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The Greeks of the 4th century bc were aware of the Arctic, parts of which had already been settled by Inuit and Native Americans. Early in the 9th century ad, Irish monks established a colony in Iceland. Vikings, or Norsemen, from Scandinavia reached there later in the century. About 982 the Norse explorer Erik the Red sighted and named Greenland. During the next four centuries, Norsemen probably visited the Canadian Arctic.
Subsequent Arctic exploration was largely motivated by the European need for sea routes to East Asia—the Northeast Passage along northern Asia and the Northwest Passage through the Arctic islands of North America. In 1553 the English navigator Sir Hugh Willoughby initiated the search for the Northeast Passage. His companion, Richard Chancellor, reached the site of modern Arkhangel’sk, on the White Sea, thus opening a new route to commerce.
The search for the Northwest Passage began in earnest when English explorer Sir Martin Frobisher reached the Canadian Arctic in 1576. In 1587 John Davis sailed through part of what became known as Davis Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island. In 1610 Henry Hudson sighted the bay that was later named for him; it was explored from 1612 to 1613 by Sir Thomas Button from Wales. English navigator William Baffin explored what came to be called Baffin Bay in 1616.
Russian exploration of the coast of the Siberian Arctic was promoted by Tsar Peter the Great in the early 18th century. He employed Danish navigator Vitus Jonassen Bering, who in 1728 discovered the strait separating Siberia and Alaska that bears his name.
As part of a renewed effort to find the Northwest Passage, the British government in 1818 organized the first of several Arctic explorations under Sir William Edward Parry, who in 1819 reached Melville Island in the Canadian Arctic. In 1845 Sir John Franklin led a British expedition toward the Bering Strait from Lancaster Sound, an arm of Baffin Bay. After his two ships were trapped by ice in 1846, the crews abandoned the ships, and all 130 men (including Franklin) perished. Their disappearance led to many search parties, beginning in 1848. Adolf Erik Nordenskjold of Sweden, aboard the Vega, from 1878 to 1879 became the first to complete the Northeast Passage.
The first official Arctic expedition from the United States, in 1881 and 1882, was part of the first International Polar Year. Under the command of Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely, it was based at Lady Franklin Bay, on Ellesmere Island, and made observations on magnetic and meteorological phenomena. In 1884, when relief vessels finally arrived, 17 members of the expedition had perished from cold and starvation.
The Greenland ice cap was first crossed in 1888 by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. In September 1893 Nansen attempted to cross the North Pole in the ship Fram, which entered the pack ice near the New Siberian Islands. The vessel attained latitude 86°14’ north, just short of the 90° mark of the North Pole, in August 1896.
Between 1886 and 1909 the American explorer Robert Edwin Peary headed several expeditions to the Arctic by way of Baffin Bay. He reached Cape Morris Jesup (on Greenland), the northernmost land point in the Arctic, in 1900. On April 21, 1906, during an attempt to reach the North Pole, he attained latitude 87°6’ north. On April 6, 1909, he finally reached the North Pole by dogsled over pack ice from Grant Land in northern Ellesmere Island. Some controversy continues to surround his claim to have reached the Pole. The first voyage by ship through the Northwest Passage was accomplished from 1903 to 1906 by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
In 1906 Canadian-born American anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson lived with the Inuit near the Mackenzie River delta. Between 1908 and 1912 Stefansson and Rudolph Anderson traveled in the Coronation Gulf-Victoria Island area, also to study the Inuit. From 1913 to 1918 Stefansson commanded the Canadian Arctic Expedition, during which new land was discovered in the Arctic Archipelago.
