Why going to Petermann? 1. Because we can

As promised, in the coming weeks, I will explain to you the reasons why we are going to Petermann Fjord in a month. The first reason for me is simply that it is feasible to go up there. It is not as obvious as it sounds! Nares Strait, through which we will sail, has been discovered hardly more than a century ago. In fact, polar oceans have long remained unexplored. Let me tell you more about this. Note that I have only selected some of the facts that I judged interesting – if you are looking for a detailed list of polar explorations, you’d better directly jump to the reference list!

Viking explorations towards Nares Strait (orange box), after archeurope.eu

Viking explorations towards Nares Strait (orange box), and useful map for the rest of this article. After archeurope.eu

There is evidence that the Vikings reached Ellesmere Island, but the documented and relentless exploration by Europeans of the waters leading to Petermann only started in the early 16th century. At first, it was mostly motivated by commercial reasons: the search for a fast trading route between Europe and Asia, avoiding the long and dangerous navigation around Africa. Records are somehow obscure, but only a few years after the (re)discovery of America, John Cabot is thought to have led the first attempt at finding a route between Greenland and Bering Strait (between Russia and Alaska) via the Canadian Arctic, aka the Northwest Passage.  Davis Strait, in south-west Greenland, was first sailed by British explorer John Davis in 1586. In his following expedition, he reached 72°N and Disko Bay.

The story stops there for a while for us. In the 17th century, ships tried avoiding sea ice as much as possible, so rather than going straight north from Davis Strait explorers turned west. James Munk sailed through Hudson Bay in 1619, and so did most of the following expeditions. Others tried going overland, or decided to start the exploration from the other side, from Bering Strait towards Greenland. The big north american rivers were tried too, thinking they may be channels between the Labrador Sea and the Arctic Ocean. That did not work as intended, but did lead to the foundation of New York and Montréal, among others. Meanwhile, industrial whaling started in Davis Strait in 1719. In fact, Greenland whaling started shortly after Barents’s discovery of Spitsbergen in 1596 and him reporting on the large number of whales there. But it’s only after disputes over hunting territories emerged between whaling nations and after the number of whales around Spitsbergen had dangerously decreased that whalers ventured further into the open seas.

Then came the 19th century. In both hemispheres, the poles became the last frontier left to explore. Furious races among countries started to be the first plant their national flag there (you can actually read more by me about the race to the South Pole here). The magnetic North Pole was reached by James Clark Ross (the same who discovered Antarctica’s Ross Sea) in 1831. Then in 1845, both ships from John Franklin’s expedition disappeared somewhere in the Canadian Arctic. One of them was finally found only a few months ago, but Franklin’s wife’s tireless efforts and lobbying to get other sailors to look for her husband led to decades of exploration of the region.

Nares Strait (where we need to sail through this summer) was discovered in 1876 by British explorer Sir George Strong Nares. Fun fact: he was also the first to sail through Suez Canal, in 1869.

Map of the Arctic by A.H. Petermann, 1865.

Map of the Arctic by A.H. Petermann, 1865.

As for Petermann Fjord, I actually couldn’t find who discovered it. It is named after a German cartographer, August Heinrich Petermann, who produced beautiful maps of the Arctic (even showing the currents!) and who actively promoted Arctic exploration, collecting funds for it.


Nansen’s Fram expedition of 1893-1896 probably is one of the most important for us oceanographers. Although Nansen failed at reaching the geographic North Pole (possibly done by Peary in 1908, but to date his account still is considered dubious), he and chief scientist Sverdrup (and later his PhD student Ekman) understood the response of the ocean to surface winds, one of the two drivers of the overall ocean circulation!

The quest for the Northwest Passage was finally over in 1903 thanks to Roald Amundsen (the one who will reach South Pole a few years later). But it is not because the area is now fully discovered and mapped that it becomes easy to access. In fact, polar regions remain so hard to reach that even nowadays we have to undergo very thorough medical tests before we go – because in case of an emergency, there is no way someone can come and help us. And of course, quite a lot of ice needs to be broken on our way.

As the video shows, even in September when there is the least sea ice of the whole year, Nares Strait is not ice-free. This is why we are going there with the ice breaker Oden, who can break through 2m while sailing at 0.3 knots. But I’ll tell you more about Oden’s and other icebreakers’ characteristics in a later post. If you are interested in the history of polar explorations, I can recommand these further readings:
– the Encyclopedia Arctica, and in particular its volume 14 about whaling and fisheries
– all the books by Jean Mallaurie, especially “Ultima Thule” that also highlights the link between Arctic exploration and native Greenland populations
– the excellent timeline on polardiscovery.whoi.edu which even includes submarines

Note that I’m exact to the best of my knowledge, but as interested as I am in history that is not my main topic. Let me know in the comments below if there is any error. In order to keep that blogpost relatively short, I have voluntarily omitted some elements which I found not vital to the story. If anyone knows who was the first person to reach Petermann fjord and when, I’m interested.


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