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English Plans for Extensive Explorations.
Attitude of the Government -- Results Expected by Scientists -- Hints Derived From Other Expeditions.
London, Feb. 24.
Whether or not the prudent Chancellor of the Exchequer, disposed to keep his expenditures as low as possible, and burdened with the cost of unforeseen colonial wars, will include in the appropriations for 1898 a grant of $750,000 for an exploring expedition to the Antarctic is still uncertain. The Government is known to be considering the project; the Admiralty does not oppose it, if under naval control; there is little doubt that officers, seamen and scientists would readily volunteer for it; but there is no present sign of decision. Meanwhile the learned societies and representative savants contribute their efforts, already noted in these letters, and intermittent for nearly eight years, to compass their aim. They point to the little Belgian expedition that set out some months since for Graham Land, below South America. They note the virtual decision to send a German expedition to the Antarctic, for which, it now appears, the Imperial Treasury will provide the funds; and they hear rumors of a similar project in Norway. They have hopes of coöperation from Australia. They recall how often England has led the way in polar exploration, north and south, and they find in the scanty knowledge that they now have of the Antarctic Sea and the presumable Antarctic continent ample promise of fruitful results in further investigation. Privately they have urged these considerations upon members of the Government, and publicly they put them forward to-day at a special meeting of the Royal Society, to which representatives of the scientific bodies of the United Kingdom, geographical, geological, zoological and meteorological, came in numbers. Explorers like Dr. Nansen and Sir Joseph Hooker, who went to the Antarctic fifty years ago, lent their counsels, and Dr. Neumayr came from the Hamburg Observatory to speak of the projected German expedition. The sitting was long, and it afforded an exceptionally full discussion of the possibilities of Antarctic exploration.
The speakers generally agreed that for the time the southern ice offered a more alluring and productive field for exploration than the northern. There was much probability that the North Pole was only a geographical point in a waste of frozen ocean. Explorer after explorer had increased our knowledge of these ice beds till it was little likely that further expeditions northward would yield scientific results commensurate with the nearly insurmountable difficulties of further advance. On the other hand, as Dr. Nansen himself pointed out, the experience gained in half a century of Arctic exploration would now make Antarctic exploration the easier and the more fruitful. When Sir James Ross sailed along the great ice barrier of the Antarctic in the forties and found scarcely a spot where at he could make a landing, explorers had no such experience in the conquering of ice fields and devices for it as they have now gained. Borchgrevink had landed without much difficulty at Cape Adare (sic). Sir James Ross, too, had only wind to move his ships and often it failed him when opening ice gave him a new avenue of advance. Now steam made the navigation superior to such uncertainties. It was probably true that the temperature of the Antarctic winter was lower than that of the Arctic, and that there were few, if any, animals on the ice to be hunted. Yet the difference in temperature would in no wise prevent the stay of a party properly equipped through a winter or two, and there were birds, like Mr. Borchgrevink's penguin, if not animals. In fine, an Antarctic expedition, to be absent two or three years, seemed quite practicable.
To the scientific results it should yield half a dozen savants whose names are as well known in America as in England bore witness -- Dr. John Murray, who conducted the noted Challenger expedition for the investigation of deep sea conditions; Sir Clements Markham, the President of the Royal Geographical Society; Sir Archibald Geikie, the geologist; Prof. d'Arcy Thompson, and the Duke of Argyll. Dr. Murray and most of the speakers assumed the existence of an Antarctic continent, just within the Antarctic circle, and, with a few indentations and projections, closely following it. Dr. Nansen, however, hinted that this continent might after all be only islands bound together by frozen sounds. At the least, while at the north there was a polar sea almost completely surrounded by continental land, at the south there was in all likelihood a continent surrounded by a polar sea. and (sic) the contrasting conditions promised valuable results. If there were an Antarctic continent, as the scanty lithological specimens collected in the southern ocean -- the droppings of icebergs -- seemed to indicate, next to nothing was known of its area and of the distribution of land and water upon it. The current hypothesis was that few animals lived upon it; while there were traces of an extinct fauna. The one needed verification, the other investigation. Moreover, it was nearly certain that the land was in part volcanic. the average man, if he recalls Sir James Ross's Antarctic expedition at all, remembers it by the spectacle the explorers saw of Mount Erebus in full and fiery eruption in the midst of snow and ice. Ross saw other volcanic peaks extinct or for the time quiet. He brought away specimens of volcanic rocks. There was no more promising field, said Sir A. Geikie, for volcanic investigation, and none less studied.
Again, the Antarctic ice was in large measure sui generis. Certainly it differed materially from the ice of the Arctic. The great barrier of ice cliffs, presumably the sea front of a gigantic glacier, along which Ross sailed for three miles, had been noted rather than examined. The origin, the movements, the influence of the rude fields of pack ice -- formed of frozen ocean water and snowflakes, driven northword (sic) by winds and currents -- had been little investigated. Equally unstudied were the table-shaped icebergs peculiar to the Antarctic seas --stratified masses of ice rising in perpendicular cliffs to a flat surface 200 feet above the sea, and descending 1,400 feet below it, seemingly formed on the Antarctic continent and pushed out to sea by glacial action over low-lying coasts. By common consent, nowhere in the world was there so extensive an ice cap as in the Antarctic; or such opportunity for observing its movements and action. Glacial conditions were there at their maximum, and what light might not study of them throw on the similar conditions that ages ago prevailed in the Northern Hemisphere. As the Antarctic ice moved, so might this prehistoric ice field have moved. For half a century geologists had been busy with theories and traces of glacial action; and yet what might prove the most fruitful field of all was practically unexplored. Both the Duke of Argyll and Sir A. Geikie, who hold quite opposite views of the glacial age, foresaw new material for argument and hypothesis.
The Antarctic itself, according to Dr. Murray, offers the simplest and most extended oceanic conditions on the surface of the globe. Yet there had been few systematic and no long observations of its tides and temperatures, lower probably in summer than those of the surrounding air. No soundings had been taken with delicate, modern apparatus, and it was only hypothesis that the southern polar sea grew shallower and shallower as it neared the Antarctic continent. Its currents had not been studied, though Prof. Thompson believed they might much affect the waters of the Northern Pacific. Little was known of the sub-oceanic life in high southern latitudes. Meteorological information was as scanty. There were tokens that the climate had been warmer than it is now, and that various forms of animal life now unsupportable about the South Pole once existed there. Over the northern ice there was frequent cyclonic disturbance. To the contrary around the South Pole there seemed to be a great anti-cyclonic area out of which strong westerly and northwesterly winds steadily blew. Of winter temperatures in the Antarctic there were no records. The summer temperatures seemed to be remarkably low. On the edge of the southern polar region atmospheric pressure was always surprisingly low. Whether it continued so in higher latitudes only the barometers of new explorers could show. Finally inquiry into terrestrial magnetism stood still for want of material from the Antarctic; while the exceptional magnetic phenomena noted on the southern coast of Australia implied that it would be valuable.
In short, the earnestness of the meeting steadily rose. Each speaker foresaw in the possible expedition gain to his own branch of science and important contributions to what may be called comparative science and the philosophy of science. Most of our knowledge of the Antarctic was really hypothesis, for which a well conducted, well equipped expedition could substitute fact. Naturally the meeting inclined to a British expedition, but there was friendly talk of coöperation between England, Australia, Germany and Norway. There remains, however, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is a very hard-headed man of business, to persuade that the gain to science and English prestige will be worth £150,000 to the English treasury.
Reproduced with permission: L.L. Dyche, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.
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