Over the past decade, global warming has melted polar sea ice down to record lows—but during the same period, thanks to a growing awareness of the climate phenomenon, the Arctic and the Antarctic have vastly expanded in the popular imagination. Nowhere is that clearer than in the broad recent interest in the European, Russian, and North American explorers who crisscrossed the poles in the 19th and early 20th centuries, searching for trade routes like the Northwest Passage and the mythical Open Polar Sea.
Amateur adventurers are following in the early explorers\’ tracks: A six-man crew rowed 460 miles to the magnetic North Pole last year in a testosterone-fueled attempt to best Ernest Shackleton\’s 1916 polar rowing record, and this summer, the New Bedford Whaling Museum sponsored a voyage to replicate the 1869 Bradford-Hayes artistic expedition up the coast of Greenland. Creative reinterpretations of the early polar narratives have been plentiful over the past decade, including this year\’s Dead Men by Richard Pierce, exploring the legacy of the ill-fated Scott Antarctic expedition, and Mat Johnson\’s 2011 novel Pym, a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe\’s 1838 Antarctic nightmare The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Even the TV survivalist Bear Grylls is getting in on the act, claiming to have discovered relics of the British explorer John Franklin\’s lost 1845 Arctic expedition.
Russell Potter, a historian of polar exploration at the University of Rhode Island and founder of the online Arctic Book Review, says he\’s seen a major upswing in writing about the poles over the past 15 years. In the mid-90s, he would receive a handful of books on the subject each year; more recently, he\’s received as many as 30. He attributes the interest to global warming as well as to a postmodern nostalgia for an imagined age of heroism. There\’s an \”elegiac sense of the passing of the era and the loss of the beauty and the danger of ice,\” he says. \”These stories from the heroic age with a reflection of how these things have changed today, that fascinates people.\”
Academics who study the history of European and American polar exploration are inspired by the same urgency and sense of loss. They\’re also intimately aware of the contrasts between the modern-day landscape and the one explorers battled 150 years ago. Shelagh D. Grant, author of Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), describes a recent trip to Canada\’s Bellot Strait, near where Capt. Francis McClintock of the British Royal Navy traveled by sledge across iced-over ocean during his 1857-59 voyage to discover the fate of the lost Franklin expedition. Grant says she was up there last summer and \”at that particular time, we did not see one patch of ice. I realized that we were in a totally different world.\”
But scholars of the last age of polar obsession see continuities with this age, too—and they may be perfectly situated to answer important questions about sovereignty, nationalism, and human responses to climate that are not as new as we think.
In the 1810s, when Sir John Barrow, second secretary of the British Admiralty, began promoting voyages of discovery to the poles, he published essays arguing that it was a propitious moment exactly because of climate change. According to Arctic sailors, the ice caps were melting, potentially opening up the Northwest Passage and the Open Polar Sea, the legendary body of water that supposedly covered the North Pole. \”The indications from whalers were that the ice was breaking up,\” says Janice Cavell, an official historian for the Canadian government and author of Tracing the Connected Narrative: Arctic Exploration in British Print Culture, 1818-1860 (University of Toronto Press, 2008). \”It was a great time to get into the Arctic because it was more accessible.\”
Inspired by Barrow, along with other notions of what mysteries the North Pole might hold, an English writer named Eleanor Anne Porden composed and published a poem in 1818 called \”The Arctic Expeditions.\” The poem and Porden\’s extensive footnotes imagined the exciting possibilities for a warming earth, both for explorers and for those back at home. With glaciers said to be breaking off and floating south as far as Portugal, she wrote, a lost tribe of Christians in Greenland could finally be rescued in Christ\’s name, and Britain might experience lush Mediterranean temperatures: \”The vine will again flourish here as it did in the age of our ancestors, and our spring once more realize the descriptions of our elder poets.\”
After the so-called \”year without a summer,\” in 1816, that must have seemed a highly attractive prospect. Porden was writing at the end of the Little Ice Age (1550-1850), a period when increased glaciation brought colder temperatures and more extreme winters to the Northern Hemisphere.
