Science in the first winter

"Every hour or so during a blizzard I have to go out, mount a ladder to the roof of the hut, remove the vane head, clean out the snow, and replace it. With gusts reaching 70 miles an hour and the air full of drift, this is no pleasant matter." - Meteorologist George Simpson, diary

A broad scientific programme

The Terra Nova expedition is primarily remembered for Scott and the Polar Party’s journey to the South Pole, but there was also a large team of scientists that discovered new knowledge of the continent.

This was not the first Antarctic expedition to undertake scientific investigation, but it was more wide-ranging than any previously. Both the groups on shore and the ship’s crew were involved. They studied Antarctic wildlife on land and in the sea, and collected thousands of zoological specimens. They surveyed new terrain, examined the geology and studied the formation of glaciers and land surfaces. They made observations of magnetism and atmospheric electricity, and recorded meteorological data in numerous locations.

At this time, there were still many unanswered questions about Antarctica, and the information accumulated by the expedition’s scientists would help to answer them.

Science in Antarctic conditions

Being a scientist in Antarctica, carrying out scientific work in hostile conditions, was challenging. It was cold, windy and completely dark in winter.

The expedition’s scientists often travelled vast distances, spending weeks hauling heavy sledges loaded with equipment before they could start their actual work. Using instruments in freezing cold temperatures was often slow and difficult, and with several layers of mittens they had to be careful to achieve the accurate measurements they needed. Mittens could be removed, but with caution, as frostbite could strike in seconds. When physicist Charles Wright recorded observations of stars in temperatures of-40˚C, he had to avoid putting his face too close to the telescope, or it would freeze to his skin.

Dr. Atkinson in his lab. Sept. 15th 1911.

Dr. Atkinson in his laboratory. September 15th 1911
© H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Wright with telescope

Charles Wright making observations at night with a telescope
© H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Specimens, notes and reports

The Cape Evans hut provided working areas and laboratories for the expedition scientists.  Here, they wrote up notes and produced maps and illustrations from sketches they had made in the field. They analysed their observations and started to prepare and study their vast collection of specimens.

Although the final analysis would take place once the expedition returned to Britain, it was critical to start this work at the Cape Evans hut. The zoologists, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard, preserved and examined zoological specimens they had collected, while one of the geologists, Debenham, prepared thin sections of the rocks he had collected.  With the help of a microscope, he could then classify many of the rocks collected while he was still in Antarctica.

Taylor and Debenham at desk

Griffith Taylor and Frank Debenham working in the Cape Evans hut
© H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Photography and illustration

The expedition’s professional photographer, Ponting, and the chief of scientific staff, Wilson, who was a skilled artist, photographed and illustrated many details of the expedition, both for artistic and scientific purposes.

Ponting was keen to capture most aspects of the expedition’s work and daily life. He also used his cameras for scientific documentation and filmed some of the earliest known footage of Antarctic seals and penguins.

Wilson’s beautiful illustrations of Antarctica mirrored its often vivid colours. On 28 July 1911, he wrote in his diary, "We had for 3 hours the finest colour imaginable all over the sky. Out all forenoon making sketches." Wilson also made scientific illustrations of Antarctic animals and recorded their appearance and behaviour in his drawings. These would be used later when the expedition’s zoological collections were analysed.

Ponting in darkroom

Herbert Ponting in the hut’s darkroom
© Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Wilson sketching

Edward Wilson sketching at the Cape Evans hut
© H Ponting photograph, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

The Worst Journey In the World

In June 1911, Bowers, Cherry-Garrard and Wilson started a hellish journey to collect eggs from an emperor penguin colony at Cape Crozier, more than 100 kilometres away.

A Victorian theory proposed that by studying the embryo of an organism, it was possible to learn about the evolutionary history of that species. Wilson believed penguin embryos could shed light on the evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. But emperor penguins breed in the middle of the Antarctic winter, when it is unimaginably cold and completely dark, and this would be the first substantial sledging journey ever made in these torturous conditions.

