THE COLDEST MARCH

Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition

By Susan Solomon

Yale Univ. 383 pp. $29.95

AT THE ENDS OF THE EARTH

A History of the Polar Regions

By Kieran Mulvaney

Island Press. 286 pp. $24.95

The reputation of Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who lost the South Polar race to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1912 and then perished with four of his men on the return trip, has been tarnished of late. It wasn't always so. Swayed by Scott's emotional "message to the public," composed as the end was near and found next to his body after his death ("I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past"), generations of patriots revered his expedition as a noble and valiant effort, which fell short due to a barrage of rotten luck. Recently, however, several detractors, notably Roland Huntford in his book Scott & Amundsen, have sounded a decidedly revisionist note. "Scott," wrote Huntford in a characteristic passage, "had been so consistently inept as to almost suggest the workings of a death wish."

Now comes Susan Solomon, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hoping to send the pendulum back in the other tradition. She has set herself a difficult task. Amundsen's expedition came off like clockwork -- in At the Ends of the Earth, Kieran Mulvaney aptly calls it "a clinic in efficiency" -- and there is also the example of Scott's erstwhile colleague Sir Ernest Shackleton to reckon with. In 1909, at the head of his own expedition, Shackleton had turned back within a hundred miles of the Pole because food was running low and he refused to risk his men's lives. But Solomon's purpose is not so much to compare Scott with his competitors as to scrutinize the conditions he had to cope with in early 1912, particularly the weather. (Her title is a word-play, in that Scott and company went on foot, and died in an uncommonly frigid month of March.)

Having a land mass and being subject to unique atmospheric conditions, the South Polar region differs substantially from the North. One such condition is permanent snow on the ground, which helps keep the Antarctic summer colder than the Arctic one. Scott's meteorological expert, G.C. Simpson, first noticed the phenomenon that goes far to explain this discrepancy. "Of the solar energy which falls within the Antarctic Circle," he wrote in a three-volume treatise published several years after the expedition, "such a large proportion is lost by direct reflection from the snow that the remainder is not sufficient to raise the air to the freezing point before the solstice is reached, and the energy commences to decrease." The perennially weak Antarctic summer sets the stage for what Solomon calls a "coreless" winter, one that lacks "a central core of deep midwinter cold -- it is simply cold all winter long." The summer solstice was past, and such a winter was coming on, when Scott and his men were caught out in the weather.

And what weather it was! Having pored over the records, Solomon concludes, "From the end of February until the last temperatures were recorded on March 19, Scott and his men struggled through three weeks when almost every minimum daily temperature was a bitter and debilitating 10-20 [degrees Fahrenheit] colder than what can now be shown to be typical based on many years of observations in this region." We're talking about lows in the minus 30s and 40s, in mid to late fall. Their worst effect was not the direct toll on physical comfort but "the suddenly intractable nature of the surface across which the desperate men struggled to ski and drag their sledge behind them. The surfaces under these nearly windless and frigid temperatures were covered with fresh hoarfrost, and the effort to pull the sledge across the sandpapery snow . . . was the limit of . . . endurance." (The Norwegians were in the clear by then -- with characteristic foresight, Amundsen had had them start and finish their trek weeks earlier than the Britons.) In his last message Scott had complained, "I do not think human beings ever came through such a month as we have come through," and Solomon's findings suggest this was no exaggeration.

Her main point is well taken -- perhaps the anti-Scott contingent has gone too far in attacking his competence. But by Solomon's own account, Scott remains guilty of persistent carelessness. On his earlier Antarctic expedition, in 1902-03, Solomon writes that he "survived . . . two major sledding journeys . . . through great effort and on the slimmest of margins." Instead of wising up, he cut it close again in 1911-12. By contrast, Amundsen organized his expedition so as to provide ample margins for error. Then, too, he seemed to have been blessed with an intangible quality -- expeditionary smarts, for want of a better term -- that Scott lacked. One example: Learning from Eskimos, Amundsen used dogs as beasts of burden, while Scott relied in part on ponies, then on himself and his men. The ponies proved to be a fiasco. As Solomon points out, Shackleton had used them, too, with limited success. But Scott's detractors believe he should have realized that, in this respect, Shackleton was not to be emulated. What Huntford wrote of the pony business remains hard to dispute: "This is one of the more bizarre incidents in Polar exploration."

Yet I don't mean for my misgivings about Scott to stand in the way here: Solomon argues her case well, in exact and graceful prose. She suggests an intriguing solution to certain puzzles about the expedition's finale, and The Coldest March will appeal to anyone with an interest in polar exploration.

Kieran Mulvaney's book stresses the drastic changes at or about the poles since Scott and Amundsen's day. The "ends of the Earth" are now readily accessible to tourists, and generations of scientists have left marks on the Antarctic. Regions that men once struggled and died to explore have been brought so far into the mainstream of earthly activity as to be collection points for pollution and depletion. "Arctic natives have higher levels of contaminants in their bodies than do people anywhere else in the world," Mulvaney writes. "Ozone levels are at their lowest over the poles."

These insults are fairly new to the South, less so to the North. As Mulvaney notes, the first manmade Arctic extinction occurred as long ago as the 18th century, and the victim is all but unknown to us. It was a kind of sea cow, related to the manatee and the dugong, found in the Russian Arctic and prized for the sweetness of its blubber. Not for long, though. It took only a quarter-century for humans to exterminate the animal. Just one scientist ever saw it, Mulvaney notes, "no skins survive, and a half-dozen illustrations made [of it] were lost and have never been found."

Mulvaney, too, is an adroit writer, and his book is an excellent primer on polar environmental issues, not least a controversial one currently vexing Congress: whether to permit oil drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. * Dennis Drabelle, a contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on exploration.