Academic journal article Environment and History

Taylor's Valley: What the History of Antarctica's 'Heroic Era' Can Contribute to Contemporary Ecological Research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys

Academic journal article Environment and History

Taylor's Valley: What the History of Antarctica's 'Heroic Era' Can Contribute to Contemporary Ecological Research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys

Article excerpt


With a particular focus on ecosystem response to climate change, this paper investigates how a study of Griffith Taylor's 1911 expedition into the McMurdo Dry Valleys in East Antarctica might contribute to contemporary ecological research in the region. As the location of a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, the McMurdo Dry Valleys offer an excellent location for thinking about the integration of history and ecology. Following a brief description of the environment of this uniquely ice-free region of Antarctica as it is understood today, this paper presents a three-dimensional model for using historical research to contribute to ecological research. The paper then follows this model to examine what the Taylor expedition did in the Dry Valleys, how its participants sought to make sense of the environment and what the environment was like one hundred years ago. Significant lake-level rise in the McMurdo Dry Valleys since the Taylor expedition suggests quite dramatic environmental change over the course of the twentieth century. The conclusion suggests that a model for integrating history and ecology in the McMurdo Dry Valleys might productively be applied to other parts of the world with more complex ecosystems and much longer human histories.


Antarctica, history and ecology, historical methods


On 18 December 1903, the British polar explorers Robert Falcon Scott. William Lashly and Edgar Evans were on their way back to the coast from the East Antarctic ice sheet when they stumbled across what Scott described as a 'curious valley'. (1) In stark contrast to the surrounding landscape, this valley was largely free from snow and ice. Leaving their sledges behind for a few hours, the three men wandered around this valley, amazed by its other-worldly environment. Small streams carried meltwater from the surrounding alpine glaciers into ice-covered lakes, the valley floor was strewn with moraines and the sandy soils formed strange hexagonal patterns. 'It is worthy of record', wrote Scott, 'that we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen; all that we did find, far inland amongst the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing. It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glacier which once pushed through it has withered away.' (2) More prosaically, William Lashly commented that this would be 'a splendid place for growing spuds.' (3)

The journey into what is today known as the Taylor Valley in the McMurdo Dry Valleys took place at the very end of Captain Scott's first expedition to Antarctica on board the Discovery. This expedition was part of the so-called 'heroic era' of Antarctic exploration, which lasted approximately from 1895-1917 and witnessed an unprecedented level of exploratory activity across the Antarctic continent. Although the term 'heroic era' was only used after the event, it neatly characterises the spirit of an age that culminated in the famous race to the South Pole between the Captain Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1911-1912. (4) This race ended in Norwegian triumph and British tragedy, with the deaths of Scott and his four companions, including Edgar Evans, on the way back from arriving second at the South Pole. (5) In an effort to explain the defeat of their hero, many in Great Britain argued that Scott's expedition had been doing good science in contrast to Amundsen's 'dash to the pole'. (6) In the years that followed a debate has simmered about the scientific content of heroic age expeditions. Some have seen science simply as a pretext for adventure, while others--such as Edward Larsen's An Empire of Ice (2011) --have defended the heroic era's scientific contribution. (7)

Rather than engaging in the debate about the scientific merits of the heroic era, this paper sets out to address a different question: is there anything that the history of this period can contribute to contemporary scientific research in Antarctica? …

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