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Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949-52


  • This was the first expedition to Antarctica involving an international team of scientists led by the Norwegian Giaever. Their aim was to undertake meteorological recordings to establish if the climatic fluctuations seen in the Arctic were happening in the Antarctic.
  • They sailed on board the Norsel, establishing their base Maudheim at Dronning Maud Land.
  • The expedition’s geologist had an accident when collecting specimens, getting a rock chip in his eye resulting in loss of sight. Eventually this began to affect the other eye and so the expedition’s doctor removed the damaged eye – although he had never performed an eye operation before and had limited equipment the operation was a success.
  • The expedition surveyed 60,000 square kilometres of land by ground survey, by using aerial photography this area can be extended to 100,000 square kilometres.
  • This expedition was hit by tragedy when three of the expedition died, poor weather resulted in the party of one of motorised weasels misjudging their position and they plunged into the sea.
  • NBSAE proved that expeditions of international parties worked, and that different nations could cooperate with each other.

Please note the photographs for this expedition are forthcoming.

The Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition (NBSAE) of 1949-52 was the first expedition in Antarctica involving an international team of scientists. Their main objective was to explore whether the climatic fluctuations observed in the Arctic where also occurring in Antarctica. The party was led by the Norwegian Captain John Giaever, with each country in charge of a different aspect of the expedition: Britain geology, Sweden glaciology, and Norway meteorology and surveying.

They expedition left London on 23 November 1949 on board the Norwegian ship the Norsel. As this vessel was not very big it could not transport the men, equipment, supplies, and dogs and so five of the team, the dogs, and some of the heavier equipment sailed on a large whaling factory ship the Thorshovdi. As well as taking dogs for transport they also took aircraft, and amphibious tracked vehicles – weasels, which could pull sledges carrying over three tons, this would make depot lying much simpler.

The Auster aircraft was used to find a suitable site for the base camp; a base called Maudheim was established on the coast of Dronning Maud Land, here they deposited 300 tons of stores. The Norsel then departed on 20 February leaving the men alone. They spent their first month at Maudheim building the base and setting up equipment, several huts were built for accommodation, research and storage. By April sledging trips were underway to survey the ice hills to the east and south, this gave the group a chance to compare British and Norwegian sledging techniques. They also began to drill for ice cores and take meteorological measurements to gather the data necessary to track climatic fluctuations.

In October 1950 a reconnaissance party set out for the inland mountains, reaching them on 24 October, they spent a total of 42 days in the field. This enabled the establishment of the Advance Base, 200 miles from Maudheim; this contained supplies of tents, food, and fuel to support parties out in the field. In November weasel tractors were used to lay depots for the following seasons sledging trips. Whilst laying the depots they undertook seismic surveying to measure ice thickness to investigate whether this would be worth further follow up the next season.

In December surveying and glaciological journeys began, many of the nunataks (an exposed area of mountain not covered by snow) were examined by the geologists. In March 1951 the geologist Reece was collecting specimens when he had an accident getting a rock chip in his eye. They returned to the advance base where the group’s doctor – Wilson, was able to examine him; sadly nothing could be done to prevent Reece loosing sight in one eye. By April Reece was permitted to travel again and the group set off southwards to continue their specimen collection.

In January 1951 the Norsel visited bringing with them two aircraft to be used in aerial photography. Unfortunately this was to be curtailed through a mixture of bad weather and the damaging of one of the aircraft in an accident.

On 23 February 1951 the expedition was hit by tragedy when three of the expedition died. Poor weather had caused the party in one of the weasel tractors to misjudge their position and they plunged over an ice cliff into the sea. Only one of the four occupants was able to swim to safety reaching an ice-flow from which he was rescued thirteen hours later.

In the meantime Reece’s eye had been getting worse, he had already completely lost sight in one eye but this damaged eye was starting to affect the healthy eye. Under advice from Sweden, Wilson carried out a successful eye-operation removing the damaged eye, never before had he carried out eye surgery. The men improvised as best they could, using sterilised bed sheets to make masks and hats, and scrubbed packing cases as an operating table. Wilson trained other members of the expedition to assist him in the operation, one learnt how to administer anesthetic and another learnt to monitor pulse rate and blood pressure. The operation was a success and the sight in Reece’s other eye was preserved.

In September 1951 the depot laying began for the following seasons field survey. In October parties set of to extend the previous sledging seasons geological and survey work further south. In December the Norsel returned bringing aircraft to replace the damaged one, this allowed the previous seasons uncompleted programme of air photography to be completed.

The expedition left their base, Maudheim on 15 January 1952, landing in Southampton on 18 February.

This expedition had managed to survey a huge area of Antarctica, 60,000 square km was mapped by ground survey, and in using aerial photography this area can be extended to 100,000 square km in total. Significantly this expedition paved the way for internationally run efforts, showing scientific cooperation was possible between nations.

Further Information

Giaever, J. (1954) The White Desert. The Official Account of the Norwegian British Swedish Antarctic Expedition. London: Chatto and Windus.

Swithinbank, C. (1999) Foothold on Antarctica. London: The Book Guild Ltd.

Headland, R.K  (2009) A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration,  A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Year, 2002-2009. Bernard Quaritch Ltd.