A Brief History Of The Arctic

~330 BC

Pytheas of Massalia was a Greek merchant, geographer and explorer who explored Britain and the waters north of Scotland. In his travels he described an island six days sailing north of Britain called "Thule". This may have been referring to Iceland, Norway, the Shetland or Faroe Islands. He was the first person to record a description of the midnight sun, the aurora, and Polar ice.


~870 AD

Floki Vilgerdarson, a Norwegian Viking, discovers Iceland. He set out on a voyage from Norway visiting the Shetlands and Faroe Islands. Continuing his journey he carried three ravens on his ship and whenever he neared what he though might be land he released the ravens one by one.


One of the ravens flew northwest and never returned which led him to believe there was land. Floki followed that raven and found the new land. This also led to him receiving the nickname Raven-Floki or Hrafna-Flóki in Norse and Icelandic.

983 AD

Erik Thorvaldsson, known as "Erik the Red" because of his red hair and temperament, discovered and settled in Greenland. Originally from Norway, he grew up in Iceland. In 982 during a feud Erik was responsible for killing several men. Eventually he was exiled from Iceland for 3 years and this prompted him to set off to explore to the west.

He is credited with the discovery of Greenland but there are Icelandic sagas to suggest earlier Norsemen had tried to settle there. He returned to Iceland telling of a Greenland he had discovered. Erik returned there in 985 with a large number of colonists and established two colonies on its southwest coast and settled there for the rest of his life. Leif Ericson, the famous Icelandic explorer, was Erik's son.



By this time there was a driving force from the European monarchs to find an alternate trading route to China, either by a Northwest Passage along the coast of North America, or a Northeast Passage along the coast of Siberia.



Willem Barents, after whom the Barents Sea is named, made three voyages trying to find a Northeast Passage. His first two were blocked by ice. On his third voyage he discovered Spitsbergen but disaster struck in 1596 when his ship became trapped by sea ice and he and his crew were forced to winter ashore on Novaya Zemlya.

Building a cabin from the wrecked ship, they battled hunger, scurvy and the intense winter cold to become the first West Europeans to winter in the high Arctic and survive expect for one crewman who died during the winter.

In June 1597, they set out for home in two open boats on a journey of over 2000 km. Sadly Barents died of scurvy during the voyage while the others eventually reached, although many of his men survived.



Henry Hudson was an English explorer and navigator who explored parts of the Arctic Ocean and north-eastern North America. The Hudson River, Hudson Strait, and Hudson Bay are named for him. Hudson was hired by the Muscovy Company in 1607, to find a waterway from Europe to Asia. Hudson made two trips, but failed to find a route to China. In 1607, he sailed to Spitsbergen and discovered Jan Mayen Island but progress was blocked by ice. In 1608, he sailed as far as Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean.

In 1609, still convinced there was a passage to the northwest, Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company. Onboard a ship called the Halve Maen (Half Moon); Hudson sailed to Nova Scotia, and then headed south where he found what is now called the Hudson River. He then sailed into New York's harbour on September 3, 1609. He was credited with discovering the harbour but Giovanni da Verrazzano had already sailed the area in 1524.

In 1610-11 Hudson's fourth voyage was financed by English merchants seeking the Northwest Passage. Aboard the Discovery he made it as far as Hudson's Bay. In November the ship became locked in ice and they were forced to spend a harsh winter ashore. By spring the ship was free and Hudson wanted to continue exploration but the crew mutinied putting him and eight others (including his son) adrift on a small boat in the bay in June of 1611. Although no record exists of their fate it is assumed Hudson and the others did not survive.



In 1732, the Russian Admiralty organized the Great Northern Expeditions both on land and at sea to find the Northeast Passage along the coast of Siberia. The expedition was overseen by Vitus Bering, the expeditions mapped thousands of kilometres of the coast of Siberia for the first time. Many geographical features are named after the naval officers who led the explorations, such as Cape Cheluskin, Malygin Strait, Cape Ovtsyn, Cape Skuratov, and Cape Steligov. 

The Russian physicist and philosopher, Mikhail Lomonosov, participated in the Great Northern Expeditions for 20 years. He organized special polar explorations teaching navigators to make physical measurements, and developing ship logs and meteorological log books. From this information, he suggested a scheme of currents in the Arctic Ocean, classified sea ice types, and explained the role of the sun as a source of heat in the Arctic. He also made a map of the Arctic with ocean at the North Pole, an idea not the generally accepted at the time.



James Cook, English naval captain and explorer, sailed on the ships Discovery and Resolution on his final voyage of exploration. He sailed along the west coast of America and up to the Bering Straits as far as 70°41'N in the hope of finding the Northwest Passage. He ran into ice that stretched as far as he could see, demonstrating the separation between the Asian and American continents. It was on his way home from this voyage that he met his death in Hawaii.



