Modern Explorers Follow the Century-Old Antarctic Footsteps of Douglas Mawson
Scientists set out to re-create an epic life-or-death trek, using today's technology.
Last week, a 36-person team led by Chris Turney, an Australian adventurer and climate scientist, set out from New Zealand to retrace the historic journey of a scientific expedition to Antarctica that took place a century ago. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 aims to find the hut of Douglas Mawson, leader of the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), to repeat many of the original team's observations and, time willing, to locate the South Magnetic Pole, one of the goals of Mawson's expedition.
It won't be easy. According to Turney, "Right now there's a huge ice pack tight to the shore at Commonwealth Bay, three and a half meters thick." Yet if the team can reach the hut, says Turney, "we'll replicate Mawson's work, using the twist of modern technology."
His team's scientists hope to record the temperature and saltiness of the Southern Ocean, make censuses of the bird populations, extract drill cores from the land ice, and send drones into the air to map the surroundings of Commonwealth Bay. These data may help to determine how much the climate has changed in what scientists have now proved is the windiest place on Earth at sea level.
Many hoped the original AAE would be the first Antarctic expedition to establish radio contact with the outside world, but winds leveled the ship's masts and wrecked the equipment. The members of the centenary expedition, however, will be in regular contact with followers all over the world, through several kinds of social media. See ChrisTurney.com for daily blog posts, tweets, an expedition tracker map, and videos from the team. "We hope to maintain a live conversation with the public every step of the way," vows Turney.
On the original expedition, Douglas Mawson faced a nearly hopeless life-or-death predicament. Uninterested in joining the race to the South Pole that so animated Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, Mawson intended to explore a 2,000-mile-long (3,200-kilometer-long) swath of the southern continent that was terra incognita, and to bring back the best scientific results yet wrung from Antarctica.
(Read about the expedition in "Into the Unknown" in National Geographic magazine; see the gallery of photos from the original expedition here.)
On December 14, 1912, three hundred miles and five weeks out from their base camp hut in Commonwealth Bay, Mawson and Xavier Mertz turned in their sledging tracks to discover that their companion, Belgrave Ninnis, had disappeared. A hidden crevasse more than 150 feet deep had swallowed Ninnis, six dogs, and the sledge containing nearly all the food for both dogs and men, as well as their most vital gear, including their three-man tent.
Mertz, too, would die on the return journey, but when Mawson limped and crawled alone back to the hut on February 8, 1913, he would complete what Sir Edmund Hillary later called "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration."
"Mawson's survival was magical and inspirational," Turney says. "But in spite of all the AAE's hardships, they brought back an unprecedented wealth of data." Turney hopes his expedition will do the same.
David Roberts is the author of an account of the 1913 expedition called Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration (W. W. Norton & Co., 2013).