On May 9, 1926, American explorer Richard E. Byrd, along with the aviator Floyd Bennett, may have reached the North Pole by airplane, although this fact has been disputed. A few days later Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth, and Umberto Nobile completed a flight of more than 70 hours in the dirigible Norge, from Spitsbergen, Norway, across the North Pole to Alaska, about 5,460 km (about 3,390 mi); and in 1928 Australian explorer Sir George Wilkins and his pilot, Carl Benjamin Eielson, flew from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) established the Northern Sea Route Administration in 1932 to open commercial shipping through the Northeast Passage and to develop Siberian resources. In 1937 four Soviet scientists, led by I. D. Papanin, drifted for nine months on NP 1, a small ice floe, studying the ocean, and they subsequently set up temporary scientific stations on the drifting ice. By 1981 the USSR had established about 26 such stations and had also made many briefer landings on the Arctic Ocean ice for scientific purposes. During the summer of 1938, Soviet pilots V. P. Chkalov and M. M. Gromov made nonstop flights over the North Pole, to Vancouver, Washington, and to San Jacinto, California, in single-engine aircraft.
During World War II (1939-1945), several air bases and meteorological stations were established in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and Greenland, and in 1947 a scientific station was founded at Point Barrow, Alaska. In 1951 the U.S. Navy undertook Project Ski Jump in the Beaufort Sea, making many sea-ice landings. The first U.S. station on drifting ice was established early in 1952 by Joseph O. Fletcher.
Travel under the ice, long foreseen by Stefansson and Wilkins, became a reality in 1958, when the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus became the first submarine to traverse the Arctic Ocean. It went from the Bering Strait to Iceland via the North Pole in four days. Scientific activity in the Arctic increased greatly during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) from July 1957 to December 1958. The program involved several nations, which together operated more than 300 stations.
By the late 1970s, traditional exploration had been largely replaced by systematic data gathering and scientific research. Access had been greatly improved by airplane, submarine, icebreaker, and new overland transportation methods, and Earth satellites and automatic instruments had taken over much of the task of routine information collecting. The centennial of the Vega voyage of 1878 to 1879 was marked by a major research program by the Swedish icebreaker Ymer and an international scientific team working between the Barents Sea and northeastern Greenland. In the early 1980s, an international team of scientists pursued a long-term study of the Greenland ice cap by analyzing ice cores obtained by drilling from the surface to depths of about 2,040 m (about 6,690 ft).
Modern climate change has focused new attention on ancient climates in the Arctic region. In addition to ice cores from Greenland that date back thousands of years, scientists have looked for fossils of plants and animals that indicate what the climate was like in the Arctic millions of years ago. Because plate tectonics have shifted land masses over the eons, many of the oldest fossils in the Arctic represent animals that lived much further south before their remains were carried north. However, the northern continents were roughly in their modern positions by the Cretaceous Period, which lasted from about 145 to 65 million years ago. Scientists discovered fossils of dinosaurs in the North Slope region in Alaska in the 1980s and in the Arctic regions of Canada and Siberia in the 1990s. Dinosaurs that lived in the Arctic must have experienced periods without sunlight and relatively cold temperatures, although much milder than today and without ice caps.
Fossils of plants and animals that lived in the Arctic after the dinosaurs went extinct are also important sources of information. Of particular interest are fossils from the Eocene Epoch, which lasted from 56 to 34 million years ago. During the Eocene high levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide made Earth much warmer than today. In 1986, on Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian Arctic, the largest fossil forest yet found in the Arctic was dated at about 45 million years old, raising interesting questions about how plants adapted to changing environmental conditions there in the geological past. In 2004 the Arctic Coring Expedition (ACEX) retrieved a core of sediment from the Arctic seafloor that dated as far back as 40 million years, providing a long record of marine organisms from near the North Pole.
Major scientific research projects to study modern changes in the Arctic include the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007/2008, which runs from March 2007 to March 2009. The IPY involves thousands of scientists from more than 60 nations in more than 200 projects focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic. Topics of study include biology, geology, climatology, meteorology, oceanography, and geophysics. Also ongoing is the Arctic Ocean Diversity (ArcOD) Census of Marine Life. The ArcOD is part of the international Census of Marine Life (CoML), a ten-year international initiative begun in 2000 to study life in the oceans. Warming in the Arctic could cause major changes in sea life and threaten some species with extinction.