Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Race for the Pole

Early Arctic Exploration was driven by the quest for the Northwest Passage, a hypothesized trade route through the arctic that was to link Europe and Asia.
Starting in 1576 Martin Frobisher lead 3 expeditions with the explicit goal of finding a passage through or around the top of the North American continent. Passing into a deep inlet on Baffin Island, Frobisher thought he had found the passage. Alas, the inlet was a dead end, but was to bear his name ever after as Frobisher Bay. Although he realized his error as he reached the end of the inlet he was astonished by the gold he found in the area. He filled his ships with the gleaming rocks and returned to England only to find that they were mainly iron pyrite fools gold (later used to pave roads in Kent). After the second world war an airstrip and permanent settlement were developed on Frobisher Bay and given the same name, and the settlement was later renamed Iqaluit.

In the 1820's Sir William Edward Parry mounted some of the earliest expeditions to reach the north pole. Using the most advanced technology of the time, the HMS Hecla an early ice breaker that survived several episodes of being trapped in ice, and canned food, a break through in food preservation, Parry managed to reach as far north as 82° 45' N and as far west as 113°46' W.

Perhaps the first ship to navigate the passage was the Octavius, an English trader that had travelled to the Orient and then attempted a return through the passage. The ship was found adrift near Greenland in 1775 with all of the crew aboard but frozen and long dead. The ship had apparently been trapped and drifting, frozen in the arctic ice for 13 years before finally completing the passage.

Numerous other expeditions were mounted, most charged with finding a passage for the sake of both exploration and economics. Some of these, such as the overland explorations of John Rae, did serve to map the arctic frontier. Others, such as the Franklin Expedition, ended in disaster.

The majority of these early expeditions were undertaken (and funded) with economic purposes in mind. As expedition after expedition failed to achieve success at the passage it became clear that a north-westerly trade route between Europe and Asia, while certainly plausible, was not going to be economical. This subtle shift in thinking actually heralded the arrival of a new type of explorer in the arctic, an explorer who was more concerned with accomplishment, achievement and personal prestige than with national economy.

Roald Amundsen finally traversed the northwest passage in his ship Gjøa completing the voyage in 1906 after 3 years. He had wintered his ship at a natural harbour that was populated by local Inuit people (now called Gjoa Haven). While his ship was iced in he spent much of his time learning about survival in the arctic environment, skills that would help him become the first man to achieve the south pole in 1911. From the Inuit he learned how to survive in the arctic, how to wear appropriate clothing, how to navigate on a landscape with few features that did not shift with the winds and the seasons.

The quest to reach the north pole was one based more on notoriety than on any solid economics. Located on an ice cap sitting on a sea over 4 km deep, there would be little of value to retrieve from a polar expedition. This was of little concern to the adventurers who tried. Seeking fame (and perhaps the fortune that fame can bring) several men made polar quests between 1900 and 1910. Dr. Fredrick Cook claimed to have reached the pole in 1908 although his claim was not widely accepted (he had also claimed a first ascent on Mount McKinley that is still somewhat controversial, though generally thought to be discredited as fraudulent). The first expedition to reach the pole (and to be commonly accepted to have done so) was lead by Robert Peary who reached the pole on April 6, 1909. Peary's expedition too relied on Inuit guides, Inuit foods and Inuit clothing. Controversy still exists over which of the 2 claims (if any) is credible.

In the intervening (almost) century since the last of these exciting events, the arctic has been for the most part a quiet place. Briefly important after the second world war as the USA and USSR aimed missiles at each other across the pole, military installations, radar systems and infrastructure were developed. For the most part however, the arctic has remained little changed, mainly inhabited in the Canadian archipelago by the Inuit, who have lived here for a millennium.

Over the last few weeks a great deal of fuss has been made about the idea of arctic sovereignty. Canada believes that the northern archipelago of North America belongs to Canada alone, the US thinks the (potential) northwest passage is an international waterway, and the Russians just sent a submarine to the sea-floor at the north pole to plant a flag, declaring their jurisdiction over the area (as a proposed extension of their continental shelf). The rhetoric is heating up, and fast. Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has been touring the north, shaking hands, kissing babies, and making grand announcements. To beef up our claims of sovereignty Canada will be purchasing new armed ice breaking coast guard ships, an arctic deep water port will be built in Nanisivik, and a military training centre will be established in Resolute Bay.

Global warming has again opened the door to the economic possibilities that exist here in the arctic. Perhaps a navigable northwest passage will emerge. Perhaps there are resources that can be extracted at a profit. Again great national and economic powers are flexing their muscles and laying claim to territories far removed from their own homes. It is difficult to know how things will evolve, but history tells us that the arctic will not give up it's treasures easily and that great tragedies await those who arrive unprepared or unwilling to listen to those with experience in the north. All of the most successful arctic explorers relied on input from the local people, and learned the techniques of survival that the Inuit had practiced for a thousand years. It will be interesting to see if that sort of collaboration will take place again, or if the imperialism of the nations involved will trump any such efforts. If the latter is the case it may just be that the extreme environments of the arctic sort things out for themselves, again.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

Thank you very much for this really interesting post - most of it new to me to my shame!