Scientists Find Probable Location of Massive Polar Exploration Vehicle Lost for Decades

The failed mobile base was abandoned in the 1940s and last seen in the 1950s. Where to look now? We finally have an answer.

byPeter Holderith|
Electric Vehicles photo

The Snow Cruiser was a massive, ill-fated exploration vehicle sent to the South Pole in 1939. Designed to traverse 5,000 miles of icy landscape while housing and supporting a crew of five, the "Penguin," as it was also called, got stuck almost immediately after disembarking in Antarctica and abandoned to the elements a few years later. Briefly rediscovered under several feet of snow and ice in 1958, it's been lost for more than 60 years now.

No one knows where it is—except two dedicated researchers who've turned up some pretty compelling evidence about its final resting place. Ted Scambos and Clarence Novak first published their findings in an academic paper back in 2005, but the pair contacted The Drive following our recent story on the Snow Cruiser to share what they learned.

Not only does the paper outline a rough search area based on historic maps and oceanographic data, but it also details the likely locations of other artifacts from the Snow Cruiser's era of Antarctic exploration.

The all-important cutaway image., Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology
AP Images

The Snow Cruiser, built in just 11 weeks the summer of 1939 at a cost of $150,000, was to be the ultimate mobile Antarctic base. It was designed by Thomas Poulter, who very nearly died after being trapped at a very-stationary camp near the South Pole on an earlier expedition. He imagined that a mobile research center would be much safer and more effective, so he set out to build one. A really big one, too—about 56 feet long and 16 feet high.

With four massive wheels driven by an early diesel-electric drivetrain, the Snow Cruiser had accommodations for five crew and could move along at a speed of 30 miles per hour, at least on solid ground. It quickly became apparent upon arriving in the Antarctic that it could not do that on snow, however. After disembarking the North Star—a process seen in the video below—the vehicle quickly got stuck, its smooth, treadless tires forever slipping through soft snow it was supposed to float over.

After an arduous journey, most of which was done in reverse for better traction, the Snow Cruiser got to the Antarctic base called Little America III, near the Bay of Whales on the Ross Sea. Though once it arrived, its journey had already ended. The crew converted it to a stationary bunker until 1941 when it was marked by a few bamboo poles and abandoned due to the onset of WWII along with the rest of Little America III.

The machine was spotted in 1946 as it was slowly buried in the accumulating snow and ice, and then again in 1958 after a crew spotted the tops of its signal poles and dug down to it with bulldozer. After that, however, the Snow Cruiser was never seen again.


Unfortunately, finding the Snow Cruiser today isn't just a matter of digging. The ice shelf on which Little America III was located has long since fractured and calved several massive icebergs, at least one of them carrying visible debris from the camp that was spotted by sailors on the USS Edisto in 1963 in the Ross Sea. 

According to the paper, this large chunk of ice floated about 18km from the coast, but Scambos and Novak think it's unlikely the Snow Cruiser was on it—at least when it was spotted—saying "the relative position of the aircraft hangars, poles, and Snow Cruiser [based on a map of the area made in 1941] makes it almost certain that the Snow Cruiser had separated from the Edisto berg at some earlier time."

U.S. Navy

So it's much more likely that the Snow Cruiser was on a smaller iceberg around the Bay of Whales, or had already separated from the Edisto berg earlier on. From there, the iceberg carrying the Snow Cruiser would've likely drifted north or west along the coast of the shelf, banging into the shelf as it went and slowly eroding. The paper notes that these two paths are common ones for bergs from the Bay of Whales to take, citing several examples of ice that has taken this route in the past.

What this all adds up to is that the Snow Cruiser, at some point in 1962, was deposited from an iceberg into the ocean somewhere along the Ross Ice Shelf. However, the Ross ice shelf is, of course, ice. The "coastline" is constantly changing. However, we do have satellite photos of this front from 1962, and indeed that is how Scambos and Novak created a map of the Snow Cruiser's possible locations.

Ted Scambos and Clarence Novak

You can see the area follows the path that an iceberg might take as it bangs up along the edge of the shelf. Scambos and Novak think that the Snow Cruiser, as well as many other artifacts from the area, are scattered along the ocean floor in this 15-mile-wide area along the Sixties-era ice front. So yes, the Snow Cruiser is likely still around, just underwater.

The only problem with this is that around half of this area was uncovered when the piece was written in 2005, i.e. it was the open ocean theoretically accessible by a ship that could scan the ocean floor. Now, however, almost all of it is covered by ice. Scambos told us that not all is lost, however. Large chunks of ice often the size of Long Island or Delaware sometimes separate from the shelf, uncovering this area. This means that the next time that happens, a ship could be sent to the area to look for the artifacts. The depth across the ice front is also reasonably shallow at only 400-800 meters, meaning a salvage would theoretically be feasible. 

So, while we don't know exactly where the Snow Cruiser is, we have a pretty good idea of where to look thanks to Scambos and Novak. Searching for and finding the Snow Cruiser would certainly be arduous and expensive, but then again, It's not every day that we have an idea of where to start hunting for history.

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