The human conquest of the polar regions
The great migrationThe oldest human traces in the polar regions have been found in the Arctic. This is not surprising since, even today, because of its location and land connection, the Arctic is much easier for people and animals to reach than Antarctica, which is surrounded by the Southern Ocean.
Nevertheless, Russian scientists were amazed in the summer of 2012 when they discovered the cadaver of a young bull mammoth preserved in permafrost on the steep shore of the Siberian Taymyr Peninsula, between the Kara and Laptev Seas, and determined that the animal had been slain by humans around 45,000 years ago. This was 10,000 years earlier than hunters were previously believed to have been present in the Arctic. According to detailed reconstructions, the prehistoric hunters had wounded the mammoth with spears in the shoulder, stomach, rib cage and trunk areas so severely that it eventually died. The technique of aiming a spear at the trunk of an elephant is still used by hunters in some parts of Africa today. It has proven to be very effective because vital arteries and veins are located in this part of the head. When these are damaged the animals will soon bleed to death.
The prehistoric Arctic hunters, however, did not stalk only mammoths. Near the Jana River, about 1700 kilometres to the east, scientists have found the remains of several bison and woolly rhinoceroses. They also discovered the bones of a wolf. These animals were slain by humans about 29,000 years ago. These two excavations prove that modern humans must have roamed extensively in the Siberian Arctic long before the onset of the last glacial period.
- This finding also sheds new light on our knowledge about the evolution and dispersal of modern man, Homo sapiens. Assuming, as some researchers do, that he left Africa, his continent of origin, for the first time only 65,000 to 50,000 years ago, only a few thousand years remained for the long and arduous migration to the north – a remarkable achievement.
Researchers today cannot say with any certainty how large the first hunting communities in the Siberian Arctic were. The hunters probably lived in small, roving groups at that time, advancing into areas north of the Arctic Circle during the summer, then retreating southward again with the onset of the cold season. Climate data from that period suggest that the average temperatures in the Arctic were somewhat less harsh than today. Nevertheless, people must have been able to sew warm clothes, build shelters and work together in groups. Otherwise they could hardly have survived the climatic conditions.
On their expeditions, the prehistoric hunters probably followed the banks of rivers, which were also followed by the animals of the steppes on their northward migrations. The animals found abundant grazing areas and water in the river valleys. The favourite prey of the early Arctic inhabitants were mammoths, reindeer and horses. Experts believe that it was the ability of the hunters to track the great mammals that made man’s advance into the Siberian Arctic possible in the first place.
After the end of the last glacial period, the inhabitants of the Siberian Arctic region learned to make more sophisticated tools and weapons. They began to fish in the lakes and rivers, to catch birds, and even to hunt whales and seals off the coast. They thus had sufficient food and were able to become sedentary, establish settlements and enlarge their family groups.
- 1.20 > The major migration routes of modern humans as they left North Africa to settle the Earth. The migrating groups left traces in the human genome, which enable researchers today to reconstruct their movements. Their findings indicate that North America was settled from Siberia in three waves – the first time 23,000 years ago.
The first AmericansA comparison of today’s Siberian coastline with the coastline at the time of the first Arctic hunters reveals distinct differences. At the peak of the last ice age around 21,000 years ago, global sea level was 123 metres lower than it is today. As a consequence, vast portions of the Siberian shelf seas as well as the area of today’s Bering Sea were dry at that time. The Arctic coastlines of Siberia and North America were located further to the north than they are today. Furthermore, a broad strip of land, called the Bering Land Bridge, connected East Siberia with Alaska.
This land bridge had an area about twice the size of the American state of Texas. It stretched from the Lena River Delta in the west to the Delta of the Mackenzie River in the east, and thus extended far beyond the area that we now recognize as the strait between Siberia and Alaska. The region was probably cold, dry, and ice-free – in stark contrast to North America and northern Europe, which were covered by two- to four-kilometre-thick ice sheets at this time.
From sediment cores taken from the bed of the Bering Sea, it is known that the vegetation of the Bering Land Bridge was remarkably diverse. Bushes similar to those found today in the Alaskan tundra grew in the region, as did nutritious grasses and wildflowers that were adapted to cooler temperatures – ideal conditions for grazing animals such as mammoths, bison, arctic camels and reindeer. The question of what vegetation grew on the land bridge and what wild animals were native there is of interest for an important reason: The bridge served as a transit route for animals and humans to the North American continent.
Exactly when and how the first people crossed the land bridge to North America is a subject of much scientific debate and continuing research. Archaeologists search for evidence of settlements, palaeogeneticists reconstruct the migration routes of people based on their genetic make-up, and biologists, geologists and climate researchers study the environmental conditions and landforms of the time. One contentious theory, for example, suggests that the first hunters and gatherers did not cross the land bridge in one single move, but actually lingered in the area for several thousand years because glaciers and ice sheets blocked their way into the new world. It is also unclear whether the first immigrants made their way along the coast or through an ice-free corridor between the ice sheets. Recent studies indicate that the overland route opened up 15,000 years ago.
- 1.21 > Photograph of an Inuit family printed in the National Geographic journal in June 1917. The accompanying text praises „the tenderness and sense of responsibility“ that the natives of the Arctic have in their dealings with their children.
- However, there is a general consensus that the first North Americans had Siberian ancestors who probably entered the area of the Bering Land Bridge (and here the debate is sparked anew) between 24,900 and 18,400 years ago. Then, about 16,000 years ago, the immigrants began to gradually settle the North American continent. Some of them migrated southward along the west coast and founded the well-known Clovis culture. Others settled in ice-free regions further inland. But none of these first Americans ventured to settle north of the Arctic Circle.
The first inhabitants of the North American Arctic arrived around 5000 years ago in a second migratory wave across the Bering Land Bridge, long after the large North American ice sheets had melted. Within a few hundred years, the people known as Palaeo-Eskimos had spread all the way to Greenland. They lived in small tent camps, hunted reindeer, musk oxen, seals and walruses with stone spears or knives, and had learned to freeze portions of their catch and store them in larder cellars or pits.
