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Published: Scotland on Sunday, 16 September 2012

1912: The Year The World Discovered Antarctica
By Chris Turney
Bodley Head, £20

‘THE South Pole discovered.” That was the headline on the London Daily Chronicle’s exclusive report on Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole in 1912, and, according to earth scientist Chris Turney, it sums up everything that’s wrong with the way we have come to view the various Antarctic expeditions of that year. The headline, and much of the newspaper coverage that followed, tended to frame what Amundsen and his British counterpart Robert Falcon Scott were doing as a straightforward race to the Geographic South Pole. However, the various South Polar expeditions of 1912 were primarily scientific endeavours, and although the idea of a race to the bottom of the world may have captured the imagination of the public then and since, in terms of practical scientific usefulness it was little more than a trivial footnote.

Britain and Norway weren’t the only countries to send teams of scientists to Antarctica in 1912. Also working on the continent at the time were expeditions led by Nobu Shirase of Japan, Wilhelm Filchner of Germany and Douglas Mawson of Australia; and while none of these teams achieved their planned objectives in terms of overland ­travel, their scientific discoveries were still highly significant.

The Japanese found volcanic rock samples on King Edward VII Land that supported the idea of rifting in the Earth’s crust, and suggested that King Edward VII Land had probably formed as a separate landmass to the eastern Antarctic. Thanks to the work of oceanographer Wilhelm Brennecke, meanwhile, Filchner’s German party was able to determine how alternating layers of water in the Atlantic work to transport warmer water south and colder water north, recycling nutrients as they go.

The meteorology findings of Douglas Mawson’s Austral­asian Antarctic Expedition showed how weather systems in Antarctica could have a profound impact on conditions in the rest of the world, and depth soundings taken by ­geologist Edgeworth David on board Mawson’s boat, the ­Aurora, disproved the theory that Antarctica and New ­Zealand had once been connected by a land bridge, laying the groundwork for the theory of plate tectonics.

Turney does his best to bring early 20th century science to life, but the most readable passages are those concerning the life-and-death experiences of Scott and Mawson. Science writing, it seems, even in the hands of someone keen to promote it, still has a long way to go before it can rival adventure stories for sheer readability.

It’s ironic, too, that the one big discovery in Turney’s book relates not to the scientific side of Antarctic exploration, but to the derring-do of Scott’s ill-fated attempt on the Pole.

During his research, Turney uncovered evidence that the food depots Scott and his team relied on during their return journey had been depleted by one of the support parties, probably the one led by Scott’s second in command, Edward Wilson, and that attempts were made to cover this up in order to avoid a scandal.

Like the Antarctic expeditions of 1912, then, there’s a good chance this book will be remembered for its contribution to the literature of adventure travel rather than its contribution to science, when in fact the opposite should be the case. «

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