University of Southern California

In the Footsteps of My Great-Grandfather


Joshua Osterberg, January 22, late night — Yesterday we had the privilege of stepping where legends had stepped, literally. We visited Robert Scott’s 1910 hut at Cape Evans, a structure eerily stuck in time. It stands today as it did when the Scott expedition departed in 1913: filled with food, bedding, science equipment and newspapers. The people behind the names that mark the Antarctic landscape actually lived there 100 years ago. It was especially poignant for me, as I sensed the struggle and strife oozing from every object and imagined what it must have been like for a much more personally tangible giant of Antarctic exploration and science: my great-grandfather, Amory “Bud” Waite.

budwaite.jpgBud Waite (photo left) was the chief radio man for Admiral Richard Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition from 1933 to 1935, and he participated in 22 polar expeditions thereafter. In 1934, Byrd set out to over-winter alone at Advance Camp, the southernmost weather station, 123 miles south of Little America on the Ross Ice Shelf. After several months, many back at Little America began to fear that Byrd was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. After two failed attempts, Dr. Thomas Poulter, Pete Demas and Bud Waite arrived in the dead of winter and rescued Byrd.

Perhaps more important than his explorations was my great-grandfather’s contribution to polar science. In 1958, Bud made the first successful measurements of ice thickness using radio waves. What once required seismics (setting off explosions and measuring sound reflections) and lots of effort could now be done in a millisecond from a plane. The technique remains to this day one of the principle ways in which ice depth is measured. The renowned glaciologist Dr. Charlie Bentley (from whom we heard a lecture just last week) dedicated his textbook to Bud. In Bud’s 1985 Antarctican Society obituary, Lee Kimball wrote, “I don’t know of any one singular technological breakthrough which had such a significant impact as this did in the polar regions.” For all of Bud’s contributions to our knowledge of Antarctica, a cape in the Amundsen Sea is named Cape Waite.

All of the lucky students, scientists and explorers down here are following in the footsteps of giants. I am now the third member of my family to perform science in Antarctica, behind Bud and my older brother Erich, a paleoclimatologist. I have faith that I will not the last.

You can watch video of Bud Waite giving a presentation on his explorations here.

Joshua Osterberg is a Ph.D. student from Duke University.