Circumnavigation of the Svalbard Archipelago ..by Ramdas Iyer
13.07.2014 - 23.07.2014
I had just put aside the compelling and thrilling book about the first US expedition of the Arctic in 1870 on the USS Jeanette written by Hampton Sides; a detailed narration of a failed expedition to the North pole that had the attention of the entire nation. Understanding the history of polar expeditions is very important so I have made an attempt here to condense several articles into a few lines. Polar regions were little understood by scientists during the Victorian era when major geographic explorations was a strategy to expand the Empire .Even though attempting to reach the North pole was fraught with danger many explorers repeatedly risked their lives to reach the lands of the frigid unknown. Interest in the northern polar regions started when the Turks conquered Constantinople around 1450 making it hard for Europeans to trade with the east. This event set about a string of explorations including those of Columbus( 1492) and Vasco De Gama (1497) to seek alternate routes to the east. During the Elizabethan era in Britain, the possibility of a northern passage to Asia was considered and since the early 1700s until the ultimate navigation of the Northwest passage in 1903 by Raold Amundsen( Norway) many attempts were made to discover the northern expanses. I could feel the frustration of pseudo scientists and brave explorers who tried to fathom this unmapped area, while reading the book mentioned above named "Into the Kingdom of Ice". Great explorers including Francis Drake, Captain James cook and Henry Hudson attempted to find this 900 mile passageway that sits a few hundred miles above the arctic circle, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific oceans. Once this was finally accomplished, the search for the North pole began by land based expeditions after crossing the 80th parallel. Robert Peary(USA) achieved this in 1909 setting out from Ellesmere Island in Canada.
As a recent traveler to the High arctic and a veteran of a previous Antarctic trip, I had been bitten again the polar bug. For a person raised in the tropics in Madras, India(13°00'23" N) my first experience with ice and snow was a blizzard that hit Minneapolis(44° 58' 48" N) in 1981, dumping over 30 inches of snow in the Twin Cities. Spending a weekend in the Twin Cities this early autumn(2014), I went into some serious conversations about global warming, rising oceans, interruptions in food production etc. which could culminate into a global crisis within this century with family members. What started as a blame game on burning fossil fuels ended with concern and doubt with the acceptance of the existence of periodic warming trends and mini ice-ages as evidenced by paleoclimatologists. These polar conversations naturally made me reflect on my recent crossing of the 80th parallel .It is the circle of latitude that is 80 degrees north of the Earth's equatorial plane, in the Arctic. It crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Asia, the Arctic Ocean and North America. Its importance is relevant to this article since crossing it by a passenger ship was impossible until 20 years ago (see last photograph of ice cap satellite imagery). The rapid melting of the arctic ice cap made this crossing possible during my recent circumnavigation of Spitsbergen island and the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway on the Russian vessel. Akademik Sergei Vavilov. The 80th was first crossed in 1596 by Dutch explorer William Barents, after whom the sea is named after.
As a geography and maps buff, I am a big fan of imaginary lines drawn on the globe. Having crossed the equator in Uganda and Ecuador, the tropic of Cancer in India, the Tropic of Capricorn in Australia, Namibia, Brazil and Botswana, the arctic circle in Alaska and Norway and of course the Antarctic circle in the Bellingshausen sea, reaching the next big imaginary line was the 80th Parallel.
The arctic oceans huge frozen landmass and sea ice extends 8.82 million sq miles in winter and drops down to 3.0 million sq miles in summer. There has been increasing evidence that this size is getting smaller during the past few years. As the ice cap melts, it remains as floating ice which shifts along with the currents and the winds. In oceanic travel the vagaries of shifting ice cannot be taken lightly . Our captain had indicated on the day of embarkation that circumnavigation may not be a possibility, due to sea ice blocking the meeting point of the Greenland Sea with the Arctic ocean around 78 deg N thus preventing access to the Barents Sea to complete our circumnavigation. The 60 odd passengers on board including myself were extremely disappointed for two reasons. First, a missed opportunity to cross the legendary latitude and second to miss the beautiful site of the permanent arctic ice cap about 50 feet thick, that extends all the way to the North pole about 550 miles away and beyond.
On the 7th day of our voyage, we were given the news that ice floes had shifted westwards and there was a two day window of opportunity to negotiate Moffen Island located at 80 Deg N. On July 21, 2014 at 10:10 PM I made this historic crossing. The expedition members served Bailey's on ice and all the passengers rejoiced to the blaring horns of the mighty ship. With a GPS locator on an Ipad placed on the bow of the ship, we took pictures of ourselves crossing a landmark only a few thousand have ever attempted.
Within a few minutes of reaching the apogee of our polar transit, the magnificent polar ice cap was visible a good 5 km away. To the uninitiated, it looked like a distant glacier, but a view from the bridge and as seen in my photographs, one could see the limitless expanse of ice that I am afraid will be nonexistent in summer over the next 50 years. With the possibility of the Northwest passage being open year round perhaps with three decades, one can imagine the industrial development around the polar regions which we all know ultimately leads to mining, pollution and blight.
Born in the rain forested region of Southern India(10.77 deg N) I had made it a point to visit some of the major rain forest eco systems in the world during the past 25 years. Little did I realize that the stark and majestic beauty of the polar regions would ultimately overwhelm my senses. My polar bug has indeed bitten me deep. In 2015, I am planning a trip from Nunavut/ Baffin Island area of the Canadian Arctic to the west coast of Greenland. The Davis strait that separates Canada from Greenland has some of the largest icebergs in the northern hemisphere. Another trip in the oven is to visit the distant south Georgia Islands in the Antarctic convergence while making another stab at Antarctica.
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