Antarctica, The crew of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition playing a game of football (or soccer), with the Endurance in the background; ca. 1914-1917)
Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.
Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.
In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.
The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.
McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.
So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.
The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?
So, what could the ships tell us?
When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.
Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.
More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.
[*History got a little breaking news this morning that one of the ships of the lost Franklin Expedition has been discovered in the Canadian arctic.]
Heading out to hunt for German weather stations set up on the coast of Greenland, a member of the ‘Sledge Patrol’ leaves base at Sandodden; ca. 1940’s.
The Weather War
By far one of the least heralded campaigns of World War II was the hunt for Axis weather stations set up in remote parts of Greenland. The United States actually began doing this in 1940 at the behest of the Danish Government following the German occupation of the country. The job fell principally on the shoulders of the Coast Guard at that point, who patrolled with ships and aircraft, looking for German weather ships, or supply boats attempting to reach weather stations the Germans had set up on land.
The reason Greenland was so important in this regard was that a weather station set up on Greenland’s eastern coast – which is immense and hard to patrol – offers an excellent window into the weather fronts as they move towards Northwest Europe. Obviously weather plays a huge part in military planning, and this being before satellites allowed such easy predictions to be made, the extra day of forewarning offered by a station in Greenland was of incredible value to military planners. So Germany wanted to set them up there, and it fell to the United States to protect Danish interests in not allowing this to happen. The first direct combat between Germans and Americans (and by direct I exclude convoy contact with U-Boats) occurred during one of these patrols when a Coast Guard cutter, the USS Northland, boarded and captured the Norwegian flagged ship Buskoe. A landing party went ashore and captured three German soldiers operating the weather station the ship had been resupplying. This all happening three months before America entered the war!
Aside from the Coasties though, the “Sledge Patrol” – a 15 man, mixed force of Norwegians, Danes and local Eskimos, all supported by the US – spent much of the war patrolling the coast hunting Germans as well. Only, doing it on land in subzero arctic weather instead of in a comparatively warm and cozy boat. On dog sleds, 2 and 3 man patrols would head out for a few months at a time and attempt to find German weather stations (As many as four teams were operating in Greenland at a time) in a cat and mouse game. Although the teams were to small to assault the German stations they could radio the positions to the Coast Guard who would send a landing party. Generally, the Germans were the mice and had to pack up their stuff and flee if discovered, but the Germans did strike back and attack the Sledge Patrol’s base-camp at Eskimonaes, killing one member of the team, Eli Knudsen (the only loss they endured).
The last land-based weather station of the Germans was knocked out in October of 1944. Based on Little Koldeway island, the German station was spotted by the USS Eastwind during a coastal patrol. A landing party of Coast Guardsman trained in special raiding tactics by commandos made a nighttime landing and caught the Germans by total surprise, and were able to get most of their documents intact even! No more land-based stations were attempted after that, although off-shore trawlers were still utilized (The USS Eastwind would take the Externsteine as a prize only a week after the raid on Koldeway).
All Photos from Time-Life
Feeding polar bears from a tank; ca. 1950
This is quite possibly the most Russian photograph ever taken.
Polar bears look really freaking cute, but they’re the only animal that actively predates on humans.
Wolves will give it a long and hard thought about whether they want to attack humans. Polar bears? Nope. If they see you, and you can’t protect yourself or seek shelter, you’re dead.
“Ascension d’un sérac,” Ascent of a glacial column on Mount Blanc, ca. 1899
Link to original source from the Central Library of Zurich.
Mississippi River frozen solid, February 1905
That’s the Eads Bridge, which is in St Louis. Carnegie was an early shareholder in the St Louis Bridge Company, and the bridge was built of Carnegie-made steel. But Carnegie wasn’t personally involved in the design or construction of the bridge; he sold out his stock in the company early in construction, and had a tempestuous relationship with James Eads (the head of the company, the bridge’s designer, and ultimately its namesake).
Drake Passage, Palmer Peninsula, Antarctica
Photo by Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott. The rest of the gallery is pretty awesome as well.
Antarctica has rivers made from Powerade’s ‘Mountain Blast’ flavor
You know what’s crazy? Antarctica used to be covered by (near) tropical rain forests. It’s the least-studied continent on earth, there’s probably all sorts of ancient species’ fossils underneath the ice that will blow our minds if/when we discover them.