Scott's Antarctic expedition - tragedy and legacy

British Antarctic Expedition

13 March 2012 - A century ago, in the first few months of 1912, the British effort to put the first men at the geographical South Pole was reaching its tragic conclusion.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team had made it to the pole on January 18 only to learn they had been beaten there by the Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen.

As they set off on their "wearisome return... 800 miles of solid dragging" they faced unusually cold weather and by 29 March all of the men had perished on the ice.

The fate of Scott and his team is well known, but what many do not realise is that scientific discovery was at the heart of the British Antarctic Expedition and left a powerful legacy.

Rather than being one sustained push for the pole, the expedition team spent many months studying the Antarctic continent - which at that time was a great unknown.

Not least among Scott's scientific objectives was to get a better understanding of the weather and climate of this frozen wilderness.

For this purpose he appointed a select team of meteorologists, chief amongst whom was George Simpson - known to the rest of the team as 'Sunny Jim' and who later served as Director of the Met Office.

Weather observations were taken throughout the expedition - right from the start on the long voyage from Britain. Even as Scott and his team struggled on in their final days returning from the pole they took note of the weather. Scott's diary entry for 17 January gives an idea of the conditions they faced: "We have had a horrible day - add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22 [degrees Fahrenheit, about -30 degrees Celsius] and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands."

Because of their enduring historical and meteorological value, much of the documentation from the expedition - including diaries, ship logs, letters, registers and autographic records - are permanently stored at the National Meteorological Archive in Exeter and are available for the public to view by prior appointment.

As the news of the death of Scott and his team filtered through in early 1913, Simpson began work on his account of the weather and climate using data he and his colleagues had gathered.

The first volume was published in 1919 to great acclaim, with Simpson concluding that Scott met with exceptionally low temperatures on his return from the Pole. He also discovered that the transition from Antarctic summer to winter was much more rapid then previously thought.

Whilst Captain Scott's extraordinary adventure still compels, fascinates and inspires people today, the real legacy of the expedition lies in Scott's recognition of Antarctica as a place of special scientific interest.

The expedition established a long tradition of detailed scientific research on the continent which continues to this day and has enabled a greater understanding of the climate and world around us.

Some of the written records from the expedition are on display at the National Meteorological Library in Exeter for the next three months.

Scott's Antarctic Expedition
In this commemorative video, Met Office forecaster George Goodfellow explores what happened to Scott and his team and the legacy they left behind.

Scott's Antarctic Expedition Scott's Antarctic Expedition (video transcript) (PDF, 143 kB)

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Last updated: 13 March 2012