Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/September 1897/Objects and Results of Polar Research


LEAVING out of view the commercial enterprises of the ancient inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula and the voyages of the primitive Celtic people of Britain, the earliest explorer of the north was a younger contemporary of Alexander the Great, Pytheas of Marsilia, who braved the perils of that region, impelled by purely scientific motives. He returned with abundant results, but was not understood by the people of his time, and more than two thousand years elapsed before men sailed north again in scientific inquiry. It is true that many voyages were made to the north during the middle ages. The Northmen during that period founded colonies in Greenland, in the farthest north, as their countrymen settled in the fair southern regions of Apulia and Sicily; but both sets of settlements failed to be of permanent establishment. The voyage of the Venetian Zeno to the Farö Islands in 1390 was without historical significance, and the voyage of Christopher Columbus beyond Iceland in 1477 is mythical.

At the close of the middle ages, when the deficiency of knowledge of the earth was great, avarice and the quest for the goods of the south led men into the northern ice; they sought to reach India by the shortest possible routes, where they would not meet rivals and enemies. This was the object of Magellan's circumnavigation. The Ceterum Censeo of James Lancaster asserted that the way to India was north, around America. India was the object of the polar navigators Cabot in the fifteenth, Frobisher and Davis in the sixteenth, and Hudson and Baffin in the seventeenth centuries, to name only a few of the most famous. It is astonishing what these daring British and Dutch sailors risked, suffered, and gained.

They did not, indeed, reach India, but we all know of Hudson Bay, Davis Strait, and Lancaster Sound. As we owe to the men of the stone age, who lived before all history, one of the most important possessions of man, the great paths they marked out upon the earth across streams, over mountains, and through wilderness and plain, which are still the routes of to-day's highways, so these older arctic navigators mapped out the courses of their successors. The ships of the whalers and seal hunters followed them, discovering one bay, island, and channel after another, naming them and marking them on maps.

In the seventeenth century appeared such men as Kepler, Cassini, Newton, and Boyle. The shape of the earth was actively discussed, improved maps were made, and new aims and motives were conceived, the development of which has caused the nineteenth century to be so sharply distinguished from its predecessors. Now knowledge of the earth is sought for itself, and in this respect the polar research of the present has all at once assumed another aspect, under which it is differentiated from that of the past. Northwestern and northeastern passages have been sought in our days, but not in order to reach India. When Maclure achieved the former in 1852 and Nordenskjöld the latter in 1879, the value attached to the discoveries was not that they furnished routes, but that a correct knowledge of the northern coasts of the two continents and rich stores of other scientific information had been gained by them. Fruits like those, no longer the interests of trade, justified the high prizes which the English Government offered for the discovery of the passage, and the costly expeditions which were dispatched for that purpose. The early trade routes became highways for scientific investigation, and the nature of the polar regions as a whole was inquired into. Such objects were pursued by individuals. Scoresby, while hunting for whales, made constant studies of the highest scientific value of the hydrography, magnetism, and meteorology of the arctic regions; and so did Karl Ludwig Gieseke, afterward Professor of Mineralogy at Dublin, who traveled through East and West Greenland from 1807 to 1813 solely for the thorough study of the geology of their coasts.

Till 1860 the English, and afterward the Americans with them, were in the front as polar explorers. The most important results of their work were the discovery of the magnetic pole in 1831 by John and James Ross, the definition of the coast of arctic America, and numerous single observations. More recently other nations have come forward—the Danes in Greenland, and the Swedes, whose most illustrious representative is Nordenskjöld. Two German expeditions have been sent to East Greenland, an Austrian expedition under Weyprecht and Preyer has discovered Franz-Joseph Land, the Dutch have explored south of Spitzbergen, the Russians on the northern coast of Siberia, and now with Nansen and Mohn the Norwegians have advanced to the very front. In 1882-'83, at the instance of the German Neumayer and the Austrian Weyprecht, a chain of observation stations was established around the pole, to be kept up for a year—an enterprise in which Germany, England, the United States, Russia, Austria, France, Sweden, Norway, and Finland took part. The year 1883 was further marked by Nordensjöld's return from the inland ice of Greenland, and by Nansen's conception of his scheme for traversing Greenland on snowshoes, which he carried into effect the next year. North polar research is therefore almost exclusively the work of the Germanic nations, for the Russian explorers have been chiefly of that stock. The Romanic nations, no less seafaring people, have kept away from the north pole; but France has done something in south polar exploration.

