The Times/1890/Editorial/The Proposed Antarctic Expedition

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The Proposed Antarctic Expedition  (1890) 
the Editor

source: The Times, issue 33143; Wednesday, Oct. 15, 1890—The Proposed Antarctic Expedition

The Proposed Antarctic Expedition.

The expedition which it is proposed to send out from Australia for the exploration of the region around the South Pole is the resumption of a scheme which was brought forward in the end of 1887. At that time the Australian Governments, through Sir Graham Berry, represented to the home Government that, in their opinion, much good might be done by an "Antarctic reconnaissance," preliminary to an expedition for the thorough exploration of the Antarctic regions. In order that this suggestion might be carried out, the Australian colonies offered to contribute £5,000 on condition that a like sum should be given by tho mother country. Tho proposal was supported by tho Colonial. Office,:the Royal Society, and tho Royal Geographical Society. Nevertheless the Treasury announced in January, 1888, that it did not. see its way to the granting of an Imperial contribution. The objects to be attained did not seem to it to justify the payment of even so small a sum as £5,000. At the time this decision of the Treasury was widely regretted for a variety of reasons. It was considered in certain circles a pity that this opportunity for co-operation in an important undertaking between tho mother country and the great section of tho Empire in the Southern hemisphere had not been welcomed. At the same time it was hinted that Antarctic exploration might be taken up by the Imperial Government on a large scale in the near future; so that in scientific circles the rejection of tho Australian proposal did not cause very great regret.

The truth is that it was felt by those who know the history of Polar, and especially of Antarctic exploration, that £10,000 would go but a little way in adding to the knowledge we already possess of these inhospitable but interesting regions. This Captain Pascoe pointed out at one of the recent meetings held in Australia in connexion with tho enterprise. When it is remembered that a steam vessel must be bought or hired and specially fitted for ice navigation ; that officers and men and scientific observers must be provided ; that food and clothing for a year or more must be stored, besides scientific equipment, and many other things that cost money, it will be seen that £10,000 is not likely to be sufficient. The Australians are certainly fortunate in obtaining the cooperation of Baron Nordenskjöld, in some respects the most experienced Polar authority living. He is an accomplished scientific observer, has great experience in ice navigation, and has been trained to obtain the most abundant and most valuable results on the most economical outlay. The Baron's scheme, as agreed on with Baron Oscar Dickson, who, as usual, supplies the funds, has been already mentioned in The Times. He proposed to start in the autumn of 1891, though it is understood that he himself will not accompany the expedition. But he has had several able colleagues in his former expeditions, and from among them it ought not to be difficult to obtain a leader. No doubt Baron Nordenskj6ld himself could draw up instructions for the expedition, and he has been so successful in the past in laying down the lines of Arctic exploration, that there would be the greatest hopes of success for any Antarctic scheme with which he may be connected.

The original Australian scheme contemplated a mere reconnoitring cruise around the Antarctic region. No doubt by this means some information would be obtained as to the movements of the ice and as to the prospects-of an Antarctic whale and seal fishery ; but the scientific results could not but be meagre. If the proposed expedition is to yield any information of scientific, and therefore of practical, value, it must be prepared to leave a party as far south as is safe for a whole year. This party must be provided with sledges, ski (Norwegian snow-shoes), and other means of moving about on ice and sea and land, if there is any laud at all uncovered in this unknown area of the earth's surface. Observations for temperature, atmospheric pressure, snow or rainfall, and other physical data must be made with rigid accuracy, while the naturalists of the expedition would look carefully after their own department. A whole year of such observations, conducted by competent men, would be worth many cruises around the edge of the ice. But it is difficult to see how all this could be accomplished on £10,000, though we may be sure Baron Nordensköld would not connect himself with any expedition likely to be a failure.

Those who are interested in the proposed expedition in Australia are right in believing that a thorough knowledge of Antarctic conditions would be of the greatest service to a continent whose climate must be largely determined by those conditions ; doubtless also the whaling industry might gain much by the information which the proposed expedition would obtain. Arctic exploration has in these respects been of the greatest: service to the northern hemisphere. That a great land-mass or continent covers the south polar area is now generally believed among those who are most thoroughly acquainted with the conditions which prevail there. But this is very different from the Great Southern Continent, which for long was believed to extend northwards from the South Pole far into the Pacific—a continent which was only dispersed when Captain Cook in the last century sailed round and round the Antarctic area and penetrated as far as 71° 10' S. lat. The outer area had been touched at one or two points before Cook'; after him Weddell, in 1822–24, made many valuable observations, and got as far south as 740 15' opposite the American side. The expeditions, however, which added most largely to our knowledge are those of Wilkes and Dumont D'Urville of 1840, and of Ross, who in 1842 got south to close on 80°, discovered Victoria Land with its magnificent mountains, its active volcano, and its great ice-wall. The Challenger just crossed the Antarctic Circle. No serious exploration of these regions has ever been made in steam vessels. The general result seems to be that opposite Australia there is a great land mass whose outer edge runs for many degrees along the Antarctic Circle, shooting abruptly south into a great bight opposite New Zealand. On the opposite side the land probably comes much further south, perhaps to within 80°. But this is mostly conjecture, of course, for all we have had hitherto are observations at isolated points. In connexion with the International Polar Observations of 1883,a German party was stationed for a year in South Georgia, an uninhabited British island about 55° S., far south-east of the Falklands. Valuable observations were made, but they will be of real service only when they can be compared with other observations made further south.

That the Antarctic continent, if it exists—it may be an archipelago—is covered with a thick ice-sheet there can be no doubt; but that the character of the land differs from that of Greenland is evident from the table-shaped form of the icebergs, so different from the rugged masses met with in the Arctic seas. From the purely scientific -standpoint it would be of the highest interest to ascertain the nature of the fossil plants which exist in the Antarctic land, if, indeed, there are any. That Greenland, even in the tertiary age, had a climate like that of Southern Europe, has been demonstrated; but what has caused the oscillations of climate on the earth's surface is a subject on which there is the widest difference of opinion. That the primitive home of humanity-of all life, indeed-may have been the North Pole, many sober men of science believe. If similar conditions are found to have existed in the Antarctic continent as formerly did in Greenland, a term of great value will be contributed to one of the most interesting problems of science.


This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.