Search for Amundsen's tent at South Pole continues a century later
Posted Dec. 16, 2011
One of the iconic images that has survived from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration shows Norwegian Roald Amundsen and three members of his party gazing upon a small tent pitched on the polar plateau near where they had calculated the geographic South Pole to be located.
The picture is both solemn and sublime, as if the four men were looking upon a holy monument. In a sense, it was — a modest canvas shrine to polar exploration. They had become the first people to reach the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911.
Exactly 100 years later, Amundsen’s feat was commemorated by his countrymen, who held a ceremony at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a modern, high-tech research facility that’s symbolic of today’s Antarctic — a continent devoted to science. More than 300 people were in attendance, including Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
The only thing missing? Amundsen’s humble tent, dubbed Polheim, which means “house of the pole” in Norwegian.
But Bill Spindler thinks he knows where Polheim is hiding.
“One thing that many Polies have done since, well, 1957, is try to locate Amundsen’s tent, either on paper or in person,” says Spindler, who has worked on and off with the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) since the 1970s, including three winters at the South Pole Station. The United States has maintained a continued presence there since the Navy built the first of three research stations on the site during the 1956-57 summer.
In a sense, Polheim was the first “station” at the South Pole, a small tent that had only been taken on the trip in case the Norwegians had to separate. It had been sewn of thin, windproof material by sail maker Martin Rønne during the journey south in the expedition’s ship, the Fram.
An extended pole over the tent served as a flagpole for the Norwegian flag and a pennant on which FRAM was painted. Guy ropes held the tent in place on all sides.
Inside Polheim, Amundsen had placed a small bag containing a letter to King Haakon of Norway about the grand accomplishment of his team, along with a note to his British rival, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, who arrived about a month later. A photo of Scott’s party with Polheim contrasts sharply with the Norwegian photograph, the Brits obviously disheartened about the second-place finish.
The Norwegians also left behind some extra equipment, including a sextant with glass horizon, three reindeer-skin foot bags, some footwear and gloves. A plaque with the names of the five men was also fastened to the tent pole.
A keen student of Antarctic history, Spindler has conducted exhaustive research about the current location of Polheim, which had disappeared below the ice by the time the first Americans arrived in 1956 to build a research station.
The story begins with Amundsen’s own book, The South Pole, published shortly after his successful return.
In the book’s appendix is a short analysis of the party’s survey data by Norwegian Anton Alexander, a “mathematical master” who had calculated the astronomical observations of other expeditions of the era, including Amundsen’s successful navigation of the Northwest Passage. Alexander had been enlisted to verify that Amundsen had indeed located the South Pole.
Unlike today, where GPS satellites enable millimeter-level accuracy of geographic points of interest, the explorers in the early 20th century had to rely on cruder measurements.
Both Amundsen and Scott identified the pole by making astronomical observations of the sun using an instrument called a sextant. In a paper first published in 1996 by Gordon Shupe and Larry Hothem, with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the authors explain the method in detail as part of a longer treatise on the history and methodology of geodetic satellite measurements in locating the geographic pole:
“When at the geographic location for the South Pole, the sun is above the horizon six months of the year. Through a 24-hour period, the sun moves parallel to the horizon a complete rotation around the geographic pole. It gradually rises to its highest angle above the horizon on Dec. 21.
“Observations to measure the angle of the top edge of the sun above the horizon were made with a sextant or similar instrument. When the angle or altitude above the horizon is equal, the observer is standing at the geographic location for the South Pole. The accuracy for this method is estimated to be about 300 meters (about 1000 feet).”
Amundsen knew the limitations of the astronomical observations, so he took repeated measurements and had members of his party walk around the area for miles to ensure at least one person had crossed the geographic pole.
Another analysis of the Polheim location was made by British geographer Arthur Hinks and published in a 1944 paper in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society, according to Spindler, who stumbled upon the journal on eBay in 2004.
“One item of interest: Before Amundsen and Scott set out, Hinks figured out that there was some interest in Antarctic navigation and conducted a seminar in London attended by members of both expeditions,” said Spindler, whose interest in polar history has resulted in his extensive website, www.southpolestation.com.
“Another item of interest: Hinks didn’t think much of Alexander’s calculations. In fact, he didn’t even mention Alexander’s name,” he added.
Author Roland Huntford interpreted the Hinks data for his 1979 book Scott and Amundsen (later renamed The Last Place on Earth), considered the definitive story about the Race to the South Pole between Amundsen and Scott. He used a map that relied on Hinks’ calculations, but he never specifically mentioned the coordinates of the tent, Spindler said.
More recently, in a paper published earlier this year in the journal Polar Record, Norwegian glaciologist Olav Orheim calculated the location of the tent based on the Hinks data. Orheim concluded with “high certainty that the tent lies between 1.8 and 2.5 [kilometers] from the South Pole.”
A construction engineer, Spindler has made his own calculations over the years. He has been in contact with Orheim and Hothem. During the most recent South Pole winter, he contacted winter-overs Marco Tortonese and Robert Schwarz, who used the data to make a pilgrimage to both the “Hinks” and “Alexander” tent locations. The first is about two kilometers from the South Pole, while the other is nearly three kilometers away.
Complicating the search is not just the uncertainty surrounding the exact location of Polheim. The ice sheet itself moves, about 10 meters, or roughly 33 feet, per year. In addition, the ice is anisotropic, meaning it is stretching about 15 centimeters, or half a foot, per mile per year in the direction of the Weddell Sea.
However, all of this academic work will forever remain theory, an interesting historical footnote. The tent, buried beneath at least 20 meters (more than 60 feet) of ice, will likely never be recovered.
In 2005, the Antarctic Treaty nations added Amundsen’s tent to the list of historic sites and monuments at the request of Norway, which is responsible for management of the site. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty forbids damaging, removing or destroying such sites.
In addition, Polheim is in the station’s so-called Clean Air Sector, where a NOAA observatory collects air samples for research ranging from climate change to ozone depletion. (Tortonese and Schwarz had to wait until the winds shifted, receiving permission from NOAA to enter the area.)
Not that there haven’t been earlier attempts to recover the tent.
In 1993, Norwegian glaciologist and polar explorer Monica Kristensen Solås led an attempt to recover the tent. But the expedition ended in tragedy when one of the team members fell to his death in a crevasse.
At the time, Solås believed that ground-penetrating radar could be used to detect the tent, along with a sled that had been left behind by Amundsen.
“I don’t think there’s enough metal to be able to turn up anything,” Spindler says.
It seems the first artifact of South Pole history will remain an untouchable time capsule, entombed until that part of the ice sheet slides into the Weddell Sea in 140,000 years.