Jan 282014


Antarctica was first sighted by explorers when Alexander Island was discovered on January 28, 1821 by a Russian expedition under Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen who named it Alexander I Land for the reigning Tsar Alexander I of Russia. This discovery was quite different from the “discovery” of Australia or the Americas.  In those cases those continents were inhabited and the “discovery” merely meant that Europeans found what other people already knew existed. To the best of our knowledge, no one knew Antarctica was there and Bellingshausen (and crew) was the first human ever to lay eyes on it.  Alexander Island was believed to be part of the Antarctic mainland until 1940. Its insular nature was proven in December 1940, by a two-person sledge party composed of Finn Ronne and Carl Eklund of the United States Antarctic Service. In the 1950s, a British base administered as part of the British Antarctic Territory was constructed at Fossil Bluff (Base KG).


Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen (1778 – 1852) was an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, cartographer and explorer, who ultimately rose to the rank of Admiral. Bellingshausen started his service in the Baltic Fleet, and after distinguishing himself, he joined the First Russian circumnavigation in 1803-1806, where he served on frigate Nadezhda under the captaincy of Adam Johann von Krusenstern. After the journey he published a collection of maps of the newly explored areas and islands of the Pacific Ocean. Subsequently he commanded several ships of the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.

As a prominent cartographer, Bellingshausen was appointed to command the circumnavigation of the globe in 1819-1821, intended to explore the Southern Ocean and to find land in the proximity of the South Pole. The expedition was prepared by Mikhail Lazarev, who was made Bellingshausen’s second-in-command and the captain of sloop Mirny, while Bellingshausen himself commanded sloop Vostok. During this expedition Bellingshausen and Lazarev became the first explorers to see the land of Antarctica on January 28, 1820. They managed to twice circumnavigate the continent and never lost each other from view. Thus they disproved Captain Cook’s assertion that it was impossible to find land in the southern ice fields. The expedition discovered and named Peter I Island, Zavodovski, Leskov and Visokoi Islands, Antarctic Peninsula as well as Alexander Island (Alexander Coast).


The island is now used as a meteorological centre and refueling base. It is claimed by the United Kingdom, for which it represents their largest remaining overseas island, part of the British Antarctic Territory. But ownership is disputed. For Chile and Argentina it is part of the Antártica Chilena Province and Tierra del Fuego Province respectively (as a component of the general dispute with Great Britain over the Malvinas Islands).


Alexander Island, which is also known as Alexander I Island, Alexander I Land, Alexander Land, Alexander I Archipelago, and Zemlja Alexandra I, is the largest island of Antarctica. It lies in the Bellingshausen Sea west of Palmer Land, Antarctic Peninsula from which it is separated by Marguerite Bay and George VI Sound. George VI Ice Shelf entirely fills George VI Sound and connects Alexander island to Palmer Land. The island partly surrounds Wilkins Sound, which lies to its west. Alexander Island is about 240 miles (390 km) long in a north-south direction, 50 miles (80 km) wide in the north, and 150 miles (240 km) wide in the south. Alexander Island is the second largest uninhabited island in the world, after Devon Island.


The surface of Alexander Island is predominantly ice covered. There exist some exposed nunataks (exposed rocky ridges) and a few ice free areas. The nunataks are the peaks of north-south trending mountain ranges and hills. They include the Colbert, Havre, Lassus, Rouen, Sofia University, and Walton mountains; Staccato Peaks; Lully Foothills; Elgar Uplands; and Douglas Range. These mountains, peaks, hills, and uplands are surrounded by a permanent ice sheet, which consists of glaciers that flow off of Alexander Island. These glaciers flow west into the Bach and Wilkins Ice Shelves and Bellingshausen Sea, and east into the George VI Ice Shelf. The George VI Ice Shelf is fed by both by outlet glaciers from the ice cap on Palmer Land and Alexander Island.


Another notable feature of Alexander Island is Hodgson Lake. It is a former subglacial lake that has emerged from under an ice sheet that covered it. It is 2 km (1.2 mi) long by 1.5 km (0.93 mi), and has a 93.4 m (306 ft) deep water column that lies sealed beneath a 3.6 to 4.0 m (12 to 13 ft) thick perennial lake ice. The northern side of this lake is bounded by the Saturn Glacier, which flows east into George VI Sound, while the southern side of Hodgson Lake is bounded by the northern face of Citadel Bastion. During the Last Glacial Maximum, Hodgson Lake was covered by the ice sheet at least 470 m (1,542 ft) thick. This ice sheet started thinning about 13,500 years ago. It retreated and left Hodgson Lake covered by perennial ice sometime before 11,000 years ago. This lake has been covered by perennial ice since that time.

