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The Silent Landscape
Chapter Nine. The Lost World
Great Ice Barrier, Antarctica 66o40'S, 78o 22'E to Melbourne, Australia 37o 45'S, 144o 58'E.Simonstown, South Africa 37o45'S, 144o 58'

...by the end of the third week of February 1874, as Challenger moved among the icebergs only a handful of miles from the Great Ice Barrier, Moseley observed that the ice of the bergs showed layers of compaction. He wrote, “The entire mass shows a well marked stratification, being composed of alternate layers of white opaque looking, and blue, more compact and transparent ice… the color depending on the greater or less number and size of the air-cells in the ice.”

(Moseley's sketch of Antarctic icebergs showing the layers of compaction)

It was a clue that in the same way that the sediments of the ocean floor are the library of time, the ice of the Antarctic also preserves a record of climate change...

It was the first hint that ice, like deep ocean sediments, has its own memory...

Termination Land, 61o18'S, 94o 47'E

On February 16, 1874, Challenger was as far south as she was destined to go, a latitude of 66o 40' S and a longitude of 78o 22' E. She was on the edge of the Great Ice Barrier and only 1,400 miles from the South Pole, the attainment of which would engender so much heartache and privation for the expeditions of Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton a few decades later. But Nares was under strict orders not to try to proceed any farther. Both victuals and coal were in short supply and the risk of getting trapped in the ice was too great. They would certainly not survive a winter in those grim latitudes. As Wyville Thomson put it, “As the season was advancing, and as there was no special object in our going farther south, a proceeding which would have been attended with great risk to an unprotected ship… once or twice the water began to show that “sludgy” appearance which we know “sets” so rapidly, converting in a few hours an open pack into a doubtfully penetrable barrier,—Captain Nares decided upon following the edge of the pack to the northeastward, towards the position of Wilkes' “Termination Land.”'

The expedition's orders made it clear that proving the existence or otherwise of Wilkes's Termination Land was a priority.

As recently as 1840 Captain Wilkes of the United States Navy had written, "In latitude 64o31' south longitude 93o east, we made what was believed to be land to the south and west, at least as far as terra firma can be distinguished when everything is covered with snow. Soundings were obtained in 320 fathoms, which confirmed all our previous doubts, for on later observation a dark object, resembling a mountain in the distance, was seen, and many other indications presented themselves confirming it. Advancing to the westward, the indications of the approach to land were becoming too plain to admit of a doubt. The constant and increasing noise of the penguins and seals, the dark and discolored aspect of the ocean strongly impressed us with the belief that a positive result would arise in the event of a possibility to advance a few miles farther to the southward."

By the 23rd of February they were approaching the area marked on the charts as being where Wilkes had spied his great continent, but there was nothing to be seen...

...During the night the weather changed. By daylight on the morning of the 24th the wind was rising fast; the sky was dark and threatening, with frequent snow squalls that blew across the ship blinding clouds of wheel-like crystals so intensely cold that they burned when they touched the skin...

...“It was,” wrote Matkin, “considered the worst and most dangerous night we have had... Altho' we were all eager to see an iceberg, we are just as anxious to lose them now, it is so dangerous sailing these foggy nights with such masses of destruction all round us.”

(It was the most dangerous night since Challenger had left the English Channel. As Lieutenant Pelham Aldrich's sketch shows, Challenger almost foundered that night among the icebergs.)

There was still no sign of Termination Land so the hunt for it was abandoned. Spry wrote, “Wilkes' vision was at fault, and the great Antarctic continent has turned out to be a Cape Flyaway… Having now proceeded as far south as practicable in an undefended ship, at noon course was altered to the east …On reaching clear water studding sails were set and we were off for Australia, Cape Otway, 2, 278 miles distant.”

So Challenger turned its back on the Antarctic, much to the relief of all aboard, from Captain Nares and Charles Wyville Thomson down to ship's steward's assistant Joseph Matkin. But all aboard would have been aghast to know the scientific discovery that they were turning their back on, a discovery that would be made a hundred years later by the Vostok Ice Core team...

The Lost World

In the mid 1970s—almost exactly a hundred years after Challenger was in the region—an airborne radar survey of the ice sheet around Vostok Station revealed the presence of an enormous freshwater lake, beneath the ice sheet, that covered an area of about 10,000 square kilometers. By the early 1990s observations from satellites confirmed the presence of the lake, which was named Lake Vostok, and the news was released to the public by the Russian and American scientists who made the discovery.

The news caused a sensation, because the central question was obvious to all: How could a lake of liquid water survive under 4 kilometers of ice in the coldest region on Earth...?

...Lake Vostock is now thought to be the closest known analogue for the ocean under the Europan ice cap and the probes that are being devised to go to that Jovian moon to search for life will be tested in its frigid waters.

This is the irony, of course, for as we have seen, one of the main reasons for the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger in the first place was the desire to test the Darwinian notion that the oceans were the domain of life forms that were, from the evidence of the fossil record, extinct on land. It turned out, however, that the ocean bottom was not so much the lost world that Challenger sought, but rather a lake under an ice cap.

So unequipped with the knowledge she needed to find what she sought, Challenger turned north and headed for the greatest outpost of Empire.



Now click here to enter Chapter 10. The Echoes of Evolution...


Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk