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Monday, 10 September, 2001, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Science battles for Scott's reputation
Scott BBC
Robert Scott: Unlucky, but was he really a fool?
By BBC science correspondent Christine McGourty

The reputation of Captain Scott as a bungler doomed to failure by his own mistakes, prejudice and lack of foresight may have to be revised following new research into the weather conditions on his polar journey.

Dr Susan Solomon, a scientist at America's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) in Boulder, Colorado, US, has analysed meteorological data from automatic weather stations in Antarctica in the last 17 years and compared the data with weather information from the diaries and letters of the men on the Scott expedition.

They were making only 5-8 miles a day and dealing with a sledge that felt like lead

Dr Susan Solomon
In a book published on Monday - The Coldest March (Yale University Press) - she argues that an extremely rare spell of dramatic cold was the deciding factor in the death of Scott and some of his compatriots on their fatal journey to the South Pole.

She says that Scott had an admirable grasp of meteorology and was adequately prepared for normal Antarctic conditions. But for three weeks in March, 1912, the men encountered temperatures near -40F (also -40 C), at a time of year when normal values are closer to -20F (-29C).

"The irony of what happened to Scott is that that he and his men were such excellent scientists that they understood very well what the March temperatures ought to be like, but unfortunately what they met with was very unusual meteorological conditions," Dr Solomon told BBC News Online.

'Absolutely devastating'

"That posed tremendous problems for them: frostbite; a lack of wind to fill the sails they were counting on, because when it gets cold it's quite calm; and the snow became quite sandpapery under these conditions. It was a triple whammy that made it impossible for them to make the 15-20 miles a day they needed to do to survive," she said. "Instead, they were making only 5-8 miles a day and dealing with a sledge that felt like lead."

Book Yale University Press
The research was first published in 1999
The new data analysed by Dr Solomon comes from automated weather stations put into Antarctica by researchers from the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s, one of them just 30 miles (48 kilometres) from the spot where Scott died. At that station, weather data have been available for the last 17 years, and temperatures have reached those experienced by Scott and his men in only one of those years. "It was absolutely devastating," Dr Solomon said.

Her assessment of Scott is very different to that presented in the Roland Huntford book Scott and Amundsen that caused such a sensation when it was first published in 1979. It has now been reissued under a new title (The Last Place on Earth - Abacus, 9.99), and in his foreword to the new edition, travel writer Paul Theroux continues the tradition of denigrating Scott, describing him as "insecure, dark, panicky, humourless, an enigma to his men, unprepared; and a bungler, but in the spirit of a large-scale bungler, always self-dramatising".

Scott BBC
Scott died in a tent with two others
It would be an understatement to say that Scott's descendants were and remain unhappy with the picture painted in the Huntford book. Falcon Scott, grandson of the famous explorer, has welcomed the publication of a more sympathetic account of events on the fatal journey.

"We're very pleased about this," he said. "We always knew that the weather was bad - that was in all his diaries - but we didn't know was how unusually bad it was." He condemned some of the "rubbish" written about his grandfather in the past. "This new book goes some way towards putting the record straight."

'Utterly unsuited'

But Huntford stands by his interpretation of the race to the South Pole and says Scott and his men should have been better prepared for extreme Antarctic conditions. "When Amundsen went south, he planned on the worst case scenario, whereas Scott assumed the best possible conditions."

Huntford said Dr Solomon's argument that the low temperatures necessarily made skiing exceptionally difficult did not stand up. He said that that would depend on the type of snow. Scott's problems skiing were more directly related to the lack of experience of his team and inappropriate equipment and clothing, he argued.

The reality is that Scott and his followers, with the exception of Meares the dog-driver, were totally and utterly unsuited to the conditions in which they were trying to work

Roland Huntford
"Scott's party had six years of experience between the five of them, whereas Amundsen's group had a century of skiing between them," he said. He notes that Amundson also refused to travel any later than mid-February, before the colder March temperatures that Scott was to travel in.

Huntford said his opinion of Scott remained unchanged by the new research. "I stand by everything I wrote. The reality is that Scott and his followers, with the exception of Meares the dog-driver, were totally and utterly unsuited to the conditions in which they were trying to work. What kind of explorer is it who is taken by surprise?"

But Solomon maintains her version gives "a more balanced view of Scott, his strengths and his weaknesses". "I think it shows you how modern science gives you a better understanding of some of the things that happened to him and his men.

"It's kind of sad that in the 20th and 21st Centuries, we have to make people into either heroes or goats. The reality is that most people are somewhere in-between. I think Scott was more towards the hero category when you look at what happened to him and why, and see how really well-formed his plan was."

Dr Solomon's research was first published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in November 1999.

Dr Susan Soloman
"Winter began a month earlier than normal that year"
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