The south pole has been comparatively neglected on account of the unfavorable character of its surroundings. Large masses of land are wanting, and the immense wastes of water of the South offer only a few islands possessing neither large mammals nor human inhabitants; while the Eskimos of the North are of incalculable advantage to exploration. Magellan's southern voyage was not followed up for two hundred and fifty years. The first after him to reach high southern latitudes was James Cook, in 1774, and no other similar expeditions followed for fifty years more. Those best known were those of the French under Dumont d'Urville in 1839, of the Americans under Wilkes, and of the English under James Ross, who in 1842 penetrated to the seventy-eighth degree, the highest southern latitude yet attained. After a year's maintenance of a German station on the South Georgian Islands and of a French station at the southern point of America, both of which belonged to the international system of 1883, and after a few dashes southward in later years, a number of nations—Germany, Austria, England, the United States, and others—are again preparing to co-operate in another polar siege at the austral end of the world for the benefit of science.

The question rises, What is the good of all this effort, this toil, this risk incurred in seeking inaccessible regions? The prospect of adventure, of witnessing strange scenes and experiencing unwonted conditions, of displaying prowess and achieving victory over formidable obstacles, may account in part for the readiness with which individuals are tempted to go into arctic expeditions, but not so with governments. And governments can not expect any practical material gain from such enterprises sufficient to justify the expenditures which they willingly lavish upon them.

Yet there is a real gain in a higher sense to be derived from them. They contribute to the enlargement of our knowledge, to the widening of our circle of view, to the increase of our mental capacity and ability; they make us better acquainted with the planet on which we live, and help us achieve a mastery over it.

Nowhere are more questions to be found for which to seek answers than in the polar regions. Here the magneto-electric light of the earth manifests itself in the wonderful phenomenon of the northern lights. All the wind currents of the earth press toward the pole, and the sea currents too. Curious dispositions of Nature are found here, with great volcanoes, the outer cones of which are constituted of strata of ice covered with lava, and under the masses of ice we discover remains of plants that demonstrate the presence not so very long ago of a flourishing tropical or subtropical vegetation instead of the present ice. We meet mountains of ice everywhere, and everywhere the arctic region is sublime. Man's disposition to make all the earth his home and himself at home everywhere in it is only sharpened by the problems offered there, and the tendency to go becomes irresistible.

There is thus much to observe and much to learn in these regions for the satisfaction of our irresistible longings. First, we are able to study in the polar regions the division of land and sea, the size, elevation, and topography of the land—the whole question, in short, of polar geography. The form of the earth's surface is not casual, but is the result of interactions of the crust and the interior of the globe. The discovery by Nansen's expedition of the profundity of the polar sea tallies with Prof. Mohn's observations of the great depths between Greenland and Spitzbergen and with those of the fiords and interinsular channels of the North Atlantic. Further, the sea bottoms are penetrated by volcanoes, some of them still active—here single, as in Jan Mayen Island, there in groups, as in Franz-Joseph Land and Fire Island. A marked difference exists in this respect between the Atlantic half of the polar regions north of Europe and eastern North America, where disturbance and divisions of the land are the rule, and the Pacific side, north of Siberia and western America, where quiet prevails, with regular coast forms and few islands. The lands on the Atlantic side have, moreover, been gradually rising for an in-calculable length of time, and are still rising, while those on the opposite side have until very recently been subsiding. These facts, selected as examples from a great number of phenomena, may serve to illustrate how important is a knowledge of the polar regions to that of the earth as a whole. Its importance is, in fact, quite beyond comprehension.

So the magnetism of the earth, the colored beams of the northern lights, the flickering of their draperies and bands, are of interest far beyond their relations to the earth alone; for the movement of the magnetic elements reflects the processes of the sun's atmosphere, and may be connected with the immense periods of the revolution of our solar system. Man could not refrain from inquiring into the nature and reason of these things even if he would, and hence he is willingly or unwillingly led to the poles, where he is brought into the closest relations with them, and where the explanation of them can be most hopefully sought.

