December 7, 2023 | Miles Brucker

Perilous Facts About Polar Exploration

“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” —Ernest Shackleton

It took humans quite some time to become capable of traversing all of planet Earth, surviving everything that mother nature could throw at us, but once we got going, there was no stopping us. Polar exploration was one of our world's final frontiers, as the incredibly harsh conditions are not suitable for even the best of us, and it’s cost many lives in the pursuit of mapping. From the crazy to the incredible to the sad to the WTH, here are some of the most interesting facts about polar exploration.

39. Penguin Party

As a part of the Terra Nova Expedition, George Murray Levick observed the mating rituals of penguins. During his observations, he noted that the male penguins performed sensual coercion, had intercourse with other males, and practiced necrophilia of passed females. Finding these notes to be too indecent for their time, Levick recorded everything in Greek, so that only an “educated gentleman” would be able to read them. It wasn’t until 2012 that these notes were finally published.

polar exploration

38. Pole Mapping

Launching the careers of many leading explorers who took part in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, the Discovery Expedition was an endeavor that also had scientific objectives. The crew, led by Robert Falcon Scott and containing Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, marched towards the South Pole, hoping to discover the Polar Plateau, which is where the geographic pole is actually located.

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37. Discovery Successes

The Discovery Exploration was a great success as they were able to chart the continent along with its mountains, and found an incredible dry valley which was thought the be impossible. They were also able to provide scientific evidence that the continent was once a part of the Gondwanaland supercontinent by finding fossilized leaves. Another important discovery was the use of seal and penguin meat for treating scurvy, which was a serious hazard during exploration.

Polar Exploration factsWikpedia

36. Waddle Into The Future

Perhaps the most famous discovery of the Discovery Exploration, however, was the first colony emperor penguins in Cape Crozier. Because could you imagine a life without emperor penguins? It's hard to know how humans survived all those years without penguins in their life—or Morgan Freeman for that matter.

Polar Exploration factsWikimedia Commons


35. A Rift in the Family

During this exploration, Shackleton and Scott had a huge falling out after Shackleton fell ill along the journey, something that was difficult to actually prevent due to the seriously harsh conditions. Shackleton, only 27 at the time, was ultimately sent home early from the voyage.

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34. Pole to Pole

The Discovery Expedition was the first sanctioned British exploration of the southernmost part of our planet since the travels of James Clark Ross 60 years prior. Ross was part of the team that found the location of the Magnetic North Pole, before making the journey south.

Polar Exploration factsWikipedia

33. Can’t Sink A Mountain

James Clark Ross made three trips to Antarctica, commanding two ships each time, the HMS Erebus and the infamous HMS Terror. These two ships were taken because they were bomber warships, which were designed specifically for withstanding the destruction of battle. Upon discovering that the continent had twin volcanoes, he named them Mount Erebus and Mount Terror after his two ships.

Polar Exploration factsWikipedia

32. Almost Lost Forever

Later, Sir John Franklin would outfit the Erebus and the Terror for an ill-fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. It wasn’t until 2014 that the Erebus was found, and the Terror remained lost until 2016.

Polar Exploration factsWkipedia

31. Gotta Do What You Gotta Do

The lost crew of Sir John Franklin was reported to have been in contact with the local Inuit tribe, and there is evidence that they not only suffered a long, cruel end, but they may have reverted to cannibalism in order to try and survive.

Polar Exploration factsWikipedia

30. Path to Success

Robert Falcon Scott—by the way, let’s take a moment to appreciate this glorious name—became a national hero. However, he did not take on his Antarctic journey due to the desire to explore, but because he thought it would be a good path towards career advancement.

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29. Return Trip

Though he had already done landmark work in Antarctica during the Discovery Exploration, Scott did not reach the geographic South Pole. He still wanted to be the first to do so, so he embarked on the Terra Nova Expedition. However, by deciding to take ponies rather than dogs to haul their sleds, Scott doomed himself and the Terra Nova Expedition.

Polar Exploration factsPicryl

28. Race To The Pole

This ill-fated trip was far from a success, and in fact proved to be fatal. The Terra Nova Expedition was essentially a race with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to get to the South Pole. Though Scott and his company actually did manage to reach the pole, when they arrived they found that Amundsen had arrived 34 days prior.

Polar Exploration factsWikimedia Commons

27. Love For Nature

Scott’s lone child was Sir Peter Scott. You may know him better as the founder of the WWF. No, not that one, but the World Wildlife Fund.

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26. Winner

Amundsen had been able to win the race to the geographic South Pole with better preparation. He used light sleds, led by dogs, acquired better-suited clothing, and had more efficient equipment for the terrain, including skis.

