Environmental & Earth Science

Aerial Exploration of the Antarctic

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Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd. Source: NSF; Credit: Dominick Dirksen.

Exploration of the Antarctic - Part 10

In the late 1920s, exploration of the Antarctic was revolutionized by the advent of aircraft. 

caption A photograph of the Gauss taken from a hydrogen balloon. Source NOAA.

At the turn of the century, the Discovery and Gauss expeditions included balloons. Robert Falcon Scott became the first "aeronaut" when he spent an hour, 800 feet over the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf on February 4, 1902. As soon as he descended Earnest Shackleton went up and took the first aireal photographs.  Six weeks later, Eric von Drygalski and Emile Philippi repeated the experience at higher altitude on a different part of the Antarctic coast. This was a year before the Wright Brothers had their first sucessful flight with an aircraft.

Douglas Mawson included an aircraft in the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14) but it was damaged during trials in Australia and went to the Antarctica simply to pull sledges along the ice (at which it was not very successful.)

In the early 1920s planes began to be used regularly in the Arctic and flying over the North Pole became a goal for numerous explorers. In 1926, American Richard Byrd announced that he and Floyd Bennett had achieved this goal on May 9. However, this was contested at the time and examination of Byrd's diary after his death, suggest that he in fact did not fly successfully over the pole. Three days later, on May 12, Amundsen joined by wealthy American explorer Lincoln Ellesworth and fourteen others passed over the pole in an Italian built hydrogen airship, the Norge. (Given the uncertainty around prior claims to have reached the North Pole, this may also have been the first achievement of that goal.)

In 1928 two aviators experienced in Arctic flights, American Richard Byrd and Australian, Hubert Wilkins, turned their attention south to Antarctica

It was Wilkins with American co-pilot Carl Ben Eielson, financed by American newspaper mogul William Randolf Hearst who made the first flight on November 16, for twenty minutes over the Antarctic Peninsula from a base on Deception Island in the South Shetlands.

On December 20, Wilkins and Eielson made a much more significant flight south, crossing the Bransfield Strait (named after Edward Bransfield for his 1820 voyage), over Hughes Bay (where American sealer John Davis had put the first men on Antarctic land in 1821), over the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula and seeing for the first time the land beyond. They continued south crossing, and flying over the Larsen Ice Shelf along the coast, over islands, and deep into the interior of the peninsula. They turned around finally, and retraced their route north back to Deception Island. All the while photographing and sketching the territory below them. Wilkins summed up the journey as follows:

"We had left at 8:30 [sic] in the morning, had covered 1300 miles—nearly a thousand of it over unknown territory—and had returned in time to cover the plane with a storm hood, go to the Hektoria, bathe and dress and sit down at eight o'clock to dinner as usual in the comfort of the ship's wardroom."

A revolution in Antarctic exploration had ocurred.

Illustrative of the uncertainty surrounding Antarctica at the time, was an observation of several ice-filled channels extending from the coast into gaps in the main mountain range of the Antarctic Peninsua. Wilkins interpreted these as straits that crossed the entire peninsula, dividing it into three large islands, making the peninsula really an ice encrusted archipelago. It was also debated at the time whether an massive ice-filled strait extended from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea dividing Antarctica into two large land masses.

A week after Wilkins and Eielson historic flight, American Richard Byrd arrived at the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf to establish a base, known as Little America just four miles from the site used by Roald Amundsen for his sucessful 1911 South Pole expedition. Byrd's large expedition (42 overwintered), included scientists to complement the aerial exploration with surface exploration and scientific work.

After a test flight on January 15, Byrd, with pilot Bernt Balchen and radioman Harold June made the first significant flight on January 27, east to the Alexandra Mountains and then south to discover the Rockefeller Mountains (named after a funder of his expedition). Additional flights expanded the survey of the Rockefeller Mountain region. On February 18, Byrd sighted the vast plateau lying east beyond those mountains and named the region after his wife, Marie Byrd Land.

Following the 1929 winter, the expedition resumed with flights farther south to the Queen Maud Mountains, first observed by Amundsen enroute to the South Pole. At 3:29 p.m., on November 28, 1929, Byrd, Balchen, June, and Ashley McKinley as aerial photographer, began their flight to the South Pole and back. In order to gain enough altitude to reach the Antarctic Plateau, they were forced to to lighten the plane by jettisoning several hundred pounds of food. At 1:14 a.m. (November 29th), in the daylight of the Antarctic summer, they circled over the South Pole and dropped an American flag weighted with a stone from the grave of Floyd Bennett. On the return, the plane landed at the base of the Tansantarctic Mountains to refuel at a depot, established by an earlier flight, before returning to Little America just after10 a.m.  In contrast to Amundsen's 99 day round trip to the pole over a very similar route, Byrd's trip had taken a mere 18 hours, 41 minutes. They had also photographed about 150,000 square miles of Antarctica.

At the end of 1929, Hubert Wilkins, returned for his second season. This time, working from a ship and taking off from the sea, Wilkins conducted a series of flights over Charcot Land on the south-eastern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula, identifying it as an island.

