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Picture Library catalogue: Norwegian British Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949-52

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Norwegian British Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949-52

The Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition (NBSAE) of 1949-52 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 party 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.

They expedition left London on 23 November 1949 on board the Norwegian ship the Norsel. As this vessel was not very big it could not transport all the men, equipment, supplies and dogs. Five of the team, the dogs and some of the heavier equipment sailed on a large whaling factory-ship, the Thorshovdi. As well as taking dogs for transport they also took aircraft, and amphibious tracked vehicles, weasels, which could pull sledges carrying over three tons and would make depot lying much simpler.

The Auster aircraft was used to find a suitable site for the base camp.A base called Maudheim was established on the coast of Dronning Maud Land where they deposited 300 tons of stores. The Norsel then departed on 20 February leaving the men alone. They spent their first month at Maudheim building the base and setting up equipment. Several huts were built for accommodation, research and storage. By April sledging trips were underway to survey the ice hills to the east and south which gave the group a chance to compare British and Norwegian sledging techniques. They also began to drill for ice cores and take meteorological measurements to gather the data necessary to track climatic fluctuations.

In October 1950 a reconnaissance party set out for the inland mountains. Reaching them on 24 October, they spent a total of 42 days in the field. This enabled the establishment of the Advance Base, 200 miles from Maudheim which contained supplies of tents, food and fuel to support parties out in the field. In November weasel tractors were used to lay depots for the following season's sledging trips. Whilst laying the depots they undertook seismic surveying to measure ice thickness to investigate whether this would be worth further follow up the next season.

In December surveying and glaciological journeys began, many of the nunataks (an exposed area of mountain not covered by snow) were examined by the geologists. In March 1951 the geologist Reece was collecting specimens when he had an accident getting a rock chip in his eye. They returned to the advance base where the group's doctor, Wilson, was able to examine him; sadly nothing could be done to prevent Reece loosing sight in one eye. By April Reece was permitted to travel again and the group set off southwards to continue their specimen collection.

In January 1951 the Norsel visited bringing with them two aircraft to be used in aerial photography. Unfortunately this was to be curtailed through a mixture of bad weather and the damaging of one of the aircraft in an accident.

On 23 February 1951 the expedition was hit by tragedy when three of the expedition died. Poor weather had caused the party in one of the weasel tractors to misjudge their position and they plunged over an ice cliff into the sea. Only one of the four occupants was able to swim to safety reaching an ice-flow from which he was rescued thirteen hours later.

In the meantime Reece’s eye had been getting worse. He had already completely lost sight in one of his eyes but this was starting to affect the health of the other. Under advice from Sweden, Wilson carried out a successful operation and removed the damaged eye. Never before had Wilson carried out eye surgery, never mind in a makeshift operating theatre! The men improvised as best they could, using sterilised bed sheets to make masks and hats, and scrubbed packing cases as an operating table. Wilson trained other members of the expedition to assist him in the operation, one learning how to administer anaesthetic whereas another learnt to monitor pulse rate and blood pressure. The operation was a success and the sight in Reece’s other eye was preserved.

In September 1951 the depot laying began for the following seasons field survey. In October parties set of to extend the previous sledging seasons geological and survey work further south. In December the Norsel returned bringing aircraft to replace the damaged one, this allowed the previous seasons uncompleted programme of air photography to be completed.

The expedition left their base, Maudheim on 15 January 1952, landing in Southampton on 18 February.

This expedition had managed to survey a huge area of Antarctica, 60,00 square km was mapped by ground survey, and in using aerial photography this area can be extended to 100,00 square km in total. Significantly this expedition paved the way for internationally run efforts, showing scientific cooperation was possible between nations.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.