McClure's Magazine

Vol X.                FEBRUARY, 1898                No. 4

[pp. 293-305]

Meta Incognita
meta incognita - the northern boundary of hudson strait. from a color study painted from nature an hour before midnight. july 27. 1896 by albert operti, the artist of the peary expedition



Author of " Farthest North," etc.

Illustrated with photographs and drawings from life (most of them hitherto unpublished) by Nansen, Greely, Peary, the Tegetthoff Expedition, and the Arctic artists, William Bradford and Albert Operti, and from descriptions by Commodore Melville and Captain Brainard.

[page 293] THE North Polar region has always had great attraction for the imagination of mankind, and we find during times past the most extreme views as to its real character. Centuries ago some Dutch geographers held the opinion that there was an open sea with a warm climate at the North Pole, and ships set sail to discover a shorter route across this sea to China and India, but they always met with impassable ice. Only some forty years ago the American hydrographer Maury advanced a similar theory of an open Polar sea, and very cleverly tried to prove the correctness of this theory in a scientific way. When, however, this open sea was [page 294] found not to exist, opinions went to the other extreme, and the idea became current that the Polar sea was shallow, with many lands and islands, and that the Pole itself was covered with a thick, immovable ice mantle.

But all such ideas must now be abandoned in the light of the more recent explorations, and we are able to form a more clear and sober conception of the far North.

Proposed route to North Pole by Nansen in 1898
map showing nansen's proposed route to the north pole

The expedition of the "Fram" has proved that the physical conditions in the vicinity of the Pole are very much the same as we find them in the better known regions of the Arctic sea. There was neither an open sea nor an immovable ice mantle, but the whole area is an extended deep basin covered by floating ice, constantly broken up and being carried across from the Siberian side towards the Greenland side. The average depth of this basin we found to be towards 2, 000 fathoms along the whole route of the "Fram," and it is evidently a continuation of the deep North Atlantic trough, stretching northwards into the unknown between Spitzbergen and Greenland. The depth of this sea is filled with comparatively warm water, warmer than that in the [page 295 (contains portrait of Nansen)][page 296] depths of the north Atlantic Ocean, and it is evident that this warm water comes from the Atlantic, fills the Polar basin, is gradually cooled, and runs out again as cold water to fill the depth of the sea to the south. It is a part in the eternal circulation of the ocean.

Dr. Nansen
Dr. Nansen
From a recent photograph taken expressly for McClure's Magazine by Bliss Brothers, Buffalo, New York.

The question now arises, What extent has this sea towards the North? In my opinion it is not doubtful that it covers the Pole itself. Had the "Fram" continued her drift in the ice, she would have been carried southwards along the east coast of Greenland; but she would have left a great distance between her and the coast, down which a vast volume of ice is carried, which must necessarily come from the region north of the track of the "Fram."

We thus see that, according to all probability, the whole area between the Pole and the Siberian coast is covered by a large and extended sea; and there cannot possibly be much unknown land on that side. It is another question, however, what we may expect to find on the other side between the Pole and the American coast. To me it seems probable that the greater part of this area also is an ice-covered sea, although there may, of course, be unknown land and islands to be discovered in this direction, as it is not probable that we have yet reached the most northern limit of land. The most important part which now remains unexplored is that extensive region which is limited by the " Fram's " route, the route of the " Jeannette," Patrick Island, Grant Land, and the most northern part of Greenland, which is yet unknown.

Cutting and carting away the ice to relieve the ice pressure on the 'Fram'
Cutting and carting away the ice to relieve the ice pressure on the "Fram"
From a hitherto unpublished photograph

How can this unknown region be explored? I think there are various ways in which it ought to be done, as each of them will certainly bring important results. I think the drift of the "Fram" has clearly proved the efficiency of the mode of travel which we adopted. That a ship can be built able to withstand the pressure to which it would necessarily be subjected on a drift through these regions is established. It can scarcely be doubted that the " Fram "was exposed to difficulties of this kind as great as can reasonably be expected. I believe, therefore, that the Polar sea can at all times be traversed [page 297] with sufficient safety in this manner, if only proper provision be made. Furthermore, this method of travel offers such great advantages that it certainly ought to be adopted in the future, as the drift of a ship like the "Fram" through unknown regions affords the best means of making scientific investigations of all kinds. It is only by a sojourn of years that sufficient material can be collected to enable a fully satisfactory conception of the physical conditions of these regions to be formed. A vessel like the " Fram " is, in fact, an excellent floating observatory.