About 700 years ago, however, all traces of the Palaeo-Eskimos disappeared. The entire population became extinct. New immigrants from Siberia, called “neo-Eskimos”, the ancestors of the modern Inuit, came to North America with boats around 1000 years ago in the third migratory wave, and gradually displaced the long-established reindeer hunters. The newcomers lived in large, well-organized village communities. They used dog sledges, bow and arrows, and knew how to build boats out of whale bones and sealskins. With these they ventured out onto the Arctic Ocean to fish for whales, a strategy that provided them with new, abundant food sources and guaranteed their survival in the far north reaches.
Pursuing the musk oxenAround 4500 years ago, the prospect of better hunting probably motivated the Palaeo-Eskimos to cross the 30-kilometre-wide Nares Strait, a waterway between Greenland and Ellesmere Island in Canada. At that time, the Greenland Ice Sheet was somewhat smaller than it is today, so there were sufficient grazing lands for musk oxen and reindeer on its northern and eastern margins. Moreover, abundant ringed seals and harp seals lived in the fjords of the Greenland coast. The Palaeo-Eskimos, however, faced a difficult decision after landing on the inhospitable northwest coast of Greenland. They could either migrate southward along the coast and have to cross a 300-kilometre stretch of glacier-covered coastline in Melville Bay to reach the milder, greener areas of West Greenland, or they could follow the musk oxen northward to a region that was so cold that sea ice remained unmelted off the coast all year long, and where the sun remained hidden below the horizon for five months of the year.
The immigrants chose both options: Some of them moved south and founded the Saqqaq settlement in Disko Bay, whose population grew rapidly in the early centuries. The Saqqaq lived in comparatively large family groups, quickly settled all of the larger fjord systems and islands of West Greenland, and mainly hunted the caribou, harp seals, ringed seals and birds of the west coast. Archaeological digs in former Saqqaq settlements have uncovered the bones of 42 different animal species. Moreover, it is evident that the Saqqaq people dried meat and fish in order to maintain food supplies.
The Clovis culture is the oldest known culture in North America. It existed about 13,000 to 12,600 years ago across vast areas of North America. These people used stone tools, including spear points of chert with two-sided cutting edges. A number of these points were first discovered at an excavation in Clovis, New Mexico in the USA. The name is derived from this locality.
- The second group of immigrants chose the northern route. This tribe of Palaeo-Eskimos, known as Independence I, settled on the Peary Land peninsula, where they were confronted with much harsher living conditions than those encountered by their relatives in West Greenland. Moreover, around the time these first immigrants arrived the climate of Greenland began to cool even more. The tundra-like coastal areas in the north gradually transformed into polar deserts. During the summer months, the 100 to 200 pioneers lived in small family clans and set up widely dispersed tent camps, in order to avoid rapidly depleting the sparse food resources offered by the barren landscape and sea ice. Their primary game were musk oxen, caribou, seals and arctic foxes. In winter, however, the people moved back together to spend the colder months in a communal camp.
The tents of these Palaeo-Eskimos were round or oval in shape, and measured three to four metres in diameter. Every third tent or so had a fireplace built of stacked stones. This “stove” in the middle of the tent served as a cooking station, a heating oven and the only source of light, especially during the cold and dark winter months. These inhabitants of the far north heated with what little driftwood was washed up, or with the bones and fat of slain land and sea mammals. The Saqqaq in the west, on the other hand, had sufficient driftwood, allowing them to make larger fires more often and thus heat fist-sized stones. The stones were used not only to heat the areas away from the fireplace, the hunters also used them to cook their meat and fish, because the Palaeo-Eskimos had no pots or other cooking utensils.
The Saqqaq occupied West Greenland over a period of almost 2000 years (from around 2400 to 800 BC). Their neighbours on the Peary Land peninsula, on the other hand, must have given up after just a few generations. Their traces ended about 3750 years ago.
Arrival of the VikingsThe settlement of northern Europe probably began at the end of the last glacial period. It only became possible for people to advance northward after the large ice sheets had melted around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. The hunters and gatherers thus migrated from central Europe along the coastline of Scandinavia and into the Arctic region around 10,000 years ago. Stone-age people only settled further inland away from the coasts after the growth of forests there which provided sufficient wood and food sources. In the area that is Finland today, the forests were birch, while in Norway coniferous trees predominated.
From Scandinavia and the British Isles, Nordic sailors then colonized Iceland thousands of years later. According to historical sources, the Vikings landed on the island between 870 and 930 and permanently changed its appearance: in one way by bringing plants and animals from their former homeland, and in another by beginning within a few decades of their arrival to clear the forests of Iceland to let their sheep graze in the highlands.
From Iceland, in the early 980s, the Viking Erik the Red explored the south coast of Greenland. Then, in 985, he set sail with a fleet of 25 ships with the aim of establishing a settlement in Greenland. The seafarers landed in the southern part of West Greenland and founded three settlements, where they mainly lived as cattle and dairy farmers. At that time the climate of Greenland was under the influence of the Medieval Warm Period. The temperatures were similar to today’s conditions, so that agriculture was possible to some extent. But the settlers did not depend on their cattle alone. In the early summer they fished for cod, which they preserved by drying (stockfish), and in autumn they hunted reindeer and birds. In addition, the Vikings traded in walrus and narwhal ivory, and explored North America with the aim of obtaining wood there, which was not plentiful enough in Greenland.
At the height of the Viking settlements in Greenland (1300–1350 AD), an estimated 200 farms were inhabited by around 5000 people, although this figure has been disputed. There may well have been fewer than 5000 settlers.
Beginning around the early 14th century, climatic conditions began to worsen. The average temperature dropped by one degree Celsius. Expanding sea ice and increased frequency of storms made it difficult to travel by ship to Iceland and across the North Atlantic. The summer growing season became shorter, and animals that preferred warmer temperatures migrated to the south. Instead of cattle, the Greenland farmers now kept sheep and goats. However, since these did not provide enough meat, the Vikings became increasingly reliant on marine mammals. They hunted bearded, harp, hooded and harbour seals in the open waters. However, they were far less successful at this than the Thule, or proto-Inuit, who had inhabited Ellesmere Island and North Greenland since about 900 AD, and who had learned to lie in wait for ringed seals on the pack ice and kill them using a refined harpooning technique. When the ivory trade with Europe collapsed soon thereafter, the descendants of the Vikings gave up. The last family left Greenland in 1411.