The search for the Northwest Passage is resumed.
William Edward Parry, a British naval officer, takes his first voyage on the Alexander in search of the Northwest Passage. Being the first expedition to enter the Arctic Archipelago, he reached 110°W before ice prevented him going further, and the members of the expedition had to winter over on Melville Island.

In 1819 he led an Arctic voyage; consisting of the two ships HMS Griper and HMS Hecla. The expedition returned to England in November 1820 after a voyage of almost unprecedented success, having accomplished more than half the journey from Greenland to Bering Strait, the completion of which solved the ancient problem of a Northwest Passage. He attempted two further voyages in 1821 and 1824 without success.

In 1825 Parry obtained the sanction of the Admiralty for an attempt to reach the North Pole. The expedition began from the northern shores of Spitsbergen at Seven Islands. In 1827 he reached 82°45'N, which for 49 years, remained the highest latitude attained.



John Franklin was an English sea captain and explorer who set out to complete the charting of the Northwest Passage. He planned to meet up with William Edward Parry who was coming by sea. Unfortunately, it ended disastrously with 11 of its 20 members of the expedition losing their lives, most of them dying from starvation. In 1823 he took another expedition, a trip down the Mackenzie River to explore the shores of the Beaufort Sea, which was better supplied and more successful than his first.



James Clark Ross, who had sailed with Parry on the previous expeditions and later led an expedition to Antarctica, resumed the search for the Northwest Passage. It was on this voyage that the North Magnetic Pole was located on 1 June 1831 on the Boothia Peninsula in the far north of Canada.



On 19 May 1845 John Franklin set sail again on an expedition with two ships, Erebus and Terror to sail in search of the Northwest Passage. In September 1846 his ships, the ships became trapped in ice off King William Island and never sailed again. What followed was a story of desperation. The combination of bad weather, years locked in ice, disease including scurvy, poisoned food, botulism and starvation led to the deaths them all. Evidence of cannibalism was also found.

Over the next several years, many land and sea expeditions searched for Franklin. In 1853, Dr. John Rae, sent by the Hudson's Bay Company to complete a coastal survey discovered relics of the Franklin expedition in the possession of the Eskimos. In 1959, an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock found a cairn left by the Franklin expedition that told of the death of Franklin and of 24 others, and the abandoning of the ships.

Many years later, after reading about Franklin's adventures, Roald Amundsen (who was to conquer the South Pole in 1912) decided to become an Arctic explorer.



Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld completed the first successful navigation of the Northeast Passage. Nordenskiöld started his journey from Karlskrona on June 22, 1878, abroad the steamship Vega. Nordenskiöld believed that when small boats had failed to find the passage, a powerful steamship might succeed. Accompanied by three other ships, they sailed to the Bering Strait, where they spent ten months trapped in the ice, before continuing to Japan the following summer.



George Washington DeLong, a US naval officer, commanded an ill-fated expedition attempting to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait. Departing in 1879 from San Francisco, the small steamboat USS Jeannette headed north but was trapped in the ice for two winters and eventually crushed and sank. Delong and his crew abandoned ship and headed for Siberia in three small boats. One boat was lost on the voyage while De Longs boat reached land but only two men sent ahead for aid survived. The third boat was rescued at Lena Delta.



Adolphus Greely led an American expedition to Ellesmere Island as part of the First International Polar Year (1882-1883) to establish a chain of meteorological observation stations in the Arctic. Junior officer Lt. James B. Lockwood along with David L. Brainard established the farthest north record of 83°24' that had held for three centuries. Another goal of the expedition was to search for any clues of the USS Jeannette, lost north of Ellesmere Island. The party encamped at Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island but most of the crew perished from starvation, drowning and hypothermia. Only 6 of the 25 expedition members survived.



The Peary Arctic Club, led by US Navy engineer Robert Peary, organizes 8 expeditions to the Arctic. In the early years, he crosses the Greenland ice cap, and in 1898-1902 makes his first unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole, losing a few toes to frostbite. Finally, in 1908-1909, Peary reports that he has reached the North Pole with his friend, Matthew Henson and four native people. However, there are still questions as to whether Peary did indeed reach the North Pole, or whether he exaggerated the distances he travelled.


Wreckage from George Washington DeLong's Jeannette expedition (1879-1882) was found by Inuits on the southwest coast of Greenland more than 2900 miles from where it had sank. This led Norwegian scientist and explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, to believe that there must be an ocean current that moved ice across the Arctic from Siberia. To prove it, he built a special ship, called Fram, for the expedition. It was designed with a rounded bottom so that it could rise up out of the ice as the floes pressed against her hull.

