Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/July 1896/Proposed System of Continuous Polar Exploration

609271Popular Science Monthly Volume 49 July 1896 — Proposed System of Continuous Polar Exploration1896Robert Stein



THE objects of polar exploration are fourfold:

1. Commerce.—According to General Greely, whaling has contributed over six hundred and eighty million dollars to the wealth of Holland, England, and the United States. Exploration will probably reveal new whaling grounds. If treated with some forbearance, the whale will restock the Arctic Ocean. Forbearance will restore the wealth in reindeer, which, with musk oxen, foxes, bears, seals, walrus, and narwhal, will supply desirable commodities. The known deposits of guano and valuable minerals may eventually be utilized, and others will be discovered. Alaska may not be the only gold-bearing arctic land.

2. Scientific Research.—To ascertain with greater precision the shape, size, and density of the earth, the astronomer's base of measures, and thus render the science of surveying more accurate, ten pendulum observations near the unknown extreme of the arc are worth a hundred elsewhere. Observations on magnetism, especially near the magnetic pole, will benefit the thousands of ocean vessels which largely depend for their safety on the precision with which the compass can be interpreted. To the meteorologist the arctic is of special importance, because it presents the extremes of a world-embracing system, each of whose parts affects every other. Tides and currents are similarly interdependent. The aurora can best be studied where it is most common and most fully developed. Observations on the character and behavior of plants and animals under the unique conditions of the arctic will give to the student of organic life a more thorough mastery of his problems. To that end the hydrography must be known (depth of sea, temperature, water movement, sea bottom, salinity, light). The arctic affords the best facilities for studying one set of geologic forces (glaciers, icebergs, frost fissuring) in their extreme manifestation. The condition of the earth in past geologic epochs will not be fully known until the strata of the arctic lands have been mapped. To the paleontologist the arctic has already yielded most valuable information in the fossil evidence of a mild climate. Lockwood and Brainard found the slopes of western Grinnell Land studded with large petrified tree stumps. These and similar fossils, precious to museums or geologic cabinets, can probably be reached by way of Hayes Sound. To the ethnologist the Eskimos represent a phase of human life without a parallel. Museums need collections to illustrate these lines of research. Thus the objects sought are well defined; but, apart from this, the very fact that there exists an unknown area of over a million square miles creates the duty to explore it, for two reasons: First, every new fact recorded, every misconception corrected, expands the mental horizon, gives additional power to the mind, and shuts off possible sources of error—an ounce of fact being worth a ton of speculation; second, every fact is part of a network, and as new facts are observed and correlated they constantly throw light on others, and presently group themselves into fruitful combinations. The most important discoveries have been made by men seeking simply to find out new facts, without regard to their consequences, or, rather, with the conviction, drawn from past experience, that no fact is without its useful consequence, and that therefore it would be a dereliction of duty to neglect any fact within reach. Think of Volta, Galvani, Oersted, Faraday, Crookes, Hertz, Röntgen! "Shall the northern limit of America remain unknown?" is a question which appeals to every American, even though he can not tell why. It may safely be said that there is nowhere a more assured prospect of filling many awkward gaps in scientific systems than in the arctic. If it be objected that this research should be postponed to a time when it can be done safely and economically, the answer is that this time has arrived.

3. Outing.—For the tourist, the arctic, with its marvelous scenery, its inspiriting climate, free from colds and fevers, quickly doubling appetite, vigor, and endurance (as testified unanimously by whalers and explorers), is at least equal to Yellowstone Park or the Alps. The Hamburg-American line already sends an excursion steamer to Spitzbergen. "The northern limit of phthisis" in Berghaus's Physical Atlas may be a message of hope to many a stricken home.

