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Where no man has gone before: The expedition across the Darwin Cordillera in South America continues a great tradition of discovery

Who didn’t experience a frisson of excitement at the news on Wednesday that a French military expedition had achieved what none before had managed – a crossing of the Darwin Cordillera, the famously inhospitable mountain range in southern Chile? Notwithstanding the soupçon of disappointment that this stirring feat of exploration was French rather than British, it was one of those moments that bound us together in a celebration of what humans can, and invariably must, do. As a species, we are born to explore.

It is no criticism of the French expedition to observe that it is unlikely to have elicited discoveries of scientific value. That was not its point. Adventurous, death-defying missions like this serve a different purpose, inspiring a new generation of explorers and scientists to take to the field, driven by curiosity and the desire to feel snow, rain, wind, sand and sun on their faces. For the Frenchmen, it was a case of ducking into the blinding snow and roaring winds of the Furious Fifties while avoiding falling seracs, avalanches and hidden crevasses, all of this while pulling 165lb loads on sleds.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no shortage of terra incognita for Homo sapiens to explore, study and understand. All the digital mapping in the universe, all the most brilliant techniques of geospatial information systems will never remove the need for inquisitive men and women to take to the field and make discoveries that are critical to our survival, and that of untold species and environments threatened by our activities.

As Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, director of Digital Explorer, an educational programme that brings expeditions into the classroom, puts it: “The notion that there’s no longer a need to go out into the field and explore because of modern marvels like Google Earth is a misapprehension. We have wonderful images of swaths of rainforest canopy, but we still need people to find out what’s underneath. We have satellite images of the great expanses of ocean ice, but we still send explorers out there with old-fashioned technologies like ice-core samplers. And in terms of the rapid changes occurring to habitats across the world, you simply can’t investigate what’s going on from outer space.”
The oceans, which cover more than 70 per cent of the planet, still contain innumerable mysteries. The American explorer Bob Ballard, better known for finding the Titanic, argues that his greatest achievement was the discovery in 1977 of hydrothermal vents off the Galapagos Islands. Deep in these dark waters, more than 2,000 metres beneath the surface, lived previously unknown chemosynthetic animals, part of the first major ecosystem that did not live off solar energy but the energy of the earth. It challenged the received wisdom about the potential for life on other planets.

Confronted by climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity, desertification, growing populations, poor water supply, the forced migration of species and a host of other unknowns, we still have a huge amount to learn about our planet. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, estimates of the number of species on Earth range from five million to 30 million. Of these, only 1.75 million have been formally described. The same study found that more than 60 per cent of the ecosystem services examined, including fresh water and fisheries, were being degraded or used unsustainably, resulting in “a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth”.

We are only just starting to understand some of the innermost secrets of the world’s rainforests. Of the insects recovered from the canopy, inaccessible until recent years, an estimated 80 per cent are unknown to science. Andrew Mitchell, founder and director of the Global Canopy Programme, says this is the “richest, least known, most threatened habitat on Earth”. Satellites supplement, rather than substitute for, the work of explorers and scientists on the ground. Thus in 2009, aided by the latest in infrared recording, the BBC Natural History Unit discovered a new species of giant rat 1,000 metres up in the remote jungle of Papua New Guinea.

“Understanding and managing our changing planet requires continual and massive scientific scrutiny,” says Nigel Winser, executive director of Earthwatch Institute, the international environmental charity. “At one end we are all explorers now – app in hand, recording change from ‘bud-break’ to ‘climate-watch’. At the other end, the complexity of climate change, our ecosystems and how they serve the seven billion of us, water security – and of course the enormity of coastal ecosystems, all require global programmes, led locally and harnessing the best information systems and software.”

Responding to these challenges, the Royal Geographical Society will soon be returning to the field with its own research and scientific expeditions. The august body that sent Scott to the South Pole, Livingstone to Africa and Hillary to Mount Everest plans to launch five partnership projects over the next 10 years.

We should salute the doughty French climbers for this latest achievement in the annals of exploration. The “white hell” they battled against in the Chilean mountains is a reminder of the lines from James Elroy Flecker’s The Golden Journey to Samarkand (a poem beloved by the SAS):

… we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea…

This is the spirit that has always driven, and will always drive, the discoveries in our tiny corner of the universe. And it is a story that is still incomplete.

Justin Marozzi is a councillor of the Royal Geographical Society;