The Royal Society and polar science

HMS Terror HMS Terror thrown up by ice

'The Royal Society and polar science' ran from July to November 2007 in the Archive Room at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London

The poles have long been seen as places of terror and wonder.

"To us, the sight of ice was a plague, a vexation, a torment, an evil, a matter of despair & the remembrance would never cease" wrote the 19th century explorer, Sir John Ross.

But for centuries, the mystery of these regions has attracted scientists. The questions they asked were large ones. As recently as 1898, Sir John Murray could wonder: "Is there an Antarctic Continent?"

Today, in a world where climate change is a reality, much of the information needed to understand it can be found in these remote places. For International Polar Year, the Royal Society's President Lord Rees has remarked: "Polar regions are clearly the focus of even more interest than they were 50 years ago ... the most pristine and least-explored parts of the planet ..."

John Barrow FRSJohn Barrow FRS painted by Stephen Pearce, ca 1840s.

The Royal Society has promoted the scientific understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic for over 200 years. The first regional explorers were whalers and traders, but science quickly followed commerce. By the early 19th century it had become a cartographic challenge to record the wide blank spaces in the Arctic region, primarily to discover a North-West Passage to the Pacific Ocean. This was an opportunity for scientists to add to their knowledge of the Earth, in part as a matter of national prestige.

At the British Admiralty, John Barrow FRS championed the dispatch of several naval expeditions. The Royal Society advised on equipment and instruments, staffing and, crucially, the areas of research which were to be investigated. The North-West Passage was attempted in 1818 by John Ross in the Isabella with William Parry in the Alexander. Among the party was Edward Sabine FRS, recommended by the Royal Society as the expedition's astronomer.

Sabine also overwintered with Parry in the Arctic during 1819-20, the first British team to do so. Sabine's magnetic observations, which earned him the Royal Society's Copley Medal, were preliminary steps in the study of magnetic variation, instigating a major international project under British leadership. This required vast quantities of data and investment in facilities and personnel, as well as political support from the Admiralty and the Royal Society.

This 'Magnetic Crusade' was boosted by the discovery of the Northern Magnetic Pole in 1831 by James Clark Ross FRS. Ross extended the magnetic survey via the 1839-43 southern voyage of the Erebus and Terror. Reaching the Antarctic, he named the highest mountain in the Admiralty Range after Sabine, "one of the most active and zealous promoters of this expedition". The voyage was a great success, generating Sabine's detailed interpretation of the results in the Philosophical Transactions, and the Flora Antarctica of Joseph Dalton Hooker FRS, botanist on the Erebus.

Expedition doubling Cape Barrow"Expedition doubling Cape Barrow, July 25 1821" engrabed by Edward Finden after Admiral Sir George Back.

The Arctic expeditions had left an 'unexplored quadrilateral' of 70,000 square miles. Barrow and Sabine again suggested a North-West Passage expedition, arguing that it would help to complete a magnetic survey of the world. The Royal Society gave its consent and the Erebus and Terror were once again used. This time, the ships were fitted with steam engines and extra iron hull plating to battle the polar ice. Supply novelties such as tinned food were added to the technologically well-equipped party.

The expedition leader was Sir John Franklin, lately Governor of Tasmania and now 59 years old. He commanded Erebus, with Francis Crozier FRS, a magnetism expert who had sailed to the Arctic with Parry, appointed to Terror. The ships left on 19 May 1845, and were last seen by two whaling vessels at the end of July, before vanishing into the ice.

A rescue was demanded by Lady Jane Franklin, but hope ended with the 1857-59 expedition of Francis McClintock. Human remains were found together with written records of Franklin's death in 1847. Meanwhile the many expeditions which had joined the search contributed enormously to the mapping of the Canadian archipelago, and to meteorology, magnetism and natural history. Sledging was developed as a transportation technique, particularly by McClintock.

