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Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition, 1949-1952

Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition, 1949-1952

A full gallery of images from this expedition can now be browsed in the online Picture Library catalogue.

Section 1: Introduction

The Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition (NBSX) of 1949-52 was the first in Antarctica involving an international team of scientists. Its base was located on the coast of Dronning Maud Land -- an area lying between the meridians of 20°W and 45°E which was territory annexed by Norway just before WWII.

Apart from surveys and mapping the main objective was to carry out a wide ranging programme of scientific investigations with particular interest in discovering whether climatic fluctuations similar to those observed in the Arctic were also occurring in Antarctica.

Norway was mainly responsible for meteorology and topographical surveys, Britain for geology and Sweden for glaciology.

An extensive collection of slides, negatives and prints relating to the expedition is held in the SPRI Picture Library. For a complete listing of photographs held by SPRI from this expedition please click on the link below.

NBSX photograph listing

Most of the selection shown here are on glass slides and were taken by Charles Swithinbank. [Each photograph is indicated by a hypertext link below.]

Section 2: Personnel

The international team consisted at the outset of personnel from Norway, Sweden and the British Commonwealth.

  • John Giaever (49), Norwegian, leader of the wintering party
  • Valter Schytt (30), Swedish, chief glaciologist, second-in-command
  • Gordon de Quetteville Robin (27), Australian, geophysicist, third-in-command
  • Nils Jørgen Schumacher (30), Norwegian, chief meteorologist
  • Gösta Liljequist (35), Swedish, assistant meteorologist
  • Ernest Frederick Roots (26), Canadian, chief geologist
  • Alan Reece (27), British, assistant geologist
  • Charles Swithinbank (22), British, assistant glaciologist
  • Nils Roer (34), Norwegian, topographic surveyor
  • Ove Wilson (28), Swedish, medical officer
  • Bertil Ekström (29), Swedish, mechanical engineer
  • Egil Rogstad (41), Norwegian, radio operator
  • Peter Melleby (33), Norwegian, in charge of dogs
  • Schølberg Nilsen (46), Norwegian, cook
Some additional members (eg Stig Hallgren, Leslie Quar, John Jelbart, John Snarby) joined later on.

Section 3: Transport

The expedition ship Norsel was a 600-ton ocean-going sealer powered by a German U-boat diesel engine. On this expedition the ship sailed to Antarctica three times. Since the Norsel was too small to transport all men, equipment and supplies from Oslo to the Antarctic base, five of the team and some of the heavier equipment sailed on a large whaling factory-ship, the 24,000 ton Thorshovdi, together with 60 dogs (only 40 of which survived the voyage).

In addition, a small five-man RAF group together with two light Auster aircraft accompanied the expedition on the Norsel. These planes were intended for reconnaissance.

On subsequent visits of the Norsel, a Norwegian and then a Swedish flying unit arrived to carry out a programme of aerial photography.

Heavy transport on the ice used weasels -- powerful amphibious tracked vehicles -- which could pull sledges capable of carrying over three tons. They were used, for example, to transport hundreds of tons of stores from Norsel's unloading dock to the main base on the coast and also to the inland base.

On expeditions to the interior transport was by means of dog teams or weasels or occasionally both.

Although no specific use was planned for them, two small boats were brought out. In the event, one did prove its worth when Stig Hallgren, a newly-arrived member of the expedition, was rescued from an ice floe. Unfortunately, three of his companions (Bertil Ekström, Leslie Quar, John Jelbart) were drowned.

Section 4: Bases

For the full duration of the expedition , Base Camp was established at a location named Maudheim -- 71°03'S, 10°55'W -- on a floating ice shelf some 3km from an inlet used as an unloading quay for Norsel. Several huts for accommodation and the housing of research and communication equipment were assembled there and some 450 tonnes of supplies, sufficient for a stay of up to three years, were transported by weasel from the Norsel.

About 200 miles from Maudheim, another camp -- Advance Base -- was sited at 72°17'S, 03°48'W, close to a nunatak named the "Pyramid" -- not permanently manned but with tents, stocks of food and fuel available to support field parties. In addition, a network of expedition-support depots storing supplies was established away from Maudheim and Advance Base.

Section 5: Communications

Radio contact was regularly maintained (generally using telegraphy) with Norway and South Africa; between Maudheim and Advance Base; and with teams during their journeys into the interior. Conditions could be variable making contact difficult, but overall weather reports were transmitted to Cape Town routinely for the whole duration of the expedition.

Section 6: Expeditions/Journeys

Numerous journeys were undertaken, the longest being of 80 days duration. The main objectives were:

  • Reconnaissance: on one of the first of these the location for Advance Base was established.
  • Finding crevasse-free routes: this was an important objective.
  • Depot laying: for the support of field parties, particularly at Advance Base and at positions along the routes from Maudheim.
  • Seismology: possibly the most significant expedition covered a distance of some 800 miles over 80 days during which many measurements were taken of, for instance, ice and rock thickness and ice accumulation.
  • Glaciology: placing and subsequent observation of markers to evaluate glacier movement, snow build-up and temperature levels; drilling out ice-cores to investigate ice formation and temperature.
  • Geology: in one instance a joint team journeyed 300 miles carrying out a programme of measurements and rock sampling. (During this trip Alan Reece sustained damage to an eye, which subsequently had to be removed by the medical officer, Ove Wilson, at Maudheim.)
  • Topographical survey: an area of 60,00 sq. km. was mapped by ground survey. The use of aerial photography extended this area to 100,000 sq. km.

Section 7: Scientific Results

In all the above disciplines (and others) a vast amount of data was obtained which yielded much important information.

In addition to the main areas of interest, medical observations were carried out of the reactions of team members to the polar conditions -- of particular value due to the prolonged length of time spent in Antarctica.

Section 8: Conclusions

These are some of the more significant ideas which were eventually generated by the expedition's work:

Glaciology: the proposition that world sea-level was principally controlled by the state of the Antarctic ice-sheet.

Meteorology: an improved understanding was developed of the importance of the Antarctic ice-sheets in regulating the world's climate.

Geology: based on the geological findings it was suggested that Dronning Maud Land was once joined to Southern Africa.

Organisation: NBSX paved the way for international co-operation in manning and running Antarctic expeditions. It proved to be particularly successful and showed that effective organisation was possible with minimum conflict between groups. Such co-operation was a very important feature of the scientific teams active during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58.

Section 9: Bibliography

For a complete bibliography using SPRILIB Antarctica please click on the link below. This is a web-based database of the Antarctic collection in the SPRI Library.

NBSX References

Of these, the most well-known published accounts of the expedition are:

    The White Desert
    New York, Dutton & Co., 1954, 256p.

    A translation from the Norwegian with contributions from other members of the expedition. Well written narrative style.
    Foothold on Antarctica
    Sussex, England, The Book Guild Ltd., 1999, 260p.

    An absorbing and lively narrative account of NBSX by its youngest member. Excellent photographs covering all aspects of the expedition.

    Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition, 1949-52
    Polar Record, 1950, Vol. 5, No. 39, pp. 463-466.
  • ROBIN, G. de Q.
    Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition, 1949-52
    Polar Record, 1953, Vol. 6, No. 45, pp. 608-614.
  • ROOTS, E. F.
    The Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition, 1949-52
    Science News, 1953, No. 26, pp. 9-32.

To obtain these or other photographs, please contact the Picture Library.

Text by Claude Cowan based on published sources, edited by library staff.