The 'Fram'in the ice
The "Fram" in the ice
From a hitherto unpublished photograph taken by moonlight, January, 1895.

I think that such an expedition ought to go north through Bering Strait, and enter the ice in a northerly or perhaps, rather, northeasterly direction, somewhere between 160 and 170 degrees west longitude. The ship will then be closed in by the ice, and will certainly be carried across the unknown sea a great distance north of the " Fram 's " route, across, or, at any rate, not far from, the Pole itself, and will emerge into open water somewhere along the east coast of Greenland. The expedition will thus bring a sum of information about the Polar region which will be of priceless benefit to many branches of science. But such a drift will take a longer time than ours did: I should say, probably five years. It might, however, be that the drift further north is more rapid than it was in the neighborhood of the "Fram' s" route, as during Johansen's and my sledge journey I got the impression that there was more motion in the ice the further we went north.

Lieutenant Johansen
Lieutenant Johansen. From a hitherto unpublished photograph taken by Dr. Nansen as they left the winter hut where they had spent almost nine months, on May 19, 1896.

It might be urged in objection to an expedition of such long duration, that it would expose its members to certain dangers, as it has been thought that a number of years in these parts would be injurious to health. From my experience, however, I must say that I found the Arctic region a very healthy place of resort. There are no diseases, and you do not even catch a cold, as there are no germs [page 298] to produce them. The malady which has hitherto been feared more than anything else in Arctic expeditions is scurvy; but that ought not to occur again, as it is undoubtedly very easily avoided when proper precautions are taken. As far as I understand, it arises from poisoning, caused especially by badly preserved meat and fish. It seems probable that, by the decomposition which takes place in the meat from bad methods of preservation (in salt meat, for instance), poisonous matter is produced which is allied to the so-called ptomaines, and this, when constantly partaken of, causes the malady we call scurvy. But at present there is no difficulty in getting well-preserved food; so that this difficulty can easily be avoided.

Skinning a Walrus
Skinning a walrus. From a hitherto unpublished photograph taken by Dr. Nansen.

It has been said that the privation and isolation during a Polar expedition must have an un wholesome effect, not only on the health, but also on the mind, and will easily cause melancholy and other mental sufferings. To this it might be answered that Johansen and I spent our third Polar winter under more lonely circumstances than most other explorers have done, and still we were in perfect health, and felt no trace of any mental suffering of the kind mentioned. If the expedition is well equipped, and consists of carefully picked men, I do not think there is any more risk connected with such a journey than with many other undertakings in life.

By such a drift a very important part of the still unknown Polar region could be explored; but there would remain a great area on the American side where exploration in this way would riot be possible. The best method of exploring this area seems to me to be by dogs and sledge. Our expedition has proved that it is possible to cover comparatively long distances on the floe ice of the Polar sea by these means, and 1 believe that the whole of this unknown area can be so explored if [page 299] the equipment be only made carefully, and plenty of strong and well-trained sledge-dogs be taken.

Dr. Nansen. From a hitherto unpublished photograph taken by Lieutenant Johansen on leaving the winter hut, May 19, 1896.
Dr. Nansen. From a hitherto unpublished photograph taken by Lieutenant Johansen on leaving the winter hut, May 19, 1896.

This mode of travel has the advantage, compared with the one previously described, that it takes much shorter time and you are more master over your movements. As far as geographical exploration goes and the investigation of the distribution of land and water, it offers unrivalled facilities. The disadvantage is, however, that it does not allow of a sojourn of any duration in those desolate regions and does not give you the opportunity for careful scientific research which is needed for a complete knowledge of them. It is, therefore, to be hoped that both modes travel will be employed in the future.

