Amundsen Doesn’t Reach the South Pole

One hundred years ago, Roald Amundsen and four men didn’t reach the South Pole. They came close. The spot where they left a tent with notes to Robert Scott and a letter for King Haakon VII of Norway was less than two miles from the pole but it is not clear if they actually crossed that mythic spot of 90 degrees South.

I am certainly no expert on this subject. My posting derives from an article written as part of the run up to the centenary of Amundsen and Scott’s great race: “The present location of the tent that Roald Amundsen left behind at the South Pole in December 1911,” by Olav Orheim. It was published in the Polar Record, Vol. 47, No. 242, 2011.

On December 14, 1911, Amundsen wrote in his journal, “So, we arrived, and were able to raise our flag at the geographical South Pole…Naturally we are not exactly at the point called 90°, but after all our excellent observations and dead reckonings we must be very close.” For the next three days, Amundsen and his men took regular readings to determine their location. They also skied methodically around the spot to ensure that someone crossed the mythic point of 90 degrees south. Amundsen’s journal for December 18 reads, “It is very difficult to arrive at a definitive result. But we can say with certainty that we are south of 89°59’.”

So where did they end up? Orheim refers to two previous calculations in his paper. Anton Alexander, an expert on maritime navigation for the Norwegian Hydrographic Service, published information in Amundsen’s account of his trek (1913). He wrote that on December 14, the five men were at 89°53’50’ S, 103°E, and on December 17, at the spot where they erected their tent, they had reached 89°58’30” S, 60° E. Maximum error was 3 kilometers. Orheim also referenced an article by Arthur R. Hinks in from The Geographical Journal, Vol. 103, No. 4, April 44, “The Observations of Amundsen and Scott and the South pole.” Hinks placed the tent slightly closer, at 89°58’45” S, 71°36’ E. Maximum error was .32 km.

Orheim’s goal was not to determine where Amundsen had been but where his tent now was. He based his analysis on GPS data, which shows that the glacier located under the Amundsen-South Pole Station is moving at a rate of 9.98 meters per year along the 40°46’56” west longitudinal meridian. This places the tent about 170 meters closer to the pole at 89°58’51” S, 46°14’ E.

He also looks at how snow has buried Amundsen’s tent. Based on two different averages, as well a compaction factor, he concludes that it now lies under 17 meters of accumulated snow and ice. He concludes that it will probably never be seen again.

I am not trying to cast aspersions on Amundsen and his men and his dogs. What they did was incredible and they may in fact have crossed over the pole at some point during their three day of skiing and observing. Mostly I wanted to try and find a way to mention Orheim’s work, which I think is pretty darned nifty.


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