Bruce’s Achievements in Antarctica

3 Dec

As is well known it is difficult to get funding for scientific research that has no known tangible outcome. William Bruce was no exception to this when he started looking for funding for pure scientific research (rather that exciting feats of exploration), for his expedition to the Antarctic


Eventually he obtained funding; the greater part (about £30,000), came from the Coats family of Paisley), funding also came from Scottish Scientific Societies, from individuals and from ‘little orphans who had saved up their pennies to help the expedition’.[i]


Bruce’s original ambition for his ‘Scotia’ Expedition (1902-4), was to travel far south into the Weddell Sea and make a base on the mainland, but insufficient funds for the wintering station prevented this. The icy conditions Bruce encountered were such that he and his Captain, Thomas Robertson, decided to make their winter base on Laurie Island, a small island in the South Atlantic. Here he built his scientific laboratories and here, he and his team continued their careful scientific records (which had started immediately on Scotia’s voyage to the Antarctic) throughout the winter: The observations included meteorology, oceanography, magnetic observations, plus collection of flora and fauna.


All the Polar expeditions were very costly. Bruce’s privately funded expedition was planned for one year only. But during his winter on Laurie Island he became determined that his pivotal work should not stop when he returned to the UK – his dream was the development of a series of stations that covered the South Atlantic (as was to be achieved).


When he sailed to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for refuelling and re-provisioning, he approached the Argentine authorities to ask them to take over his observatories (he knew that the British authorities would not be interested in a small island in the South Atlantis of no commercial or strategic significance). The Argentinian authorities, responded with remarkable promptitude accepting Dr. Bruce’s offer within a few days and agreeing to Bruce’s suggestion that Argentinian scientists would man the stations with, originally, Bruce’s meteorologist, Robert Mossman, in charge. The Argentine authorities immediately understood the benefits of being in control of an island in the South Atlantic, whilst the British apparently had no such interest. One of the Argentine scientists was designated ‘Postmaster’ which was a statement of territorial intent. Stamps were issued that showed Laurie Island as a suburb of Buenos Aires.


The meteorological observations started by Bruce are an invaluable record. They have now been made continuously for 114 years (in 2018). This is the longest-running observatory in the entire Atlantic by well over forty years. Very important results have been achieved. Mossman’s observations resulted in the conclusion that conditions in one area – in this case the Weddell Sea, are coupled to far-off meteorological conditions, namely rainfall in South America. Mossman concluded that when there was a low pressure in the Weddell Sea and the South Orkneys, the winter rainfall over the lower part of Chile and the greater part of the Argentine Republic would be below average; whereas there was high pressure in the Weddell Sea and the South Orkneys, the rainfall in America would be above average. This was shown by the height of the River Parana in central South America, which rose and fell with the barometric pressure recorded in the South Orkneys in the previous months. This was the first time that prognostic information about weather conditions could be made.


Temperature records have been made continuously on Laurie Island throughout this period. The inexorable rise in temperature for over a century is charted. Records show a steady rise in temperature that has all too important consequences to-day. – both the North East and the North West Passages have been opened up to transport; sea level may rise by several meters over the next few centuries, affecting low-lying communities.


Bruce could not have anticipated these changes, but his determined insistence on collecting an unrivalled number of meteorological and oceanographic records, indeed recording all aspects of science for posterity and his success in this, makes his contributions equal or more important than any of his better-known contemporaries, Scott and Shackleton, of the early 1990s.


[1] Isobel P. Williams and John Dudeney; William Speirs Bruce Forgotten Polar Her, p 76

2 Responses to “Bruce’s Achievements in Antarctica”

  1. Anne Strathie December 3, 2018 at 11:45 am #

    It constantly amazes me how Bruce, Scott, Shackleton and others headed into to the frozen unknown relying on the fact that their discoveries and scientific results would encourage more donors to support them once they returned. Sadly and ironically, the only expedition I can recall which ended up with a significant surplus was Scott’s Terra Nova expedition – and the surplus only arose due to public and other donations which were made after the deaths of the South Pole party. Bruce and his fellow-explorers were brave men who risked a lot to chart and investigate a still-dangerous part of the world.

  2. isobelpwilliams December 3, 2018 at 12:06 pm #

    Thank you. Shackleton received money from the government, but this was to help with his DEBTS!
    The Weddell is certainly a dangerous area as shown by Shackleton’s experience later, He drifted slowly round the Weddell, initially on ‘Endurance’, later on ice Floes and finally, little boats after ‘Endurance’ was crushed and sank.
    Bruce was full of praise for the expertise of his Captain Thomas Robertson

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