Two things were found out very early on in Antarctic exploration – that extreme cold makes people feel very hungry, and hard work such as that involved in traveling by dog sledge, or especially by manhauling uses a great deal of energy. This energy has to be replaced by eating enough, unfortunately the early explorers didn’t eat enough and suffered as a consequence.

We now know:

Manhauling sledges uses per day                                                   6500 calories  (27300 KJ)

Travelling by dog sledge uses per day                                            5000 calories   (21000 KJ)

Travelling by skidoo (snowmobile) uses per day                           3350 calories    (14070 KJ)

Working mainly inside station buildings uses per day                  2750 calories (11550 KJ)

Early explorers also did not eat enough of the right foods and in consequence developed several ailments, notably scurvy. Here is a comparison of the ration list for Scott’s 1912 expedition and the normal rations for polar workers 100 years later.


Sledging rations for one man day as provided for Scott’s expedition to the South Pole – 1912
One man day manhauling.kilocalories
Modern sledging rations – 2012
One man day travellng by skidoo
note the variety of the diet compared to 1912kilocalories
Biscuits 1730 Biscuits 530
Pemmican 2000 Pemmican 700
Butter and cheese 450 Butter and cheese 700
Sugar 340 Sugar 200
Cocoa 70 Cocoa 0
Meat and fish 780
Soup 40
Porridge 25
Muesli 140
Vegetables 120
Chocolate 530
Jam 65
Milk 225
Drinking chocolate 45
Total          4590 kilocalories per day Total          3400 kilocalories per day
Protein 257g Protein 102g
Fat 210g Fat 195g
Carbohydrate 427g Carbohydrate 170g


I discussed some of these issues in my post on the discovery of the North Magnetic Pole (1 June) and gave a recipe for pemmican, the longlasting dried meat and fruit combination used by indigenous peoples in the Arctic region, and adopted by polar explorers.  Modern rations also call for muesli which is much like granola except that the oats are not toasted.  So Muesli is even simpler to make than granola because all you do is mix dried ingredients together.

Muesli was introduced around 1900 by the Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital, where a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables was an essential part of therapy. It was inspired by a similar “strange dish” that he and his wife had been served on a hike in the Swiss Alps. Bircher-Benner himself referred to the dish simply as “d’Spys” (Swiss German for “the dish”, in German “die Speise”). Muesli in its modern form became popular in Western countries starting in the 1960’s as part of increased interest in health food and vegetarian diets. Traditional muesli was eaten with lemon juice and not milk.

It is certainly worth making your own because (a) it is cheaper than commercial brands (especially if you buy in bulk), and (b) you can choose whatever ingredients you want. The only thing to bear in mind is that you need to keep a slight preponderance of oats over other ingredients, and since you are probably not heading to the South Pole tomorrow, you do not have to be scrupulous about the balance of food groups.

I don’t care for sweet muesli so I omit the sugar and replace it with desiccated coconut.  I also add flax seeds.  But the possibilities are endless.  In addition you can add fresh fruit when you serve it – bananas and strawberries work well.  Milk is the common moistener, but I often use juice instead, which also obviates the need for additional sugar.  Yoghurt works too.


Traditional Muesli


4 ½ cups rolled oats
½ cup toasted wheat germ
½ cup wheat bran
½ cup oat bran
1 cup dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, papaya chunks etc.)
½ cup chopped nuts (walnuts, almonds, etc)
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup raw sunflower seeds


Mix all the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl and store in an airtight container. What could be simpler?

If you have a hankering for granola instead, spread the oats in a single layer on several baking sheets (drizzled with honey or maple syrup if you like), and bake in a 350°F/175°C oven for about 20 minutes until golden, stirring the oats every 5 minutes to be sure of even browning.  Let cool and then add the other ingredients.

Jun 012013
James Clark Ross

James Clark Ross


Today we celebrate the anniversary of the first discovery of the North Magnetic Pole in 1831 by James Clark Ross.  He was on an arctic voyage with his uncle Sir John Ross in the side paddle steamer Victory, attempting to find a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. Their ship was ice bound for four years, and, in the end had to be abandoned.  During their second and third years of entrapment, James Ross made expeditions overland to explore and map the region around where they were trapped.  It was on the second of these that he discovered the North Magnetic Pole on the Boothia peninsula, the northernmost tip of the North American mainland to the northwest of Hudson Bay, surrounded by islands and shallow straits.