A third way of getting into the unknown is the balloon, which has been tried for the first time this year, but with what results we do not yet know. The main importance of such an expedition will be to give us information about the distribution of land and water, which it will be able to do in case it has clear weather and the surface of the sea or land is not hidden by mist. The way in which I should imagine the balloon could be of most use in future exploration would be to let it carry sledges with necessary dogs and equipment northwards, so that the expedition could leave the balloon and travel across the ice southwards. The necessity of covering the same distance twice would thus be avoided, and a more complete exploration of the region traveled through would thus be made.

Hauling kayaks on the ice
Hauling kayaks on the ice. From a hitherto unpublished photograph taken by Dr. Nansen.

What should be the aim of future exploration? It is evident that it ought to be purely scientific research, and the more the expedition is equipped for this purpose the better results there will be obtained. The first thing we want to know is the exact distribution of land and water in the whole region. It is not only for geographical purposes that we want this knowledge: it is impossible to calculate the quantity of water on the globe unless we know this and to calculate the exact relation between the sea and the continents, which count as [page 300] a great influence on the conditions of the atmosphere, the circulation of ocean currents, and many other physical conditions. We also want to know the exact depth of this Polar sea in its full extent, and the water temperatures in the various strata from the surface down to the bottom. And then we must know more about the formation of the ice in that sea: the conditions which are necessary for its freezing, how the ice travels across the sea, how thick it grows, etc. A perfect knowledge of all this will not only help us to understand better the climatic conditions of the northern regions, and, we could say, of the whole surface of the globe of today, but it will perhaps throw some light on the many strange climatic changes which have taken place in the past history of the earth.

An iceberg
An iceberg.
From a photograph taken by the late William Bradford of New Bedford, Mass., an artist who spent more than seven years in the Arctic seas, making several trips with Dr. Hayes, and once chartering a vessel of his own, for the sole purpose of painting the scenery of the far North. Some of his most important works were painted for and are owned by the Queen of England and European museums.

To illustrate of what importance this might be, I might mention here a discovery we made during our voyage in the "Fram." By examining the salinity of the water and its temperature in the various depths, we found that the Polar sea is covered with a layer of comparatively fresh water, with a very low temperature, about the freezing point of water of that salinity (29.3 to 29.12 degrees Fahrenheit). When, however, we penetrated this layer to a depth of one hundred fathoms, we suddenly came on water with a greater salinity, and the temperature of which would be as much as 32.9 degrees, and even 33.44 degrees, Fahrenheit. This is much warmer than we should expect the water to be in the frozen North. At a greater depth the water varied somewhat, but remained about the same to a depth of from 220 to 270 fathoms, after which it sank slowly with the depth, though without sinking to the cold temperature of the surface water. It did not, as a rule, sink below 30.65 degrees, which temperature we found at a depth of about 1, 600 fathoms. Near the bottom it again rose quite slowly, I think probably on account of the internal heat of the earth. These conditions may seem somewhat astonishing, seeing that the depths of the north Atlantic Ocean north of Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland are filled with icy-cold water, the temperature of which is about 29.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The depths of the sea in the South are consequently colder than you find them near the Pole. The reason is evidently that the warm salt water from the surface of the Atlantic Ocean is carried northwards by the Gulf Stream into the Polar sea, where it, however, meets the fresher and [page 301] consequently lighter water which results from the constant outflow of fresh water from the Siberian and American rivers into the Polar basin. Being heavier on account of its salinity, the warm Atlantic water must sink under this cold but lighter layer on top, and will fill the whole depth of the Polar basin. What is the result of this? The fresher water on top prevents the warm water from approaching the surface, and consequently the formation of ice by freezing is not very much retarded by the heat which this warmer water carries into the Polar sea. It is, however, evident that, notwithstanding the protection afforded by this cold top-layer, this constant [page 302] influx of warm water has some effect in heating the Polar sea and thus reducing the formation of ice on its surface.

Navy Cliff (81° 37')
Navy Cliff (81° 37'), where lieutenant peary erected a cairn and planted the american flag on july 4, 1892. Lieutenant Peary's northernmost point (82° 12') is on the ice cap in the background of the picture.
The photograph is reproduced by the courtesy of Lieutenant Peary and his publishers, the Frederick A. Stokes Company, from a forthcoming book.

