The Secret Of The North Pole

(From the St. Paul’s Magazine, June 1869.)

If an astronomer upon some distant planet has ever thought the tiny orb we inhabit worthy of telescopic study, there can be little doubt that the snowy regions which surround the arctic and antarctic poles must have attracted a large share of his attention. Waxing and waning with the passing seasons, those two white patches afford significant information respecting the circumstances of our planet’s constitution. They mark the direction of the imaginary axial line upon which the planet rotates; so that we can imagine that an astronomer on Mars or Venus would judge from their position how it fares with terrestrial creatures. There may, indeed, be Martial Whewells who laugh to scorn the notion that a globe so inconveniently circumstanced as ours can be inhabited, and are ready to show that, if there were living beings here, they must be quickly destroyed by excessive heat. On the other hand, there are possibly sceptics on Venus also who smile at the vanity of those who can conceive a frozen world, such as this our outer planet, to be inhabited by any sort of living creature. But we doubt not that the more advanced thinkers both in Mars and Venus are ready to admit that, though we must necessarily be far inferior beings to themselves, we yet manage to ‘live and move and have our being’ on this ill-conditioned globe of98 ours. And these, observing the earth’s polar snow-caps, must be led to several important conclusions respecting physical relations here.

It is, indeed, rather a singular fact to contemplate, that ex-terrestrial observers, such as these, may know much more than we ourselves do respecting those mysterious regions which lie close around the two poles. Their eyes may have rested on spots which, with all our endeavours, we have hitherto failed to reach. Whether, as some have thought, the arctic pole is in summer surrounded by a wide and tide-swayed ocean; whether there lies around the antarctic pole a wide continent bespread with volcanic mountains larger and more energetic than the two burning cones which Ross found on the outskirts of this desolate region; or whether the habitudes prevailing near either pole are wholly different from those suggested by geographers and voyagers—such questions as these might possibly, be resolved at once, could our astronomers take their stand on some neighbouring planet, and direct the searching power of their telescopes upon this terrestrial orb. For this is one of those cases referred to by Humboldt, when he said that there are circumstances under which man is able to learn more respecting objects millions of miles away from him than respecting the very globe which he inhabits.

If we take a terrestrial globe, and examine the actual region near the North Pole which has as yet remained unvisited by man, it will be found to be far smaller than many imagine. In nearly all maps the requirements99 of charting result in a considerable exaggeration of the polar regions. This is the case in the ordinary ‘maps of the two hemispheres’ which are to be found in all atlases. And it is, of course, the case to a much more remarkable extent in what is termed Mercator’s projection. In a Mercator’s chart we see Greenland, for example, exaggerated into a continent fully as large as South America, or to seven or eight times its real dimensions.

There are three principal directions in which explorers have attempted to approach the North Pole. The first is that by way of the sea which lies between Greenland and Spitzbergen. I include under this head Sir Edward Parry’s attempt to reach the pole by crossing the ice-fields which lie to the north of Spitzbergen. The second is that by way of the straits which lie to the west of Greenland. The third is that pursued by Russian explorers who have attempted to cross the frozen seas which surround the northern shores of Siberia.

In considering the limits of the unknown north-polar regions, we shall also have to take into account the voyages which have been made around the northern shores of the American continent in the search for a ‘north-west passage.’ The explorers who set out upon this search found themselves gradually forced to seek higher and higher latitudes in order to find a way round the complicated barriers presented by the ice-bound straits and islands which lie to the north of the American continent. And it may be noticed in100 passing, as a remarkable and unforeseen circumstance, that the farther north the voyagers went the less severe was the cold they had to encounter. We shall see that this circumstance has an important bearing on the considerations I shall presently have to deal with.