The Age of DiscoverySoon after the Vikings withdrew from Greenland, an era of exploratory voyages to the far north began in Europe. Some of these expeditions were aimed at opening up new areas for whaling and seal hunting. However, most of them served only a single purpose: to discover an open sea route to Asia. Near the end of the 15th century, no merchant ship was allowed to use the southern sea route to India or China without Spanish or Portuguese permission. These two major powers had divided the world between themselves in 1494 with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which gave them control of the shipping routes across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. For other emerging seafaring nations, such as England and Holland, the only alternative was to sail through Arctic waters if they wanted unchallenged trade with China and India. The conditions for finding a navigable route through the Northeast or Northwest Passage, however, could not have been more challenging – the few existing maps of the Arctic region contained gross inaccuracies.
First maps of the polar regionsMany coastal areas of the Arctic have been known and populated for thousands of years. However, around the year 1450 hardly anything was known in Europe about the areas north of Scandinavia. Svalbard, for example, was still undiscovered at that time. What surprises did the regions of the high north hold? Were there perhaps unknown continents waiting to be discovered? Did the pack ice really extend beyond the horizon, or was there, as some had speculated, an ice-free Arctic Ocean?
One of the first maps of the north polar region, drawn by cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594) and published after his death in 1595, shows four large islands in the Arctic Basin, separated only by narrow waterways. Only two years later their existence was cast into doubt by the Dutch seafarer and discoverer of Spitsbergen, Willem Barents. But the idea of an ice-free polar sea persisted for much longer. As late as 1773, two British ships under the commands of Constantine J. Phipps and Skeffington Lutwidge attempted to sail via Spitsbergen to the North Pole – with the firm conviction that the Arctic Ocean must be navigable. Pack ice halted their progress at 81 degrees north latitude.
- 1.23 > Shortly before his death, the cartographer Gerardus Mercator drew the Arctic Ocean as a sea with four large islands in the centre. However, the accuracy of this portrayal was questioned soon after the map was published in 1595.
- In contrast to the Arctic, Antarctica was just a theoretical concept in ancient times. The Greeks were convinced of its existence because the world would otherwise be in a state of disequilibrium. In their classical climate-zone model, they assumed that a cold, uninhabitable zone could not exist only in the north, but to satisfy the mass balance of the Earth there must be a corresponding similar zone located in the south.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian Church forbade the idea of a spherical Earth with an icy counterweight at the South Pole. Instead, the Church held the belief that the Earth was a flat disk. A circular map from that time shows the known continents of Asia, Europe and Africa surrounded by a ring-shaped ocean. Beyond this ocean, the Spanish Benedictine monk Beatus of Liébana (circa 730–798) introduced a new unknown continent to the south, with the notation: “Desertta tterra ... incognita nobis”.
- 1.24 > Turkish admiral Piri Reis’ nautical chart of 1513. There is disagreement as to whether it only shows the coastline of South America or also parts of Antarctica.
- The southern continent appeared on a world map for the first time in 1508. The Italian Francesco Rosselli drew it in his representation of the Earth. The first known geographical information about Antarctica is seen on the famous Ottoman map drawn by Piri Reis and dating from 1513, although the origins of this information are not known. Some experts suggest that the map shows actual features, including the sub-Antarctic islands south of Tierra del Fuego and islands in an ice-free western region of Queen Maud Land.
During the next two centuries, the still-hypothetical southern landmass became an entrenched feature of maps – usually under the name of Terra Australis Incognita, which awakened images of wealth and prosperity in many Europeans. According to popular legend, the mysterious southern continent promised gold and other rewards to its discoverers. This myth faded, however, when the English explorer and navigator James Cook (1728–1779) sailed around Antarctica for the first time on his second circumnavigation of the Earth (1772–1775), crossing the Antarctic Circle at three points without sighting land. At 71 degrees south latitude he had to turn back because of heavy ice. The explorer concluded that the presumed continent must lie further to the south, and was thus probably hostile and useless. With the Latin expression “nec plus ultra” (to this point and no further) Cook destroyed the legend of a southern land of riches.
New routes to India and ChinaIn the Arctic, the race to traverse the Northeast and Northwest Passages was well under way. The Italian Giovanni Caboto (English name: John Cabot) led the first exploratory voyage in search of a route along the northern coast of America. He was convinced that the shortest passage between India and Europe would be found in the far north, and in 1497 he encountered the North American continent at the latitude of Labrador on an expedition financed by England. His son Sebastiano Caboto, together with his two associates Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor, founded the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands in 1551 to generate funds for the search for a Northeast Passage. The major motivation of the three businessmen was the prospect of new trade relations with Russia and China rather than the possible discovery of previously unknown regions.
In 1553, on their first Arctic expedition with three ships, Hugh Willoughby and his crew froze to death, but Richard Chancellor reached the White Sea and was invited to Moscow for an audience with the Russian Tsar. There, the Englishman obtained special trade concessions. Subsequent attempts by the trading company to advance further eastward by sea, however, all ended on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, which was first visited by an expedition of the company in 1553. Later, the first explorer to travel beyond this point was the Dutchman Willem Barents, after whom the Barents Sea is named.
Bering – “Columbus of the Tsars”Vitus Bering (1681–1741) had spent eight years at sea as a ship’s boy before joining the Russian navy in 1703 as a second lieutenant. There he advanced quickly through the ranks, and near the end of 1724 Peter the Great commissioned him to explore the eastern part of the Russian Empire. At that time Siberia was still largely unexplored, and the Tsar wanted to know what mineral resources could be found in the region, which indigenous peoples lived there, where the borders of the Russian Empire were, and whether there was a land connection between Siberia and North America. Furthermore, there were rumours that the Cossack leader Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnev had already sailed around the eastern tip of Siberia in 1648 and was thus the first to pass through the strait later named after Bering. There was considerable doubt at the time, however, that these reports were true. The Tsar therefore wanted to be sure.
