"First Person": Researchers Discuss How Scientific Tools Yield a New Perspective on the Fates of Two Historic Polar Expeditions

Stephanie Pfirman

Stephanie Pfirman

A conversation with Stephanie Pfirman, Bruno Tremblay and Charles Fowler about the intersection of research and education


This is one of a projected series of articles, exclusive to this site, to highlght discoveries made possible, in whole or in part, through IPY funding. Support for this research came from National Science Foundation grants 0806509, 0739464 and 0712950.


In an article published in American Scientist on Oct. 8, 2009, Stephanie Pfirman, Hirschorn Professor and chair of the Environmental Science Department at Barnard College, Columbia University; Bruno Tremblay, assistant professor at McGill University; and Charles Fowler, a research associate at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research, examine two of the most famous polar expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the Arctic crossing of Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen and the Antarctic Endurance expedition of Briton Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Using satellite data on ice movements in recent years as a comparison, the researchers examine such questions as to what degree the feats of Nansen and Shackleton were due to luck and whether normal variations in oceanic currents, weather and ice motion may have assisted or doomed them.

A digest of the article may be found on-line here. Access to the full story is restricted to subscribers.

In the following question-and-answer session, Pfirman, Tremblay and Fowler discuss on their findings, as published in the American Scientist, and their significance in relation to the IPY.


What did you set out to do in comparing these two expeditions, one Arctic, the other Antarctic?

Pfirman: Many people know of Shackleton and his heroic expedition with the Endurance in the Antarctic, but I think the greatest polar expedition of all time is Nansen’s transit with the Fram across the Arctic. Nansen used science to conceive and implement his expedition--as he put it “… if we pay attention to the actually existent forces of nature, and seek to work with and not against them, we shall thus find the safest and easiest method of reaching the Pole.”

Comparing the two expeditions made both of them come to life, as they started out so differently but wound up with marked similarities.

Has anyone ever made such a comparison before?

Tremblay: Not comparing these two expeditions, but as we mention in the article, Roger Colony conducted a modeling analysis that he called “Nansen’s Luck” that came up with similar results.

And, of course, in The Coldest March,  Susan Solomon analyzed the actual environmental conditions during the Scott and Amundsen race to the South Pole.

What prompted you and you colleagues to undertake this study?

Pfirman: Seven years ago, Robin Bell (an Antarctic scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory ) and I decided to teach a First Year Seminar called “Exploring the Poles” where we introduced Barnard College women to polar exploration and science.

To make the old-time journal accounts more meaningful for the students, we used Chuck Fowler’s IceTracker--which I had been using for research--to send teams of students on simulated expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. After a couple of years of seeing the modern trajectories, I realized that they were interesting and somewhat different from the experience of the explorers 100 years ago.

Bruno Tremblay became involved in the project when someone at Lamont happened to show me a map created by his student Maria Abrahamowicz of the likely path of icebergs drifting in the Antarctic: they nailed South Georgia – just like Shackleton’s boat journey. Bruno then led the sailing analysis and he also compared the IceTracker with his models of ice drift, which was important in understanding the environmental conditions.

I gave several presentations on our findings during the International Polar Year at our Polar Weekends at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I got a great response from the public, so we approached American Scientist to see if they would be interested in publishing it. And they were!

What struck you the most, at the end of the day, about these two very different expeditions and the men who organized them? What, if anything, did they have in common? In what respects did they differ and why did those differences matter?

Pfirman: Nansen was a scientist – Shackleton was not. This means that Nansen understood physical processes and could read the land in ways that Shackleton couldn’t. Nansen had learned how to survive, and thrive, in the cold from the Inuit – Shackleton didn’t.

Shackleton, and his men, experienced truly extraordinary hardship, but came out of it able to write in South: "In memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had 'suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.'

Where there any “aha” moments, or turning points, for you in working on this project?

Pfirman: Yes, I remember one distinctly: it was when I read the section in Worsley’s book Endurance about all the flotsam and jetsam that he found near their camp on South Georgia – it validated Bruno’s ocean current model.

