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Polar Extremes


Since 1845, transport for polar expeditions has undergone many changes. The major change has been that from the use of traditional sailing ships and sledges to the widespread development of motorised transport for use in polar exploration. Motorised transport was in use from the early 1900s, but it was many years before the problems with these early machines could be successfully used in extreme climates.

The introduction of air transport began in the 1930's allowing flights over the polar regions for remote exploration and surveying, making it possible to survey areas which would have been difficult to cover on foot. Aircraft have also been used to provide support to ground teams, although more recently there has been a shift to attempt polar expeditions without outside assistance.

Today we see a combination of mechanised and more traditional transport methods. They both have their strengths and weaknesses and so their use together is ideal.

SPRI Tea Bell

The ship's bell from Scott's second expedition which sailed on the "Terra Nova". The bell was salvaged by an original member of Scott's expedition and given to the Scott Polar Research Institute.

The bell is rung everyday to gather everybody together in the Institute for a cup of tea or coffee. Ship's bell time is used; so two bells, four bells, six bells or eight bells are rung depending on the time of day.


Explorers from the heroic age relied heavily on natural fibres such as wool and cotton for their polar clothing.

As man-hauling was a typical way of moving across the ice during this period it is possible the men would get too hot when hauling a sledge if they had worn furs.

Clothing was layered so that air could be trapped between the layers. However, in the early twentieth century it was difficult to find totally windproof or waterproof fabrics to make clothing. There are many accounts of explorers from this time suffering from frostbite, hypothermia, and snow blindness. Unfortunately, some died from hypothermia or lost limbs due to the action of frostbite.

If explorers are unprepared there are three problems that can occur

  • Hypothermia
  • Frostbite
  • Snow blindness

Watch the videos to compare the differences in clothing and equipment that explorers have used during the last 100 years to try and minimize the effect of the very low temperatures and poor visibility.


Nutrition is vital to an expedition's success. Getting it even slightly wrong can have disastrous consequences; many have died on polar expeditions due to the effects of poor nutrition.

Eating in polar environments poses its own challenges but in the early 20th century not as much was known about what the human body needs to properly function in such extreme conditions.

The unfortunate outcomes of earlier expeditions and the successful outcomes of later expeditions in many ways can be put down to developments in nutrition.

  • Understanding the need for fresh food to prevent scurvy.
  • Developing the technology to 'can' food to help preserve the life of food.
  • Understanding food hygiene to prevent micro-organisms spoiling food and making it unfit for humans to eat.

Today we take for granted many of the developments in nutrition, but the growth of the science of nutrition has resulted in an understanding of what the body needs to function and remain healthy.

It was not until 1929 that a Nobel Prize was awarded for work on vitamins, we now know what vitamins we need in order to remain healthy, unfortunately this came too late for those during the heroic age of exploration, these explorers often had to learn through trial and error.

Further reading can be found here:


The extreme climate of the polar regions means that shelter is vital for an expedition's success. It is typical for an expedition to use two forms of shelter, firstly a base hut at their main site of operation and then tents when out in the field. Explorers usually plan in great detail how they will shelter when in the polar regions, because their survival depends upon it.

Polar huts are designed to keep heat in whilst providing as much space as possible, using an extremely limited amount of material.

Huts built during the heroic age were primarily made of wood. These wooden huts would be simple in design, usually consisting of one main room and a couple of smaller rooms, often a dark room, store room or taxidermy room. Today, the permanent bases in the polar regions use a whole host of materials to create complicated structures; for example the Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole is built on top of hydraulics which can lift the base above rising snow drifts. It is unlikely that the men for whom the base is named could ever have imagined such a structure.

As time has gone on, hut designs have become more complex and a lot has been learnt from the trial and error of previous expeditions. For example the Norwegian British Swedish Antarctic Expedition learnt from previous expeditions that screws and nails could stick to the fingers in such cold weather.

Polar tents both today and in the heroic age are pyramid shape in design.


The climate of the polar regions can be extremely harsh if an explorer is not properly dressed. The Arctic and Antarctic make up the polar climatic zone, a region that is permanently covered by snow and ice. In these high latitudes, the sun's rays are not strong enough to melt much of the snow and so the snow cover remains year round.

The Antarctic continent covers an area that is about 14.2 million sq km and there is a range of temperatures across the region. At coastal stations winter temperatures range from -10°C to -30°C, in summer temperatures rise to around 0°C and occasionally above.

Temperatures inland tend to be much lower, because of the land's increased height, higher latitude and greater distance from the warming effects of the ocean. Here temperatures in summer rarely get above -20°C and in winter monthly averages fall below -60°C.

The lowest temperature on the earth's surface was recorded in the interior of Antarctica at Vostok Station, where a temperature of -89.2°C was recorded.

Antarctica has very little precipitation and is the world's largest desert.

The Arctic is around 14 million sq km and has a range of temperatures as it covers land mass and frozen sea.

Minimum temperatures are around -32°C and maximum around 2°C in Greenland and northern Siberia.

Maximum temperatures on the ice sheet itself are between -5°C and 2°C but highs in the region of 30°C have been recorded on land.

Explorers to these regions need to be well equipped to survive in such low temperatures. In the Arctic annual precipitation is usually between 500 and 1000mm, made up mainly of winter snowfall.

For both the Arctic and Antarctic, the wind-chill factor, can make the temperatures feel even lower. Both the Arctic and Antarctic have high winds and blizzards, with Antarctica being the windiest continent. Winds can have a very serious impact on a person's body temperature. Wind chill is the cooling effect that wind has on temperature; it is expressed as a loss of body heat in watts per square meter of skin surface. Without wind there is no wind chill effect.