The so-called “Human Dimension of Climate Change” is a central focus of the IGERT curriculum at Dartmouth. In the spring course and summer field seminar in Greenland, IGERT fellows learn about the difficulties and advantages associated with incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into our science. We receive an introduction to the Greenlandic language, Kalaallisut, and discuss the responsibilities associated with working in and around Indigenous communities. And we hear, first hand, the experiences and perspectives of Arctic government and NGO leaders who are facing rapid environmental change on a national scale.
The Arctic is, perhaps, a case study in several areas: from US foreign policy to the implications of rapid business development, indigenous traditions to language preservation, and colonial tensions to national identity. But what about the Antarctic? No humans are native to the continent, and it was set aside for “peaceful purposes” and “contributions to scientific knowledge” in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The first sighting of the continent occurred in 1820. The date when the first person set foot on the continent is a matter of debate but may have been the following year or decades later. And a woman didn’t make it down to the bottom of the world until 1935. Yet, I would argue, this place is rich with history. It’s a history that’s brief but speaks powerfully of humans’ ability to survive in the harshest of conditions, commitment to maintaining camaraderie, and desire to explore the unknown.
While delayed by weather for 6 days (and counting), I’ve had the rare opportunity to explore the interior of all three of the huts erected on Ross Island. Discovery Hut, mentioned in my previous post, is just walking distance from McMurdo and Scott. It was built for Robert Scott’s Discovery Mission of 1901-1904. It’s not particularly well insulated, and during that first expedition was used for storage while the men lived on their nearby ship. Shackleton later used the hut for storage and accommodations during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909, when he made an attempt at the pole but famously turned back within 100 miles of the pole after realizing that his men would not survive the return journey with the food they had. The support party for the British Expedition of 1910-1913 (Scott’s pole expedition) used the hut, as well, but the expedition was primarily based out of Scott’s Hut 20 km north at Cape Evans. The final party to use the hut during the Heroic Age was the Ross Sea party, the support team for Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917). This team laid depots almost all the way to the pole, while Shackleton approached the continent from the opposite side, with the intention of being the first to cross Antarctica. Shackleton never reached his starting point in the Weddell Sea when the Endurance became trapped in the ice; he is best known for saving his men by making an open boat journey to Elephant Island. The men in the Ross Sea party, however, did not all survive. The ones who laid the last depot nearly perished on their return to Discovery Hut. The rest of their party was at Cape Evans in a warm and relatively well-stocked hut (surviving off of what Scott left behind), but the sea ice made the short passage impossible. The men were stranded at Discovery Hut for 3 months with frostbite, eking out an existence on seal meat. The following fall, six men were trapped again; 3 perished trying to reach Scott’s Hut, and three survived until the sea ice came in and they could make safe passage.
The men in the British Antarctic Expedition (AKA Terra Nova Expedition) of 1910-1913 built Scott’s Hut on Cape Evans as a base for their expedition to the South Pole. Scott reached the South Pole only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beat him there and then perished on his return. The Ross Sea party was the latest to use the hut, although the Antarctic Heritage Trust has restored it to its appearance during the original expedition.
Finally, we visited Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds, from which Shackleton staged his expedition of 1907-1909, when he nearly reached the pole but turned back to avoid certain death from starvation.
Perhaps because the explorers were westerners and perhaps because I share their desire to explore, experience, and learn about this continent, I find myself able to identify with them more easily than with Arctic peoples. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually think I could have survived more than a day in the conditions they had to endure; after all, I go through hand warmers at an embarrassing rate, sleep with down booties, and need hot drinks at regular intervals to stay warm. But I like to think there’s something about their fascination with and commitment to this bizarre, cold, and remote place that I, too, can share and be a part of.