Thursday, February 9, 2017

FDR's New Deal for Antarctica, and today's Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution Project

"This undertaking is one which necessarily attracts the attention of the world, and I am sure that you leave the shores of the United States with the heartfelt wishes of our people for the success of the enterprise, and the safe return of yourself and your companions."

--President Franklin Roosevelt to Admiral Richard Byrd, United States Navy, on the beginning of a new expedition to Antarctica, November 25, 1939 ("Establishment of the United States Antarctic service for exploration and scientific studies," University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, accessed January 8, 2017).

Above: President Roosevelt shakes the hand of Admiral Richard Byrd in 1935, who had just returned from a 2-year research expedition to Antarctica. In 1939, Roosevelt put Byrd in charge of the U.S. Antarctic Service, "Because of your experience and brilliant achievements in polar exploration and because of the confidence which the people of the United States have in you and in your qualities of leadership" ("Establishment of the United States Antarctic service for exploration and scientific studies," University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, accessed January 8, 2017.). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

FDR's New Deal for Antarctica: The U.S. Antarctic Service (1939-1941)

The most famous period of antarctic exploration occurred in the early 1900s, with the likes of Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton. But a few decades later, President Franklin Roosevelt would also play an important role in opening up the continent for further exploration and science. According to Dr. Tim Baughman, professor of history, "The United States Antarctic Service (1939-1941) grew out of two separate plans for exploration, one by [Richard] Byrd and the other by Richard B. Black and Finn Ronne. Franklin D. Roosevelt urged the two efforts be combined and funded by the federal government, thus heralding the emergence of big government expeditions" (Tim Baughman (ed.), Ice: The Antarctic Diary of Charles F. Passel, Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1995, p. ix).

Congress followed Roosevelt's lead and supplied $350,000 for the expedition - about $6.1 million in today's dollars (private funding also helped, and government agencies were able to assist in other ways, e.g., equipment loans).

Roosevelt's support for antarctic exploration helped set the stage for today's U.S. Antarctic Program, which operates McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and Palmer Station. And research that occurs in Antarctica today is very important, especially in relation to global warming and sea ice melt (more on that later). As with other forward-thinking Roosevelt & New Deal initiatives, for example, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Social Security, and massive infrastructure investments, we continue to benefit today.

Above: The North Star, one of the U.S. Antarctic Service's expedition vessels, 1939. Photo by A.J. Carroll, U.S. Navy, provided courtesy of the National Archives.

The U.S. Antarctic Service was short-lived, thanks to World War II, but it still gathered valuable information. According to Joseph Lynch, Jr., of the American Society of Polar Philatelists, "The U.S.A.S.E. was the largest expedition to go to Antarctica up to that time and its scientific and exploratory programs were the most successful of any expedition. Virtually all planned work was carried out." But, "Due to its hasty termination and the evacuation of both bases in 1941 because of threatening war, the U.S.A.S.E. is probably the most poorly reported large expedition in history" ("A Philatelic Introduction to B.A.E. III, United States Antarctic Service Expedition 1939-41," accessed February 7, 2017; also see the subsection "Legacy" near the end of this blog post).

A review of the records of the U.S. Antarctic Service (located within Record Group 126 of the National Archives) shows that the expedition's accomplishments included extensive aerial & photographic surveys of the continent's geography; the construction of a meteorological outpost which made twice-daily weather reports; measurements of how high ice shelves were above sea level; analysis of magnetic readings; aerial "cosmic ray observation"; examination of volcanic rock; and the study and gathering of biological samples. With respect to the latter, the U.S. National Museum (the Smithsonian) wrote a letter on July 8, 1941 acknowledging receipt of many specimens, including "103 birds, 3 fishes, a collection of plants (mostly lower cryptogams), 1 octopus and 1 lot of shrimp..." The expedition also attempted to bring back live specimens, for the National Zoo, but I'm not sure how successful they were. For example, they took aboard crab-eater seals for the return voyage but the animals wouldn't eat and became extremely foul-tempered. Most or all of them seem to have died.

In 1942, the Department of Interior reported that "Approximately 2,000 miles of continental coastline was discovered and mapped on aerial and dog-sled thrusts into previously unknown areas..." by the U.S. Antarctic Service (Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, fiscal year 1941, p. 474).    

Above: "East Base" was one of two bases constructed by the U.S. Antarctic Service in 1940. Today, it is a protected historic site (Historic Site / Monument no. 55). This photo was taken in 2007, is used here under the CCA-SA 3.0 license, and is provided courtesy of "Geoffrey" and Wikipedia.

The Snow Cruiser

"The Executive Committee [of the United States Antarctic Service] has authorized, under certain conditions, the operation and control by the Service of a privately constructed snow cruiser."