Vitus Bering and his expedition with 33 men set off on the First Kamchatka Expedition in 1725, which did not take them across the sea but over land. After two years of gruelling marches over mountains and rivers, through seemingly endless steppes and swamps, their trek ended in Okhotsk where the men built a small ship. With it, Bering crossed over to Kamchatka. He then crossed to the east coast of the peninsula and had another ship built there in 1728. With it he set off on 14 July 1728 and sailed northward along the east coast of Siberia. Almost four weeks later, on 13 August 1728, he sailed through the strait between America and Asia that is now named after him. There was no trace of a land connection between Asia and America. When the ship was above the Arctic Circle at 67 degrees north latitude, Bering gave the order to turn back. He was now convinced that America and Asia were two separate, unconnected continents.
However, because Bering had not seen the American coast with his own eyes due to thick fog, his reports were questioned in Saint Petersburg. The royal house wanted more scientific facts and gave Bering a second chance. The Second Kamchatka Expedition (Great Northern Expedition, 1733–1743), which he commanded, was intended to eclipse all previous voyages of discovery. Bering commanded an expeditionary team of 10,000 men, subdivided into several individual expeditions, to survey the northern coasts of Siberia and the Pacific, and to scientifically study the expanses of Siberia. Bering himself was commissioned to locate and map the west coast of North America.
- After years of research work crossing through Siberia, Bering set sail in 1741 from Kamchatka with two ships heading south-eastward. He held this course until 46 degrees latitude, because he wanted to discover the legendary island of Gamaland with the streets of gold that were supposed to be found there.
Bering and Aleksei Ilyich Chirikov, the captain of the second ship, confirmed that the island was a fantasy that existed only in the imagination of seamen. The ships then changed course to the northeast to sail toward North America. But during a storm the two ships lost contact with one another. Chirikov subsequently discovered several Aleutian Islands and then, due to a dwindling supply of drinking water he turned and set a course for home. Vitus Bering continued to sail the St. Peter into the Gulf of Alaska. There he discovered land in July 1741. He had found North America, which earned him the nickname “Columbus of the Tsars”, and he continued to sail along the coast to map its course.
The ship then set out for the return voyage to Kamchatka. However, due to bad weather, lack of food and navigation errors, this did not go as planned. The ship beached on an uninhabited island, today known as Bering Island, where the extremely weakened expedition leader died of scurvy on 19 December 1741 at the age of 60. A total of 46 members of his crew survived the winter. In the spring they built a small sailing ship from the wreckage of the St. Peter and made it back to Kamchatka, from whence, in the meantime, a search party led by Aleksei Chirikov had already set out.
A more complete exploration of the northwest coast of North America was accomplished in 1778 by the English circumnavigator James Cook. On his third and last major voyage, Cook reached the Bering Strait and mapped the coast of Alaska to 70 degrees north as well as the Chukchi Peninsula. The last large voids on the map of the SiberianArctic coast were filled in by the Baltic German officer of the Russian navy, Ferdinand von Wrangel. In 1820, he and his followers began exploring the northern coast of East Siberia from land, using dog sledges, and mapping all of the coastal features. In this way, during his four-year expedition, Wrangel filled the remaining cartographic gap between the mouth of the Kolyma River in Eastern Siberia and the Bering Strait.
- 1.25 > The Danish explorer Vitus Bering drew this map on his First Kamchatka Expedition (1725–1730). After his return, the Russian Imperial Court requested further scientific facts from Bering proving that Asia and North America were separate continents. Bering therefore undertook the Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733–1743).
- The first complete crossing through the Northeast Passage, however, was achieved by the Swede Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832–1901) between 1878 and 1879. The polar explorer had already made a name for himself by exploring Spitsbergen and Greenland, and it took three attempts before he was able to realize his dream of a successful passage. On the first two attempts he made it to the mouth of the Yenisei River, and on his return from the second voyage he became the first traveller to transport commercial goods from Asia back to Europe via the northern sea route. On his third voyage, which began on 4 July 1878 in Gothenburg, he headed toward the Yenisei with four ships. Upon arriving at the estuary, he continued eastward with two ships and mapped the coast as far as Cape Chelyuskin on the Taymyr Peninsula, the northernmost point of mainland Asia. He then sent the companion ship Lena back with a message of success, but he himself continued heading eastward with his steam-powered vessel Vega, and was able to sail along the northern coast of Siberia before the onset of winter. However, a mere 115 nautical miles from his destination of the Bering Strait, the ship became frozen in the ice.
Nordenskiöld and his men were trapped on the Chukchi Peninsula and forced to spend the winter there. About 300 days later, on 18 July 1879, the ice finally released the Vega again.
Nordenskiöld then sailed through the Bering Strait to Japan. Because the news of the successful voyage had spread like wildfire around the world, his journey home from there was a triumphant one, taking him through the Suez Canal, which was only ten years old at the time.
A shorter route to Australia?The counterpart to the Northeast Passage, the approximately 5780-kilometre-long Northwest Passage, was first completely traversed 26 years after Nordenskiöld’s triumph. After the pioneering expeditions by English and Portuguese explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were no notable ship expeditions to this area for the next 200 years. This lack of interest was partly due to the discovery of Lancaster Sound and the Hudson Bay during previous voyages, regions that promised enormous profits for the fur trade due to their great biodiversity. Other potential explorers were distracted by the gold rush in North America.
The desire to find a sea route along the North American Arctic coast was revived only after it became known that the Arctic Ocean was indeed continuous along the northern margin of the continent. Hunters and fur traders had confirmed this by following the Mackenzie and Coppermine Rivers to their mouths. But before a ship could undertake this dangerous voyage three things had to be determined. First of all, there was no known western outlet from Baffin Bay. Secondly, the entryway into the Northwest Passage from the Pacific was not yet known. The Englishman James Cook had advanced into the Bering Strait to 70° 44' North on his third world voyage in 1778, before being blocked by a “12-foot-high wall of ice” to the north of Icy Cape. However, it was completely unknown how the coastline continued beyond that. Thirdly, no one knew whether there would be a navigable sea route through the island maze of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to the east.
