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Belgian Explorers Going to the Antarctic.

Well Equipped Expedition Sails from Antwerp Sunday, Aug. 15 -- Terra Incognita of the South to Be Studied -- Borchgrevink's Recent voyage Revived Interest in the Region -- Earlier voyages, Their Objects and Results.

An Antarctic expedition will sail from Antwerp, Belgium, on Sunday, Aug. 15, to prosecute explorations in the south polar sea. It is somewhat remarkable that, while the civilized world is waiting for tidings expected to be brought by carrier-pigeons of a balloon expedition to the north polar region, a well-equipped expedition should be starting from a European port on a voyage of discovery in the opposite direction. It is further remarkable that after thousands of years there should be so much of the earth's surface surrounding each of the poles which men have never yet been able to penetrate. The polar regions, as included within the arctic and antarctic circles, respectively, are 1408 geographical miles from the poles, making the diameter of each polar circle twice that distance. Notwithstanding the numerous voyages and expeditions of discovery that have been made to the north polar region, by far the greatest part of the area within the polar circle remains entirely unexplored. Several expeditions have entered the Antarctic Ocean, and in 1841 an English expedition got as far south as 79°, skirting the shore of and locating Victoria Land. But no expedition by land or sea has ever entered the south polar region proper, bounded by a circle 10° from the pole. The only land discovered within the entire Antarctic Ocean is the lower end of Victoria Land and some small islands. In this respect the south polar region differs materially from the north polar, the latter being chiefly land, while the former seems to be almost wholly water. It is not unlikely that other islands will yet be discovered within the antarctic circle.

Southern Exploration Neglected.

Exploration towards the north generally antedated that towards the south, and has been much more vigorously prosecuted. Even the great island continent of Australia, nearly as large as the whole United States without Alaska, which likes only about a thousand miles south of China, with numerous islands between, was not discovered until nearly two hundred years after North America, and no colonization of it was attempted until after our Revolutionary war. It has been less than fifty years since the exact geographical position of the great island was accurately determined and its coasts mapped, and even now a considerable part of the interior is unexplored. As late as 1860 the Legislature of South Australia offered a reward of $50,000 to the first man who should traverse the whole island from south to north, and several lives were lost in unsuccessful attempts to win the reward. The feat was finally accomplished in 1862. Of course, Australia is not within the south polar region, its southernmost point being 69°, but the fact of its late discovery and exploration is mentioned as showing that southern exploration was greatly behind that towards the north.

Borchgrevink's Voyage Aroused Interest.

The enthusiasm with which the project of Antarctic explorations is regarded is almost wholly due to the account given to the congress by Mr. C. E. Borchgrevink of his "Voyage to Victoria Land" in 1894-95, in the ship Antarctic, a whaler, which left Melbourne for the circum-polar (sic) seas in September, 1894, and which has before been mentioned in the Transcript. The fact that at a point but sixteen degrees from the south pole the sea was found to be open, the temperature not over seven degrees below the freezing point, and animal and vegetable life abundant excites great interest by reason of the favorable contrast to the conditions that usually prevail in equally high northern latitudes. The magnetic south pole is calculated to be in about latitude 75° and longitude 150° east. It would be possible, it is now thought, to reach it by a journey of but 150 miles from Colman Island, latitude 73° 36' south and longitude 170° east, where Mr. Borchgrevink touched in the course of his voyage. Large deposits of guano and indications of valuable minerals exist, it is found, at accessible points, and these may be expected to give a practical interest to future expeditions. The aurora australis, as seen by the voyager, surpasses the aurora borealis in splendor. Within the Antarctic circle the barometer, he states, at 29 inches always indicated calm, beautiful weather; and even down to 28 it kept fine. The minimum air temperature was 25° Fahrenheit and the maximum 46°. The temperature of the water was throughout the ice-pack 28°, rising to 29° where a larger sheet of water broke the ice-fields. The water movement was in a northeastward direction. Such are some of Mr. Borchgrevink's general observations, but his itinerary has interesting details.

Strange Sights in the Far South.

