’s crew had decided to hunt the polar bear seen in the foreground, “anxious to possess so fine a skin,” but the bear made a parting glance over its shoulder before heading for the water, managing to escape its pursuers.

But it is art for sure.

There is no way you could get an iceberg with this sort of freeboard close to the shore...

Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.
Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.

And I love the detail of a wrecked ship mast on the left.

Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.
Detail from: An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay by William Bradford, 1871.

There is a long history of romantic artists balancing the struggle of man against the icy wastes. My all time favourite in that category is Landseer's Man Proposes, God Disposes.

Man Proposes, God Disposes by Edward Landseer 1864.
Man Proposes, God Disposes by Edward Landseer 1864.

Thanks Metropolitan museum for putting it online.

Today is 105 years since Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting and  Olav Bjaaland reached the South Pole. And Google have celebrated that fact with a google Doodle:

Amundsen expedition South Pole Google Doodle
Amundsen expedition South Pole Google Doodle

I love the doodle. It's beautiful art.

But it falls on me to be a bit of a bore...

The doodle shows mountains, and south pole is on an extremely flat plateau. Amundsen named it the King Haakon VII's Plateau.

The doodle shows it's snowing quite heavily. Actually South Pole is technically a desert, and almost no snow falls. The snow does drift in the winds though.

The doodle shows it's dark... The sun comes above the horizon at South Pole in September and it doesn't set until March. When Amundsen and the team arrived it would have been 24 hour daylight.

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Navigation charts in Antarctica may not be as good as you think. It makes sailing in those regions a little more exciting than you could hope. Here is an example.

The coastline of Rothschild Island just to the west of Alexander Island, Antarctica. The navigation chart says the coastline location could be 5 miles in error
The coastline of Rothschild Island just to the west of Alexander Island, Antarctica. The navigation chart says the coastline location could be 5 miles in error

Five miles wrong... What does that mean?

Here is London with a 5 mile radius circle drawn on it.

London with a 5 mile circle drawn on it
London with a 5 mile circle drawn on it.

If you sailed your ship to a position - say the edge of Rothschild Island, you would not know the exact location of that coast to within the radius of that circle.

Just get your head around that. In this age of satellites, in 2016 we don't know the location of coastline of Antarctica to the same level of accuracy that we already know the topography of Mars, Venus and our Moon.

Why are they so bad?

As usual there are lots of reasons. Most of the coastlines were mapped out by people on sailing ships and huskie drawn sledges decades before the satellites were launched. That means the outlines of the coasts and water depths tend to be excellent. But absolute position - basically the origin of the co-ordinate system - can be out.

The bottom line is if you are trying to calculate position with a sextant and clock, it's hard enough in good conditions (for me!). But in a snowstorm when it has been overcast for several days? The historical navigators are my heroes.

In practice today does this lack of accuracy matter?

Charcot Island. A photograph of a repeater of the navigation display of RRS James Clark Ross in 2008.
Charcot Island. A photograph of a repeater of the navigation display of RRS James Clark Ross in 2008.

That picture of the ship's track tells the story. The ship has skirted the coast of the island, but according to the chart we ended up on land! I have a few examples like this from Antarctica. And even the mighty Google Earth has Charcot Island wrong.

A screengrab of Charcot Island from Google Earth Pro 20 Nov 2016. The island is displaced by ~11 nautical miles.
A screengrab of Charcot Island from Google Earth Pro 20 Nov 2016. The island is displaced by ~11 nautical miles.

Polar ship Captains, officers and crews take ships into areas that are genuinely unexplored. We don't know the coastline or the water depths well.

In fact, in Antarctica all you really can be certain of is you know you are going to be surrounded by icebergs and sea ice.

It's a big responsibility.

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This just on twitter from the UK Ministry of Defence about the recent magnificent voyage of HMS Protector.

The Tweet posted by MOD on 18th Jan 2016
The Tweet posted by MOD on 18th Jan 2016

On the web page in the link it says

By visiting this region Protector achieved a latitude of 77 Degrees 56 Minutes South – the very edge of the vast Ross Ice Shelf, named for James Clark Ross who led the exploration of the area.

No official British ship has been this far south since 1936 and it is believed not since James Clark Ross’s own expedition in 1842.

I don't think this is true. The British Antarctic Survey Ship RRS Bransfield reached likely a little further south. According to this note from the Second Officer Chris Elliot which is published on the website The LOFTSMAN which is about the shipyards of Leith.

Furthest South of the RRS Bransield was 77 56' 44''
Furthest South of the RRS Bransield was 77 56' 44''

RRS Bransfield reached 77°56' 44"S.

So 44 seconds further south than HMS Protector.

Which is what? 1.3 km?

I know it's not much further south and Protector likely matched it (they don't give their decimal). I just wanted to make the point that it is close. Very close.

The second officer in the note - Chris Elliot went on to become the Captain of the RRS John Biscoe, and then he was a member of the team that built the RRS James Clark Ross for many years, before becoming one of the Captains of that great ship.

UPDATE See comment below by Radio Officer of the RRS James Clark Ross Mike Gloistein.

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I was enjoying my polar books the other night and came across a quote attributed to everyone's  favourite humanitarian polar explorer and scientist, Fridtjof Nansen.

Fridtjof Nansen
Fridtjof Nansen, 1915, from the George Grantham Bain Collection

If I were not a Norwegian, I would be an Englishman rather than belong to any other nation

Nansen is quoted in Fridtjof Nansen, his life and explorations, by James Arthur Bain, 1897.