In order to fill these white patches on the map with information, a number of ship and land expeditions to the North American Arctic were undertaken during the first half of the 19th century. The British captain Frederick William Beechey explored the north coast of Alaska from Icy Cape to Point Barrow. The British explorer John Franklin (1786–1847), working on land, mapped the coast around the Mackenzie and Coppermine River Deltas during his first expedition (1825–1827).
An expedition led by John Ross sought to explore the missing area between Melville Island in the east and Franklin’s mapping to the west. In the process, Ross’ nephew James Clark Ross discovered the magnetic pole of the northern hemisphere in 1831.
Death in the island mazeFor the third and ultimate task, the search for a way through the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the British admiralty selected a man with previous Arctic experience. In February 1845 they commissioned the polar explorer John Franklin, who had meanwhile been promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, to find the Northwest Passage. He was to sail with two ships around Greenland through the well-known Baffin Bay, and find a western branch that was believed to exist. The army provided the expedition leader with the two ships best suited for ice at the time: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, two converted warships whose bows were reinforced with copper and iron to protect the wooden hulls. Both of the three-masters were equipped with a 25-HP steam engine, which drove a ship’s propeller so that the expedition could continue to advance during periods of low wind. In addition, pipes were installed in the ships through which hot water could be pumped to heat the rooms on board. With a crew of 67 men on each ship and provisions for three years, they set sail from London on 19 May 1845.
In the Disko Bay of West Greenland, the crews divided supplies from a third escort ship between the two expedition ships, and set a course for Lancaster Sound, a strait between Baffin Island and Devon Island. After that, they were sighted twice by whalers. Then John Franklin and his men disappeared into the hostile labyrinth of islands, pack ice and rocky coasts, which was largely uncharted at the time.
More than 40 search missions were carried out in the years that followed to determine the fate of the two expedition ships and their crews. In the process, the search parties also made important geographical discoveries and completed Franklin’s mission. Finally, in April 1853, two search teams coming from different directions – one led by Robert McClure, the other by Henry Kellett – met in Mercy Bay on the northern end of Banks Island, proving for the first time that the Northwest Passage truly existed.
The first traces of the Franklin expedition had already been found by search teams. In August 1850, shreds of clothing on Devon Island and three graves on Beechey Island were discovered. Four years later, Inuit in Pelly Bay on the Boothia Peninsula reported to the Arctic explorer and physician John Rae about white sailors who had starved to death some distance to the west. In May 1859, another search team, on the west coast of King William Island, discovered a stone marker hiding an expedition report by the ship’s crew. The remains of the two ships were discovered in 2014 and 2016. HMS Terror lay on the bottom beneath 24 metres of water in a bay on King William Island. According to reports, the three-master is in such good condition that it would float if it were raised and the water pumped out.
It was more than 50 years after Franklin’s disappearance before the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (born 1872, disappeared 1928) became the first to succeed in travers- ing fully through the Northwest Passage with a ship. But he too was not able to complete the passage within a single year. It took Amundsen a total of three years with his vessel Gjøa (1903–1906). He was forced to wait out the winter more than once due to ice conditions. The severe winter ice conditions in the Northwest Passage were also the reason this route did not become a time-saving alternative to the shipping route through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean. With the state of ship technology at that time, the route could not be navigated without spending at least one winter waiting for the ice to recede.
Thirst for knowledge replaces commercial interestAfter it had been demonstrated that there was little point in sending merchant ships to Asia and Australia via the Northeast or Northwest Passage, the economic motivation for continued exploration of the North Polar region dissolved. In its place, however, scientific interest in the region increased. Driven by the desire for a more complete knowledge of all earthly realms, many countries intensified their research efforts in the polar regions.
In Germany, the geographer and cartographer August Heinrich Petermann (1822–1878) promoted research in one way by establishing the scientific journal Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen in 1855. In it he published numerous articles and maps on polar research, thus providing scientists with an instrument for sharing their research. In addition, Petermann advocated hypotheses that gave new directions to Arctic polar research at the time. On the one hand, he argued, the Arctic Ocean could not freeze completely over even in winter due to a warm ocean current from the south, an extension of the Gulf Stream, and that an ice-free and navigable Arctic Ocean would be found to the north of the belt of drifting pack ice. Furthermore, he postulated that Greenland, which was still largely unexplored at the time, extended across the Pole to as far as Wrangel Island.
In 1868 Petermann succeeded in initiating the first German North Polar Expedition, led by Carl Christian Koldewey (1837–1908). On board the ship Grönland the expedition team was to survey the east coast of Greenland up to 75 degrees north latitude. But the plan did not succeed. Pack ice blocked the ship’s path, so Koldewey and his crew changed course and sailed to Spitsbergen. There they carried out meteorological and hydrographic measurements, confirming that a branch of the Gulf Stream carried Atlantic water masses along the west coast of Spitsbergen toward the Arctic.
- A second German North Polar Expedition (1869–1870) planned by Petermann also partially failed – due in part to the fact that one of the ships was crushed by the ice. And it was not the last voyage of discovery that would not fully achieve its objective. For example, the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition (1872–1874) led by Carl Weyprecht (1838–1881), which set out to investigate the Arctic Sea north of Siberia, did discover Franz Josef Land but, contrary to plan, the party was forced to spend the winter and later to abandon the ship. Weyprecht, however, learned a lesson from the journey, and based on this experience he developed his basic principles of Arctic research. In his opinion, polar research was only worthwhile if it conformed to his six principles:
- Arctic research is of the utmost importance to understand natural laws.
- Geographical discoveries in these areas are only of major importance insofar as they pave the way for scientific research in its strict sense.
- The detailed topography of the Arctic is of secondary importance.
- The geographic pole is not of particularly greater scientific importance than any other location at high latitude.
- Regardless of their latitude, observation stations are more advantageous the more intensively the phenomena for which the study is designed occur at the given site.
- Individual observation series are of greater relative importance.
- Weyprecht’s approach was immediately well received by the research community. It would help to avoid additional costly and less efficient expeditions. He also worked closely with Georg von Neumayer (1826–1909), the director of the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg, on the first international Arctic measurement campaign. Their basic idea of “research stations instead of research voyages” remains one of the cornerstones of modern polar research, emphasising the importance of continuous long-term measurements rather than detailed isolated studies.