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25. Learn The Local Way

Amundsen was in part better prepared because of his past expeditions. Having been the first to find the Northwest Passage, he came across local Netsilik Inuit who taught him how to survive the Arctic climate by using sled dogs and that it was better to use an animal skin for clothing, rather than the heavy woolen parkas everyone had been using up until then.

Roald Amundsen FactsWikimedia Commons

24. Audible

While Amundsen would be the first to the South Pole, it wasn’t his initial plan. He was actually on his way to the North Pole when he got wind that the Americans Frederick Cook and Robert E. Peary had already reached it. After realizing he wouldn’t be the first to the North Pole, he switched course and tried to save face by being the first to the South Pole.

Polar Exploration factsWikipedia


23. Secret Plans

Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, but he had actually kept his decision to switch track and head south a secret, as he did not want to scare his funders, who backed him under the belief he’d be going to the North Pole. He didn’t even tell his crew about the plan until they left their port of call.

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22. What Momma Don’t Know, Won’t Hurt Her

Amundsen would reach both the North and South Poles, but his career as an explorer almost never happened. With the dream of being an explorer, Amundsen had originally studied to become a doctor, as it was his mother’s wish. However, once mother passed, Amundsen dropped the doctor shtick and decided to follow his dreams.

Polar Exploration factsWikipedia

21. First Europeans

Arctic exploration is not a modern thing, however—it was just very well-documented in the examples above. Obviously, Inuit peoples made it extremely deep into the Arctic, and much earlier than Europeans. Also, Norse legend Erik the Red was the first to discover Greenland. Coming from a troubled background, Erik was banished from Iceland in 982, and decided he could use that time to explore the landmass that was reported to lie west of Iceland.

Statue of explorer Leif Ericson in Brattahlid/Qassiarsuk, Southern Greenland.Getty Images

20. It’s Green Over There

Upon arriving back to Iceland once his banishment had expired, Erik told tales of a “green land” in order to attract people to coming with him and starting a settlement. Of course, this wasn’t necessarily the case, as the conditions were at times worse than Iceland, but it worked. After only 14 of their 25 ships survived the journey west, two colonies were set up.


19. Bad Omen

One of Erik’s sons would follow in his exploratory footsteps. Leif Erikson was not the first Viking to catch the sight of North America, but he was the first to explore “Vinland”—the northern tip of modern-day Newfoundland. Before leaving to explore the North American continent, Leif invited his father to come along, but after falling off his horse en route to join the crew, he felt it too bad of an omen to take the journey with his son.

Polar Exploration factsWikimedia Commons

18. There Were Three

Though Amundsen and Scott became the focus of all attention for their race to the South Pole, the Japanese explorer Shirase Nobu took a tiny crew of seven people to Antarctica and became the first people to make landfall on the peninsula known as Edward VII, in 1911. However, they would fail to reach the South Pole.

Polar Exploration factsWikipedia


17. Sword of Friendship

During Nobu’s expedition, they had a couple of adventurous run-ins. First, they unexpectedly encountered one of Amundsen’s ships. Then, while waiting out the winter in Sydney, Nobu became close friends with Tannatt Edgeworth David, a geologist who had done field work in Antarctica. Edgeworth David was able to help Nobu negotiate with the gender authorities, and provided safety to their crew. To express his gratitude, Nobu presented Edgeworth David with a 17th-century samurai sword, crafted at the hands of master swordsmith Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu.

Polar Exploration factsWikimedia Commons

16. Just The Two of Us

Richard Weber is an arctic explorer who has traversed to the North Pole 6 times, which is more than anyone else in history. This includes doing it once with only one other person, marking the first time a team as small as 2 people reached either pole. Alongside Ward Hunt, the two man team also became the first, and only, to do a round trip North Pole expedition without any outside support.

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15. Flag Planting

Though United States submariners were the first to reach the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in 1958, that didn’t stop a Russian submarine from planting the Russian flag there in 2007.

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14. Which Pole?

There are actually two south poles, which can make things a bit confusing. Usually, when referring to the “south pole,” what people mean is the geographic South Pole, which is located exactly at the bottom of the earth. The other “south pole” is the South Magnetic Pole, which is constantly wandering as the magnetic field of the earth is constantly shifting. The same goes for the north pole.

Polar Exploration factsShutterstock

13. Wandering Pole

Affected by polar drift, the South Magnetic Pole is currently moving northwest at a speed of 10 to 15 kilometers per year, and is currently outside of the Antarctic circle, with a distance approaching 3,000 miles from the geographic South Pole. In regards to the North Magnetic Pole, it is moving between 55 and 60 kilometers a year towards Russia. Knowing what we know now, maybe someone should look into this...

