ORONO, Maine — The North Pole gets all the glory — Santa, elves and presents.
But 100 years ago, three legendary explorers — Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott — raced to reach its polar opposite and claim one of the few unconquered areas on the planet.
Olav Orheim, a glaciologist, climatologist and polar explorer, spoke Monday night at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts about the implications of these three men’s expeditions nearly 100 years after Norwegian explorers planted their flag at the pole.
UMaine’s Climate Change Institute invited Orheim to give the keynote address and celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of explorers reaching the South Pole. Orheim has managed polar research at the Research Council of Norway since 2005. He also is chairman of the board at the Fram Museum in Oslo, which houses the ship that carried the first explorers to reach the South Pole in late 1911.
But before all this research could begin, the continent had to be explored.
The race started in October of 1908 when Shackleton parked his ship, Nimrod, off a glacier and began the journey toward the pole with his team. But by Jan. 9, the group was dangerously low on supplies and had to turn back — 96 miles short of its goal.
Three years later, two teams, one led by Amundsen, a Norwegian, and the other by the British explorer Scott, arrived on the continent and began their journey.
On Dec. 14, 1911, Amundsen’s group reached the South Pole with few setbacks along the way and planted their nation’s flag.
Scott’s group arrived 33 days later, after suffering through blizzards and the loss of several pack animals, to find that they had been beaten. They turned back.
All five members of Scott’s defeated team froze or starved to death during the trek back their base camp.
Scott was a headstrong man with “few redeeming qualities” and a terrible planner, according to Orheim. His stubborn refusal to turn back immediately after realizing they wouldn’t have the supplies to get home may have led to his team’s demise.
That doesn’t change what he and the two other explorers accomplished for future Arctic adventurers and researchers, however, Orheim said.
Scientific research in the Antarctic during the past 50 years has revealed that the ice shelf around the continent has thinned by as much as a couple of feet, Orheim said. Scientists believe that has contributed to a rising water level in the world’s oceans.
However, as climate change continues and the Earth warms, more precipitation is falling on Antarctica’s central area in the form of snow, Orheim said. Over time, that precipitation may draw more water from the oceans and dump it back onto Antarctica’s ice sheets.
Scientists only have begun to realize in the past few decades how the climate of the polar regions affects global climate.
Other research on the continent involves drilling more than 2 miles below the surface of the ice sheet in an effort to find unique forms of life that have been isolated completely for millennia.
“There may be life forms very different from what we’ve seen on the surface,” Orheim said.
“These early explorers went there just to find where the South Pole was.” Orheim said. “They’d be shocked to see the work that’s happening there today.”
More activities are planned for Tuesday, when UMaine’s Hudson Museum hosts “Explore the Ends of the Earth” from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event includes activities designed for children, games, newsreel footage of expeditions and a display of an Antarctic expedition tent.