There is also another important factor which prevents the ice which covers this sea from growing very thick; that is, that the ice is constantly carried across the Polar region by the winds and the currents and is transported southwards to lower latitudes, where it melts before it reaches the age necessary to grow above a certain thickness. The thickest floes formed directly by freezing which we measured were about fourteen feet thick.

An effect of sunset and sunrise
An effect of sunset and sunrise. From the color study painted from nature in Baffin's bay, september 23, 1896, by A. Operty, the artist of the Peary Expedition, during the half hour disappearance of the sun, when the sunset light lingered in the sky while the sunrise radiance began to be felt.

What would, however, take place if this constant outflow of ice and cold water and the constant influx of warm water were completely stopped? If, for instance, by the upheaval of the sea-bottom, a ridge of land were formed across the Atlantic Ocean from Scotland over Shetland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland to Greenland, such as we know there probably once has been, in some quite recent geological period? The result would be that the ice would be blocked up by this land even more completely than it is now blocked up by the north side of the islands of the American Arctic Archipelago. The drift of the ice would gradually be stopped, the floes would grow thicker and thicker, partly by freezing underneath, partly by accumulation of snow on the surface, and the Polar sea would be covered with an enormous ice-mantle, such as that which so many have believed covers the Pole.

Fort Conger
Fort Conger, Lieutenant Peary's headquarter from august, 1881, to august, 1883. From a photograph kindly loaned by General A. W. Greely

The Gulf Stream, now running northwards between Scotland and Iceland, would also be stopped by such a land ridge, and the influx of warm water into the Polar sea would no longer take place. The result of this would necessarily be that the water in this basin would be cooled down and we would probably find the same low temperature which is now limited to the upper layer through the whole depth of the sea. But whether the result would be that the water would freeze solid to the bottom, I think is rather doubtful.

Stranded ice floes
Stranded ice floes.
From photographs taken by the Greely Expedition, and kindly loaned by General A. W. Greely.

It is evident that the climatic conditions would be very much altered by the changes which are here described. The surface of the Polar sea would now be more like an enormous glacier than an ice-covered ocean. On account of the radiation of heat from the surface of this snow-covered ice-mantle, the average temperature of the year would gradually sink, and the climate would become colder than it is at present. But at the same time the Atlantic Ocean to the south of the land ridge mentioned would not be cooled down by the outflow of cold water and ice from the North, and it would not constantly give off a great [page 303] part of its heat to the Polar sea. The consequence would be that it would be warmer than it now is, and we would get a milder climate in that part of the globe than we have at present.

What, on the other hand, would be the result if we imagine that the outflow of ice and the influx of warm. water were considerably enlarged? What would happen if, for instance, the Bering Strait was made very much broader and deeper than it is at present, so that the warm Japanese current, the Kurosiwo, could run into the Polar basin? It is evident that the bulk of warm water would be more considerable and warmer than it is at present, and at the same time the layer of cold water on top would be very much reduced. The result would be that the formation of ice by freezing would be still more retarded, and then the floes would be carried out of the Polar sea more rapidly and would get even less time to grow thick than is now the case. Could we, however, imagine that the Polar sea at the same time got no supply of fresh water from the Siberian and American rivers, through the water-shed being so altered that these rivers would flow into some other ocean, then the [page 304] result would be that the Polar basin would not be covered with such a layer of cold, light, and comparatively fresh water as it is at present, and the warm salt water carried into it from the south would be allowed to approach the surface. The result would necessarily be that the formation of ice would be very much reduced. During the greater part of the year we would probably find much open water in the North, and this would make the climate of the Polar region milder. But at the same time the climate in the lower latitudes would become colder, as the Southern seas would have to give off more of their heat in the shape of warm water to the Polar sea, and would in exchange receive more cold water from the North. The result would be less difference between the climates in the lower latitudes and the high northern latitudes than is the case to-day.

'Nupsuah' a Cape York native
"Nupsuah", a Cape York native.
From the first life cast ever taken in the Arctic regions, by A. Operty, artist of the Peary Expedition. These Arctic Highlanders, of the purest type of Eskimo, are the most northern tribe on the face of the earth. They were first discovered by Sir John Ross in 1818, and are now fast dying out. Copyright 1897, by A. Operty.

