In the spirit of international collaboration: Honoring the Terra Nova Expedition

By Michael Studinger, IceBridge Project Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/UMBC

Thule Air Base, Greenland – March 29, 2012 is a special day for polar researchers worldwide. It marks the centennial of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s death on the Ross Ice Shelf. Many commemorative events have taken place around the world to remember the scientific accomplishments of the Terra Nova Expedition, particularly those of the Pole Party consisting of Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. The most prominent event was a National Service of Commemoration for Captain Scott and the Pole Party at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, with IceBridge’s own Seelye Martin attending as a guest of honor.

In 2008 I had the privilege to visit Captain Scott’s historic Terra Nova Hut on Cape Evans in Antarctica, and the geographic South Pole, where the National Science Foundation installed a sign bearing Scott’s famous quote said when the party realized the Norwegian expedition, led by Roald Amundsen, had been there first: “The pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.” These are moments in my life that I will never forget. Walking through the Terra Nova Hut, which looked like it has been frozen in time, took my breath away.

Inside Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Hut on Cape Evans. The hut was built in 1911 by members of the British Antarctic Expedition (Terra Nova Expedition) and used as base for the trek to South Pole from which Scott and four of his team members never returned. The hut is remarkably well preserved but is undergoing restoration by the Antarctic Heritage Trust to protect it from further decay. The kitchen area on the left is one of the many areas inside and outside the hut that are being worked on. The hut is part of the 100 most endangered sites on the World Monuments Watch List. It is a remarkable place to be to say the least. Credit: Michael Studinger/NASA.

One hundred years later polar research has changed dramatically. On the day of the centennial, NASA’s Operation IceBridge and the European Space Agency’s CryoVEx campaign coordinated flights of two aircraft from different locations over the Arctic Ocean on a track flown shortly before by ESA’s CryoSat-2 spacecraft 600 km (370 miles) above us. We are able to do this because we have modern satellite images that are a few hours old and computer models showing the cloud cover in the survey area. We have modern means of communication that allow us to coordinate these science flights a few hours before takeoff. We know our position within a few feet and the NASA Airborne Science program flight tracker shows our position in real time. A lot has changed to say the least, but nevertheless operating in the remote polar regions remains a challenge even today. Modern navigation computers routinely get confused within a few miles of either the North or South Pole, the extreme cold still poses a challenge and weather predictions can be wrong. The safety and success of our operations is only possible because of extremely experienced and skilled members of the aircrew and instrument teams that excel in meeting the challenges of the polar environment every day.

Discovery Hut near McMurdo Station in Antarctica

McMurdo Station in Antarctica with the historic Discovery Hut in the foreground. The hut was built during Scott’s 1901-1903 expedition. The contrast between old and new is amazing. Observation Hill, the site of the Terra Nova memorial cross can be seen in the background on the right. Credit: Michael Studinger/NASA.

Today’s polar research is driven by a spirit of international collaboration and the joint NASA/ESA flight on March 29, 2012 is a fine example of what can be accomplished when many nations and organizations team up instead of competing with each other. Recognizing the enormous accomplishments of the early polar explorers, we dedicate this flight to the members of the Terra Nova Expedition, who died in Antarctica one hundred years ago.

NASA P-3 flight path

Flight path of the NASA P-3 Orion in yellow during the joint sea ice science mission with ESA’s CryoVEx airborne campaign stationed in Alert on Ellesmere Island and CryoSat-2.