--President Franklin Roosevelt to Admiral Richard Byrd, November 25, 1939 ("Establishment of the United States Antarctic service for exploration and scientific studies," University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, accessed January 8, 2017).

Above: The Snow Cruiser in Boston, waiting to be put on board the North Star expedition ship, November 13, 1939. The Snow Cruiser was built specifically for the U.S. Antarctic Service expedition (but with private funds) by the Armour Institute of Technology, one of the organizations which eventually formed today's Illinois Institute of Technology. Photo by A.J. Carroll, U.S. Navy, provided courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: The Snow Cruiser in action in Antarctica, ca. 1940. The Cruiser seems to have had mild success in the early days of the expedition, and also provided good accommodations and radio service for the expedition, but ultimately it didn't live up to expectations as it didn't move too well on many areas of the antarctic surface. It was left in Antarctica and, over the decades, became lost. Today, amazingly, no one is exactly sure where it is. Leading theories are (a) buried under ice and snow, and (b) drifted off on an ice sheet that eventually melted and sent the cruiser to the bottom of the ocean. Photo by A.J. Carroll, U.S. Navy, provided courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A cutaway drawing of the Snow Cruiser, showing the different living and work areas. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Above: Dr. Thomas Poulter (left), lead designer of the Cruiser, is visited by Admiral Byrd in the Snow Cruiser's living area, as the two travel to Antarctica aboard the North Star, 1939. Photo by A.J. Carroll, U.S. Navy, provided courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: In this footage, put together by Extreme World, we see a series of black & white and color video segments of the Snow Cruiser, including its unloading in Antarctica, which almost ended in catastrophe. This video shows the true size of this enormous vehicle. YouTube link:

New Deal Connections to Antarctic Exploration

It doesn't appear that any of the purely New Deal agencies (WPA, CCC, etc.) played a large role in the 1939-1941 expedition to Antarctica. However, there are several interesting loose connections to the expedition, as well as to antarctic exploration generally.

1. WPA Labor:

Above: The U.S. Antarctic Service, "Unloading housing panels at East Base," in January 1940. WPA workers did not go to Antarctica; but did they contribute to the design of the buildings used by the U.S. Antarctic Service? Photo by Ennis C. Helm, provided courtesy of the National Archives.

One of the scientists in the U.S. Antarctic Service was Charles F. Passel (1915-2002). He wrote the following in his diary, while at the Philadelphia Navy Yard (on his way to Antarctica), November 18, 1939:

"Worked during the morning trying to find something to do. There are so many WPA fellows, Navy Yard employes on hand that we fellows of the expedition are having a tough time finding work" (Tim Baughman, Ice: The Antarctic Diary of Charles F. Passel, Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1995, p. 2).

This would seem to indicate that WPA workers help load supplies and equipment onto Passel's ship, the North Star. This could have been a planned project, or it could have been more of a spur-of-the-moment job. Sometimes, WPA workers would be diverted from their regular jobs to assist on other projects, for example, search & rescue, flood control, or firefighting, if there was a pressing need.

It is also possible that the WPA played a role in the lumber and pre-fabricated buildings that were taken on the expedition, but I haven't found conclusive evidence of that yet. The buildings were designed by Major Andre Leonard Violante of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, and constructed by the Putnam Lumber company in Shamrock, Florida (see, e.g., "Byrd's Antarctic Expedition Takes Already-Built Houses," Abilene Reporter-News, November 19, 1939, p. 23). The Quartermaster Corps was one of the biggest employers of WPA workers. For example, during fiscal year 1940 it employed 26,500 of them (Federal Works Agency, Report on Progress of the WPA Program, June 30, 1940, p. 44). We also know that the WPA employed all types of unemployed Americans, including architects. Is it possible that a WPA architect (or other WPA workers in the Quartermaster Corps' architectural division) assisted Major Violante in some way?  

2. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board:

"One of the characteristics of the American Indian is his outstanding ability as a craftsman."

--U.S. Department of the Interior, 1937 annual report, p. 224

In congressional hearings on the 1939-1941 antarctic expedition, the following was noted:

"The sum of $10,000 will be needed to supply a quantity of fur clothing and sleeping bags for the personnel
at each continental base who will go on the trail or participate in airplane flights. This estimate has been discussed with a representative of the Indian Arts and Crafts Section of the Office of Indian Affairs and orders have been placed with this service in Alaska, subject to telegraphic confirmation ("Expedition to the Antarctic Regions, Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, Seventy-Sixth Congress," p. 4). Later, in the 1940 annual report of the Department of Interior, it was reported that "native craftsmen sold $7,300 worth of mittens, caps, mukluks, parkas, trousers, and robes to the Byrd Antarctic Expedition" (p. 398).