Early in November, in latitude 58° and longitude 162°, an immense barrier, or chain of icebergs, was seen extending some sixty miles to the northwest. The top was quite level and absolutely white, the highest point being about six hundred feet high. In latitude 55° the albatross was lost sight of and likewise the Cape pigeon, but the petrel still followed the ship. Seals were found and taken. Early in December, in latitude 68° 45' and longitude 171°, the great ice-fields seen by Sir James Ross in 1841 were encountered. Here marine mammals were abundant, the blue whale among the rest. The peak of Baleney Island was seen, rising 12,000 feet above the sea level. The sun in this latitude just touched the horizon at its lowest descent, and on Christmas eve was in sight at midnight. In latitude 69° 55' and longitude 157° the ship emerged, after thirty-eight days, from the ice-pack into open water, and on Jan. 18 sighted Cape Adair on Victoria Land. Here, in latitude 71° 23' and longitude 169° 56', the temperature of the air was 32° and the water 30° and the sky was clear. The cape is a large basaltic rock with vertical sides, 3779 feet high. From its summit they saw to the west and south the extended coast of Victoria Land, rising from dark, bare rocks into peaks of perpetual ice and snow 12,000 feet above sea level. A party landing on North Island, of Possession Land, in latitude 71° 56' was furiously attacked by penguins, which literally covered the ground. There was found a deep layer of guano, which in time must have commercial value for Australasia (sic). Vegetation was found on the rocks, a striking phenomenon in that latitude, and there was a remarkable absence of ice and snow. In February the ship reached Colman Island, in 73° 36' south latitude.

Steam Barque Belgica Ready to Sail.

The steam barque Belgica has now been moored in the river at Antwerp for more than a month. Lieutenant de Gerlache, who is in command, expects that everything will be in readiness by Saturday, and that the party will get off without delay on Sunday. The Belgica is a handsome little vessel. The boat's hull is protected by a formidable armor of the hardest possible wood, bois de fer, as a protection against the pressure of Antarctic ice. At her bows she carries a powerful steel spur for cutting her way through ice-floes. The interior arrangements are cleverly made with a view to comfort, warmth and economy of space, for not a single corner is wasted. The cabins and saloons are heated from the engine-rooms, and as an extra precaution, layers of felt are laid in between all the partitions to prevent the heat from escaping. The latest implements and machinery for whaling are adapted to the Belgica, whose appearance is quite unique, and whose barrel, perched on the top of her mast for the 'lookout" catches the eyes of the curious. The Belgica resisters 250 tons, and make seven knots with her 150-horse-power engines, though with sails set she can easily make nine knots. There is on board the usual stock of Arctic clothing, snow-shoes, or "skis," and a splendid collection of the most modern scientific instruments, of which Mr. de Gerlache is extremely proud. Mr. Nyssens, minister of Labor, visited the Belgica yesterday and wished the party a hearty bon voyage. The Belgians are extremely proud of this proposed exploration, and a great deal of enthusiasm is manifested here.

Purpose of the Expedition.

The commander of the Belgian Antarctic exploring party, as before stated, is Adrien de Gerlache, and the other members will comprise two lieutenants (one of them M. Lecointe, who served in the French navy), two engineers, a sailing-master, carpenter, two harpooners, twelve sailors, two stokers, a cook and a steward. The appropriation for the expedition was $50,000. The exploring party expects to reach Graham Land about the middle of October, the beginning of the fine austral season. Graham Land lies between 63° and 68° south latitude, and longitude 61° to 68° west, and was discovered by Briscoe in 1832. He is credited with being the first explorer to set foot on the Antarctic continent. The party will call at the Canary Islands, and Rio Janerio, Brazil, and will also stop at the Falkland Islands, opposite the eastern end of the Magellan Straits, to replenish the stores. Thence the expedition will sail for the Antarctic Ocean, pushing as far as possible towards the south. When the hard weather begins to set in, as it usually does in March, the vessel will return to Melbourne, fill up with the necessary stores, and in due time start south again towards Victoria Land, in latitude 70° to 79° south, and longitude 168° east. This is the land discovered by the Sir James Ross expedition, on which are the two towering volcanoes, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror. From this point the expedition will begin observations for the Austral magnetic pole. Those who have given Antarctic explorations much scientific study have declared that a single vessel cannot safely venture upon explorations in the Antarctic circle, for, if a serious accident should occur, there would be very little chance that a soul would escape. Ice-imprisoned or shipwrecked explorers there could have little hope of retreating safely to inhabited lands, as Arctic travelers have done, for the nearest places where human beings can be found are at Terra del Fuego and Patagonia, on the Magellan Straits shores. No man ever wintered on the Antarctic continent, and no quadruped, like the bear and the wolf and the musk ox of the Arctic, lives in this frigid zone.

