Arctic Travel: A Look into History

Today’s travelers to the North Pole will join the long history of explorers who have been trying to reach the pole – latitude 90 degree North – since the mid-1800s. But for decades trying was all they were able to do. The American Polaris expedition, in 1871, was a disaster from start to finish. A party of 25 sailors, guides, and scientists set off in the ship Polaris in the fall of 1871, led by Charles Francis Hall. Unfortunately, he was resented by many of the other members of the group and was not able to maintain discipline. Shortly after the ship docked in Greenland for the winter, Hall became violently ill after drinking a cup of coffee. He accused several of the others of poisoning him. Whether or not this was the case, Hall continued to suffer from vomiting and delirium, and died on November 8. After this inauspicious beginning, the expedition never recovered. The next year Polaris became embedded in ice, leaving the crew to sail south in small boats to be rescued by a whaler. The year following that, those remaining in the party tried to extricate Polaris from the ice, but when the ice began to break up, a group of 19 was separated from the rest of the party. For the next six months they floated over 1,500 miles on an ice floe, and were finally rescued off the coast of Newfoundland by the whaler Tigress. After that, the expedition gave up, having never reached the North Pole.

Two decades later, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen reached 86° 14´, in 1895 the closest any explorer had come to reaching the North Pole. In 1909, Robert Peary, an American, claimed to have reached the elusive 90°. However, this claim was disputed by some of the others in his party, none of whom were trained in navigation and able to confirm Peary’s calculations.

The first undisputed sight of the North Pole was not from land. Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth first flew over it in a plane during a trip from Norway to Alaska in 1926. Over the next several decades other firsts were accomplished—Joseph Fletcher and William Benedict landed an aircraft at the pole in 1952; a U.S. Navy submarine surfaced there in 1959; and finally, in 1968, Ralph Plaisted was the first person to undisputedly reach the North Pole, coming neither by air nor by sea, but across the surface of the ice. In 1977, the Soviet icebreaker Arktika was the first surface vessel to complete travel to the North Pole. In 2005 the U.S. Navy submarine the USS Charlotte surfaced at the pole through 61 inches of ice.

Over the years, different countries have made claims on the territory surrounding the North Pole. Canada claimed the area between 60°W and 141°W longitude in 1925, but this claim is not universally recognized. Canada, Denmark, Russia, and Norway have claimed certain waters as internal, but those claims are generally opposed by the U.S. and the EU. Prior to 1999, the North Pole and Arctic Ocean were largely considered to be international territory. However, since the polar ice has begun to recede more rapidly due to global warming, the now-open waters have become more desirable, and the northern countries are making claims on underwater ridges and open water. These areas are potentially valuable for the possible reserves of petroleum and natural gas below the ocean floor, and further disputes over these coveted resources are probable.