4. Honor.—Only hypocrisy can say that it does not desire the world's applause; only ignorance can say that the world proportions its applause to service rendered. Nothing arouses popular interest and wins popular homage more readily than successful arctic exploration. Supposing that this indicates no great discernment in the public, that does not alter the fact that a popular reputation is one of the most precious of human possessions—a capital enabling its possessor to apply his labor in any direction with vastly increased efficiency. If it is proper to strive for a capital in money, it is at least equally proper to strive for a capital in fame. And if fame be won by rendering important resources available, securing a vast array of scientific facts and giving access to unparalleled wonders, will it not be as fairly earned as many kinds which pass unchallenged?

He who understands the bearing of scientific facts knows them to be worth more to humanity than tons of whalebone or ingots of gold; and as no reproach is cast on those who risk their lives for money, one might justify even the risk of life for scientific research in the arctic. But there is no need of this. Every careful student knows that in most cases the work involved no risk nor even greater hardship than is welcomed by an active man. Dr. Boas spent a year in Baffin Land in comfort and safety, traveling hundreds of miles, with Eskimo guides or alone, living mostly on the game of the country, and bringing back an unprecedented harvest of scientific facts, at a cost of seven hundred dollars. Considering the desultory character of most of the past work, the wonder is that disasters have been so few. Each explorer had to proceed independently to formulate his plan from book knowledge; inquire for means to obtain outfit and transportation; knock at a hundred doors before he met his patron; gather a party of novices; then start out with the haunting consciousness that, if he failed to accomplish anything in the limited time at his disposal, he would not have another chance. After returning he was generally unable, owing to the expensive methods of the past, to take the field again; his companions, with their precious experience, scattered over the world. The next expedition had to go through the same process. Could any business, say farming, be profitably conducted if the farm was worked one year and then abandoned for ten years?

"Arctic exploration," says Mr. Peary, "must, like anything else, be made a business and carried on from year to year, profiting by each added item of experience, taking advantage of every occurring opportunity." By doing the easiest and safest work first, the next will be made easier; and when a corps of experts has been developed, the list of difficult tasks will dwindle to very little. Lockwood and Brainard, in 1883, accomplished in six days a distance which it had taken them twenty-two days to accomplish the year before. "Hazardous expeditions into the open ocean," says Dr. Boas, "without the shelter of land and without any line of retreat, such as De Long's expedition, must be abandoned, as they will almost always end in disaster. Progress must be made cautiously and founded on the discoveries and experiences of past expeditions. It is only thus that scientific results can be obtained."

The expedition to Jones Sound, planned for 1897, is intended to initiate a system of continuous arctic exploration. Its object is to be the scientific research above indicated, and to this all else will be subordinated. Special attention will be paid to geology. Disasters having been plainly due to lack of a secure and always accessible base, the first object will be the establishment of a base at the mouth of Jones Sound, which Julius von Payer calls "the one spot most suitable for such a base."[1] Being in assured annual communication through the Scotch and Newfoundland whalers, a well-housed and well-provisioned party, with some Eskimo families, will be as safe there as anywhere on earth, and will have before it a field unequaled in richness and extent. To the north, the west coasts of Ellesmere Land and Grinnell Land are to be explored; to the northwest, the triangle between those coasts and the Parry Islands is to be rescued from the unknown; to the west, the interior of North Devon is an interesting problem; to the southwest. Prince Regent Inlet may present an avenue to the magnetic pole; to the south, Baffin Land—with its Eskimo settlements, its herds of reindeer, its wealth in fishes and birds, its fossils and minerals—offers a tempting field, larger than the British Isles. Even Greenland may not be beyond the sphere of that strategic point.

Such a system, once initiated, will cost very little. Lecturing tours and the sale of collections will defray a large part of the cost. Considering the enormous sums spent on arctic exploration in the past by governments and by individuals, it seems probable that when the system is once in running order it will not lack patrons. The cost of the initial expedition is estimated at five thousand dollars. Much smaller sums will probably suffice in subsequent years.


