Exploring Antarctica from Palace Green

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“The risk one runs in exploring a coast in these unknown and icy seas is so very great that I can be bold enough to say that no man will ever venture further than I have done and that the lands which lie to the south will never be explored”. Captain Cook said these words on board the HMS Resolution in 1775 after he became the first person to circumvent the South Pole. More than a hundred years later began the Age of Heroic Exploration, which revealed to the world the marvels and mysteries of the continent on the South Pole, known to us today as Antarctica.

Scott's Terra Nova expedition team.
Scott’s Terra Nova expedition team.

This winter, Palace Green Library houses an exhibition entitled “Antarctica: Explorers, Heroes and Scientists”.  The exhibition has two galleries (“With Scott to the Pole” and “Antarctic Witness”) with items on loan from the Royal Geographical Society, including photographs of Scott’s ill-fated expedition and Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic journey. A third gallery is dedicated to current Antarctic science, with a focus on contributions made by Durham University’s own professors. Through these displays one has the unique opportunity to relive the discovery, exploration and science of Antarctica a place that even today is considered one of the most remote and mystifying locations on Earth.

With Scott to the Pole

In June 1910 the whaling ship Terra Nova set sail from Cardiff. On board were mechanical sledges, dogs, ponies, and an expedition team led by Robert Falcon Scott with the single goal of reaching the South Pole for the first time. We relive Scott’s journey through a series of photographs taken by Herbert Ponting, member and official photographer of the expedition. Two years later, Scott and four men began their journey. On the 17th January, they reached the South Pole, but only to find that they had been beaten by a Norwegian party. Roald Amundsen, leader of that expedition, left an eyepiece behind to prove his record – the item is currently on display at the exhibition. Scott and his team died on the return journey from the Pole; their bodies were discovered eight months later just 11.5 miles from the Safety Depot. Scott’s diary recounts their story of bravery in the face of death.

Antarctic Witness

A decade earlier, in 1910, Ernest Shackleton had been selected to go on an expedition to the South Pole led by Scott. The team trekked through extremely difficult conditions and set the record for coming closer to the South Pole than anyone had before. In 1908, Shackleton returned to Antarctica as a leader of his own expedition and, two years after Scott’s death, he travelled there again with the goal of crossing the continent via the South Pole. Early in 1915, the expedition ship Endurance was trapped in an ice pack, and sank ten months later, leaving the men stranded. The photographs displayed in this gallery are testimony of Shackleton’s heroic efforts to save his crew. It is for this expedition that Shackelton is remembered, but he did return to Antarctica one last time, in 1922. Early in this fourth expedition Shackelton died of a heart attack; at his wife’s bequest, his body is buried in Antarctica.  

Antarctic Science Today

Here we learn how scientists currently live and work in Antarctica. Their research is more important now than ever before as this continent reveals details of Earth’s climate better than any other part of the world. Antarctica is a crucial piece to the global climate puzzle: the threat of rising sea levels and reducing ice cover pushes us to focus more of our attention on this continent that was once solitary and obscure.

Photograph: US Library of Congress

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