Porden\’s interest in polar explorers eventually culminated in her marriage to a tragically famous one, Sir John Franklin. Porden herself died young of tuberculosis, in 1825, while her husband was journeying up Canada\’s Mackenzie River to reach the Arctic Ocean. Her role has traditionally been eclipsed by the second Lady Franklin, Jane Griffin, who became a prominent figure both during her husband\’s life and after his disappearance, when she sponsored a number of expeditions to find him. But researchers interested in connections between climate change then and now are beginning to see the first Lady Franklin as an important nexus point.
Adeline Johns-Putra, a scholar of Romantic literature at the University of Surrey who has spent the last year studying climate change\’s impact on the modern novel, says she returned to Porden with newly opened eyes. \”I had been interested in Eleanor Porden for a long time as a 19th-century woman with interests in science and history and poetry … who was trying all the time to bring these interests together,\” says Johns-Putra, who is writing a biography of Porden. \”But of course I\’ve noticed in the past year that Porden was interested in not just exploration but polar exploration … and I went back to \’The Arctic Expeditions,\’ and thought: \’Hold on, she\’s writing about climate change.\’\”
Johns-Putra cautions against drawing too close a line between our experience of climate now and Porden\’s poetic visions nearly 200 years ago, but the contrast is illuminating. Most jarringly, Porden sees global warming as a glorious thing: \”Porden thinks this is all very exciting and amazing, and she\’s connecting it with what polar explorers are doing: They\’re finding new worlds, our world is changing.\” Today, literature about climate change is much more likely to be dystopian fiction like Julie Bertagna\’s Exodus series. \”I think we\’re stuck in anxiety and guilt, and maybe that\’s a necessary phase to go through, so long as we go through it and then start thinking about what to do,\” says Johns-Putra.
The links between climate change then and now have sparked curiosity among other scholars of the early explorers and the coterie of writers and artists surrounding them. When Jen Hill, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada at Reno, published her 2008 book White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination (SUNY Press), she was interested in the Arctic as an \”empty\” space—not empty in fact, since it was populated by the native Inuit, who had lived there for millennia, but empty in the minds of British explorers and their supporters who treated it as a blank canvas for their own ideas of national conquest and superiority.
Over the past few years, fascinated by how global warming has forced people across the world to envision the shrinking Arctic landscape, Hill has grown interested in how climate itself functioned as an imaginary space. Her current project explores climate and global geography in the 19th century. Because of the polar explorers, \”popular writers are thinking through these things,\” she says, citing the historian J.A. Froude and the illustrator and translator William Morris as writers who draw on themes of climate in their arguments. \”They use the Arctic climate and the human experience of climate to talk about politics in a way that is sometimes marvelously similar to our own.\”
For Hill, the 19th-century writers offer a crucial reminder of how connected the world was to the Arctic then, and remains now, despite our sense of its physical distance. \”This space that is so easily dismissed because … it\’s so far from the experience of most of the population of the world, actually does remain central not only to the way we conceive of ourselves but actually experience where we live and our present moment,\” she says.
When Sir John Barrow was launching his polar voyages, he viewed them as a way to further Britain\’s naval, scientific, and economic glory. Canada, Norway, Russia, and the United States all saw the same potential for exploitation, and the race to the poles was a deeply nationalistic enterprise that has often been compared to the cold- war-era space race. With modern-day climate change at the poles opening up ever more navigable trade routes (including the long-imagined Northwest Passage), as well as potentially vast natural resources, nations with Arctic interest are also looking to take advantage. It\’s one place where warring claims of sovereignty are constantly at play. In 2007, for example, Russia sent two submarines to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to drop a titanium Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole, claiming the potential of billions of dollars in gas and oil reserves.
