Exploration of the Antarctic - Part 4
See also Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.
During the nineteenth century, voyages of exploration had vocal champions in most major countries—some driven by desire for national prestige, economic gain, or science and simple curiosity. Interest in the Antarctic vied with the Arctic, the Pacific, the interiors of Africa, South America and Australia, and even with Tibet. All faced the prospect of high costs of long expeditions.
Nonetheless, by the mid-1830s, three nations, France, the United States, and Great Britain where preparing to send out expeditions devoted entirely, or in part, to explorations in the Southern Ocean.
The U.S. expedition had a decade-long, political history of one step forward, one step back. Presidential champions, congressional opponents, and tension among civilian scientists and military officers added to the complexities of the situation. With few scientists, and little tradition of exploration, the navy was ambivalent about the expedition and many experienced officers simply refused offers to lead or join the "United States Exploring Expedition". In the end, command fell to Charles Wilkes, a relatively junior officer with little sea experience of any kind—with and no polar experience at all. In August 1838, Wilkes set out with a large expedition of six ships—not particularly well adapted for Antarctic exploration—and with a large contingent of scientists.
In contrast, the French expedition was proposed in January 1837 by Jules Dumont d'Urville, an experienced commander with two voyages of discovery in thePacific, and a voyage to Oceana behind him. King Louis Philippe added a journey to the Antarctic to the plan, a bid for a new Farthest South record, and even a try for the South Pole. In September 1837, Dumont d'Urville sailed with two ships.
The British expedition was not advanced until mid-1838, but once approved, gained the command of probably one the most experienced, active polar explorer in the world, James Clark Ross. Ross was the nephew of John Clark, the most experienced polar explorer of his generation, and served on six expeditions to the Arctic before gaining command of the Antarctic expedition. In 1831, James Clark Ross was a member of the party that reached the north magnetic pole for the first time. In September 1839, Ross sailed with two thick-hulled "bomb ships" well suited to icy waters and further adapted to the Antarctic. Shortly before sailing, in September 1829, Ross acquired a copy of the log of sealer John Balleny who had returned recently from his own Antarctic journey, The primary objective of the expedition was to reach the magnetic south pole (the magnetic poles were considered important targets for scientific and national prestige reasons at the time.)
At the end of January 1838, the expedition tried to follow Weddell's course south but soon ran into pack ice that eventually trapped the ships, preventing them from even reaching the Antarctic Circle. Getting free of the ice, the expedition charted part of the north east of the Antarctic Peninsula (now known as the Trinity Peninsula and that was named by Dumont d'Urville Louis Philippe Land). In March 1839, Dumont d'Urville directed the French expedition north into the Pacific and East Indies for eighteen months for other explorations before returning to the Southern Ocean in late 1839.
In early 1839, Wilkes arrived in the Southern Ocean. However, the inexperienced Wilkes already had alienated most of the expedition with his often harsh, capricious and self-serving approach to command—undercutting the effectiveness of his command. His dislike of civilian scientists, in particular, led him to significantly restrict their work and to have more limited activities conducted by naval officers. The first objective was to probe southward near James Cook's 1774 Farthest South point. While ice and weather soon forced the larger ships to turn back, the Flying Fish, came close (70°S 101°16’W - March 1839). Two months later the Sea Gull of the U.S. expedition was lost with all hands in a gale.
At this same time, farther west, British sealer, John Balleny discovered the islands that bear his name south of New Zealand, and sighted the Antarctic coast at approximately 119°E (Sabrina Coast).
At the beginning of 1840, with Ross leading the British expedition south, the French expedition with two ships and the U.S. expedition with four ships (though one by one they would return north over the following months) headed toward the same region of the Southern Ocean, south of Australia.
Wilkes made the first claim of land sighted at 66°20'S 154°18 E on January 19—although this would later prove to be erroneous when Ross' ships would sail over this region a year later. Wilkes turned west and sailed 1,500 miles to 100°E with numerous sightings of land (some inaccurate) - that he connected together as proof of a continental coastline. This region is now known as the Wilkes Land and Wilkes is often credited with determining the continental nature of Antarctica. Finally, on February 21, Wilkes turned north.
