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Polar History

Erik the Red Goes Green

Erik the Red Goes Green

‘Erik the Red’, or Erik Thorvaldsson as his mother knew him, kills two men in a fight and is exiled from Iceland. He flees west, finds Greenland, and becomes the first to settle there permanently. 

Captain Cook crosses the Antarctic Circle. He’s not impressed.

Captain Cook crosses the Antarctic Circle. He’s not impressed.

British explorer Captain James Cook becomes one of the first to cross into the Antarctic Circle, sailing within 150 miles of the continent’s coast. Although he fails to catch a glimpse of the landmass itself, rocks encased in icebergs hint at a new world to the south. But those who imagined a fertile land full of people would be disappointed...

"I make bold to declare that the world will derive no benefit from it."
Captain James Cook
Into the Weddell Sea

Into the Weddell Sea

James Weddell, a Scottish sealer, reaches 74 degrees south – the closest to the pole of anybody yet. Despite his grand achievements, Weddell runs into money troubles and dies at 47 in relative poverty and obscurity. The sea he first explored wouldn't be visited again for another 80 years. It is re-named in his honour in 1900.

"In pride, these birds (King Penguins) are perhaps not surpassed even by the peacock."
James Weddell
The North Magnetic Pole

The North Magnetic Pole

In the latest of centuries' attempts to find a northern trading route through to China, British explorer James Clark Ross leads an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Along the way, he becomes the first to reach the North Magnetic Pole in far north Canada, (where compasses are very confused), but the ship becomes trapped in ice and it’s four years before the crew returns home.

James Clark Ross breaks new ice

James Clark Ross breaks new ice

In the latest of centuries' attempts to find a northern trading route through to China, British explorer James Clark Ross leads an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Along the way, he becomes the first to reach the North Magnetic Pole in far north Canada, (where compasses are very confused), but the ship becomes trapped in ice and it’s four years before the crew returns home.

Did you know?
Ross also has a sea, a crater on the moon, and a polar research vessel named after him.

"We might with equal chance of success try to sail through the cliffs of Dover, as to penetrate such a mass"
Sir James weighs up an attempt to sail through the Ross Ice Shelf
The Northeast Passage is conquered

The Northeast Passage is conquered

Finnish and Swedish geologist, Baron Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, leads the first expedition to successfully navigate the Northeast Passage. Sailing on board the Vega, he cuts a path along the northern coasts of Europe and Asia for the first time.

Northwest Passage, passed

Northwest Passage, passed

Norwegian explorer and high-achiever Roald Amundsen charts the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage. The feat won’t be repeated for another 34 years.

"Adventure is just bad planning"
Raold Amundsen
The race to the South Pole

The race to the South Pole

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen leads the first successful voyage to the South Pole. The team of five set out from their base camp at the eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf on 19 October with four sledges and a team of 52 dogs. They reach their destination 56 days letter, leaving behind a small tent and a letter declaring their achievement. The expedition is meticulously prepared and organised. Amundsen uses some of the dogs for fresh protein along the way - only 11 survive the return journey.

Little more than a month later, a British party led by naval officer and explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott arrive at the South Pole to discover their Norwegian rivals have beaten them to it. The return journey ends in tragedy as a combination of bad weather and planning errors leave Scott and his four companions stranded on the ice. All five perish. But their diaries provide valuable scientific insights including the discovery of plant fossils, suggesting Antarctica was once a forested land joined to the other continents. It would be another 44 years before the next person set foot on the South Pole.

"I am just going outside and may be some time"
The final words of one of Scott’s companions, Lawrence Oates
Shackleton’s Endurance

Shackleton’s Endurance

Having served under Captain Scott on earlier expeditions, Ernest Shackleton returns to Antarctica attempting to complete the first crossing of the continent. The voyage ends in failure, as their ship is consumed by a shifting ice floe. Two years later, following an epic tale of heroism and companionship, including a treacherous journey across the fierce Southern Ocean in an open boat, the party is finally rescued from the island of South Georgia and Shackleton returns home a hero.

"For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton"
Sir Raymond Priestley, a member of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition
Amundsen completes the set

Amundsen completes the set

Roald Amundsen, of Northwest Passage and South Pole fame, reaches the North Pole to become the first person to stand at both ends of the Earth. After a previous attempt marred by a broken arm and a bear mauling, he completes the feat by airship. With previous claims on the North Pole heavily disputed, Amundsen and his companion Oscar Wisting may have been the first to set foot on both the North and South Poles.

First woman in Antarctica

First woman in Antarctica

Caroline Mikkelsen from Denmark joins a Norwegian whaling expedition and becomes the first woman to  walk on Antarctica.

Operation Tabarin

Operation Tabarin

As World War II rages, Britain launches operation Tabarin, a secret military exercise designed to assert its territory in the Southern Ocean. As the war draws to its conclusion, Tabarin’s three bases and its scientific work are transferred to a new organisation – the Falklands Islands Dependencies Surveywhich would be renamed in 1962 the British Antarctic Survey. A massive expansion of international activity on Antarctica follows.

