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Dispatch 22: Arctic Oceanography from Its Beginnings

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Peter Lourie

October 12 & 13, 2016

At the science meeting this morning Sarah reported that she’s very happy with the collecting and all the data we’ve been getting on this trip.   The weather has cooperated amazingly well with calm seas.  The sun is out now for a third day this week.  We’re planning to finish the science by Saturday at midnight and then have a two-day process of packing up instruments and gear.  She said we’ll be taking a few side trips in the next few days so we can fill in some gaps in data.  XCTD only, after Saturday when the rosette casts will stop at midnight.  Scientists are starting up their reports about their sampling.  Reports and packing will take two days before we say goodbye to our new friends on the crew and take the helicopter off the ship to Kugluktuk for a flight to Yellowknife.

It has been so cool for me to be on the Louis with scientists on the forefront of studies about ocean currents, chemistry and physical properties.  One of the first to study the currents was Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof (fritch-off) Nansen, who made his most famous expedition to within a few hundred miles of the pole where he had to turn back because the ice was breaking up and becoming unstable in April 1895.  The next fifteen months of his travels comprise one of the great adventures of polar exploration.

Like the scientists aboard the Louis, Nansen studied the currents in the Arctic Ocean.  In his time the Arctic was indeed the last frontier, cloaked in mystery, as unknown as the moon. So in 1893, Nansen was determined to reach the North Pole before anyone else and solve its mysteries.

On June 24, 1893, he and a small crew of 12 on board a specially designed ship called the Fram (meaning “forward” in Norwegian), attempted to make it to the Pole in a way that most polar experts thought was simply crazy.  Nansen planned to purposely lock his ship in ice and float on top of the ice carried by the currents to the pole.

On one of his earlier journeys, Nansen had spotted a piece of driftwood in the Arctic water off the coast of Greenland.  He hypothesized the wood could only have floated there from Siberia.  That piece of wood sparked a train of thought that finally culminated in the voyage of the Fram.  For years his mind wrestled with the question of the driftwood he had observed on the ice floe.  He thought there must be a current flowing east to west.

Further evidence of an east-west ocean current had come to light when pieces of equipment belonging to the Jeanette, an American vessel that had foundered north of Siberia in 1879, were discovered off Greenland and the large Norwegian island of Svalbard.  Nansen was convinced that these too had followed the drift of an arctic current that must flow from Siberia towards the North Pole and from there down to Greenland.  His plan was to build a ship strong enough to withstand the pressure of the ice and sail it north from Siberia until it froze into the ice pack.  He would remain in the ship while it drifted, letting the ice carry him and a small crew up to the North Pole, never before reached by anyone.  Then he would float back down to Greenland on the other side of the globe.

Nansen had Fram built in order to explore this theory.  He commissioned a famous Norwegian boat builder named Colin Archer to design a special ship that would “float” on ice.  A somewhat squat and (by some standards) ugly vessel, the Fram was perfectly suited to its task.  The three-layered hull, built of oak and greenheart, was immensely strong. It was braced with heavy beams in all directions. The hull’s rounded shape gave the ice nothing to grip. When the ice started to exert its tremendous pressure, the Fram would simply be pushed upwards and ride on top. The ship was iron-clad fore and aft.

In late September near the New Siberian Islands on the other side of the pole from where we are now, he drove his ship into the pack ice and let the currents carry him slowly northward. By 1895 Nansen and his ship had been frozen in the Arctic ice for nearly two years, drifting at a rate of one or two miles a day. Icebound and frustrated by the pace, Nansen realized he had miscalculated. The ship would miss the North Pole by hundreds of miles.  That’s when he and fellow explorer Hjalmar Johansen decided if the ship itself could not reach the Pole, they would attempt to make the trek on their own.

Nansen instructed the crew to continue drifting with the ice towards the Atlantic Ocean.  He and Johansen struck out for the North Pole, crossing polar ice with twenty-eight dogs, three sleds, and two kayaks.  They took one hundred days worth of supplies, but in order to lighten the loads of the sleds, they carried only enough food for the dogs to last a month.  When supplies ran short, they had to decide whether to strangle or knife the weakest dogs so there would be enough food for the stronger ones.  Shooting the dogs was out of the question. The men had to save their ammo for the walrus and the polar bears.

For the next fifteen months the explorers survived on polar bear meat fried in walrus blubber when they were lucky to get it.  At times, to keep from starving, the two men were forced to eat porridge made from their own dogs’ blood. Without radios and internet, without airplanes and helicopters for rescue, with no nylon, no vitamins, and with food often so badly preserved that it became poisonous, the explorers camped in sub zero agony with sweat-soaked furs frozen on their bodies like icy straightjackets. 


To learn more about Peter Lourie click here.

Last updated: October 7, 2019

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