Neumayer and Weyprecht’s campaign led to the foundation of the first International Polar Commission in 1879, which was chaired by Neumayer. The Commission organized the first International Polar Year (summer of 1882 to summer of 1883), during which eleven countries established a network of twelve meteorological and geomagnetic stations in the Arctic (Russia operated two stations). Two additional stations were set up in the Antarctic. However, to the detriment of science, only the individual results of each of the participating countries were published. An all-inclusive overview, in which all weather data were summarized in monthly maps of air pressure and air temperature, did not appear until 1902 – and then only as a dissertation that received little attention instead of being published as a scientific article in a widely read professional journal.
Drifting toward the North PoleThe First International Polar Year was soon followed by a new era of polar research, in which individual initiative and a desire for knowledge became the primary motivating factors for scientific exploration. In 1888, the Norwegian zoologist Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) became the first to cross Greenland, proving that it was covered by a continuous ice sheet from the east to the west coast. Soon thereafter the German geographer and glacier researcher Erich von Drygalski (1865–1949) spent a winter on the west coast of Greenland, primarily to study the movements of small local glaciers and large inland ice flows, but also taking meteorological measurements and collecting biological specimens.
Achieving the next scientific milestone required an investigative instinct and a spirit of adventure. In 1884, Fridtjof Nansen, who had crossed Greenland, learned from a newspaper article that Inuit on the southwest coast of Greenland had found pieces of a ship that had sunk three years earlier north of the Siberian islands 2900 sea miles away. This discovery sparked Nansen’s interest. He had a research vessel built with a hull shape that could not be crushed by the pack ice, called it Fram and, on 22 September 1893, allowed himself and the ship to be trapped in sea ice off the New Siberian Islands. Locked in the ice, the ship and crew drifted between the Siberian coast and the North Pole for months, travelling hundreds of nautical miles. The ice constantly changed direction, sometimes carrying them northward and then southward again. Although they were able to take many depth soundings of the Arctic Ocean, the men were concerned that they were not making any forward progress. Moreover, the moving ice did not take them as far to the north as Nansen had hoped. Thick pack ice blocked their path.
Transpolar Drift is a wind-driven ice flow and surface-water current in the Eurasian part of the Arctic Ocean. It transports large volumes of Arctic sea ice from the shelf seas off the Siberian coasts across the North Pole toward the east coast of Greenland, where the ice floes generally enter the North Atlantic and melt after one or two years.
- The Fram reached its most northward position (85° 57' North) on 16 October 1895. By this time, however, Nansen and his companion Hjalmar Johansen had already left the ship and set off for the North Pole on sledges, skis and kayaks. They did not make it very far on this solitary journey, however. The constantly shifting pack ice finally forced the two men to return to Franz Josef Land, where they spent the winter in a shelter made of stones. The following spring, the two explorers saw no other way out of their predicament than to head for home by kayak towards Spitsbergen. Fortunately, their kayak trip ended prematurely at Northbrook Island, which is also part of Franz Josef Land. By chance Nansen and Johansen met a British expedition under the leadership of Frederick George Jackson there, who rescued them and brought them back to Norway. Around the same time, northwest of Spitsbergen, the sea ice released Nansen’s ship. On 9 September 1886, Captain Otto Sverdrup sailed the Fram back to its home port of Oslo, bringing with him valuable measurements from a region where no one before them had ever been.
Even though Nansen did not reach his desired destination of the North Pole, the scientific findings were still of great importance. For one, Nansen’s expedition put to rest the long-debated theory of an ice-free Arctic Ocean. Secondly, his positional data confirmed the existence of the Transpolar Drift. Thirdly, the sounding data documented the depth of the Arctic Basin and proved that the offshore islands were part of the continents. Furthermore, the Norwegian found that the drift direction of the ice was never exactly parallel to the wind direction, rather the ice floes veered slightly to the right, a phenomenon which, in his opinion, was due to the rotational movement of the Earth (Coriolis Effect). Today we know that this assumption was correct.
In pursuit of seals in the southWhile the north polar region had been extensively explored by the end of the 19th century, the southern polar region remained an empty patch on the map for many years after. The reason for this was basically a lack of interest. After James Cook had turned back in frustration, another 40 years passed before the next expedition ventured into the deep southern realm. Between 1819 and 1821, the Baltic German captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen had circumnavigated the southern continent during a Russian Antarctic scientific expedition and encountered land in two different places. He discovered the present-day Princess Martha Coast, which borders the Weddell Sea, and two islands in the Bellingshausen Sea, which was named after him.
It was his belief that the mythical southern land was a large continent inhabited only by whales, seals and penguins, and was therefore useless in a geostrategic sense. British whalers and seal hunters who learned of Bellingshausen’s reports, on the other hand, applying their good business sense, launched their first fishing expeditions to the south in the 1820s and 1830s. According to reports, they wiped out large seal populations within just a few years. One of these men was the mariner and seal hunter James Weddell, who sailed three times into the southern polar region. On his third voyage he had only modest hunting success, but the ice conditions were so favourable that his ship was able to penetrate as far as 74° 15' South and 34° 17' West into the marine area that bears his name today, the Weddell Sea.
The crews of the fishing vessels not only knew how to hunt and fish, they also carried out geographical surveys and mapped newly discovered islands and stretches of coastline. From the beginning of the 1890s surgeons accompanied the whalers and carried out further biological and hydrographic research. All of this mapping and surveying, however, yielded only limited and isolated results, for as long as the whalers and seal hunters could fill their ships’ coffers with furs, fat and oil on the Antarctic Peninsula and in other regions north of the Antarctic Circle, they had no need to sail further south for exploration purposes
The search for the South Magnetic PoleRelatively early, in contrast to the whalers and seal hunters, scientists sought to venture far beyond the Antarctic Circle. As early as 1836, the German natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) had given Antarctic research a new impetus by suggesting to the President of the Royal Society in London that simultaneous measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field should be carried out in both the northern and southern hemispheres – from the equator to the poles – using the same instruments. Humboldt had supported the founding of the Göttingen Magnetic Society, a working group whose goal was to carry out simultaneous geomagnetic observations worldwide and which soon included 50 observatories.
