The Weather and its Role in Captain F. Scott and his Companions’ Deaths, by Professor Krzysztof Sienicki

1 Apr



I have just had my attention drawn to this paper published in 2010 which suggests that Scott and ‘Birdie’ Bowers ‘doctored’ the minimum temperatures recorded on the Barrier between February 27 – March 19, 1912, so as to dramatise the weather conditions. Professor Sienicki suggests that the party made a deliberate decision to die, a decision made before food and food supplies were finished or the men’s strength exhausted.

The argument is based on his recording of minimum temperatures from 1985 -2009, by a neural network across the Barrier. These he compared with historical recordings made by expeditions in the early 1900s, including the Discovery and Nimrod expeditions. He found a relationship between the minimum temperatures at different locations at the Ross Ice Shelf, i.e. a gradient at one station was followed by a similar change at another station. For example, though recordings at  McMurdo  (near the sea), are about 20° higher than those deep on the Barrier, the essential pattern of  change, from early February till 19 March over the years1993-2009, mirrored each other significantly, so the particularly low temperatures recorded by Scott’s party, (and, furthermore, not recorded by other historical expeditions over this period), are significant, unique and, he concludes, questionable.

The technique is carefully validated and Professor Sienicki dismisses the suggestion that Scott’s thermometer malfunctioned. He concludes that Scott and Bowers distorted the temperature documentation to exaggerate the real weather conditions.

He then goes on to say that Leonard Huxley edited and arranged the first edition of Scott’s journals (which gave negative temperatures), and actually shows Scott’s recorded temperatures from November 3, 1911 till 25 February 1912. These reveal that Scott’s recordings in Fahrenheit were positive. Sienecki quotes Max Jones in saying that ‘an establishment conspiracy covered up Scott’s failings, creating a hero by the careful editing of his sledging journals….’ hardly the work of the long-dead Scott. Whether these changes (from positive to negative degrees Fahrenheit) were deliberate has been debated, but this is hardly down to Scott. Sienicky also quotes Susan Soloman, who says that the average temperature recorded by Scott were 10-20° below respective modern data, and that one year (1988) recorded a minimum temperatures close to the 1912 reported data. He confirms with his own data that 1988 was exceptionally cold, but states that Soloman has miscalculated the degree of severity. However, Sienecki’s confirmation of near surface temperatures close to that reported by Scott, does not convince him that the Scott party really experienced unusually low temperatures. To this it is reasonable to comment that it is impossible to say that they definitely did not.

Professor Sienicki has made an impressive study of long- term Barrier temperatures, but his conclusion that Scott and Bowers deliberately falsified their records is unproven.

The recent publication of Scott’s letter to Sir Francis Bridgeman saying that they could have got through ‘if they had neglected the sick’ (possibly true), gives further weight to the conclusion that dying, for whatever reason, was not part of Scott’s plan.







One Response to “The Weather and its Role in Captain F. Scott and his Companions’ Deaths, by Professor Krzysztof Sienicki”

  1. Kristoffer May 4, 2013 at 4:03 am #

    Hello Karen,

    Huntford most certainly gets people angry. I first heard about your article in Polar Record, “Could Captain Scott have been saved? Revisiting Scott’s last expedition” from a person who also angrily flung Huntford’s name at me, even though I had not mentioned him even in passing! Speaking of your Polar Record article, unless I am mistaken, Prof. Sienicki will have something to say about it in his book.

    “Where Sienicki falls into error is in his conclusion: “On the basis of the mentioned evidence I concluded that the actual minimum near surface temperature data was altered by Lt. Bowers and Captain Scott to inflate and dramatize the weather conditions.”

    In other words, Sienicki goes beyond the mere scientific facts into the realms of the human heart. He is stating that if the facts are wrong, it was because Scott and Bowers together simply gave up trying to get home, and that they falsified evidence to cover their tracks.”
    Not quite: in his article, Prof. Sienicki gave other explanations for the low temperatures, and eliminated the others through checking facts. That is scientific, not a matter of emotion. Both Sienicki and I believe that lack of hope of getting back was not the motive, but for Scott at least, the motive was fear of powerful enemies in Britain who had previously gotten away with slandering him and Lt. Royds over the latter’s meteorological records from the Discovery expedition. Further, Sienicki demonstrated the link in temperature changes between Elaine AWS (at foot of Beardmore), Schwerdtfeger (near One Ton Depot), and McMurdo AWS (near Cape Evans). All of these are along Captain Scott’s route. If a temperature change had struck Scott’s party, it would not have remained local and would have been picked up all the way down Scott’s route, including by the First Relief Party. It was not.

    As for reasons 1-3, Scott and Bowers’ actions run counter to their previous lives, but that does not make me discard what I know happened: the falsification. Right now, suicide pact remains the only plausible candidate for a motive; of course, Sienicki and I will take any new possibilities into consideration.

    As for reason 4, the men had no guarantee that their tent would be found. How could have they been guaranteed support for their families? Scott managed through writing; whether his own account was true, or what Sienicki and I believe is true (suicide pact and successful falsification), the end result is the same: death for the entirety of the polar party. Thus the method of writing before death can achieve the same successful results of security for families either way. Furthermore, by Feb. 27 at the earliest to Mar. 1 at the latest, Scott could-from his point of view-safely determine that the dogs were not coming: see the written orders he had given them that you cited in your above article, then cross reference that with Scott’s diary entries of Feb. 27 and Mar. 1-2, and remember that the latitude of the Mid Barrier Depot (that Scott is 31 miles S of on Feb. 27 and at on Mar. 1) is 81° 35′ S.

    “So, how to explain Sienicki’s findings?

    My expectation is that something simply went wrong with Bowers’ temperature readings.

    I can certainly accept a hypothesis of the malfunction of Edwardian-era equipment, or simple human error from an exhausted Bowers in the reading and transcription of the results. What I cannot accept is Sienicki’s hypothesis that Bowers and Scott got into a private conversation as early as 27 February 1912 which resulted in a mutual decision to kill themselves and condemn their friend Wilson to death as well.”
    Then you are going to have to explain why and how Scott’s thermometer (which recorded daily midday near surface temperatures) malfunctioned at the same time to give abnormally low temperatures, and explain why it was later tested and nothing found wrong. Check page 6 of Sienicki’s article. The reason why I too cannot accept that Bowers and Scott got into your “private conversation” on Feb. 27, 1912 is because-as I have already pointed out-Scott manufactured his first food shortage on Feb. 7, 1912, so if your conversation did serve as the catalyst, it would have to have been before that day.

    In conclusion, Sienicki will go into further detail about Lt. Bowers’ and Captain Scott’s actions-not personalities, as you incorrectly indicate-in his book. And if you and Williams have not liked the hints of the book’s contents you have seen so far, brace yourselves for the book’s release: the truth about what happened at Cape Evans in Scott’s absence is worse than you could imagine.

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