The Mysterious Southern Pole.

Almost everybody has heard something concerning the North Pole, however vague may be the impression produced by the term. No one has ever seen the North Pole, and the latest data from there are by Nansen, who maintains that the pole is situated in a region of perpetual ice. But how many know even as much as this concerning the South Pole? No one will dispute that there is a South Pole, the extreme end of the axis of the earth; a point having the maximum of south latitude, the very opposite of the North Pole, but having the same existing conditions, except that those which would be observed in December at the North Pole would be observed in June at the South Pole. The midnight sun of July at the north would take pace in the Antarctic in January. The old geographers had a notion that in order to balance the continents of the northern latitudes there should likewise be continents in the Antarctic; hence occasional voyages have been made in the hope of discovering stretches of land, and voyages have also been made for observation other than determining the terrestrial pole -- i.e., to study the magnetic pole, where it is, when it changes, why it changes, and the variation of changes. It was about 300 years ago that Juan Fernandez discovered what is now claimed to be New Zealand; but that is fully three thousand miles from the pole. Other expeditions of corresponding character followed at intervals, but the first to penetrate within or southward of the Antarctic circle with an avowed purpose of fathoming its mysteries was the renowned Captain Cook. Then followed Weddell, Biscoe and others, the former reaching the latitude 74 degrees, which was farther south than any of his predecessors, and less than a thousand miles from the South Pole. Then came the American expedition under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, of the navy, in 1837. The ships Vincennes and Peacock were placed at his disposal, with the instructions "to push as far south as possible, and look out for new lands." The Porpoise, Sea Gull and Flying Fish later joined in the expedition, and during four years much ocean was explored for the first time, but there were very few valuable results. The Sea Gull met with disaster somewhere and was never more heard of. Lieutenant Wilkes claimed to have discovered an Antarctic continent, but it proved to be Adele (sic) Land, which had been discovered and plotted little while before by D'Urville's expedition. This latter expedition was organized about the same time as that of Wilkes, Louis Philippe in 1837 despatching Admiral Dumont D'Urville with the corvettes Astrolabe and Zelee. During a series of three years of voyaging many islands were discovered, including Louis Philippe's Land and Adele Land (named after D'Urville's wife.)

The Expedition of Sir John Ross.

Next came the memorable expedition of Sir John Ross, an expedition not so much to discover new lands os(sic) to obtain information concerning the south magnetic pole -- a matter which the British Association for the Advancement of Science considered more important than continental discovery. The appeal was made to the British Government in 1838, but it was not until the following year that the Erebus and Terror, under command of Sir John Ross, with Lieutenant Crozier second in command, sailed from England, equipped and provisioned for a four years' cruise in a region of the world knowledge of which was, as it is today, in large part limited almost wholly to the imagination. The Ross party first sighted large, compact icebergs in latitude 63° south; and 4° or 240 miles south of that it found itself on the edge of the pack, a vast field of hummock ice extending over an unknown number of miles. This was in the midsummer of the southern hemisphere, and yet the members of the expedition were supplied with extra heavy clothing to keep their bodies warm. Preparations were made for dashing through the floe ice and hummocks at points where the more solid pack could be avoided, and the following is an extract from the log made by Ross himself of his observations at that time: "In the evening a remarkable appearance of land was reported. During several hours a number of pointed hills, apparently covered with snow, were seen, assuming an appearance so calculated to deceive the experienced eye that had we been prevented from proceeding farther it would doubtless have been asserted on our return to England that we had discovered land at this point. The appearance of land was, however, nothing more than the upper part of a cloud marking by a well-defined but irregular line the limit to which vapor can ascend in these latitudes. Below is vapor in every degree of condensation, above the clear cold space which vapor can never attain. It is always near the margin of the ice that these appearances of land are most remarkable and most deceptive. It proved a useful lesson to some of our new hands, who would not be persuaded it was not land until we had actually passed over the place of their baseless mountains." This entry quoted will recall vividly to the mind of every polar traveller how often he was deceived in his earlier exploring days by these remarkable appearances of clouds, as well as by the peculiar haze around icebergs, and the mirage. But Ross's expedition steered boldly and yet cautiously through the huge fields of ice, experiencing alternate fog and sunshine -- another peculiar aggravation to ice-region voyagers -- until at length real land was espied, land in the shape of two magnificent ice-capped mountains, each more than seven thousand feet in height, with glaciers filling the intervening valleys. After many struggles Ross reached the land and planted the British flag upon it, a distance of about thirteen hundred miles from the south pole, or about nine hundred and five miles farther from the goal sought for than Lieutenant Lockwood, of the Greely expedition, was from the north pole when he planted the "Stars and Stripes" on Greenland's shores. But farther inland Ross is reported to have seen other and higher mountains. Some days after this Ross found by observation that his ship was in latitude 76°, or about a thousand miles from the pole, and as it was felt that no human beings had ever been so near the south pole as this, there was great rejoicing on both ships.

