How Unusual Weather Patterns Affected The Fate Of Scott's Race To The South Pole

Members of the Scott expedition at the South Pole. Ashley Van Haeften/Flickr CC BY 2.0

In 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and his men famously set out on an expedition to reach the South Pole. Unfortunately, the Brits were pipped to the post by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen who arrived at the pole on December 14, 1911, after launching a last minute (and completely unexpected) polar campaign. While the Norwegians made it home safely, Scott and his crew tragically perished on their return journey. 

There are several theories attempting to explain what happened, including recently the idea that sabotage and betrayal were in play. Now new research, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, suggests that exceptionally high temperature and pressure anomalies could have played a role in Admundsen's success and Scott's failure. 


Both expeditions kept detailed meteorological logs of weather conditions at the main bases, which the researchers used to create daily means for temperature and pressure. They compared these to modern day reanalysis and reconstructed pressure datasets created using information collected at McMurdo, the main US Antarctic base located on the southern tip of Ross Island. 

Map showing the polar journey taken by Scott and Amundson. Wikimedia Commons

Not only was pressure exceptionally high for the time of year, both Scott, Amundsen, and their men experienced remarkably warm temperatures.

“In context, the pressures and temperatures were exceptional,” explained Ryan Fogt, an Associate Professor of Meteorology at Ohio University who led the research, in a statement. “The high pressure and the warmer conditions were measurements we haven’t seen much of since.” 

On December 6, 1911, Amundsen and his team traveled in temperatures peaking above -16°C [3.2°C].


In his diary, he wrote: "The weather had 261 improved, and kept on improving all the time. It was now almost perfectly calm, radiantly clear, 262 and, under the circumstances, quite summer-like: -0.4°F [-17.5°C]. Inside the tent it was quite sultry. This was more than we expected."

Scott and his crew also experience unusually high temperatures in December and early February but these warm temps were accompanied by a wet snowstorm, which slowed them down.

On December 8, Edward Willson, the team's doctor, wrote: "We woke up to the same blizzard blowing 278 from the S. and S.E. with warm wet snow +33 (°F) [0.56°C]. All three days frightfully deep and wet... It has been a phenomenal warm wet blizzard different to, and longer than, any I have seen before with excessive snowfall."

The men were delayed, once again, in February. "...Snow drove in our faces with northerly wind-very warm and impossible to steer, so camped...The ice crystals that first fell this afternoon were very large. Now the sky is clearer overhead, the temperature has fallen slightly, and the crystals are minute," wrote Scott.


The unnaturally warm temperatures were followed by much colder weather in late February and early March. This would have contributed to the weakening of Scott and his men shortly before their death. Scott, Wilson, and Bowers were just 12 miles away from a supply depot when they died in their tent. Because they were so close, the researchers believe that weather conditions could have contributed to their fate – not to mention Amundsen's success and Scott's failure to be the first to reach the pole.

“Certainly, there were large differences in leadership styles that led to the outcomes, and that played a major role, but researchers haven’t to my knowledge looked at the summer conditions during the race itself. This year was quite exceptional," said Fogt.

Roald Amundsen's ultimately successful crew, the first people to reach the South Pole. Credit: Roald Amundsen; public domain.


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