One other circumstance respecting the search for the north-west passage, though not connected very closely with my subject, is so singular and so little known that I feel tempted to make mention of it at this point. The notion with which the seekers after a north-west passage set out was simply this, that the easiest way of reaching China and the East Indies was to pursue a course resembling as near as possible that on which Columbus had set out—if only it should appear that no impassable barriers rendered such a course impracticable. They quickly found that the American continent presents an unbroken line of land from high northern latitudes far away towards the antarctic seas. But it is a circumstance worth noticing, that if the American continents had no existence, the direct westerly course pursued by Columbus was not only not the nearest way to the East Indian Archipelago, but was one of the longest routes which could possibly have been selected. Surprising as it may seem at first sight, a voyager from Spain for China and the East Indies ought, if he sought the absolutely shortest path, to set out on an almost direct northerly route! He would pass close by Ireland and Iceland, and onwards past the North Pole into the Pacific. This is what is called the great-circle route; and if it were only101 practicable one, would shorten the journey to China by many hundreds of miles.

Let us return, however, to the consideration of the information which arctic voyagers have brought us concerning the north-polar regions.

The most laborious researches in arctic seas are those which have been carried out by the searchers after a north-west passage. I shall therefore first consider the limits of the unknown region in this direction. Afterwards we can examine the results of those voyages which have been undertaken with the express purpose of reaching the North Pole along the three principal routes already mentioned.

If we examine a map of North America constructed in recent times, we shall find that between Greenland and Canada an immense extent of coast-line has been charted. A vast archipelago covers this part of the northern world. Or, if the strangely-complicated coastlines which have been laid down really belong to but a small number of islands, the figures of those must be of the most fantastic kind. Towards the north-west, however, we find several islands whose outlines have been entirely ascertained. Thus we have in succession North Devon Island, Cornwallis Island, Melville Island, and Port Patrick Island, all lying north of the seventy-fifth parallel of latitude. But we are not to suppose that these islands limit the extent of our seamen’s researches in this direction. Far to the northward of Wellington Channel, Captain de Haven saw, in 1852, the signs of an open sea—in other words, he saw,102 beyond the ice-fields, what arctic seamen call a ‘water sky.’ In 1855 Captain Penny sailed upon this open sea; but how far it extends towards the North Pole has not yet been ascertained.

It must not be forgotten that the north-west passage has been shown to be a reality, by means of voyages from the Pacific as well as from the Atlantic. No arctic voyager, however, has yet succeeded in passing from one ocean to the other. Nor is it likely now that any voyager will pursue his way along a path so beset by dangers as that which is called the north-west passage. Long before the problem had been solved, it had become well known that no profit could be expected to accrue to trade from the discovery of a passage along the perilous straits and the ice-encumbered seas which, lie to the north of the American continent. But Sir Edward Parry having traced out a passage as far as Melville Island, it seemed to the bold spirit of our arctic explorers that it might be possible, by sailing through Behring’s Straits, to trace out a connection between the arctic seas on that side and the regions reached by Parry. Accordingly, M’Clure, in 1850, sailed in the ‘Investigator,’ and passing eastward, after traversing Behring’s Straits, reached Baring’s Land, and eventually identified this land as a portion of Banks’ Land, seen by Parry to the southward of Melville Island.

It will thus be seen that the unexplored parts of the arctic regions are limited in this direction by sufficiently high latitudes.

Turn we next to the explorations which Russian103 voyagers have made to the northward of Siberia. It must be noticed, in the first place, that the coast of Siberia runs much farther northward than that of the American continent. So that on this side, independently of sea explorations, the unknown arctic regions are limited within very high latitudes. But attempts have been made to push much farther north from these shores. In every case, however, the voyagers have found that the ice-fields, over which they hoped to make their way, have become gradually less and less firm, until at length no doubt could remain that there lay an open sea beyond them. How far that sea may extend is a part of the secret of the North Pole; but we may assume that it is no narrow sea, since otherwise there can be little doubt that the ice-fields which surround the shores of Northern Siberia would extend unbroken to the farther shores of what we should thus have to recognise as a strait. The thinning-off of these ice-fields, observed by Baron Wrangel and his companions, affords, indeed, most remarkable and significant testimony respecting the nature of the sea which lies beyond. This I shall presently have to exhibit more at length; in the meantime I need only remark that scarcely any doubt can exist that the sea thus discovered extends northwards to at least the eightieth parallel of latitude.