Humboldt’s proposal prompted an international race to locate the South Magnetic Pole, which became known as the Magnetic Crusade and during which many new regions of East Antarctica were discovered. The French polar explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, for example, claimed the territory of Adélie Land not far from the presumed magnetic pole and extending to the coast, where the French research station Dumont d’Urville, named in his honour, is located today. In 1840, the American Charles Wilkes sailed with his ship along the 2000-kilometre coastline of what is today Wilkes Land. Just a few months later the Englishman James Clark Ross set a new record by crossing the line of 78 degrees latitude during his search for the magnetic pole in an unexplored marine region now called the Ross Sea.
On this voyage (1839–1843) Ross not only determined the position of the South Magnetic Pole, which, according to his measurements, lay at 75° 05' South and 154° 08' East, he also discovered the edge of the immense Ross Ice Shelf (later named after him), Victoria Land, and an island with two majestic volcanoes, which he named after his two ships: Erebus and Terror. Today, unsurprisingly, the island is named Ross Island.
A matter of national interestAfter Ross’s successful voyages, scientific interest in Antarctica waned. There was a lack of motivation and funds to organize expensive research expeditions to the southern polar region. But there were two exceptions. In 1874, the transit of Venus provided an opportunity to refine measurements of the distance from the Earth to the sun (the astronomical unit). To take advantage of this, England, Germany and the USA set up astronomical observatories on the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Eight years later, on the occasion of the First International Polar Year, Georg von Neumayer had an observatory constructed in South Georgia to observe the second transit of Venus during the 19th century. But the primary functions of the station were for weather observations and measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field.
The enthusiasm of polar explorers was finally revived shortly before the turn of the century. In 1895, the initial impetus was given by the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London. There, leading scientists proposed the exploration of the still unknown Antarctic region as the ultimate challenge of the late 19th century. At that time, no one could say with certainty whether Antarctica was a continent covered with ice or a gigantic atoll with an ice-covered sea at its centre, which – as in the Arctic – could even be traversed.
This was the motivation for the Belgica Expedition (1897–1899), led by the rather inexperienced Belgian polar explorer Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery. For the first time, men spent the winter in the Antarctic pack ice, albeit involuntarily because they did not leave soon enough. Meanwhile, English and German researchers planned a number of major expeditions and divided Antarctica into four equal quadrants. The German area was in the Weddell Sea and the Enderby region, while the English wanted to concentrate on the Victoria and Ross quadrants. In addition, the polar researchers agreed to carry out simultaneous meteorological and magnetic measurements in order to compare the data and thus systematically investigate Antarctica according to Weyprecht’s principles.
- 1.28 > In March 1902, during the first German South Polar Expedition, the German polar research vessel Gauß was immobilized by sea ice. Expedition leader Erich von Drygalski had tents and measurement instruments set up on the ice so that daily research could be carried out.
- This close scientific cooperation between Germany and England was remarkable, considering that the two countries were engaged in intense economic competition. The era of colonial imperialism had begun, and international competition for markets and resources had intensified. Germany, as an emerging naval power, desired more international influence and prominence, and the United Kingdom wanted to maintain its hold on these. For this reason, the governments of both countries strongly supported the plans of their scientists. Antarctic research was regarded as a national duty and a cultural mission, the accomplishment of which promised merit and benefit. After prolonged pleading by the scientists, both countries provided state funds – but only for their own expeditions.
Scientific results from the five research cruises, in which ships from Sweden, Scotland and France also ultimately took part, were impressive: All the expeditions encountered new territory. Furthermore, it was now certain that Antarctica was a continent and not an atoll. Based on atmospheric pressure measurements the researchers were able to draw inferences regarding the elevation of the ice-covered land masses. According to these, Antarctica has an average elevation of 2000 metres, ± 200 metres.
However, after the scientists returned, fame and honour were bestowed only on the English. In Germany, both the Kaiser and the public viewed the results of the first German South Polar expedition (1901–1903) as disgraceful because the ship, under the scientific direction of Erich von Drygalski, became trapped in ice near the Antarctic Circle, and the scientists were not able to advance as far south as the British expedition under Robert Falcon Scott. In politically charged Berlin at that time, the traditional view still prevailed that the sole purpose of geographical research was to remove white patches from the map or to reach the pole. The value of the meteorological, magnetic, oceanographic and biological data that Drygalski had collected during his expedition was not greatly appreciated at the time. Yet the analyses took three decades and yielded substantial results. Results from the biological collection alone ultimately filled a total of 13 volumes instead of the three volumes that were originally foreseen, and these are still gaining in importance today in the light of modern biodiversity research.
The tragic races to the polesThe turn of the century also marked the beginning of the phase of polar research that has probably been the subject of most books up to now – the era of heroes and tragic losers in the competition for the most spectacular expedition, or for the title “First Man at the North or South Pole”. In contrast to the state-organized Antarctic trips from 1901 to 1905, individualists were once again cast into a leading role. This generation of explorers, scientists and adventurers demanded the ultimate physical commitment from themselves and their companions. They were not always well prepared for their journeys, but they were prepared to take enormous risks for fame and honour – a heroic mentality that ultimately led to the deaths of many people, and made experienced polar explorers sceptical of the wisdom of such endeavours.
Fridtjof Nansen, for example, after the failed Spitsbergen expedition by the German officer Herbert Schröder-Stranz in 1912, deeply regretted that he had not been able to prevent the tragedy. He is quoted as saying, “If these people had just had a little experience in ice and snow all this misery could easily have been avoided! Travel to those regions truly entails enough difficulties without having to amplify them with inadequate equipment and an excess of ignorance”.
The East Prussian Herbert Schröder-Stranz had sailed to Spitsbergen in August 1912 to obtain polar experience for his planned Northeast Passage crossing. But on Spitsbergen, or more precisely on Nordostland, the second largest island, on the northeast side of the archipelago, he and three of his companions disappeared when they tried to cross the island by dog sledge. A few days later Schröder-Stranz’s ship was surrounded by pack ice in the Sorge Bay, and some crew members decided to set off on foot towards the next settlement. This decision also turned out to be a tragic mistake. In the end only seven of the original 15 expedition members survived.
