April 4, 2014

Tragedies in Science: The Terra Nova Expedition

by Christine Hoekenga

In 1911, five British scientists and explorers set out to reach the South Pole on foot.

In 1911, five British scientists and explorers from the Terra Nova crew set out to reach the South Pole on foot. Left to Right: (standing) Edward Adrian Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, Lawrence Oates; (seated) Henry Robertson Bowers, Edgar Evans.

On March 29, 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott made the final entry in his journal, which concluded:

We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write anymore.

Scott, who perished a day or two later, had been the leader of the British Terra Nova Expedition, an ill-fated scientific and exploratory mission to Antarctica named for the ship that carried the men to the edge of their fate. Scott and four other scientist-explorers from the Terra Nova crew set out on foot to gather scientific data and collect specimens from the largely unexplored continent. They also had a secondary goal that ultimately overshadowed and doomed their mission: to be the first to humans to reach the South Pole.

Scott’s team made the difficult journey hundreds of kilometers across the ice and snow to the pole — only to find a Norwegian flag and a note from the team that had beaten them by more than a month. Heavy-hearted, they turned back, but none of them made it to the base camp. They succumbed to frost bite, exhaustion, injuries, and starvation, the last three dying in a tent just 17 kilometers from a supply depot.

What had gone wrong? How did this expedition turn fatal?

Scott was no stranger to the harsh conditions, having made a previous journey to Antarctica in 1901 on the HMS Discovery. During his first visit, he led two small expeditions that discovered that the South Victoria Mountains, explored a portion of the polar ice cap, and trekked further south than anyone else in human history. As a whole, the Discovery team conducted research that included taking soundings of the Ross Sea, investigating the geologic structure of the continent, and observing emperor penguins and other wildlife. The mission was a scientific and political success, and it left Scott hungry for more.

The routes taken by the British crew led by Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian crew led by Roald Amundsen.

The routes taken by the British crew led by Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian crew led by Roald Amundsen.

The 1901 expedition received major funding from the British government, but Scott’s second voyage on the Terra Nova was funded in part with donations made by British school children. Unlike the Norwegian team that beat them to the pole, Scott and his men pulled the heavy supply sledges by hand most of the way.  They started with three motorized sledges, a small group of ponies, and a few dogs, but the motorized sledges broke down, the ponies died, and the doges returned to base camp with one of the support teams. That left the men to drag their own supplies as well as the samples they collected along the way for research. By contrast, the Norwegian explorers were expert cross-country skiers who had a team of 52 sled dogs and only one goal: reach the South Pole as quickly as possible.

A combination of poor planning and bad luck, including some extreme weather conditions (even for Antarctica), ultimately turned the Terra Nova Expedition tragic.  But the exploratory spirit and the sheer courage and ambition that drove Scott and his men to attempt the journey, continue to inspire.

Several countries now maintain permanent research stations in Antarctica, which are helping scientists gather data on climate change, fisheries, and other topics of international interest. The National Science Foundation sponsors the U.S. Antarctic Program, which strives to foster cooperative research among nations, protect the Antarctic environment, and ensure equitable and wise use of resources from the continent. The United Kingdom maintains the British Antarctic Survey, which has similar research goals. And this February, 102 years after the Terra Nova crew perished, two outdoorsmen Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere, succeeded in retracing and completing Scott’s epic journey.


Dig into the details of the expedition with the Royal Museums Greenwich

Read Robert Falcon Scott’s biography from the Royal Naval Museum

Learn about some of the modern research being conducted at the North Pole in our module Studying Climate Change with Kevin Arrigo

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.