The "Indian Arts and Crafts Section" or, more appropriately, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, was created when President Roosevelt signed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act into law on August 27, 1935. This law was part of the overall "Indian New Deal," facilitated by John Collier (Commissioner of Indian Affairs) and the Department of the Interior. The goal was (and still is today) to enhance the market for genuine American Indian arts and crafts.

3. WPA Data Work:

The WPA assisted in compiling and publishing (and perhaps analyzing too) meteorological data from Admiral Byrd's first two missions to Antarctica (1928-1930 and 1933-1935). The lead author of the 377-page report, George Grimminger, wrote:

"Since, owing to the demands of his other duties, Haines [Grimminger's colleague] found it impossible to devote any time to the work, I then agreed to carry it on alone; after working alone some time, it became apparent that unless assistance could be obtained, the task would be a long and arduous one, and it is indeed fortunate that I was able to obtain assistance provided by the Works Progress Administration, assistance which I gratefully acknowledge and without which the completion of the present volume would have been considerably delayed."

(G. Grimminger and W.C. Haines, "Meteorological Results of the Byrd Antarctic Expeditions, 1928-30, 1933-35: Tables," Monthly Weather Review, United States Department of Agriculture Weather Bureau, Supplement No. 41, October 1939, p. iii, accessed January 9, 2017, emphasis added).

4. WPA Polar Bibliography

In 1937, in conjunction with New York City and the Explorers Club of America, the WPA put together a few polar bibliographies, with book & article titles such as "The Polar Regions: A Physical and Economic Geography of the Arctic and Antarctic" and "Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, 1902-1904" (see, e.g., "Annotated Bibliography of the Polar Regions, Series B, Selected List of Bibliographies on the Polar Regions, Part I, accessed February 9, 2017).


Above: Some of the members of the U.S. Antarctic Service, ca. 1939-1941. Photo by A.J. Carroll, U.S. Navy, provided courtesy of the National Archives.

As noted earlier, the U.S. Antarctic Service expedition set the stage for numerous government-funded research trips to Antarctica. While speaking to Congress in 1939, Admiral Byrd said: "On account of the fact that there is an ice age in Antarctica, it is a great weather maker for the Southern Hemisphere, and it indirectly affects the weather of the whole world. It is very important, I think, that we have weather posts... It would represent a permanent occupation by the Weather Bureau, and other nations certainly will join in with us on the weather end of it. Of course, there are other scientific organizations, like the Geological Survey, the Biological Survey, Hydrographic Office and so forth, that will be interested" ("Expedition to the Antarctic Regions, Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, Seventy-Sixth Congress," pp. 10-11).  

Byrd's ideas about the importance of scientific study in Antarctica were very prophetic. Today, much research is occurring on the continent. For example, Roosevelt Island (named after FDR in 1934, and located on the Ross Ice Shelf) is the site of the current Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution Project (RICE): "The RICE project, a 9 nation collaboration [including the U.S.], aims to determine the stability of the Ross Ice Shelf in a warming world, thus improving estimates of contributions of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to future sea level rise" ("Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution (RICE) Project").

Above: The description for this photograph reads, in part, "Iceberg crosses path of U. S. Antarctic Expedition [of 1946-1947]. The USS Yancy (left center) and the USS Merrick (right center) follow the US Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind through icefloes and past huge tabular icebergs in an Antarctic Sea. The U.S. Navy Antarctic Expedition consists of 12 ships carrying 4,000 naval and civilian personnel, the latter including scientists, dog-sled drivers and press and radio correspondents. The primary aims of the expedition are to train personnel and test men and equipment under sub-zero conditions, amplify scientific data on the South Polar area and consolidate and develop the results of the U.S. Antarctic Service Expedition of 1939-1941. Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who has made three previous trips to the Antarctic, is commander-in-chief of the expedition. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Above: America's McMurdo Station in Antarctica, 2003. McMurdo is the largest station on the continent. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Above: This video describes the climate science work that is being done on Roosevelt Island, Antarctica, for example, core drilling and ice core analysis. YouTube link:

Antarctica is a key area for studying climate change and, thanks to science and exploration set in motion by President Roosevelt, Congress, Admiral Byrd, and the U.S. Antarctic Service, we have infrastructure and personnel in place to perform such work. And that's a good thing, because many of our policymakers today see little value in scientific studies or exploration (unless it's being used to find more oil). And while they might allow current U.S. studies to continue (but don't bet on it), there is no way on Earth that they would have allowed an antarctic program to begin in the first place. "Wasteful spending!" they'd scream. "Big government" they'd mournfully cry. "That's an awful lot of money that we could use to bomb countries and give tax breaks to the wealthy!" they'd explain.

Let's hope that Roosevelt's forward-thinking on science... overcomes today's backward-thinking on science.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post: clear narrative, fact filled, interesting, documented. I love it.