"I was once chased along a beach by a sea leopard, with its mouth wide open. The penguins would get a bit shirty, too, and have a nip at your legs."
George James, a member of Operation Tabarin, speaking to The Telegraph in 2014
A scientific boom in the south

A scientific boom in the south

Many countries have now established permanent scientific stations in Antarctica and territorial positions are being asserted, but not agreed. The International Geophysical Year – the first substantial multi-nation research programme on the continent – is hailed as a major scientific success.

"All observational data shall be available to scientists and scientific institutions in all countries"
The IGY organising committee
Treaty secures peace in Antarctica

Treaty secures peace in Antarctica

Following the success of the International Geophysical Year, the 12 countries involved sign the Antarctic Treaty, declaring the region "...a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science". The treaty promotes scientific co-operation and guards against military activity.

"Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only"
The Antarctic Treaty
First child born on Antarctica

First child born on Antarctica

Emilio Marcos Palma becomes the first person to be born on mainland Antarctica. He enters the world on January 7 at an Argentine base near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, weighing in at 7 lb 8 oz. There have been a further ten births on the continent since, enough for an Antarctic football team perhaps?

RRS <i>James Clark Ross</i>

RRS James Clark Ross

RRS James Clark Ross was launched by HM the Queen in 1990, and is primarily a marine research vessel for biological, oceanographic and geophysical cruises. The RRS James Clark Ross (named after Admiral Sir James Clark Ross, R.N.), can steam at a steady two knots through level sea ice one a metre thick. To assist passage through heavy pack ice a compressed air system rolls the ship from side to side freeing the passage.

She is equipped with a suite of laboratories and winch systems that allows scientific equipment to be deployed astern or amidships. The ship has an extremely low noise signature, allowing the deployment use of sensitive acoustic equipment. She also carries out cargo and logistical work and during the northern summer the JCR supports NERC research, largely in the Arctic. The RRS James Clark Ross is operated by the British Antarctic Survey.

RRS <i>Ernest Shackleton</i>

RRS Ernest Shackleton

RRS Ernest Shackleton was launched in 1995 and is primarily a logistics vessel used to transport cargo, fuel and passengers. She also has a basic scientific capability and undertakes some research work. During the northern summer, she is commercially chartered and usually works in the North Sea. Originally known as the MV Polar Queen, she was deployed in the Antarctic by other national programmes before being acquired by the British Antarctic Survey in August 1999. She was renamed RRS Ernest Shackleton after the famed polar explorer.

RRS <i>James Cook</i>

RRS James Cook

Royal Research Ship (RRS) RRS James Cook was delivered to NERC in August 2006. The ship is named after Captain James Cook (1728-1779) who led three of the most significant voyages of exploration ever undertaken.

The RRS James Cook is fitted with some of the most modern scientific systems available. She is one of the quietest research vessels currently afloat and her Dynamic Positioning (DP) system, enables her to hold station in all but the most violent weather. Combined with the ability to deploy the Isis ROV, the RRS James Cook is one of the most advanced research vessels currently in service. She is run by the National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

RRS <i>Discovery </i>

RRS Discovery

The Royal Research Ship (RRS) RRS Discovery is designed to support the multidisciplinary research required for the 21st century. The ship is the fourth vessel to bear the name and continues the tradition of oceanographic research at sea. She was delivered to NERC in July 2013.

RRS Discovery comes with sub-bottom profiling and multi-beam equipment for mapping the seabed, whilst her dynamic positioning capability means Remotely Operated Vehicles such as Isis can be used. Her wide range of cranes and overside gantries allow many different types of equipment to be deployed from the ship.

The original RRS Discovery was launched in 1901, its first mission carrying Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their successful journey to the Antarctic. She is now at rest in Dundee.

RRS Discovery visited London in 2015 as part of NERC’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Find out more about her unique journey up the Thames. She is run by the National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

NERC Launch the UK's largest and most advanced research ship yet.

NERC Launch the UK's largest and most advanced research ship yet.

Our new polar research vessel, will operate in both Antarctica and the Arctic, and will be able to endure up to 60 days in sea-ice to enable scientists to gather observations and data. She will be the first British-built polar research vessel with a helideck, opening up access to new locations for our scientists.

She will be one of the most sophisticated floating research laboratories operating in the polar regions. Our research ships provide a platform for scientists to study across a wide range of scientific fields. From monitoring the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet to looking at ocean circulation to investigating the diversity of marine life, our research ships are kept busy throughout the year.

Off the ship, robotic submarines and marine gliders will collect data on ocean conditions and marine biology and deliver it to scientists working in the ship's laboratories. Airborne robots and on-board environmental monitoring systems will provide detailed information on the surrounding polar environment.

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