What is the IceTracker dataset and how important was it to reaching your conclusions?

Fowler: I have been working with Stephanie on the IceTracker for research and education for several years-–it’s a very simple tool that allows you to track sea ice and see where it drifts to, or to see where it came from.

With support from NSF we are making the IceTracker available to the public, and are upgrading it to include information along the track, such as ice concentration, surface temperature, and water depth, that we think will be of interest to researchers, educators, and the public.

The article seems to indicate that both Shackleton and Nansen benefitted from conditions that were far from the normal in terms of ice-drift and wind conditions. And that, in fact, despite their ill luck—Nansen’s in never reaching the North Pole, as he hoped, and Shackleton’s in losing his ship to the ice—they were remarkably fortunate to have survived at all. Is this one “takeaway lesson” from this comparison?

Tremblay: For me the main message is this from Shackleton “I have often marveled at the thin line that divides success from failure and the sudden turn that leads from apparently certain disaster to comparative safety.” Little decisions can make a huge difference and you need to have the courage to make those small decisions, and live with the consequences, in order to end in triumph.

Knowing what you do now about these expeditions and the “wildcard” that environmental conditions played, do you have more or less respect for Shackleton and Nansen as leaders and as scientific explorers?

Tremblay: Our respect definitely increased – they were amazingly undaunted by adversity and incredibly resourceful in challenging circumstances.

Should we conclude that luck outweighed skill in the end with the outcomes of these two expeditions?

Pfirman: Both were important – of course in terms of timing they were lucky, but Nansen’s skill in putting the expedition together in the first place set the basic conditions for success. And then, as Nansen wrote in Farthest North … in a struggle with Titans, one must save oneself with cunning and ingenuity if one is to escape from this giant fist that rarely lets go what it has seized.” It was also due to his skill that he survived the ski and kayak journey with Johansen and the overwintering on Frans Josef Land.

Shackleton’s skill in leading his men and keeping his head under harsh conditions, along with Worsley’s navigation and sailing skill, were critical to things working out the way they did.

Tremblay: When I read Nansen about his description of the life on board it seemed so comfortable with the food they were eating and the way they just knew how to survive in this environment - for me there were no surprise there. I had the feeling he would have survived any situation being so careful and well planned. For Shackleton, I would say it was a mixture of both, luck and extreme skills - this is the feeling I got when reading the book: he knew less of the environment but was extremely good at improvising and taking the best decision when in a difficult situation.

What lessons could or should today’s polar researchers draw from this analysis?

Tremblay: While the consequences of poor planning are far less consequential nowadays, I would say that good planning and a solid research question is crucial. Another lesson is to have patience and enjoyment of the process rather than just the finality. This came clear with Nansen, who was making what he could in terms of science but all along seemed to enjoy the process.    

Beyond the obvious polar angle, how does this analysis relate to the goals of the IPY?

Pfirman: Coming out of the first IPY Education and Outreach workshop (Bridging the Poles: Education Linked with Research) that Robin and I led back in 2004 the major recommendation was to link modern science and environmental change with an appreciation for extreme conditions and the drama of polar exploration--and to be sure to include a human face. This project includes all of those elements and we hope that its unusual scope will engage people in wanting to learn more about the polar regions.

Who supported this work and why?

Pfirman: It was supported indirectly by the Office of Polar Programs at NSF through an Arctic Systems Science (ARCSS) research grant and an IPY outreach grant.

The ARCSS grant is funding Bruno, Chuck and me to work together on sea-ice trajectories. Integrating our research into the “Exploring the Poles” class is part of our “broader impacts” for that grant.

The IPY outreach grant for the International Polar Weekend at the American Museum of Natural History provided the venue to synthesize the results and bring the analysis to the public.

And, as always, what question did I fail to ask you, if any, that is important to understanding this story?

Pfirman: People often talk glibly about the value of integrating research with education, but this project really did emerge at the intersection of research, education and outreach--each linked back and advanced the other.