We may say, then, that from Wellington Channel, northward of the American continent, right round towards the west, up to the neighbourhood of Spitzbergen, very little doubt exists as to the general104 characteristics of the arctic regions, save only as respects those unexplored parts which lie within ten or twelve degrees of the North Pole. The reader will see presently why I am so careful to exhibit the limited extent of the unexplored arctic regions in this direction. The guess we shall form as to the true nature of the north-polar secret will depend almost entirely on this consideration.

I turn now to those two paths along which arctic exploration, properly so termed, has been most successfully pursued.

It is chiefly to the expeditions of Drs. Kane and Hayes that we owe the important knowledge we have respecting the northerly portions of the straits which lie to the west of Greenland. Each of these explorers succeeded in reaching the shores of an open sea lying to the north-east of Kennedy Channel, the extreme northerly limit of those straits. Hayes, who had accompanied Kane in the voyage of 1854-5, succeeded in reaching a somewhat higher latitude in sledges drawn by Esquimaux dogs. But both expeditions agree in showing that the shores of Greenland trend off suddenly towards the east at a point within some nine degrees of the North Pole. On the other hand, the prolongation of the opposite shore of Kennedy Channel was found to extend northwards as far as the eye could reach. Within the angle thus formed there was an open sea ‘rolling,’ says Captain Maury, ‘with the swell of a boundless ocean.’

But a circumstance was noticed respecting this sea105 which was very significant. The tides ebbed and flowed in it. Only one fact we know of—a fact to be presently discussed—throws so much light on the question we are considering as this circumstance does. Let us consider a little whence these tidal waves can have come.

The narrow straits between Greenland on the one side, and Ellesmere Land and Grinnell Land on the other, are completely ice-bound. We cannot suppose that the tidal wave could have found its way beneath such a barrier as this. ‘I apprehend,’ says Captain Maury, ‘that the tidal wave from the Atlantic can no more pass under this icy barrier, to be propagated in the seas beyond, than the vibrations of a musical string can pass with its notes a fret on which the musician has placed his finger.’

Are we to suppose, then, that the tidal waves were formed in the very sea in which they were seen by Kane and Hayes? This is Captain Maury’s opinion:—‘These tides,’ says he, ‘must have been born in that cold sea, having their cradle about the North Pole.’

But if we carefully consider the theory of the tides, this opinion seems inadmissible. Every consideration on which that theory is founded is opposed to the assumption that the moon could by any possibility raise tides in an arctic basin of limited extent. It would be out of place to examine at length the principle on which the formation of tides depends. It will be sufficient for our purposes to remark that it is106 not to the mere strength of the moon’s ‘pull’ upon the waters of any ocean that the tidal wave owes its origin, but to the difference of the forces by which the various parts of that ocean are attracted. The whole of an ocean cannot be raised at once by the moon; but if one part is attracted more than another, a wave is formed. That this may happen, the ocean must be one of wide extent. In the vast seas which surround the Southern Pole there is room for an immensely powerful ‘drag,’ so to speak; for always there will be one part of these seas much nearer to the moon than the rest, and so there will be an appreciable difference of pull upon that part.

The reader will now see why I have been so careful to ascertain the limits of the supposed north-polar ocean, in which, according to Captain Maury, tidal waves are generated. To accord with his views, this ocean must be surrounded on all sides by impassable barriers either of land or ice. These barriers, then, must lie to the northward of the regions yet explored, for there is open sea communicating with the Pacific all round the north of Asia and America. It only requires a moment’s inspection of a terrestrial globe to see how small a space is thus left for Captain Maury’s land-locked ocean. I have purposely left out of consideration, as yet, the advances made by arctic voyagers in the direction of the sea which lies between Greenland and Spitzbergen. We shall presently see that on this side the imaginary land-locked ocean must be more limited than towards the107 shores of Asia or America. As it is, however, it remains clear, that if there were any ocean communicating with the spot reached by Dr. Kane, but separated from all communication—by open water—either with the Atlantic or with the Pacific, that ocean would be so limited in extent that the moon’s attraction could exert no more effective influence upon its waters than upon the waters of the Mediterranean—where, as we know, no tides are generated. This, then, would be a tideless ocean, and we must look elsewhere for an explanation of the tidal waves seen by Dr. Kane.