Mr. Stein's plan is to establish a permanent station at the entrance of Jones Sound, to be occupied by from four to six white men and several Eskimo families, and from there carry on systematic scientific explorations northward, northwestward, westward, and southward as far as can be done with safety.

This plan is justly called by Julius von Payer "the best imaginable," for the reason that—

1. It is one of the safest, because its base station is annually reached by the whaling steamers.

2. It promises extensive scientific results, because that base gives access to a wide and rich field.

3. It is the cheapest, because of the possibility of utilizing the whalers as means of transportation.

4. It avoids hurry, which is a great source of danger and of imperfect work.

5. It permits the utilization of experience, allowing the same force to remain in the field for several years and to train their successors.

The main object of the first season's work will be the installation of the party. From my experience I am convinced that this initial work is practically free from risk, especially since Eskimos are to be employed. (R. E. Peary, civil engineer, U. S. Navy.)

It is Mr. Robert Stein's merit to have called attention to the remarkable fact that the most northern portion of our continent has so far remained unexplored, not on account of the inherent difficulties of access, but on account of historical facts which directed the attention of explorers to Lancaster Sound and its western continuation, and to Smith Sound and its northern continuation. All the facts that are known—and these are quite numerous—indicate that the northernmost portion of the arctic American archipelago can be reached without danger and can be explored with comparative ease.

Mr. Stein points out that the point of attack is Jones Sound, which has so far been entirely neglected by explorers. Profiting by previous experience, Mr. Stein proposes to establish a station at the entrance of Jones Sound, thus giving his operations the necessary security and practically excluding all danger of serious accidents. The entrance of Jones Sound is visited annually by whalers, who will keep the explorers in contact with the civilized world, and who can furnish supplies and help if needed. There is no doubt that a small number of scientists, supported by a few Eskimo families, will be able to thoroughly explore the outlines of all the unknown islands and bring home material results in all branches of natural science, and that they may add important observations on the physical conditions of the arctic zone. The field of exploration has the immeasurable advantage that it can be easily reached either by a special vessel or by means of whalers; that exploration is, one might say, absolutely safe; and that it is certain to yield results which will rank with the best achievements in arctic explorations.

It is Mr. Stein's intention to confine the first season's work to the establishment of a base station and the exploration of its immediate vicinity. It is his plan to engage the help of a number of Eskimos, and to limit the party to from four to six scientists. The experience of C. F. Hall, of Schwatka, and my own proves that such work is practically free from risks of any kind, and I do not hesitate to express my conviction that even the first year's work will amply repay the expense incurred in fitting out the expedition. (Dr. Franz Boas, explorer of Baffin Land.)

Your committee believe that this expedition is thoroughly safe and practicable; that it is desirable for scientific purposes; and that no part of the arctic regions gives promise of greater opportunities for extensive discoveries with a minimum of danger, hardship, and expense. (National Geographic Society, Washington, D. C)

Whereas a systematic exploration of Ellesmere Land is projected, always within easy reach of a base of supplies: resolved, that the Anthropological Society of Washington heartily indorse both the exploration and the plan of operations proposed by Mr. Robert Stein.

The west coast of Ellesmere Land is, in my opinion, the one field of exploration in all the arctic that promises the largest results with the least amount of labor and danger. (General A. W. Greely, U. S. Army.)

I am pleased to see you lay so much stress on the one point on which I have always insisted—that no step should be taken in arctic exploration until you know that your depot of provisions is actually established. (Commodore G. W. Melville, U. S. Navy.)

An expedition ought to provide for a successful retreat. This you have done by placing your supply depot in the line of the Scotch whaling vessels. There can be no question but that the region which you propose to explore is rich in animal life. In 1872 and 1873, at Lifeboat Cove, Eskimos told me that west of the mountains there were large quantities of deer and musk oxen. (R. W. D. Bryan, astronomer to Hall's Polaris expedition.)