For five weeks, the three men battled ferocious winds and an average temperature of -40˚C. They travelled in darkness with only scant twilight at midday and occasional moonlight. They came very close to death when their only tent blew away in a violent blizzard and it was pure luck that they found it again.

When they finally reached the penguin colony, they collected five eggs with great difficulty. Only three survived the journey back.

Back in Britain, the study of the embryos was delayed by the First World War and the death of the embryologist who was assigned to analyse them. Meanwhile, science had moved on and the theory of a link between embryos and evolutionary history was largely rejected.

Despite this, the eggs and their embryos have scientific significance. They remain part of the Natural History Museum’s collections and, as some of the earliest examples of emperor penguin embryos, have important potential for future scientific research.

"The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated: and any one would be a fool who went again." - Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

Bowers, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard before departing on the journey to Cape Crozier

Bowers, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard before departing on the journey to Cape Crozier
© H Ponting photograph, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Edward Wilson's scientific equipment
Edward Wilson took a range of scientific equipment on the journey to Cape Crozier, some of which he had to abandon on the treacherous return journey back to camp. This set of glassware was recovered in the 1950s. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Emperor penguin embryo slides, Aptenodytes forste
Two of the three embryos collected on the winter journey to Cape Crozier were carefully cut into thin sections and mounted onto 800 glass slides. These could be studied by scientists under the microscope. They remain valuable scientific specimens. © The Natural History Museum

Bat lamp from Cape Crozier
This Bat brand paraffin lamp was used in the stone shelter built by the men at Cape Crozier. It was the only lamp they had, and provided an important light source in the constant darkness of the Antarctic winter. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Thermos flask
This flask was used by Cherry-Garrard, Wilson and Bowers during their journey to Cape Crozier. Flasks were primarily used to carry hot drinks or melted water, but were occasionally used to hold marine scientific specimens to stop them freezing. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Cherry-Garrard's balaclava
This balaclava was used by Apsley Cherry-Garrard during the winter journey. In his account of the trip, he described how they adapted their balaclavas by attaching a piece of fabric across the opening to protect their noses from the biting wind. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard back at the Cape Evans hut after their long journey

Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard back at the Cape Evans hut after their long journey
© H Ponting photograph, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

The Northern Party: surviving winter alone

Scott’s hut at Cape Evans was not the only camp. At Cape Adare, about 700 kilometres north, stood a second hut. It was home to a smaller group – leader Victor Campbell, geologist Raymond Priestley, surgeon Murray Levick, Petty Officers George Abbot and Frank Browning and Able Seaman Harry Dickason.

Their location was less fruitful for geographical exploration than they had wished. But they did what scientific work they could – regular meteorological observations, collection of geological specimens and observations of Adélie penguins.

In January 1912, they were picked up by the Terra Nova and moved to a new location along the coast for six weeks of geographical and geological exploration, with a few extra emergency provisions. But when the six weeks were up, Terra Nova was nowhere to be seen.

The ship had not been able to get through the heavy pack ice, the hut was too far away and now the six men faced disaster – an Antarctic winter without shelter or enough provisions.

They dug a cave in the ice for shelter and killed penguins and seals to bulk up their meagre food supplies. During the months that followed, they had tiny daily food rations and became weak, and often ill.

They burnt seal blubber for warmth and cooking, and this covered everything, and everyone, in sooty fat. After more than six months they began the long walk to the main base. Incredibly, they arrived after six weeks of sledging, all alive.

"Our clothes were in rags, and our only pairs of leather boots were falling to pieces on our feet." - Raymond Priestley, Antarctic Adventure: Scott’s Northern Party

The Northern Party at Cape Adare

The Northern Party at Cape Adare
Seated from left: Priestley, Campbell and Levick. Standing from left: Abbott, Dickason and Browning.
© Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

The Northern Party after their long winter in the ice cave

The Northern Party after their long winter in the ice cave
From left: Dickason, Campbell, Abbott, Priestley, Levick and Browning.
© Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge