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A brief history of Arctic exploration

Secondary Categories: ArcticFeature

The Arctic is one of the most remote and inhospitable regions on the planet, yet it has always captivated explorers, adventurers, and scientists. Read on for a brief history of Arctic exploration, tracing the journeys of some of the most famous explorers who ventured into this harsh and unforgiving landscape.

The Venerable Vikings

The Vikings lived in Scandinavia from the late 8th century to the mid-11th century. They were known for their incredible seafaring skills and their ability to navigate and explore the world's oceans, including the Arctic region.

The Vikings’ first contact with the Arctic came during the late 9th century when they discovered Greenland. According to the Icelandic sagas, Erik the Red led the first expedition to Greenland and established the first Norse settlement on the island. The Norse settlers in Greenland thrived for several centuries, but the harsh Arctic environment eventually took its toll, and the settlements were abandoned in the 15th century.

The Vikings also made several attempts to explore the North American continent, which they called Vinland. The Norse explorer Leif Erikson is credited with leading the first expedition to Vinland in the year 1000. The Vikings established a small settlement in Vinland, but the harsh Arctic environment, conflicts with the local indigenous people, and the difficulty of resupplying the colony eventually led to its abandonment.

Horsford Plaque on Leif Erikson Vinland in Cambridge, Massachusetts
What the Vikings called Vinland is today’s Newfoundland in Eastern Canada. However, Eben Norton Horsford believed Leif Erikson actually reached modern-day Cambridge, Massachusetts where this landmark is located.

The Vikings also explored the Arctic for trade and exploration purposes. The Norse Sagas describe expeditions to the Arctic region, where they encountered sea monsters and icebergs. They also traded with the Sami people, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, for furs, ivory, and other goods.

The Vikings' Arctic explorations were remarkable given the technology and resources available at the time. They built sturdy, seaworthy ships that allowed them to sail through the ice and navigate the treacherous waters of the Arctic. They were also skilled navigators and used the stars, sun, and natural landmarks to guide their ships.

Franklin the Fraught

John Franklin was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer who’s best known for his ill-fated expedition to the Arctic in 1845. Franklin's expedition was one of the most famous and tragic in the history of Arctic exploration.

In 1845, Franklin set sail from England with two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, with the goal of exploring the Northwest Passage, a sea route that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, the expedition became trapped in the ice off the coast of King William Island, and the crew was forced to abandon the ships and attempt to travel on foot to safety. No trace of Franklin's crew was found until 1859, when a search party discovered a note and a few remains indicating that some of the crew had died while attempting to reach safety.

Northwest passage map of Canada and Alaska
The red line indicates the route of the Northwest Passage, north of Canada and Alaska.

The exact cause of Franklin's death remains a mystery, but it is believed that the crew may have succumbed to starvation, scurvy, exposure, or lead poisoning from the cans of preserved food they brought with them. Franklin's ill-fated expedition highlighted the dangers and challenges of exploring the Arctic and led to improved technologies and techniques for Arctic exploration. It also inspired a wave of exploration and mapping of the Arctic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Amundsen the Amazing

Roald Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer who is best known for being the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911. However, Amundsen was also an accomplished Arctic explorer, and his expeditions to the Arctic helped pave the way for later explorers.

In 1903, Amundsen led an expedition to the Arctic aboard the ship Gjøa, with the goal of finding the elusive Northwest Passage. The expedition was successful, and Amundsen became the first person to navigate the entire Northwest Passage.

Roald Amundsen exploration of the south pole
Roald Amundsen and his South Pole exploration. (Photo: bilinmiyor, Roald-Amundsen, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1906, Amundsen led another expedition to the Arctic, this time with the goal of reaching the North Pole. However, the expedition was unsuccessful, and Amundsen turned his attention to the South Pole instead. Amundsen's Arctic expeditions were notable for their use of dog sleds and skis. Amundsen recognized the advantages of using these modes of transportation in the Arctic, where traditional methods of travel such as horses and boats were often impractical due to the harsh conditions.

Amundsen was also a skilled navigator. He was meticulous in his planning and preparation, and he insisted on using the best equipment and provisions available. Amundsen's Arctic expeditions had a lasting impact on exploration in the region. His use of dog sleds and skis inspired later explorers, and his success in navigating the Northwest Passage helped to open up new trade routes and opportunities for exploration.

In 1928, Amundsen disappeared during a search and rescue mission in the Arctic, and his remains were never found.

First to the Pole?

Who was the first person to reach the North Pole? This is a topic of controversy and debate among historians and explorers. Several expeditions claimed to have reached the North Pole in the early 20th century, but these claims have all been disputed for various reasons.

One of the most famous expeditions to the North Pole was led by American explorer Robert Peary in 1909. Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, with his assistant Matthew Henson and four Inuit men. However, Peary's claim has been disputed due to discrepancies in his navigation records and the lack of any independent corroboration.

Matthew Henson and four Inuit guides at the North Pole
Matthew Henson and four Inuit guides at the North Pole.

The American explorer Frederick Cook also claimed to have reached the Pole on April 21, 1908, a year before Peary's expedition. However, Cook's claim was also disputed, and many historians believe that he never actually reached the North Pole. In 1926, American explorer Richard E. Byrd flew over the North Pole in an airplane, becoming the first person to do so. However, his claim to have reached the North Pole on foot has also been disputed.

In recent years, advances in technology and satellite navigation have made it easier to determine the exact location of the North Pole, and several teams have successfully reached the North Pole using these methods. We’ll probably never know for certain who reached the pole first.

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