Strange Illusions of the Polar Seas.

One incident of this day showed another of the singular deceptions so perplexing to arctic travellers: Ross's eyes lighted on an island where none had been visible two or three hours before; it was noted to be about a hundred feet high and free from snow. At the same time a large iceberg that had been reported suddenly disappeared. One phenomenon helped to explain the other. The iceberg had changed its centre of gravity by the action of the warmer strata of water underneath and turned completely over, presenting a new surface covered with earth and stones. Islands claimed to have been seen in the arctic have appeared and disappeared after the same manner. The two mountains on Victoria Land alluded to were named after the two ships; one was an active volcano twelve thousand feet high, and was named after the Erebus; the other, an extinct volcano, and of less altitude, was named the Terror. The hope that the icy obstacles to further progress would be surmounted by the discovery of land was not realized either through skill, labor, or perseverance. On the contrary, the icy barrier became greater and faced them directly on the south, and there was no possibility of penetrating through it or climbing over it. Mountains over and beyond this icy barrier, which was about two hundred feet high, could be seen in the distance, apparently as far as latitude 79°. The ships turned their prows eastward, following the line of the gigantic ice wall for about a hundred miles, and then gave up hopes of finding an opening. Ross spent three summers in his exploration, while he housed his ships in the intervening winters either at Tasmania or the Falkland Islands. Whenever he got south of 60° or so, it is the experience with ships which run through the Straits of Magellan that they often meet large icebergs, and this is in latitude 53° only. The greatest latitude reached by Ross was 78°, or about 720 miles from the pole. The object of his expedition, as has been stated, was to reach the south magnetic pole a different point from the south terrestrial pole. The great icy barrier prevented the realization of that hope, but a few years later Lieutenant Moore in the Pagoda made an expedition to parts of the antarctic circle that had not before been visited, and took magnetic observations that have rendered great service to science, although he did not get within 1400 miles of the terrestrial pole.

What Is To Be Gained.

The south pole enthusiasts assert that the knowledge of meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, and ocean currents has been largely increased by the work in the arctic regions, and that it is desirable now to compare the abundant facts collected with the corresponding conditions and phenomena in the south frigid zone. No antarctic expedition has had the advantage of modern instruments and methods for taking scientific observations, and if Sir James Ross had been able to land on the antarctic continent, the coast of which he surveyed for hundreds of miles, he could not have gone far, for sledge travelling had then no important part in polar explorations. Steam vessels, by which have been accomplished the greatest feats of arctic expeditions, have not yet been used in antarctic expeditions, and the entire system of work and living in polar regions is now better understood by experiment and experience than in Wilkes's and Ross's time, hence greater success should come to antarctic researches (sic). All that is know of the south pole at the present is this: Nobody has got nearer than within 720 miles of it; icy barriers exist which quite eclipse those of the north pole; mountains have been discovered of lofty altitudes, some of which are active volcanoes; the land is covered with snow at all times of the year; no human being has been met with south of 56°; no vegetable growth of any moment has been seen beyond 58°; no land qudruped is known to exist beyond 66°. The geology alone of this "land of mystery and wonder" seems to afford a vast amount of entertaining instruction, for in no other part of the world do frost and fire hold such undivided sway. The volcano known as "Mount Terror" belches forth lava and ashes over the snow and ice. In all probability an investigation of the rock formations of the antarctic continent would tell a wonderful story of its history in ages past.

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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Original Source:
  {Boston Transcript, Boston, MA, Aug. 7, 1987}  
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  {Jennifer F. Holvoet, University of Kansas.}  
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