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Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions: The Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949–52

SPRI P55/15/44/3b. Alan Reece (assistant geologist) and Fred Roots (chief geologist) sit on a rock by a stone cairn.

SPRI P55/15/44/3b. Alan Reece (assistant geologist) and Fred Roots (chief geologist) sit on a rock by a stone cairn.

While many people are aware of the very famous expeditions of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton during the ‘Heroic Age’ of exploration, there have been many other subsequent expeditions to the Antarctic which loom far smaller (if they register at all) in the public consciousness. Bob Headland’s book, A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration, lists every single expedition to the Antarctic (British and international), from the earliest forays into sub-Antarctic waters in the seventeenth century and the commercial whaling and sealing expeditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the expeditions undertaken as part of the International Polar Year 2007–08. Needless to say, it’s a very long list.

It turns out that we have quite a lot of objects from some of these lesser known and more recent expeditions in the museum’s collection so I want to try to shine a spotlight on some of them through the blog, especially as very few of the objects relating to these expeditions are on permanent display in the museum. And the Antarctic Cataloguing Project isn’t just about cataloguing the objects themselves, but is also about researching the expeditions they were used on and the people they were used by and sharing this information. So I’m going to start with the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949–52 (NBSAE). We’ve got approximately 100 objects from this expedition, including a large selection of clothing, dog driving equipment and skiing equipment.

The NBSAE was the first expedition in Antarctica involving an international team of scientists. Their main objective was to explore whether the climatic fluctuations observed in the Arctic where also occurring in Antarctica. The expedition was led by the Norwegian Captain John Giaever, with each country in charge of a different aspect of the expedition: Britain geology, Sweden glaciology and Norway meteorology and surveying – and each country was also responsible for supplying different parts of the expedition equipment.

Y: 49/13/1-2. Low-temperature ski boots made by A/S Kolbjorn Knutsen & Co., who supplied a variety of clothing and equipment to the NBSAE.

Y: 49/13/1-2. Low-temperature ski boots made by A/S Kolbjorn Knutsen & Co., who supplied a variety of clothing and equipment to the NBSAE.

They expedition left London on 23 November 1949 on board the Norwegian ship the Norsel, taking with them dogs, amphibious tracked vehicles known as weasels, aircraft and two small boats. They established a base at Maudheim on the coast of Dronning Maud Land, with a second base (known as Advance Base) 200 miles away. The expedition maintained regular radio contact with Norway and South Africa, between Maudheim and Advance Base, and with the teams during their journeys into the interior. Numerous journeys were undertaken throughout the expedition, including a topographical-geological journey (19 December 1950–30 May 1951) to extensively survey the area and study the geology; a glaciological journey (18 December 1950–5 April 1951) to evaluate glacier movement, snow build-up and temperature levels, and to take ice cores to investigate ice formation and temperature; and a seismological journey (18 October 1951–6 January 1952) to take measurements to determine ice and rock thickness and ice accumulation.

The expedition was struck by tragedy in February 1951 when three of the expedition (Bertil Ekström, Leslie Quar, John Jelbart) died. Poor weather had caused their party to misjudge their position and they plunged their weasel tractor over an ice cliff into the sea. Only Stig Hallgren was able to swim to safety, reaching an ice-flow from which he was rescued thirteen hours later. The following month, geologist Alan Reece lost the sight in his right eye after getting struck by a chip of rock. Specialists in Stockholm advised that the eye would need to be removed in order to preserve the sight of the other. Ove Wilson, the expedition doctor, had never performed the operation but prepared himself and a team of assistants from among the camp personnel, and fashioned the necessary instruments by hand. The operation was performed in July with a full and uneventful recovery.

Y: 2004/2/3-4. Maudheim Medal and Polar Medal awarded posthumously to Leslie Quar, who lost his life on the NBSAE.

Y: 2004/2/3-4. Maudheim Medal and Polar Medal awarded posthumously to Leslie Quar, who lost his life on the NBSAE.

The NBSAE left their base on 15 January 1952, landing in Southampton on 18 February. They managed to survey a huge area of Antarctica: 6,000 square km was mapped by ground survey, and in using aerial photography this area can be extended to 10,000 square km in total. Significantly the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition paved the way for internationally run efforts, showing scientific cooperation was possible between nations.

You can read more about the NBSAE and see photos from the expedition on the SPRI Picture Library webpages. All of the objects from the NBSAE will be eventually be available on the museum’s online catalogue (complete with new images) through the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, hopefully alongside biographies of every member of the expedition (researched by my brilliant volunteer, Barbara).

Greta

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