By the later 19th century, exploration had changed completely. Ships now established headquarters from which boats and travelling parties could explore. More fundamentally, expeditions were raised for purely scientific purposes, the model for which was the 1872-76 worldwide voyage of HMS Challenger. The vessel's purpose was to study the world's oceans and their marine zoology. Challenger became the first steamship to cross the Antarctic Circle. The crew took the earliest photograph of an iceberg and skirted the edge of the pack ice.

The first International Polar Year took place during 1882-83, when co-ordinated scientific observations were made at the polar regions. Three disciplines were established as necessary for all stations: meteorology, geomagnetism and the study of auroral phenomena, with some facilities also investigating ocean currents and tides, floating ice and glaciers, zoology, botany and geology. Only two stations from a total of fourteen were in the southern hemisphere, however. By 1898 when John Murray FRS summarised 'The scientific advantages of an Antarctic expedition' for the Royal Society, the bulk of scientific knowledge about the ocean life and geology of the south remained the results from Challenger's venture into the Kerguelen region

Sir Clements Markham FRS obtained private funds and matching government support for the 1901-04 National Antarctic Expedition. This was jointly managed by the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, where Markham was President. Robert Falcon Scott was selected to lead, setting out on 4 August 1901 in the specially designed and built Discovery.

Scott had carefully selected scientific equipment and detailed scientific instructions from the Royal Society. Scientifically and geographically, the venture was a modest success: it carried out a magnetic survey of the southern regions, reached to within 480 miles of the South Pole, proved that the Great Ice Barrier was moving, and discovered fossilized plant remains, showing that the region had a warmer, tropical climate in the past. Mountains were named the 'Royal Society Range' by Scott. Most importantly, the question that Murray had raised in proposing the expedition was answered: there genuinely was a single Antarctic continent.

Ernest Shackleton had been part of the 1901-04 venture and although the Royal Society did not involve itself with his British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09, it did approve it. Here, T W Edgeworth David FRS was able to reach the South Magnetic Pole and to climb Mount Erebus. The organisation supported Scott's return to the Antarctic, but his demise in the expedition of 1910-13 marked the end of direct Royal Society involvement in the Antarctic for many years.

Emperor PenguinA taxidermied Emperor penguin, brought back from the Royal Society Halley Bay Expedition in 1956.

In April 1950, scientists began planning an international effort focusing on ionosphere studies at a time of maximum solar activity. An ambitious research programme at both poles led to the designation of 1957-58 as International Geophysical Year (IGY).

Antarctica was fully included in the polar research, with 44 stations set up to study the aurora and magnetic activity, but also branches of geophysics such as seismology and glaciology. The Royal Society became responsible for Britain's contribution to IGY and created its own research station on the Weddell Sea coast, named Halley Bay to mark Sir Edmond Halley's tercentenary. An advance party travelled with the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of Vivian Fuchs FRS, to prepare the ground for a main Royal Society team. This took over the Halley Bay Station in January 1957.

Halley's science focused on observations of the upper atmosphere, including ozone measurements, and it was one of the first auroral observatories. Rockets and balloons were used in atmospheric studies. On the ground, glaciological traverses were made to map Antarctica's ice cover. By 1958 the Society's operations at Halley Bay ceased and were transferred to the British Antarctic Survey in 1962. Data gathered at Halley was important; in the 1980s, Halley's long-term ozone measurements were used to demonstrate the existence of an ozone hole, and therefore man-made depletion in the stratosphere.

The legacy of IGY continues in the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-08. Now, many international expeditions and experiments are engaging with both polar regions. More than 200 collaborative scientific projects, with scientists from over 60 nations, will examine a range of physical and biological research topics, from ice-sheet dynamics to nomadic reindeer herding in Siberia.

British scientists are taking part in many of these international collaborative projects. To enhance the public awareness and understanding of scientific work, IPY 2007-08 projects have to ensure that their data can be widely used in outreach programmes and education. These activities will expand scientific literacy among students and the general public. The scientific work will lead to a much greater understanding of the polar regions and the behaviour of their ice cover, which is changing rapidly as global temperatures rise. The IPY also aims to engage a new generation of polar scientists and to highlight the importance of the poles to the global climate system.

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