Colin Dickey

On the Open Polar Sea

Disproved Theories, Bold Men, and Strange Books on Top of the World

Discussed: The Flying Dutchman, Boot-Eating, A Water-Bound North Pole, Amsterdam in the Summertime, The Earth’s Complicated Circulatory System, Fat Birds, The History of Hollow-Earth Theories, Tireless Self-Promotion on the Lecture Circuit, Marrow Extraction, Pseudoscience as a Means of Adding Symbolic Layers, The Sexual Metaphors Inherent in Any Conquest of Nature, Sentient Lakes

In the distance to the north, we could see an ice floe, perhaps fifty feet long, hovering about thirty feet off the surface of the ocean. It rose up into the air, the ground beneath it perfectly visible, an expert magician’s trick.

This is what’s known as a “superior” or “looming” mirage, when the air below the line of sight is colder than the air above it, giving objects the appearance of floating above the water’s surface. (The opposite is what you see on hot days, when the ground in the distance shimmers.) Superior mirages are a hallmark of polar climates, responsible for the so-called Flying Dutchman, the appearance of a ship that floats above the sea (thought to be a harbinger of impending death); the Novaya Zemlya effect, when the sun appears as a rectangle or an hourglass; and sun dogs, when multiple suns appear on the horizon.

It was late June; the sun had been shining constantly since April, and wouldn’t set until August. Our latitude was roughly 78.5° north, on the northern tip of Spitsbergen, the largest and only inhabited island of the Svalbard archipelago. I had been sailing with a group of other artists, writers, and scientists, up the northwest coast of the island, and we had gone as far up as we’d be traveling. To the north, we saw only a few scattered ice floes, some on the water and some above it. For the most part, the horizon presented an undisturbed and placid sea, stretching endlessly into the curve of the earth. For all you could tell, one could sail north indefinitely, straight toward the North Pole and beyond.

The Svalbard archipelago has been a prime launching point for polar expeditions since the early nineteenth century. Among those who came here seeking the North Pole was John Franklin, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, who arrived in 1818—not yet “Sir John Franklin,” not yet the mythical figure he would become. Franklin had sailed with Captain David Buchan to Svalbard, hoping to get beyond it and into the Arctic Ocean. Buchan captained the larger Dorothea, while Franklin, then just a lieutenant, helmed the smaller Trent. North of Svalbard the two ships became trapped in ice; the Dorothea was crippled and could not go forward. Franklin, believing that he had found a way past the pack ice all around them, advocated taking the Trent forward alone, but he was overruled by his commanding officer, and both ships limped home.

This didn’t deter Franklin, any more than did an even more disastrous expedition overland in northern Canada a year later, in which eleven of his twenty-man crew died and which earned him the nickname “the man who ate his boots.” Franklin kept trying to find his way north, and in 1845 he finally got his wish, as the commander of two massive, ice-proven ships—the Erebus and the Terror—with orders to finally push through the ice and discover a northwest route between Europe and Asia over North America.

Franklin and his 128 men didn’t return. They were expected to be gone for two years, possibly three, but by the autumn of the second year Franklin’s wife, Jane, became worried and persuaded the Royal Navy to send out search parties. The search was about more than just a pair of lost ships: British pride hung in the balance. As writer Anthony Brandt tells it, the British “believed it their peculiar destiny to [force the Northwest Passage], to triumph over the ice and add this exclamation point to the great victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo, underlining in the process British command of the world’s oceans.” In the next decade, the search would swell; ultimately over twenty different expeditions would be launched. In the annals of polar exploration, this period would become known simply as “the search for Franklin”: whole new terrains were mapped, lives were lost, massive ships were destroyed and abandoned. With the possible exception of Columbus, no other single individual has come to be associated with such a massive swath of the globe.

As the English became less optimistic about finding Franklin alive, his wife turned to America, and in 1853 explorer Elisha Kent Kane helmed one of several American-led expeditions that had joined the search. By then, Franklin had been gone for eight years. It seemed improbable that such a large expedition could have been gone that long and managed to survive—and yet Kane had faith that Franklin and his men were still alive. He argued that Franklin’s ships might have made their way through the polar maze of drifting, lethal ice, and might have somehow made it through into an open polar sea, where they could now be living near the North Pole itself, in a verdant land stocked with fish, flesh, and fowl.

If Kane’s hypothesis seems crazy, he was far from the only one who believed it. Theories about the existence of an open polar sea had circulated for centuries. A now-lost medieval manuscript, the Inventio Fortunata, spoke of a priest and mathematician, Nicholas of Lynn, who supposedly sailed to a water-bound North Pole in 1360. Nicholas’s voyage, in turn, influenced mapmakers for centuries, and his eyewitness account of a polar sea is cited on multiple sixteenth-century maps. Then there was Joseph Moxon, “Hydrographer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” who in 1674 claimed to have met a Dutch seaman who’d sailed to the North Pole and found warm water:

I askt him if they did not meet with a great deal of Ice? He told me No, they saw no Ice. I askt him what Weather they had there? He told me fine warm Weather, such as was at Amsterdam in the Summer time, and as hot. I should have askt him more questions, but that he was ingaged in discourse with his Friend, and I could not in modesty interrupt them longer.

By the nineteenth century, when the era of polar exploration had ramped up in earnest, an open polar sea was a commonly held belief in many quarters, the result of a mix of both inductive and deductive thinking, scientific theory and firsthand (if erroneous) observation. The explorer Ferdinand von Wrangel reached open waters above Siberia in 1820 and believed he had reached an open polar sea: “We beheld,” he wrote, “the wide, immeasurable ocean spread before our gaze, a fearful and magnificent, but to us a melancholy spectacle.” In the early 1830s John Barrow, second secretary of the British Admiralty, wrote that there was “every reason to believe that at all times a very large portion of the Polar Sea is entirely free of ice.”

The sixteenth-century Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius believed this temperate sea was mainly a function of the twenty-four-hour sun: “Although his rays are weak, yet on account of the long time they continue, they have sufficient strength to warm the ground, to render it temperate, to accommodate it for the habitation of men, and to produce grass for the nourishment of animals.” But by the nineteenth century, scientists were emphasizing more and more the dynamic nature of the earth itself, and the interrelationship between tides, oceans, currents, and other phenomena. The open polar sea, it was believed, was fed by warm currents from the tropics, just one part of the earth’s complicated circulatory system.

Explorers were well familiar with the herds of musk oxen in northern Canada, but had no clue where they wintered, and assumed they must be migrating to warmer climates somehow: if they weren’t coming south, it was reasonable to conclude they might be going north. Likewise, some mistakenly assumed that certain birds seen in the Arctic, including sandhill cranes, were too heavy to make a long migration south, and must similarly be flying to somewhere warmer, somewhere north. Kane, like so many others, came to believe in the idea of a mild and hospitable North Pole, perhaps like southern Canada, with scores of musk oxen and fat birds for the taking—and where Franklin had sought refuge. Particularly as the years went by and hopes for Franklin’s survival diminished, his fate became intertwined with the belief in the open polar sea. If he had survived, it was due to this heretofore-unproved hypothesis—to keep one hope alive was to keep both hopes alive.

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Colin Dickey is the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.

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