|Scott's party at the South Pole, from left: Oates (standing), Bowers (sitting),|
Scott (standing), Wilson (sitting), Evans (standing).
Bowers used a piece of string attached to the camera shutter
|Adélie Penguin and chick. Brown Buff, Antarctic Peninsula|
26 January 2005
…the return journey to the South Pole from the Antarctic coast is only just within reach for the most capable of people. The four-month summer window each year, during which man-haulers must inevitably pull insufficient food in environmental conditions that conspire to induce rapid wasting, today still represents an enormous, potentially life-threatening physiological challenge.
While Halsey and Stroud provide a cogent explanation for the gradual decline of the polar party with time, I think they could have made more of their statement:
This cycle would have been accelerated during the final weeks both due to dehydration because of reduced resources to melt water and due to the unusually cold temperatures that they suffered during February and March; these would have served to further decrease pulling power, and increase the energy costs of sledge-pulling due to the friction of snow when below around 30°C
Susan Solomon's† analysis of the weather records to me at least indicates the reason for the failure of the polar party (except of course for Petty Officer Evans who had already died, and possibly for Oates who already had, but did not report, frostbite that eventually limited his mobility) to reach safety. On the Ross Ice Shelf the weather was very cold, much colder than a few weeks earlier and much colder than average. Apart from the direct effect of the cold, the deterioration in the surface conditions meant that the huge effort of hauling a sledge did not translate in the coverage of sufficient distance each day. As frostbite in Oates and, eventually, Scott, supervened, the vicious circle of decline accelerated rapidly.
All writers on the fate of the polar party are left with the question of whether Bowers and Wilson could have survived had they left Scott in the tent who by then had a badly frost-bitten foot. I think the odds were on their survival, heavily in the case of Bowers, slightly less so for Wilson. Why they did not opt for a push to the depot is, though, a question best left to those with expertise in group psychology. My reading of it is that both found it impossible to leave Scott.
The relatively rapid end to the hopes of Scott and his party is well summed-up by Susan Solomon and Stearns in their concluding remarks to their paper in PNAS:
The observations of the extremely cold temperatures reported by Scott and his companions in March of 1912 do not imply that these frigid conditions alone caused their deaths. Indeed, one man perished before these challenges were encountered and another was already suffering from frostbite, as has been noted. But the unusually cold temperatures that prevailed over an extended period of several weeks substantially contributed to the tribulations faced by Scott and his team during the final stages of their battle for survival. In spite of their plight, the party continued to record the scientific data that provide key information regarding their fate. Those measurements show that they endured minimum temperatures more than 10°F lower than the average that can now be derived from multiple years of automated measurements for the period from February 25 to March 19 near 80°S on the Ross Ice Shelf. On some particular days in March, the daily minimum temperatures in 1912 were more than 20°F colder than the climatological average. These conditions likely contributed to frostbite and extreme fatigue in the men, as well as to the friction of the very cold snow surface that amplified the physical demands of the strenuous task of man-hauling their supplies by sledge, and thereby slowed their progress. Scott and his last two companions died near the 29th of the month, after enduring what might be dubbed “the coldest march.”
On reading the various suggestions—which often turned into assertions—of the causes of the loss the the polar party, writers have tended to promote a single cause while dismissing others. My firm impression is that it what was not a case or either/or but of a combination of circumstances that formed the perfect storm of a positive feedback loop, with the weather accelerating that final phase, and the descent, to mix metaphors, into a never-ending bottomless pit.
†The Coldest March. 2001. Yle university Press. Solomon S & Stearns CR. 1999.On the role of the weather in the deaths of R. F. Scott and his companions. Proceedings of the National Academy of the USA 96 13012-13016
*In this respect it is interesting to note the studies on Alaskan sled dogs covering 490 km in a race over 70 hours at -35 to -10°C; their energy expenditure was an enormous 11,200 kcalories/day. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9401699
|South Shetlands. Livingston Island from Half Moon Island|
27 January 2005