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Antarctic Exploration

A Belgian Expedition to Start Southward Next Week.

The Magnetic Pole to Be Studied -- Earlier Voyages, Their Objects and Results -- A Desolate Frigid Zone

The British Association for the Advancement of Science some time ago appointed a committee, among the members being Sir Leopold McClintock and Sir George Nares, for the purpose of drawing attention to the desirability of an expedition to the Antarctic, the region regarded as "the land of mystery and wonder," a region covering an area of eight million square miles, and altogether a terra incognita. Not as the outcome of any report from this British Committee, but as a result of interest stirred up among the Belgians, who believe that the Antarctic Continent is of sufficient importance to pay for the trouble, expense and danger involved, a fund of 250,000 francs ($50,000) has been raised, and on July 25 the Belgica, a steam whaling vessel especially built for navigation among ice-packs, icefloes and icebergs, will sail from Antwerp with the expedition. The commander of the exploring party is Captain 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 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 Janeiro, 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 toward 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 toward 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 the 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 place 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 the changes.

It was about three hundred 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, Briscoe and others, the former reaching the latitude 74°, which was further 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 instructions to "push as far south as possible, and look out for new lands." The Porpoise, Sea Gull and the 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 Land, which had been discovered and plotted a 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, dispatching Admiral Dumont D'Urville with the corvettes Astrolabe and Zelce (sic). 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 as 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 to-day, 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 further from the goal sought for than Lieutentant Lockwood, of the Greely expedition, was from the North Pole when he planted the "Stars and Stripes" on Greeland's shores. But further 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 other human beings had ever been so near the South Pole as this, there was great rejoicing on board both ships.

Strange Illusions of the Polar Sea.

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 ice-berg had changed its centre of gravity by 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 Erabus (sic) ; 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 ice 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 mils (sic), 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 the battling with the ice began. In fact, 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 seven hundred and twenty miles from the Pole. The object of his expedition, as has been stated, was to reach the southern magnetic pole -- a diffierent (sic) 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 1,400 miles of the terrestrial pole.

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 traveling had then no important part in polar explorations. Steam vessels, by which have been accomplished the greatest feats of Arctic discovery, 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. All that is known 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 quadruped is know 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" (sic) 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:
  {N.Y. Tribune, NY, July 18, 1896.}  
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  {jennifer Holvoet,
University of Kansas}
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