The Fram departed from Bergen, Norway in 1893. Three months later, at a point closer to Alaska than Norway, she was frozen in the ice at latitude 78°N. For three years, the ship was carried by the ice across the Arctic, but never got further north than 86°N. Nansen and Frederick Johansen decided to set out to the North Pole on skis, with kayaks, sleds, and provisions. Ridges of ice blocked their progress and they were forced to turn back and head for Franz Josef Land, about 400 miles to the south. They built a stone hut and survived the winter by killing bears and walrus for food, clothing, and burning blubber for fuel. The following June, Nansen and Johansen reach Cape Flora, an English base where they were returned to civilization. The Fram, which was left in the charge of Otto Sverdrup, arrived in Tromso, Norway in August 1896, and Nansen and Johansen were reunited with the crew.



Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, led the first expedition to successfully traverse Canada's Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He made the voyage with six others in a 47-ton steel seal-hunting vessel, Gjøa which he had outfitted with a small gasoline engine.  It would be another 34 years before the journey is accomplished again.


The Russian Arctic Ocean Hydrographic Expedition represented an effort by the Imperial Russian Navy to explore, survey, and chart the Northern Sea Route with a view to developing it as a commercial route. The expedition used two specially built icebreaking research vessels, Tamyr and Vaygach. They spent three years working west along the Arctic coast of Siberia, sounding, surveying, and pursuing scientific work as they went, and produced an impressive volume of scientific data.



Having conquered the Northwest Passage and the South Pole, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sets his sights on the North Pole. He chose to follow Fridtjof Nansen's idea of freezing a ship into the ice and floating to the Pole. However, the Fram was no longer seaworthy, so he built a new wooden vessel, the Maud, similar to the Fram and with an egg-shaped bottom to lift under ice pressure and avoid being crushed.


The Maud departed Oslo, Norway in 1918, and set off through the Northeast Passage with the intention of being frozen into the pack ice north of the Bering Strait. However, the pack ice formed much earlier that year, and by September, the Maud and her ten passengers were frozen in for the winter. Finally, in August, the ice released its grip on the Maud and the expedition continued eastward. One month later, the Maud was stopped by ice again, and frozen in for a second winter 500 miles short of Bering Strait. After another winter in the ice, they get through the Northeast Passage in 1920.



George Hubert Wilkins, an Australian polar explorer acquired a submarine from the US Navy and prepared for an undersea expedition to the North Pole. He renamed the submarine the Nautilus after Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The submarine headed into the pack ice north of Spitsbergen in August 1931, but engine problems resulted in it being rescued by the USS Wyoming and towed to Ireland and then on to England d for repairs. By August 23 they left again but 600 miles from the North Pole they discovered that the diving plane had become damaged. The submarine could no longer cruise very far under the ice, so instead they made oceanographic observations. On its return to England the Nautilis was hit by a storm and damage made further use unfeasible. Wilkins received permission from the United States Navy to sink the vessel off shore in a Norwegian fjord on November 20, 1931. The expedition demonstrated that submarines could operate in and under the ice pack.



A US nuclear-powered submarine, also called Nautilus, passed under the North Pole, but did not surface. The same year, the nuclear-powered submarine, Skate, became the first vessel to surface at the North Pole.



Many modern scientific expeditions were launched to study the Arctic Ocean. Studies of the geology, biology, chemistry and physical oceanography were on-going, and used ice stations, ice breakers and, more recently, autonomous underwater vehicles.



The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) is a multilateral, non-binding agreement among Arctic states aimed at Arctic environment protection. It was adopted in June 1991 by Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the USSR, and the United States. The AEPS deals with monitoring, assessment, protection, emergency preparedness/response, and conservation of the Arctic zone. It has been called a major political accomplishment of the post-Cold War-era but there is criticism that it is not achieving enough.



The first scientific trip to the Arctic by a nuclear-powered submarine was made by Pargo in the summer of 1993. The success of this program led to the Scientific Ice Expeditions (or SCICEX) cruises continued between 1995 and 1998 using the submarines Cavalla, Pogy, Archerfish, and Hawkbill.



The International Polar Year in 2007-2008 provided an opportunity to engage the upcoming generation of young Earth System scientists and get the public to realize just how much the cold ends of the sphere we all live on influence us. Building on technological developments, such as earth observation satellites, autonomous vehicles and molecular biology techniques, there will be new expeditions to investigate polar systems.



On April 26, 2009, Vassily Elagin, Afanassi Makovnev, Vladimir Obikhod, Sergey Larin, Alexey Ushakov, Alexey Shkrabkin and Nikolay Nikulshin after 38 days and over 2000 km, starting from Sredniy Island, Severnaya Zemlya, drove two Russian built cars "Yemelya-1" and "Yemelya-2" to the North Pole.