Like the Canadian foreign minister Peter McKay, who said at the time, \”This isn\’t the 15th century. You can\’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, \’We\’re claiming this territory,\’\” scholars of polar history saw Russia\’s action in a long line of symbolic power-grabs at the poles: \”old-school colonialism,\” as Hester Blum, an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University\’s main campus, puts it. \”The idea that you\’d plant a flag somewhere and just claim it seemed bizarre in this age and stage,\” she says.
Her interest in polar colonialism inspired her to write an article for this summer\’s issue of American Literature drawing on the 19th-century pseudoscientist John Cleves Symmes Jr., who believed the world was hollow and could be entered at the poles (an indirect source for Poe\’s Narrative). Symmes, Blum argues, had a concept of the pole\’s resources that wasn\’t limited either to the sort of colonialist grappling symbolized by Russia\’s flag-dropping or to the more adventurous notion of the pole embodied in explorers\’ narratives. \”The more we mine the poles or think of them just as a place for exploitation, we lose the ability to think of them imaginatively,\” says Blum.
The culture and literature of the early explorers has plenty to offer when it comes to broadening our understanding of the human effects of Arctic climate change. But scholars from more scientific fields have also looked back to the 19th- and early 20th-century explorers to gather concrete data on climate. Susan Solomon, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research scientist and ozone expert, used careful meteorological research to re-evaluate the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott\’s unsuccessful and fatal attempt to reach the South Pole in 1911-12 before the Norwegian Roald Amundsen did. Far from the bumbling Antarctic dilettante many had argued him to be, Scott simply had the bad fortune to hit some extreme conditions that Amundsen—again by luck—avoided, Solomon declared in her book The Coldest March (Yale University Press, 2001).
Other researchers are working from the opposite direction: using information from the past to build our knowledge of climate and temperature today. Susan Kaplan, an anthropologist and director of Bowdoin College\’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, and her colleague Genevieve LeMoine have been using logbooks, photographs, and archaeological data from the American explorer Robert Peary\’s Arctic expeditions to better understand how Peary and his colleagues interacted with and affected the local Inuit population. But they realized that Peary\’s logbooks included previously ignored, and very careful, tabulations of tide and temperature information.
\”Suddenly you stop and go, here is a whole detailed record that people have taken while they\’re in the Arctic, so these are really valuable records,\” Kaplan says. \”And putting them together and working with paleoclimate people, suddenly these records can start giving you insight into how variable was the climate, what were the average temperatures, and that just adds to the records from things like the Greenland ice core.\” Researchers have now used logbooks and other data from early expeditions to help build an observed record of climate change in the Arctic that dates to the mid-19th century, including temperature and sea-level measurements taken by explorers during the First International Polar Year of 1882-3, now compiled and analyzed by scientists with NOAA.
Kaplan points out, as have many scholars working on the history of polar exploration, that the native Inuit population is often shut out of today\’s conversation about sovereignty and climate, just as it was usually ignored or exploited in the original race to \”discover\” the Arctic. \”That\’s a component that is hugely important, both in terms of the history of arctic exploration,\” she says, \”but also in the contemporary world: … how [indigenous groups] are having to negotiate rapid culture change and climate change and now this international scramble for resources in their homeland.\” In the early 1800s, European explorers encountered indigenous people who had adapted and survived through the Little Ice Age (unlike, for example, the Viking tribes in Greenland); now native groups in the North must learn to adapt to climate change, and the geopolitical changes it brings.
The rest of the world has a lot to learn, too. Michael Robinson, a historian at the University of Hartford whose blog, Time to Eat the Dogs, often explores continuities between polar encounters past and present, says that one idea shared by 19th-century polar theorists and scientists today is \”that the polar regions held the key to a climatic system of the world, or, in other words, that the polar regions were the canary in the coal mine—an early-warning system of things to come.\” Along with that urgent sense of the absolute necessity of understanding the Arctic and Antarctic, their history also becomes more crucial; and the early explorers start to look less like far-off ghosts and much more like familiar versions of our own well-meaning but sometimes catastrophic adventures at the poles today.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.