A relation between the northern lights and the weather has been established by repeated observations, and that brings us to another group of phenomena, those of meteorology, which are of interest to the whole earth, and are especially remarkable in the polar regions. An interchange of great wind currents between the equator and the poles is constantly going on, upon which the movements of the atmosphere and the pressure in the intermediate regions are ultimately dependent, and the study of the atmospheric phenomena of the polar regions is indispensable to our proper knowledge of them.

The excess of heat at the equator forces masses of air into the highest regions of the atmosphere; the congestion at the pole, the necessary consequence of accumulation there, forces them back to the earth. On their way through the higher regions these masses are attenuated and cooled, so that, even when condensed at their sinking, they can not overcome the polar cold; and as they bring little moisture, and consequently little cloudiness, the radiation of heat goes on continuously during the long polar night; the more so because snow and ice are extremely good radiators. Hence the extreme cold which Nansen found in Greenland, and which makes that interior a second pole of cold along with that in the interior of Siberia, is fully explained.

Yet the winds contribute to the warming of the polar sea. They drive the waters from warmer regions in wide superficial currents into the higher latitudes, where, being heavier in consequence of their greater content of salt than the fresher water resulting from the melting of the glaciers and the ice and from the outpour of the great Siberian rivers, they sink beneath them to the bottom and keep the temperature of the sea constantly above the freezing point. The colder, lighter water has to give way to these under-sea currents, and flows into the Atlantic Ocean, cooling the American coasts. At the south pole currents flow in from all the seas, and superficial waters spread into all the oceans.

How shall we account for the masses of polar ice, for the immense icebergs, and the glaciation of Greenland? The snowfall of the polar regions is light. The air is nowhere drier than over the cold glacier ice, as is proved every day in Switzterland by the quickness with which clothes dry when hung over it. At the same time the ice is covered with extremely fine, hardly visible snow crystals. If we boil water in a retort which is connected with another vessel containing a piece of ice, all the steam will pass over on to the ice and deposit itself as ice upon it. The same takes place in a larger degree on the earth, where the retort is the warm evaporating water of the tropical regions, the connecting pipe is the upper atmosphere, and the thickening ice is at the pole. Thus, without any rain or snow falling, all the moisture and all the vapor is withdrawn from the atmosphere by this ice and deposited upon it in fine crystals; and as the influx of air is constant and all-pervading, a never-ceasing supply of frost is going on all the time. In consequence of the larger quantity of moisture, the process is still more marked and regular at the south pole. The explanation of the glaciation of the northern part of our temperate zone during the ice age, still unfound, is a matter of great importance, for the present topography of the land was brought out and the organic life of the whole earth was modified by it; and it is the general opinion that the solution of the problem is to be found, if it is found, by the study of the polar regions.

In the period immediately preceding the ice age the polar regions were not covered with ice, but had a rich growth of plants, reaching up even to the glaciers of their mountains, and plants were represented in them which are now known only in warmer countries. This was a very noteworthy time in the history of the earth. Organic life, in the continents at least, was in its greatest extension, and, I believe, specificism and diversity. The forests also were more luxuriant than now. And this was the time when man originated. Upon this came the ice age, during which man was scattered over the whole world, and organic beings were divided according to their capacity to resist the cold into the three great classes of arctic, temperate, and tropical life—a division which probably existed too during the earlier period, but then only locally, as on mountain ranges. The study of the organic life of the poles is therefore of the greatest importance for the understanding of the history of the organic life of our planet; and the more so because the arctic region has always been an important station for the distribution of organisms. The plants and animals of the south polar lands, on the contrary, and of the pointed southern continental terminations have never shown any permanent community with one another. This peculiar feature of the southern continents appeared very early.

Knowledge concerning the origin and spread of peoples may likewise receive valuable contributions from polar research. That is shown by the Eskimos and their wonderful adaptation to that nature which is so destructive to civilized peoples. In this we have a clear demonstration of the maxim which is one of the most important if not the most important law of all organic and human life: that what is to be permanent can be brought about only by gradual, extremely slow formation; never by sudden, immediate transition, or by sharp, violent breach. It is the same in the mental life. It is impossible to create anything new and enduring by simply casting the old away. Only what has connection has permanence. This maxim may be called the mental law of all development; and as it certainly prevails for earthly life, so it does for the existence of human society. This principle is illustrated, and is destined to be more extensively so, from observations in the polar regions.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Deutsche Rundschau.