UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes Monthly > January 2001 Search

January 2001

Adventures in cold places: Susan Solomon probes Antarctic mystery

Susan Solomon. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

An overflow crowd at the Boulder Public Library on 4 December heard a different kind of talk from Susan Solomon. For the third Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture sponsored by UCAR, the NOAA atmospheric chemist told the tale of Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole and the role weather played in its tragic outcome. Solomon became interested in Scott during her four trips to Antarctica to conduct research on the causes of ozone depletion in the stratosphere. She didn't want to give yet another ozone talk in Boulder, Solomon told the audience. Instead, she said, "I'm going to honor Walt by telling you a scientific story that I think he really would have loved," a story using modern science to shed light on an old mystery: why Scott and his companions died after reaching the pole.

Scott has been criticized for making foolish or ignorant mistakes, but Solomon found different evidence in his party's journals. Before tackling the pole, Scott sent three men on a six-week scientific mission across the Ross ice sheet. "It's probably not often recognized that [that mission being] in the middle of winter, in 1911, was one of the key cornerstones in Scott's thinking about the weather." The mission's meteorological logs show readings, some as low as –77°F (–61°C), taken three times a day with sling thermometers filled with toluene or alcohol to keep them from freezing. Photographs show the Scott party taking temperature profiles with weather balloons. Scott's meteorologist, George Simpson, built theories to explain the observations, estimated the temperatures the polar mission would encounter, and predicted "the wind would be at their backs on the way home" from the pole.

When Scott reached his goal in January 1912, he discovered Roald Amundsen had been there less than a month earlier. Amundsen's group returned safely, but Solomon believes that Scott's party encountered much colder temperatures. Comparing Scott's records to data from automated weather stations installed around Antarctica since the 1970s, she concluded that it was the anomalous cold, which hovered near –40°F (–40°C) for two and a half weeks, that did Scott's party in.

Solomon's account of the mission's triumphs and failures, The Coldest March, is slated for publication in 2001 by Yale University Press.

• Zhenya Gallon

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Last revised: Mon Jan 22 15:24:15 MST 2001