Jules Dumont d'Urville's plan was to sail near due south from Tasmania toward the magnetic south pole to see if a path to a new Farthest South position could be found. However, as the expedition entered the Antarctic Circle at about 136oE on January 19, 1840, a mountainous coast was sighted and named Terra Adélie or the Adélie Coast after Dumont d'Urville's wife. A landing was made on offshore isles and rock samples collected. Also, the penguins of the region were named Adélie Penguins.
On January 29, the French expedition sighted the Porpoise of the U.S.expedition. Confusion about the meaning of the behavior of the French ships as they prepared to meet the Porpoise caused the U.S. commander to take offense and to sail away before communication occurred. Arguments and accusations about this incident would continue for years.
The French expedition continued to track a high ice cliff at 133oE that was interpreted to surmount land—it was named the Claire Coast after the wife of Dumont d'Urville's second-in-command Charles Jacquinot. The expedition took magnetic measurements throughout course in order to locate an accurate position for the magnetic south pole. On February 1, Dumont d'Urville turned north and returned to Tasmania.
On February 21, a report of Dumont d'Urville's discoveries appeared in the newspaper of Hobart, Tasmania. On March 13, a report of Wilkes's discoveries appeared in a Sydney newspaper. Over the coming weeks, the French and U.S. expeditions would just miss each other at several ports, but never meet. Wilkes also sent a letter and chart of his discoveries to Ross who was expected to stop at Hobart. Wilkes had met Ross when he visited London in preparation for the expedition and before the British expedition had been approved.
When the British expedition arrived in Hobart in August 1840, Dumont d'Urville was well along on his return to France. Wilkes and the United States Exploring Expedition had headed into the Pacific where it visited Fiji, Orona, and Hawaii (1840). Next, they explored the Pacific coast of the United States and California (then the territory of Mexico) and Wake Island (1841) before sailing west through the East Indies around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Atlantic to New York, arriving in June 1842.
Sailing south from Tasmania, Clark encountered pack ice on January 5, 1841. The expedition's next move was memorialized seventy years later by Rauld Amundsen,
". . . these men sailed right into the heat of the pack, which all previous polar explorers had regarded as certain death. . . These men were heros - heros in the highest sense of the word."
The ships pressed through the ice for four days before sailing into open sea again. Two days later, mountainous land lay across their path. Ross named the point Cape Adair and region Victoria Land after the reigning queen of England.
The magnetic pole was predicted at the time (that is, the magnetic pole migrates) to be south west of the sighted land. Aware that Wilkes had sailed west and reported land and therefore no route to the magnetic pole, Ross choose to sail east of Cape Adare and south along the coast where he hoped to find a way around to the magnetic pole. Instead, he sailed into a the region now named the Ross Sea and for two weeks, tracked the coast of Victoria Land, naming the peaks of the Admiralty Range, and various islands and geographic sites.By January 22, the ships achieved what Dumont d'Urville and Wilkes had failed at, and surpassed [[James Weddell]'s Farthest South record. Ross’s surgeon McCormick:
On January 28, the expedition discovered Ross Island and named its two volcanoes Mount Erebus and Mount Terror after the expedition's ships. The discovery was described by
"We were startled by the most unexpected discovery in this vast region of glaciation, of a stupendous volcanic mountain in a high state of activity. At 10 A.M. upon going on deck, my attention was arrested by what appeared at the moment to be a fine snow drift, driving from the summit of a lofty crater-shaped peak, rising from the center of an island (apparently on the starboard bow). As we made a nearer approach, however, this apparent snow drift resolved itself into a dense column of black smoke, intermingled with flashes of red flame emerging from a magnificent volcanic vent, so near the South Pole, and in the very center of a mighty mountain range encased in eternal ice and snow."
Mount Erebus is the southernmost active volcano on Earth. It continues to be active to the present time. As the base of the Mount Erebus, McMurdo Sound was named after an officer of the Terror.
On the same day, the expedition came to a vast cliff of ice, rising 50 to 200 feet above the water and extending for as far of the eye could see. It was named "The Great Ice Barrier" for several generations, until it acquired its present name, the Ross Ice Shelf.