We thus seem to have primâ facie evidence that the sea reached by Kane communicates either with the Pacific or with the Atlantic, or—which is the most probable view—with both those oceans. When we consider the voyages which have been made towards the North Pole along the northerly prolongation of the Atlantic Ocean, we find very strong evidence in favour of the view that there is open-water communication in this direction, not only with the spot reached by Kane, but with a region very much nearer to the North Pole.

So far back as 1607, Hudson had penetrated within eight and a half degrees (or about 600 miles) of the North Pole on this route. When we consider the clumsy build and the poor sailing qualities of the ships of Hudson’s day, we cannot but feel that so successful a journey marks this route as one of the most promising ever tried. Hudson was not turned108 back by impassable barriers of land or ice, but by the serious dangers to which the floating masses of ice and the gradually thickening ice-fields exposed his weak and ill-manned vessel. Since his time, others have sailed upon the same track, and hitherto with no better success. It was reserved to the Swedish expedition of 1868 to gain the highest latitudes ever reached in a ship in this direction. The steamship ‘Sofia,’ in which this successful voyage was made, was strongly built of Swedish iron, and originally intended for winter voyages in the Baltic. Owing to a number of delays, it was not until September 16 that the ‘Sofia’ reached the most northerly part of her journey. This was a point some fifteen miles nearer the North Pole than Hudson had reached. To the north there still lay broken ice, but packed so thickly that not even a boat could pass through it. So late in the season, it would have been unsafe to wait for a change of weather and a consequent breaking-up of the ice. Already the temperature had sunk sixteen degrees below the freezing-point; and the enterprising voyagers had no choice but to return. They made, indeed, another push for the north a fortnight later, but only to meet with a fresh repulse. An ice-block with which they came into collision opened a large leak in the vessel’s side; and when after great exertions they reached the land, the water already stood two feet over the cabin floor. In the course of these attempts, the depths of the Atlantic were sounded, and two interesting facts were revealed.109 The first was that the island of Spitzbergen is connected with Scandinavia by a submarine bank; the second was the circumstance that to the north and west of Spitzbergen the Atlantic is more than two miles deep!

We come now to the most conclusive evidence yet afforded of the extension of the Atlantic Ocean towards the immediate neighbourhood of the North Pole. Singularly enough, this evidence is associated not with a sea-voyage, nor with a voyage across ice to the borders of some northern sea, but with a journey during which the voyagers were throughout surrounded as far as the eye could reach by apparently fixed ice-fields.

In 1827 Sir Edward Parry was commissioned by the English Government to attempt to reach the North Pole. A large reward was promised in case he succeeded, or even if he could get within five degrees of the North Pole. The plan which he adopted seemed promising. Starting from a port in Spitzbergen, he proposed to travel as far northward as possible in sea-boats, and then, landing upon the ice, to prosecute his voyage by means of sledges. Few narratives of arctic travel are more interesting than that which Parry has left of this famous ‘boat-and-sledge’ expedition. The voyagers were terribly harassed by the difficulties of the way; and after a time, that most trying of all arctic experiences, the bitterly cold wind which comes from out the dreadful north, was added to their trials. Yet still they110 plodded steadily onwards, tracking their way over hundreds of miles of ice with the confident expectation of at least attaining to the eighty-fifth parallel, if not to the Pole itself.

But a most grievous disappointment was in store for them. Parry began to notice that the astronomical observations, by which in favourable weather he estimated the amount of their northerly progress, showed a want of correspondence with the actual rate at which they were travelling. At first he could hardly believe that there was not some mistake; but at length the unpleasant conviction was forced upon him that the whole ice-field over which he and his companions had been toiling so painfully was setting steadily southwards before the wind. Each day the extent of this set became greater and greater, until at length they were actually carried as fast towards the south as they could travel northwards.

