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Roger M. McCoy

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The Beginnings of Arctic Science

Posted: 06/08/2012 3:54 pm

After the first attempt to find a northwest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1819 by Lt. William Perry of the British Royal Navy, there followed three quarters of a century of hard lessons. The hard lessons were about survival in the Arctic; on the location and size of islands; on the behavior of sea ice; on the life of the native Inuit; on the tedium of being confined to a ship locked in ice from September until the end of July; and most of all, avoiding the fatal curse of scurvy. During the 100 years after 1818, there were about 200 expeditions to the Canadian Arctic, and 40 percent of them produced results that led to scientific publications. Most of the commanding officers of the Royal Navy during that period were admitted to the Royal Society of London for their contributions to science. Naval officers were trained to observe and record scientific information, use scientific instruments properly, and collect specimens.

Imagine sailing to the Canadian Arctic in 1819. There were only three surveyed points, hundreds of miles apart, defining the entire north coast of North America. In the 1820s the map of the Arctic was almost blank, and nothing was known of sea ice conditions, temperature variations of air and water, types of vegetation, wildlife, or human inhabitants. There was no knowledge of the existence or location of islands in the Arctic Ocean. Many expected the Arctic Ocean to be ice-free. The first explorers sailing in the Arctic optimistically anticipated an easy passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Today's research in the North American Arctic enjoys many advantages derived from the determined efforts of the first explorers in the nineteenth century. The following account of the Nares expedition provides one example.

After 56 years of sending expeditions to the Arctic, mapping most of the shorelines, and rescuing lost and starving explorers, the British navy felt certain they had learned to conquer the Arctic. In 1875 they mounted yet another expedition under the command of Captain George Nares. Their objective was to sail through the narrow passage between Greenland and Ellesmere Island to the shores of the Arctic Ocean and send a sledge party to the North Pole. Other instructions included mapping part of the north shores of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, and incidentally collecting scientific information. Little scientific data collection took place on expeditions before the middle of the 18th century but had become standard procedure in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Naval planners for the 1875 Nares expedition declared that the dangers of the Arctic were a thing of the past and scurvy could now be prevented with an ample supply of lime or lemon juice. But they merely demonstrated that the navy had learned nothing about Arctic survival, even after dozens of expeditions, disasters, and subsequent inquiries. Extensive testimony was given before the Admiralty by John Rae, a Hudson Bay Company employee who learned survival skills from the Inuit, and whose survey parties managed to live off the land in the Arctic for extended periods of time.

Rae emphasized that an igloo could be built in an hour, and eliminate the need for heavy canvas tents. He recommended that clothing and bedding be made of animal skins with the fur on the inside. The fundamentals were simple: keep clothing dry, learn to build snow houses, learn to hunt seals, wear clothing made of animal skins.

Unfortunately, all Rae's advice was ignored. The British navy stayed with their man pulled sledges rather than dog sledges as the Inuits used. They decided against fur lined clothing and bedding. They wholly dismissed the idea of adopting the ways of "uncivilized" people.

Difficulties began almost immediately. Poor choices of clothing, bedding, and shelter and the lack of snowshoes subjected the men to miserable conditions in which it was impossible to remain dry and warm. The heavy sledges loaded with wet and frozen tents and boats brought exhaustion, and the food rations were insufficient for the great exertion of men pulling sledges. Lime juice froze and burst the kegs despite advice to add a bit of rum to the juice to inhibit freezing. Worst of all, men began to come down with scurvy early in the trek. Within three days some men had to be carried on the sledges, adding to the load for the rest. Rather than heeding the lessons of dozens of previous explorers, they had regressed. However, it is astonishing that despite their hardships and suffering, these men, like other Arctic explorers, always managed to stay focused on their objective -- collecting information for maps and science. In both of these categories they produced valuable results.

In the end, the most valuable result of the expedition was the collection of volumes of scientific data that expanded the biological, geological, astronomical, and climatological knowledge of the Arctic. The scientists of the expedition produced at least 40 scientific papers from their data. The maps made of the north coast of Ellesmere Island remained a primary source of information until aerial photographs became available in the third decade of the twentieth century. Although Nares was vilified by the press for his failure to reach the Pole, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, presented a medal by the Royal Geographical Society and received the Gold medal from the Société de Géographié.

The 19th century thus became a milestone not only in mapping the Arctic, but also in expanding scientific knowledge of flora, fauna, geomagnetism, geology, hydrography, and ethnology. The scientific study of the Arctic is becoming even more important in the 21st century as ice caps begin to recede and the potential grows for ice-free travel through the Canadian Archipelago. Most importantly, the scientific data collected by 19th century explorers still stands as a valuable benchmark against which today's conditions can be compared.

 
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