At this point, Ross was aware that the expedition was south of the magnetic south pole and had found that no easy access to it existed from east of Cape Adare. Rather than turn back north and trying the regions visited by Dumont d'Urville and Wilkes, Ross choose to explore the The Great Ice Barrier and turned east. The expedition sailed east under the heights of the ice cliffs for over three hundred miles before coming to a bay where the ice shelf was relatively low. There, they saw a vast plain of icy surface extending south and unbroken as far as they could see. After a few more days the expedition turned back to Ross Island, north back to Cape Adare, and west in a last effort to find a route to the magnetic south pole.
At this point Ross's expedition began overlapping the region explored the previous year by Wilkes and shown on the chart provided by Wilkes. The British found sea where Wilkes had reported land and mountains at 164°E and began to doubt the accuracy of everything reported by the earlier expedition. Ross came to believe that inexperience, with the many problems of polar exploration combined with an eagerness to maximize the land discovered, led Wilkes to chart land and mountains in regions where he was in fact observing clouds, icebergs, ice sheets or mirages created by the antarctic atmosphere. In retrospect, with knowledge of the true Antarctic coast, Ross was probably correct in his assessment for that part of the coast. However, the Wilkes expedition was close to the true Antarctic coast in many stretches of its journey and therefore made genuine discovery.
Ross found the location of the magnetic south pole to be significantly farther south than previously predicted (76°S rather than 66°S at 146°E) and, he found the route blocked by impassable ice. Had it been possible to find a safe site to overwinter, the expedition would have done so, for they estimated the pole to be 160 miles (260 km) inland and reachable by sledge (the means by which Ross had reached the north magnetic pole.) No harbor was found and the expedition returned to Tasmania in April.
In the next summer season (1841-2), Ross led the expedition back to the great ice barrier, through much more extensive ice pack and was able to extend the charting of it somewhat further east. Surviving a head-on collision in the face of two icebergs that appeared suddenly in a heavy fog, the Terror and Erebus overwintered mid-1842 in the Falkland Islands. For the third and final summer season in Antarctic waters (1842-3), the Ross expedition forayed into the Weddell Sea, but heavy ice limited the expedition's progress. When the expedition returned to England in September 1843, it had been away for nearly four years.
While the expeditions were over, the claims, counter claims and controversies were just getting started. Tragically In May 1842, with Ross still in the Falklands and Wilkes returning to New York, Dumont d'Urville and his family were killed in a train accident near Paris. Upon his return to the United States, Wilkes brought charges against many of his officers and was himself court marshaled—though later exonerated. News of Ross "sailing over'" Wilkes' claims of land damaged his reputation and led to doubts and arguments about the many valid achievements of the expedition. Wilkes went on to become an Admiral, but continued to be a lightning rod for controversy for the remainder of his life. Ross was honored and went on one more Arctic expedition. In 1845, John Franklin, the governor of Tasmania and host to all the three national expeditions between 1838-1841, led an expedition with the Erebus and Terror in search of a northwest passage and disappeared. Ross led one of many unsuccessful expeditions in search of Franklin.
When the various short stretches of actual coast charted by 1840 were combined on a single chart, a growing number of geographers simply assumed that the were connected and formed the coast of a single continent but the possibility still existed that Antarctica was an archipelago of islands connected by ice.
- South Pole: A Narrative History of the Exploration of Antarctica by Anthony Brandt, NG Adventure Classics, 2004 ISBN: 0792267974.
- The Race to the White Continent, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 2002 ISBN: 0393323218.
- A Voyage Of Discovery And Research In The Southern And Antarctic Regions V1: During The Years 1839-43, James Clark Ross, 1947, ISBN: 1436997704.
- Voyage of the U.S. Exploring Squadron Commanded By Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy in 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842: Together with Explorations & Discoveries Made By Admiral D'Urville, Captain Ross, & Other Navigators & Travellors, John S. Jenkins, Burnett & Bostwick, 1854
- Index to Antarctic Expeditions, Scott Polar Research Institute, retrieved November 1, 2008
- Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226.
- Antarctic History, Polar Conservation Organization, retrieved February 16, 2009
- Antarctic History, Antarctica Online, retrieved February 16, 2009
- The Antarctic Circle, retrieved February 16, 2009