Polar Exploration factsWikipedia

12. Opposite Pole Attraction

Opposites attract, we’re all aware of this. So it shouldn’t be the biggest surprise to learn that the South Magnetic Pole of the Earth is physically the North Magnetic Pole. Furthermore, the north and south pole are not antipodal, which means that they are not directly aligned to the center of the earth. Complicated, huh?

Bizarre Science factsShutterstock

11. Getting There Ain’t Enough

Edgeworth David was the man who led the first expedition to successfully find the South Magnetic Pole. If you think that's impressive, how about this: David also led the first ascent of Antarctica's active volcano, Mount Erebus, and had to push through a blizzard in order to reach the summit. Let me repeat, Edgeworth David went to Antarctica and climbed an active volcano. Yeah, that man deserves all of the awards.

Polar Exploration factsWikimedia Commons

10. Specially Crafted

The ship Roald Amundsen commanded en route to Arctic exploration was the Fram. This ship was aptly named—"fram" meaning “forward”—because it was designed specifically for combating pack ice by using the pressure of the ice to propel itself up, effectively rising above the floating ice, and pushing itself onward. Originally made in the 1890s, the ship is famous for being the most traveled wooden ship in history.

Polar Exploration factsWikimedia Commons

9. Stuck

The first voyage that the Fram went on wasn’t what one would call a success, as it actually got trapped in the Arctic. Though it was designed especially for the Arctic, the current was not strong enough to continually propel the ship forward, and eventually became a floating sheet of ice, or a “floe.”

Polar Exploration facts Wikipedia

8. Prepare For The Worst

Fridtjof Nansen was the explorer who led this expedition, and he did not allow himself to be taken prisoner by the high expectations for the Fram. Instead, he prepared for getting stuck in the Arctic, and essentially made the boat into an “Arctic Ice Station,” by using it as a hub to record information about the region from.

Polar Exploration facts Wikipedia

7. Icey Beard

You know that picture of the manly polar explorer with a fully frozen beard? Well, today that is considered “the full Nansen,” in honor of the great explorer.

Polar Exploration facts Shutterstock

6. Surprise Dinner

During his Endurance expedition, Ernest Shackleton and his crew had to find to time to celebrate the little things through all the hardship. During one particular celebration—a leap year celebration, at that—they were hurt by a sea leopard. Or at least that's what they called it? Maybe they meant leopard seal. No problem, Frank Wild took care of it with his weapon, and they quickly found out that the sea leopard had just eaten a bunch of fish. This fish was not yet digested, which meant that the crew had stumbled into a full course meal to indulge in for their celebration.

Polar Exploration facts Wikipedia

5. Three Poles Challenge

Sir Edmund Hillary is known as the first western man to summit Mount Everest, with the help of the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. While this made Hillary famous, even more, impressive is that he was the first person to ever summit Mount Everest and also reach both the North and South Poles.

Polar Exploration facts Getty Images

4. Engine Help

Hillary was a part of the first Antarctic expedition to reach the south pole since Amundsen and Scott did so 50 years prior, and was the first to do so by using motor vehicles. Then, in 1985, his trip to the North Pole was done by flying a ski plane alongside none other than iconic astronaut Neil Armstrong.

 Polar Exploration facts Wikipedia

3.Poop To The Rescue

Being an explorer means making the most out of what a situation gives you. Sometimes this means in order to survive, you’ve got to use your own poop. Stuck under an avalanche in Greenland during the 1950s, famed explorer Peter Freuchen was able to pry himself loose and survive by crafting a dagger out of his own poop.

Polar Exploration facts Wikipedia

2. Self-Sacrifice

Sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team, and when you’re an Antarctic explorer, this may mean even your own life. During the Terra Nova Expedition, Captain Lawrence Oates came down with a case of gangrene and severe frostbite and realized that by maintaining company with the rest of his group would compromise their lives as well. He then made an act of self-sacrifice and walked off into a blizzard in order to improve the chances of survival for his crew. There’s going down with the ship and then there’s this.

Polar Exploration facts Wikipedia

1. To You, Mr. President

In 1852, Edward Belcher was sent to look for Sir John Franklin's lost expedition with five ships. Four of these five ships would succumb to pack ice and be abandoned. Eventually, an American whaler found one of the ships, the HMS Resolute, and returned it intact to the United Kingdom. As a gift, Queen Victoria later crafted a desk out of the ship's timber, and presented it to President Rutherford B. Hayes. That desk sits in the Oval Office today, and has been used by every President since Jimmy Carter (except for George HW Bush, who kept the Resolute desk in the White House but used a different one in the Oval Office).

 Polar Exploration facts Wikipedia

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23


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