Fridtjof Nansen quoted by James Bain, 1897. Page 45

Fridtjof Nansen quoted by James Bain, 1897. Page 45

It's hard not to be in awe of Nansen.

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Captain Robert Falcon Scott
Captain Robert Falcon Scott

"England knows Scott as a hero; she has little idea of him as a man. He was certainly the most dominating character in our not uninteresting community: indeed, there is no doubt that he would carry weight in any gathering of human beings. But few who knew him realized how shy and reserved the man was, and it was partly for this reason that he so often laid himself open to misunderstanding.

Add to this that he was sensitive, femininely sensitive, to a degree which might be considered a fault, and it will be clear that leadership to such a man may be almost a martyrdom, and that the confidence so necessary between leader and followers, which must of necessity be based upon mutual knowledge and trust, becomes in itself more difficult. It wanted an understanding man to appreciate Scott quickly; to others knowledge came with experience.

He was not a very strong man physically, and was in his youth a weakly child, at one time not expected to live. But he was well proportioned, with broad shoulders and a good chest, a stronger man than Wilson, weaker than Bowers or Seaman Evans. He suffered from indigestion, and told me at the top of the Beardmore that he never expected to go on during the first stage of the ascent.

Temperamentally he was a weak man, and might very easily have been an irritable autocrat. As it was he had moods and depressions which might last for weeks, and of these there is ample evidence in his diary. The man with the nerves gets things done, but sometimes he has a terrible time in doing them. He cried more easily than any man I have ever known.

What pulled Scott through was character, sheer good grain, which ran over and under and through his weaker self and clamped it together. It would be stupid to say he had all the virtues: he had, for instance, little sense of humour, and he was a bad judge of men. But you have only to read one page of what he wrote towards the end to see something of his sense of justice. For him justice was God. Indeed I think you must read all those pages; and if you have read them once, you will probably read them again. You will not need much imagination to see what manner of man he was.

And notwithstanding the immense fits of depression which attacked him, Scott was the strongest combination of a strong mind in a strong body that I have ever known. And this because he was so weak! Naturally so peevish, highly strung, irritable, depressed and moody. Practically such a conquest of himself, such vitality, such push and determination, and withal in himself such personal and magnetic charm. He was naturally an idle man, he has told us so;[134] he had been a poor man, and he had a horror of leaving those dependent upon him in difficulties. You may read it over and over again in his last letters and messages.[135]

He will go down to history as the Englishman who conquered the South Pole and who died as fine a death as any man has had the honour to die. His triumphs are many—but the Pole was not by any means the greatest of them. Surely the greatest was that by which he conquered his weaker self, and became the strong leader whom we went to follow and came to love."

Apsley Cherry Garrard wrote that in the Worst Journey in the World.

Captain Scott was a complex man.

Everyone likes a wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), but to see them swoop around icebergs is a special experience. At South Georgia you can watch this sort of thing for hours.

A wandering albatross in front of Icebergs off the coast of South Georgia.
A wandering albatross in front of Icebergs off the coast of South Georgia.

You can download the full resolution image at my flickr page.

But Ruth Mottram reminded me of Coleridge and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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In that poem they did not feel the same way about the albatross. This is memorably captured by the wonderful art of Gustave Doré.

The Albatross by Gustave Doré
The Albatross by Gustave Doré

I like albatross.

British Pathé News was a British institution that produced news reels and documentaries from 1910 to 1970. Their website is full of news clips of polar interest such as Shackleton’s death in 1922.

But here is something wonderful and obscure. Gambling with the Gulf Stream made in 1936!

Gambling with the Gulf Stream
© British Pathe screengrab from online preview.

In just 2 and a half minutes the voice-over explains what the Gulf Stream is, how much heat it carries (“every day it gives more heat than the world’s coal supply in 2 years“), and what would be the impact on some regional climates if its pathway was deliberately moved by geoengineering.

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In the old days Antarctica wasn’t mapped and measured by satellites like it is now. In the past it was all about exploration. Scientists were dropped at bases by ship, and then left for at least a year - sometimes two. Very occasionally more.

When winter comes the sea ice freezes up and the area of sea ice is vast. But after the winter, spring brings long days of light, and that meant travel by dog sled was possible over the ice!

To make the sled journeys more efficient food caches were left along the coast the previous summer perhaps by the same ship that left them. Then the scientists could journey easily over the frozen sea ice to the food cache, and then work inland in their area of operations.

Which brings me to these pictures. This is a food cache left by a ship (I think) in 1962 for a science team setting out from Hope Bay.

A pile of wooden sledge boxes that contain all human needs: chocolate, biscuits, marmite, meat and soup. What more could you want?

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The ice fish rediscovered by Doll
Mangé par le chat de l'équipage de la Terror

The cod icefish re-discovered and published in 1904 by Louis Dollo. The original caption says “Mangé par le chat de l'équipage de la Terror” or “Eaten by the Terror’s cat"!

The famous polar ships HMS Erebus and HMS terror had been in the ice long before Franklin took them to their doom in the Northwest Passage. James Clark Ross took them to the Antarctic from 1839-43 on a hugely successful voyage to find the South Magnetic Pole. Ross filled in many blanks on the map and discovered and named many places including Ross Island and Mount Erebus - one of the most spectacular volcanoes yet discovered.

Ross also took civilian experts to describe and write about their discoveries. These civilians produced vast scientific volumes to record their results.

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