Whether these changes of climate caused by changes in the distribution of land and water as here described are sufficient to explain the cold climate which must have been prevailing in the Northern regions (Europe and North America) of the Northern Hemisphere during the ice age, and to explain the hot or almost subtropical climates which daring other periods have been prevailing in some parts of the Polar regions, is a more complicated question. In my opinion, they will not be sufficient to account for these strange changes which we know have taken place. But at any rate I hope that what I have here mentioned is sufficient to show how Polar exploration is able to open for us glimpses into those mists which cover the previous history of this globe; glimpses into ages long before man existed. But we need to know more in order to solve these many difficult problems. Let us get full information about the Polar sea in its full extent and from the surface to the bottom; let us learn to know everything about the physical conditions in those regions, and we shall certainly advance a good step towards that goal.

There are also a good many other scientific researches which are much needed in the Polar regions. I may mention here magnetic and meteorological observations. The magnetism of the earth and its strange changes has been and is a riddle, and we do not yet know much about this mysterious The greatest lack in our knowledge [page 305] about it is, however, that we have not sufficient magnetic observations from the Polar regions. We need continuous observations carried on for years there. On board the " Fram " we got a continuous series for three years; other expeditions have also brought back valuable material; but this is not sufficient. We should also have it from every part of the unknown North, and we cannot possibly get too much. It is not necessary to point out the importance of knowledge of this kind. It is not only that the magnetic needle points to the sailor his way from land to land and from harbor to harbor: but the knowledge of the terrestrial magnetism has in many other ways been of great benefit to mankind; it has been one of the stepping-stones for our evolution.

Russian type - Northeastern Siberia
Russian type - Northeastern Siberia

That meteorology is a branch of science which is becoming of importance to humanity, certainly no one will doubt in this country; but meteorology is still in its childhood. In order to explain the circulation of the air in our atmosphere, to explain the changes in temperature and air pressure, explain the winds, storms, and cyclones, it is quite necessary for us to know the physical conditions of the atmosphere at the different seasons of the year in all parts of the surface of the earth. Our knowledge in this respect is being constantly enlarged in recent years, and we now have meteorological stations almost over the whole world where men are living; but there is a great and badly felt gap in the knowledge, and that is the Polar regions; and this is unfortunate, as these regions are of special importance in this respect, because the physical conditions there differ from those in all other regions. We have not yet sufficient material to know what influence those extended snow and ice covered tracts, with the long Polar day and the long Polar night, have on the atmosphere, and we shall not be able to explain the atmospheric changes in our own latitudes before we know more about this.

A Samoyed - inhabitant of Northern Russia and Eastern Siberia
A Samoyed - inhabitant of Northern Russia and Eastern Siberia.
These two portraits and the one on the opposite page are from photographs taken by the Tegetthoff (Austrian) Expedition of 1872

I shall not go any further into this matter. What I have said is perhaps sufficient to show the value of Polar exploration, to prove to the disbelievers that it is necessary for the progress of science. Before I close, only one question more. Is it of any special use to reach the North Pole itself? I think it is. Not because this mathematical point has any special interest, or has any special scientific value different from all other points in the unknown North, but because it has for centuries been the ambition of sea-faring nations to reach this point and there plant their flag; and before this is done the race for the Pole will never cease. It also certainly is below the dignity of man to erect a goal and then give in before it is reached. I believe it can be reached without too great difficulties, not only by a ship drifting with the ice across the Polar sea, as mentioned above, but also by help of dogs and sledges from the Greenland side.

Lapland reindeer driver
Lapland reindeer driver

It is to be hoped that it will not be long before this point is gained. As long as we have this Holy Grail beckoning us in the North we are all of us apt to forget that it is scientific research which ought to be the sole object of all explorations. Still an expedition which shall attain this goal of centuries must yield scientific results of great importance; but the greatest result without comparison will be that the North Pole will have been trodden by human foot, and that we will forever get the quest for this mathematical point out of existence. Then the time for pure scientific exploration in the North will have to come.