I consider the exploration of the west cost of Ellesmere Land by the mode suggested in your paper not only entirely practicable but certain to obtain most valuable results with the minimum expenditure of money. (Colonel H. W. Feilden, naturalist to the Nares expedition.)

Stein is evidently on the right track. (Admiral Sir George S. Nares, commander of the British expedition of 1875-'76.)

I hail with delight your plan of systematic exploration of the arctic lands. Since it looks forward to an indefinite future, you can wait quietly till the work grows of itself, not only areally, but also in minuteness. (Dr. A. Supan, editor Petermann's Mitteilungen.)

I congratulate you on your selection of Jones Sound as the route of advance, since that is a far less dangerous avenue than many others. (Elisée Reclus, author of Nouvelle Géographie Universelle)

The most important idea in your plan, and one which will mark a new epoch in arctic exploration, is the idea of a permanent camp at the entrance of Jones Sound, where it will be in constant communication with the outer world through the whalers. The wonder is that so simple and inexpensive a measure was not thought of long ago. Had it been adopted, say fifty years ago, it is entirely probable that arctic history since then would have remained unclouded by a single disaster. (Lieutenant D. L. Brainard, U. S. Army, of the Greely party, who, with Lockwood, reached the highest north ever attained, 83°24"5'.)

Your project is in every way well conceived, and will no doubt yield the best results. Attempts to reach the pole have not met with results commensurate to the efforts made. Far more fruitful to science is the methodical exploration of an arctic land. The American archipelago is as yet unknown to the west of Ellesmere Land. To American naturalists belongs the task of revealing to science this terra incognita, and your project seems to me to be the most rational method. (Charles Rabot, explorer of Lapland, Spitzbergen, Iceland, and Greenland.)

You have hit upon one of the best routes for further discovery, and I am pleased to see that you are impressed with the necessity for a safe depot. (Clements R. Markham, C. B., President Royal Geographical Society of London.)

Mr. Koldewey, Councilor to the Admiralty, is of opinion that your project, which is well worked out in all its details, deserves to be received with interest by all friends of polar research. (Geographic Society of Hamburg.) (Captain Koldewey commanded the two German arctic expeditions of 1868 and 1869.) I must confess the most active sympathy with the objects in view in all polar research, and I am convinced that the observations of physical phenomena there are to be ultimately of much practical benefit to us in these lower zones in our commerce and in the safety of our lives upon the high seas; but, unless systematically organized and continued through a series of years, we may expect small results. (Commander W. S. Schley, U. S. Navy, the rescuer of Greely.)

There is a line of possible discovery of the utmost importance lying between the Miocene deposits and the Pleistocene glaciation—viz., the finding of Pliocene beds that indicate the climatic conditions of the region just preceding the glaciation. All deposits later than the fossiliferous Miocene possess extreme interest. (Dr. T. C. Chamberlin, Professor of Geology, Chicago University, formerly President University of Wisconsin, and Chief of Division of Glacial Geology, United States Geological Survey.)

The Board of Managers of the Imperial Royal Geographic Society of Vienna has carefully examined Robert Stein's project of continuous polar exploration, and welcomes it with the utmost satisfaction. In the domains of oceanography, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, the determination of gravity, plant and animal life, a new expedition would be of high scientific importance. For this purpose the plan designed and elaborated by Mr. Robert Stein seems especially suitable. At the request of the society, the well-known explorer, Julius von Payer, has also expressed his opinion.

A "secure base of operations" can only be had on land, and even there only at a few points in the polar region. It is the merit of Mr. Stein to have discovered the one spot most suitable for such a base. Mr. Stein's plan has my full approval, and, for geographic exploration in the far north, it is thus far the best imaginable. (Lieutenant Julius von Payer, explorer of Franz Josef Land.)

  1. The advantages of the Jones Sound route were pointed out by Dr. Boas in 1887, and by Elisée Reclus in 1890. A gradual and systematic advance has been advocated by many geographers.