Meteorological measurements may force historians to change their cold-hearted appraisals of Robert Falcon Scott, who lost the race to the South Pole in 1912 and then perished trying to return. Although scholars have often blamed Scott’s poor planning, the explorer’s temperature data show that his crew encountered unusually cold weather.
“They were just slowly freezing to death. I think if it had been warmer, they’d have made it back,” says Charles R. Stearns, a meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., and Stearns compared Scott’s measurements—recovered after his death—with those taken since 1985 by automated stations along his route. In February and March 1912, temperatures remained below -30ºF for nearly a month, about 10º lower than the average in recent years.
Such a cold spell has only occurred once in the past 15 years, report the scientists in the Nov. 9, 1999 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Besides eroding the men’s health, such conditions increased friction on the sleds pulled by Scott’s team. Just before his death, Scott wrote that “no one in the world would have expected the temperatures and surfaces which we encountered at this time of year.” Despite this claim, historians have often overlooked temperature as a factor in Scott’s demise, say the scientists.