The North Magnetic Pole is different from the North Geographic Pole (called sometimes “true north”). The North and South Geographic Poles represent the points on the earth’s surface around which the earth spins (the axis of rotation).  They shift around a tiny bit, but are basically fixed points. There is actually a third North Pole called the Cartographic North Pole which is absolutely fixed, and is the basis for drawing all maps. The North Magnetic Pole is the point that all compasses point to, and is quite different from the Geographic Pole. It’s the place on the surface of the earth where compasses point vertically down, and it moves around – a lot.  James Clark Ross found it at Cape Adelaide on the Boothia Peninsula. Roald Amundsen found it in a slightly different location in 1903. The third observation was by Canadian government scientists Paul Serson and Jack Clark, of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, who found the pole at Allen Lake on Prince of Wales Island in 1947. The Canadian government has made several measurements since, which show that the North Magnetic Pole is moving continually northwestward. During the 20th century it moved 1100 km (683 miles), and since 1970 its rate of motion has accelerated from 9 km/year (5.6 miles/year) to approximately 41 km/year (25.5 miles/year), or 1.3 mm/sec (.05 inches/sec). The map pictured shows its actual position as observed, and its conjectured position since 1600.

I am amused by the quirkiness of the North Magnetic Pole.  First, because it moves AT ALL (due to movements in the earth’s core).  This matters mostly to navigators, orienteers, and anyone else who relies on map and compass to get around places with no obvious landmarks (although GPS has largely replaced such methods, and is more accurate). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the location of the North Magnetic Pole was important for whalers in the region. If you have ever seen an ordnance map you may have noticed in the margin two arrows – one points to geographic north, and the other to magnetic north.  Maps are drawn using cartographic north as the guide, because if you used magnetic north you’d have to redraw them annually.  If all you have is a compass to guide you, you must compensate for the difference between cartographic north and magnetic north.  Second, the needle of a compass is a small magnet with the north pole of the magnet pointing north.  If you know anything about magnetism, a little light bulb will go off in a second.  The poles of magnets attract opposite poles. The north pole of a magnet attracts south poles of other magnets. So if the north pole of your compass needle points towards the North Magnetic Pole, that must mean that the North Magnetic Pole is actually a magnetic SOUTH pole! Cool.

One of the major problems with polar exploration has always been nutrition. Early explorers had precious little understanding of either the calorific needs or the general dietary needs for survival in polar weather.  Working inside a polar station requires about 2,750 kilocalories per day, whereas hauling sleds outside requires 6,500 kilocalories per day (depending on variables such as body mass, temperature, and sex).  Even riding a dog sled requires 5,000 kilocalories per day.  Capt. Scott’s famed 1912 expedition to the South Pole carried 4,500 kilocalories per man per day, which was nowhere near enough when they had to abandon their mechanical transport and ponies, and travel on foot.  Furthermore, the balance of foods was all wrong and they did not compensate for deficiencies such as vitamin C.  As a result several members of the team developed scurvy, including Scott himself. They had too many carbohydrates (almost 50%) and not enough protein and fat. Modern polar workers eat a diet that is 22% carbohydrate, 42% fat, and 36% protein.

Ross’s 4 year ordeal trapped in the arctic would have meant the certain deaths of all the crew of Victory were it not for the fact that the indigenous Netsilik Inuit visited them periodically with food supplies.  Chief of these provisions was pemmican which was about all the Inuit took on long fishing and hunting trips.  It’s a mix of dried and powdered meat, fat, and berries, that was widely used by indigenous hunters in northern and central Canada. Pemmican is actually a Cree word. The Cree are the largest indigenous nation in Canada. I give a modern recipe here which I have modified based on cooking experience, but will confess I have not tried. Closest I’ve come is homemade beef jerky, which is miles better than what you get in stores.  All you need is a rack, a box fan, and a lot of time (several days).  The general consensus is that pemmican is not really yummy, but this recipe seems better than most.  Pemmican is traditionally made with hunted red meat such as deer, moose, or elk, but beef will work. Adjust the fat in the recipe depending on climate, more for colder ones, less for warmer ones.  The simplest way to render suet is to grind it and then heat it on very low heat, stirring occasionally to avoid having the solid bits that remain burn.  Strain the resultant fat through a fine strainer.



4 cups lean meat ground twice
3 cups dried fruit
2 cups rendered suet
½ cup unsalted nuts coarsely chopped
2 tbsps honey


Spread the meat out very thin on a cookie sheet and dry in the oven at 180° F (80°C) for at least 8 hours or until sinewy and crispy. Check periodically to make sure it does not burn (it’s not wise to do this overnight).

Pound the meat into a powdery consistency using a mortar and pestle or food processor.

Grind the dried fruit, but not too fine.

Heat the rendered fat on medium low heat until liquid.

Mix in a bowl the dried meat, dried fruit, and nuts.

Add the fat and honey, and mix everything thoroughly by hand.

Form into balls about the size of large meatballs and let cool.  Store in an airtight tin in a cool place.

Will keep for several years.

Yield: 15 (depending on size)