Soundly beaten in a race to the South Pole, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his companions froze to death in 1912 as they struggled homeward. Scott's moving account of the expedition's final days trapped in a tent by a blizzard only miles from safety, as recorded in his diary and last letters, has stirred generations of armchair explorers.
"Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift," Scott wrote in the expedition diary later found with his body. Trapped in their tent for 10 days without food or fuel, they helplessly wasted away. In a dying coda to his public he scrawled, "these rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale...."
But is that tale of the fatal "frightful storm" true? The final tragic chapter of his expedition may have been quite different from the account that the dying Scott left behind. There may have been no blizzard, no reason to halt their march save Scott's own infirmities. His two companions may have chosen to die rather than to continue without him.
All that science has learned of Antarctic meteorology in the 90 years since Scott's expedition suggests that the killing storm might never have happened.
That informed conjecture is one provocative element in Susan Solomon's "The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition" and raises the possibility that Scott and his men, humiliated by loss to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in their famous race to the Pole, committed suicide. Solomon, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., meticulously documents how unusually bad weather through most of their journey actually did compound mistakes by Scott and his team at every turn, erasing their all-too-narrow margin of safety. Her judgments are buttressed by careful study of expedition weather records and atmospheric circulation patterns at the end of the world. Her theory--that the final storm never took place--is her most surprising conclusion.
Unlike storms elsewhere on the planet, the gales of Antarctica are flashfloods of air from vast reservoirs of frigid air pooled over the center of the continent. Heavy with cold, these howling air currents fall in predictable patterns down the slope of the polar plateau. When the reservoir is drained, such storms die. Not even the fiercest blizzard can last more than two or three days, modern records show. A blizzard lasting 10 days simply does not fit the pattern of Antarctica's storm systems, as documented in readings at more than 50 automated weather stations over the last 15 years.
Moreover, detailed weather readings taken in March 1912 by men stationed downwind 100 miles from the spot where Scott and his men were supposedly trapped--squarely in the path of any storm--show not the slightest trace of a blizzard, only a light breeze and relatively warm temperatures. Under such conditions, Solomon writes, the short trek to vital supplies cached at a nearby depot "would have been almost effortless."
So how do we explain the catastrophe? Suicide is at least plausible. One injured expedition member, Lawrence Oates, crippled by frostbite, intentionally left the safety of the tent so he would not hold back the others. "I am just going outside and may be some time," he said, then disappeared forever into the blowing snow in the perfect understated, post-Victorian gesture of sacrifice. No one stopped him. Another expedition member, Edgar Evans, died of injuries on the return trek.
Scott did issue 30 opium pills, "the means of ending our troubles," to each of his surviving companions, Edward Wilson and H.R. Bowers. But there is no way to know if any of the men took the pills or whether they all stoically succumbed to cold and starvation.
The expedition's last words are Scott's alone. Perhaps he wrote the truth; perhaps he sought to preserve some vestige of dignity and privacy; perhaps he orchestrated an uplifting ending to his adventure for the public that funded his work. Both Wilson and Bowers wrote letters to family and friends at every opportunity throughout the trek, but neither chose to say anything about why they stayed in the tent for the last week of their lives. For Solomon, their silence is rather curious and perhaps the most haunting evidence that the 10-day storm never existed.
"Wilson and Bowers met their deaths with the injured Scott, but the scientific constraints of modern meteorology as shown here suggest that their deaths may have been a matter of choice rather than chance," Solomon writes. "Whether such a choice was made, and whether it reflected their own dedication or an order by a desperate Scott vainly trying to save legacies rather than lives is a question not for science but for the human heart."