Shackleton and the Antarctic 100 years on

6 Jan 2022 11:54 AM

To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the death of Ernest Shackleton, the Met Office has produced a video paying tribute to the Polar explorer’s incredible exploits and explaining why the Antarctic remains essential for scientists researching climate change.

Shackleton’s last voyage

Antarctica: the world’s southernmost, driest, highest, windiest, coldest, and least populated continent, twice the size of Australia. The coldest temperature ever recorded, -89.0°C, was recorded here. Even now, visiting and exploring this extreme location is fraught with danger, so imagine how hazardous it was to visit a hundred years ago.

For explorer Ernest Shackleton, who died at South Georgia en-route to Antarctica 100 years ago today (5 January), this icy wilderness was an enduring source of fascination.

“Shackleton was no newcomer to the Antarctic,” says Met Office archivist Catherine Ross. “His first trip there was on the Discovery expedition with Sir Robert Falcon Scott, he then led his own expedition in 1907 when he reached the furthest South any man had reached.

Explorer Ernest Shackleton reached Antarctica three times

Shackleton was voted 11th in a poll of the greatest Britons in 2002

“In 1914 he led another expedition which was seeking to cross the Antarctic from coast to coast via the South Pole. That expedition became more famous because the vessel, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice and was crushed. Shackleton then led an incredible voyage that included travelling 720 miles across the South Antarctic Seas in a lifeboat followed by traversing a frozen mountain range with no climbing equipment or map.”

Shackleton’s bravery – which won him eleventh place in a 2002 BBC poll of the greatest Britons – was driven by a sense of adventure. While many early expeditions to Antarctica were motivated by a desire for national or personal glory, today’s visitors are motivated by something else: scientific understanding. For scientists such as those from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), based at Halley Research Station, monitoring the region’s climate and ice cover can help with forecasting future trends, including climate change.

Eight hours by plane from Halley Island lies Rothera, on Adelaide Island, which is partly-manned by a detachment of meteorologists from the Met Office. The team provides weather forecasts for aviation and in and out of the base, where temperatures rarely rise much above zero. The Met Office links to Antarctica can be traced right back to Shackleton.

Early expeditions to the Antarctic were hazardous.

Early expeditions to the Antarctic were hazardous

“The Met Office [then part of the Air Ministry], loaned Shackleton’s expedition a range of meteorological observing instruments,” says Ross, “so barometers, thermometers, and other pieces of equipment to enable them to run a meteorological observing station at sea, and they collected some two thousand sets of observations from the voyage.”

These observations included temperature, sea temperature, pressure, wind direction and force, and hand-written observations on things like the state of the ice. As such, they have proved vital in understanding how climate has changed in the last century.

“The records from Shackleton’s era are so important because they allow us to see whether the changes we are seeing now are unusual, particularly with the sea ice,” says Met Office Climate Scientist Dr Helene Hewitt. “The Endurance was trapped in the sea ice of the Weddell Sea for ten months, and those observations have enabled scientists to see whether sea ice has changed dramatically in the last hundred years or so.”

Antarctica is beautiful but hostile for visitors

If all the land-based ice in Antarctica was to melt, it is estimated the Earth’s sea level would rise by 60-70m. Fortunately, that is unlikely in the near future – but all melting has an impact on sea levels. Unlike the Arctic, which is principally sea ice, Antarctica sits on solid rock. This means events like the recent destabilising of Thwaites Glacier could have a major impact on sea levels.

In Shackleton’s era, weather and ice measurements were taken by hand and methodically recorded in logbooks, available within the Met Office digital archives. Now, ice cover is measured using more high-tech methods, including satellite.

Polar exploration and observation have changed massively since Shackleton’s day – but if he were to meet the modern-day scientists now living and working at the bottom of the world, he might well recognise them as kindred spirits.

Watch the video tribute to Ernest Shackleton

Find out more about the British Antarctic Survey