Parry deemed it useless to continue the struggle. There were certainly two chances in his favour. It was possible that the north wind might cease to blow, and it was also possible that the limit of the ice might soon be reached, and that his boats might travel easily northward upon the open sea beyond. But he had to consider the exhausted state of his men, and the great additional danger to which they were subjected by the movable nature of the ice-fields. If the ice should break up, or if heavy and long-continued southerly winds should blow, they might have found it very difficult to regain their port of refuge in Spitz111bergen before winter set in or their stores were exhausted. Besides, there were no signs of water in the direction they had been taking. The water-sky of arctic regions can be recognised by the experienced seamen long before the open sea itself is visible. On every side, however, there were the signs of widely-extended ice-fields. It seemed, therefore, hopeless to persevere, and Parry decided on returning with all possible speed to the haven of refuge prepared for the party in Spitzbergen. He had succeeded in reaching the highest northern latitudes ever yet attained by man. (A somewhat higher latitude has since been reached by Captain Nares’s expedition.)

The most remarkable feature of this expedition, however, is not the high latitude which the party attained, but the strange circumstance which led to their discomfiture. What opinion are we to form of an ocean at once wide and deep enough to float an ice-field which must have been thirty or forty thousand square miles in extent? Parry had travelled upwards of three hundred miles across the field, and we may fairly suppose that he might have travelled forty or fifty miles farther without reaching open water; also that the field extended fully fifty miles on each side of Parry’s northerly track. That the whole of so enormous a field should have floated freely before the arctic winds is indeed an astonishing circumstance. On every side of this floating ice-island there must have been seas comparatively free from ice; and could a stout ship have forced its way through these seas, the112 latitudes to which it could have reached would have been far higher than those to which Parry’s party was able to attain. For a moment’s consideration will show that the part of the great ice-field where Parry was compelled to turn back must have been floating in far higher latitudes when he first set out. He reckoned that he had lost more than a hundred miles through the southerly motion of the ice-field, and by this amount, of course, the point he reached had been nearer the Pole. It is not assuming too much to say that a ship which could have forced its way round the great floating ice-field would certainly have been able to get within four degrees of the Pole. It seems to us highly probable that she would even have been able to sail upon open water to and beyond the Pole itself.

And when we remember the direction in which Dr. Kane saw an open sea—namely, towards the very region where Parry’s ice—ship had floated a quarter of a century before—it seems reasonable to conclude that there is open water communication between the seas which lie to the north of Spitzbergen and those which lave the north-western shores of Greenland. If this be so, we at once obtain an explanation of the tidal waves which Kane watched day after day in 1855. These had no doubt swept along the valley of the Atlantic, and thence around the northern coast of Greenland. It follows that, densely as the ice may be packed at times in the seas by which Hudson, Scoresby, and other captains have attempted to reach the North Pole, the frozen masses must in reality be113 floating freely, and there must therefore exist channels through which an adventurous seaman might manage to penetrate the dangerous barriers surrounding the polar ocean.

In such an expedition, chance unfortunately plays a large part. Whalers tell us that there is great uncertainty as to the winds which may blow during an arctic summer. The icebergs may be crowded by easterly winds upon the shores of Greenland, or by westerly winds upon the shores of Spitzbergen, or, lastly, the central passage may be the most encumbered, through the effects of winds blowing now from the east and now from the west. Thus the arctic voyager has not merely to take his chance as to the route along which he shall adventure northwards, but often, after forcing his way successfully for a considerable distance, he finds the ice-fields suddenly closing in upon him on every side, and threatening to crush his ship into fragments. The irresistible power with which, under such circumstances, the masses of ice bear down upon the stoutest ship, has been evidenced again and again; though, fortunately, it not unfrequently happens that some irregularity along one side or the other of the closing channel serves as a sort of natural dock, within which the vessel may remain in comparative safety until a change of wind sets her free. Instances have been known in which a ship has had so narrow an escape in this way, and has been subjected to such an enormous pressure, that when the channel was opened out again, the impress of the ship’s side has114 been seen distinctly marked upon the massive blocks of ice which have pressed against her.