In the same season, yet two other expeditions were operating along the coast of Antarctica with aircraft. Douglas Mawson had returned at the head of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) working along the coast between 47°E and 160°E over two seasons (1929/30 and 1930/31). The expedition made 18 flights; each a short incursion over the ice to identify the coast and claim it for Britain on behalf of Australia. It was the first expedition to chart land between 60°E and 85°E, part of which was named Mac Roberson Land. During the second season, BANZARE operated from Cape Dennison west (Adélie Coast and Wilkes Land)  and made territorial claims from 45°E - 160°E with the exception of theAdélie Coast (from 136°E to 142°E)

Running up against Mawson at his farthest west location was a Norwegian expedition under the leadership of Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen also making territorial claims.  On December 22, 1929, an aircraft from Riiser-Larsen's expedition flew over Cape Ann (51°E),  dominated by Mount Biscoe, (after the British whaling captain who first observed it in 1831). On January 14, 1930, the two met off of Cape Ann and came to an informal understanding that the Norwegians would continue to operate west of approximately 45oE, along the coast of what would become known as Queen Maud Land (20oE-45oE), while BANZARE would operate east of that line along Enderby Land and the Kemp Coast. While BANZARE conducted its flighs, Riiser-Larsen conducted similar flights while sailing west to as far as Cape Norvegia on the edge of the Weddell Sea. These two expeditions had ranged over nearly half of the Antarctic coastline.

In just two years, the aircraft had proven itself to be the most effective way of charting much of Antarctica's vast geography.

Byrd led four more Antarctic expeditions (1933–35, 1939–40, 1946–47 and 1955–56),  all but one, based at the Bay of Whales and a growing "Little America" compound and contributing something different to the exploration of the the Antarctic:

  • The second Byrd expedition was a major scientific enterprise, less concerned about geographic firsts than with answering important questions. For example, it was considered a possibility that Antarctica was composed of two major land masses separated by a frozen strait extending from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. Flights charted the east edge of the Ross Ice Shelf and extended the Transantarctic Mountain Range from Cape Adare at the northern tip of Victoria Land, south, then east around the Ross Ice Shelf (including the Queen Maud Mountains traversed by Amundsen, through to the Horlick Mountains, and extending further east. The expedition also had a dramatic incident when Richard Byrd decided to spend the Antarctic winter of 1934 alone at a meteorological station, 125 miles south of "Little America" base on the Ross Ice Shelf. After his messages became incoherent a rescue team discovered that he was suffering from Carbon Dioxide poisoning.

  • The third Byrd expedition, named the United States Antarctic Service Expedition involved a significant military presence for the first time, in contrast to his earlier efforts that were funded almost entirely by private philanthropy. A second base was established on the Antarctic Peninsula. Scientific activities again expanded to include auroral studies and cosmic rays, biology, glaciology, geology, geomagnetism, meteorology, physiology, radio communications and seismology. It marked the beginning of a new era of major Antarctic efforts only achievable with governmental backing. Also, the expedition laid the framework for a United States territorial claim in Antarctica between 80°W (part of the Antarctic Peninsula and 150°W (King Edward VII Land east of the Ross Ice Shelf—or that part of Antarctica south of the Pacific Ocean). The spreading conflict of the Second World War brought the expedition to an early end in March 1940.

  • Byrd was the nominal head of an expedition, named Operation Highjump (1946-7), that was an almost entirely military affair, a vast training exercise for the U.S. Navy preparing for conflict with the Soviet Union across the Arctic. The expedition included 4,700 personnel (all but 24 military) on thirteen ships in three groups which conducted extensive flights and photography along the Antarctic coast and interior for three months. Among their discoveries were the ice-free Bunger Hills near the Shackleton Ice Shelf. Byrd also made a second flight over the South Pole.

  • The fifth Byrd expedition (he died shortly aftward its conclusion), named Operation Deep Freeze included the establishment of a permanent research station at the South Pole named the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. A key part of the establishment of the station was an aircraft landing at the pole by George Dufek and six others on October 31, 1956. This was the first human presence at the pole since the expeditions of Amundsen and Scott near fourty-five years earlier. Going forward, aircraft would bring nearly all the material and people to the South Pole Station and enable a permanent human presence there.

During the twenty years of Byrd's Antarctic work, numerous other significant explorations, nearly all using aircraft, occurred, including:

  • A series of expeditions backed by Norwegian Lars Christensen, the head of a whaling enterprise, which included the expedition led by Riiser-Larsen]] (1928-9),  and successive expeditions during the Antarctic summers. Lars Christensen was also ia pioneer in the use of aircraft by whaling ships to locate whales and guide the ships.

  • The 1935 flight by Lincoln Ellesworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon from Dundee Island of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsual across the vast expanse of previously unseen land to the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf, along the way discovering the Eternity Range, Sentinal Range (later divided into the Sentinal Range  and Highland Range and collective named the Ellsworth Mountains), and Ellesworth Land.

  • The British Graham Land Expedition (1934-7) led by Australian John Rymill which combined aerial reconnaissance with extensive on the ground confirmation.

Revolutionary as aircraft were to aireal mapping of the continent, scientific exploration of the Antarctic required the patient work scientists on the ground with their research tools, and that aircraft made possible too. Research stations, begun in primative form began with ships frozen in ice, became serious in the years following the second world war, but would make the greatest strides in the 1957-8 period of the Intenational Geophysical Year, which brought a wave of permanent research stations to Antarctica.

Further Reading:



Saundry, P. (2013). Aerial Exploration of the Antarctic. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbecdb7896bb431f68e0bd


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