The race to the South Pole, as played out by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the British Robert Falcon Scott, also ended tragically. Amundsen, who had sailed to Antarctica on Fridtjof Nansen’s ship, the Fram, won the race. He and four of his men, all experienced skiers, made their way into the interior of the icy continent on dog sledges and became the first men to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911 – 34 days ahead of their rivals. They then returned home safely. Their adversaries, on the other hand, were not so lucky. Due to bad weather, Scott and his four companions were not able to make it to their emergency food depot on the way back across the Ross Ice Shelf. The Antarctic winter had overtaken them and the men died of cold and exhaustion.
- In Germany, the success or failure of German polar expeditions was analysed in detail in scientific circles. The experts concluded that future expeditions to the Arctic or Antarctic regions would have to meet certain basic requirements. They should be backed by a well-established organization that, in cooperation with institutions and authorities, would raise the necessary funds and develop guidelines for expedition equipment. In addition, the scientists called for a regularly published scientific journal for polar research. Until then most of the papers on Arctic and Antarctic research had appeared in a variety of different periodicals, making it difficult for many interested readers to access the widely scattered articles and reports.
Some of these wishes were fulfilled by new societies established after the First World War. They included the International Society for the Study of the Arctic by Means of Airship, which later became the Aeroarctic Society, as well as the Archive for Polar Research, now called the German Society for Polar Research. Both of these institutions published professional journals. In the Archive, furthermore, material was collected to assist in the preparations for expeditions.
- 1.29 > A propeller sledge built by the Finnish State Aircraft Factory. The German polar researcher Alfred Wegener had two of these built for his Greenland expedition, but the two vehicles Schneespatz (Snow Sparrow) and Eisbär (Polar Bear) failed to operate properly during the mission.
Into the ice with Zeppelin and airplaneAfter the First World War, many forms of modern technology in the fields of communication and transport, such as radiosondes, radios, airships, planes and snowmobiles, were adopted for use in polar research. One of the first to take advantage of these innovations was the discoverer of the South Pole, Roald Amundsen. He had earlier been trained as an aircraft pilot in Norway in 1914, and in May 1925 he departed from Spitsbergen with his crew and two Dornier seaplanes towards the North Pole. However, the adventurer did not reach his goal. When they landed the two aircraft on the sea ice at 88 degrees North so that Amundsen could determine their exact position with a sextant, one of the planes was damaged. Getting the remaining machine airborne again became a struggle for survival for the six expedition members. About three weeks passed before they were able to construct a runway on a large, stable ice floe. They had to spend four days flattening the new snow with their feet. When they were finally successful on their sixth take-off attempt, the expedition team were able to return to Spitsbergen.
But this near catastrophe was no reason for Amundsen to abandon his plan to fly to the North Pole. Just one year later he succeeded in creating a sensation, together with his financial backer Lincoln Ellsworth and the Italian general and aviation pioneer Umberto Nobile. In the airship Norge, they not only flew to the North Pole, but also became the first to completely cross the Arctic Ocean, landing in Alaska after a flight time of 70 hours.
Two years later, Umberto Nobile again piloted a self-built airship towards the North Pole in order to carry out extensive scientific investigations on the way. But the Italia crashed – an accident that had far-reaching ramifications. During the subsequent search for survivors of the crash, Roald Amundsen, among others, also lost his life.
- 1.30 > The airship Norge, in which Roald Amundsen and his team flew from Spitsbergen over the North Pole in May 1926. It was 109 metres long and achieved a top speed of 85 kilometres per hour.
- Not all of the technical innovations of the time would prove to be useful in the polar regions. The propeller sledges that the German polar researcher Alfred Wegener (1880–1930) planned to use for transporting loads on his Greenland expedition (1930–1931) are one example of this. In the freshly fallen snow the heavy vehicles failed, which, due to a tragic chain of events, ultimately led to Wegener’s death on the Greenland Ice Sheet.
However, during this period of technological advances, an additional cornerstone was laid for modern polar research. Wegener’s Greenland expedition was exemplary in this regard. For it, the scientists had combined three expedition plans into one comprehensive plan, so that all of the participants of the expedition worked on an overarching topic – in this case the inland ice and the weather on the Greenland Ice Sheet – from different scientific perspectives.
As airships began to make more frequent long-distance flights, it became obvious that more reliable weather data from the Arctic region were needed, for example, for transatlantic flights from Europe to North America. At the time, however, these data were only being collected at a few stations and were not sufficient to accurately predict local weather phenomena over the large Arctic islands and over the Greenland Ice Sheet. Scientists and industry therefore called for an expansion of the weather-observatory network, as well as measurements in the higher atmospheric layers of the Arctic.
This demand was addressed during the Second International Polar Year (August 1932 to August 1933), which saw the establishment of a denser measuring network in the Arctic. The scientists launched towed weather balloons with radiosondes attached. Along with these, measurements of the upper atmospheric layers were made by airplanes, whose findings were intended to help understand the influences of polar weather on processes at the middle latitudes.
Over time, the new technological possibilities and improvements in weather prediction made polar research increasingly successful. Expeditions to both polar regions were subsequently well equipped, as technology and participants were tested on preparatory expeditions and thoroughly prepared for operations in the polar regions. The use of aircraft made it possible to leave the ice or land surfaces and investigate large areas from the air. Experience had shown that it was preferable to publish the findings of expeditions through government agencies or similar higher-level institutions. In addition, researchers began to conduct their field research in the polar regions from one or more base stations, for example, from Spitsbergen or the Antarctic Peninsula.
A continent for researchAfter the Second World War, however, as the number of research stations and the number of winters spent in Antarctica increased, so did the claims to ownership of areas in the region. Bordering and neighbouring countries such as Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand filed claims for certain regions, while Norway, Great Britain and France also wanted pieces of the pie.
Under the politically tense conditions prevalent during the Cold War, Norwegian, British and Swedish scientists carried out joint seismic surveys between 1949 and 1952 in Queen Maud Land, east of the Weddell Sea, to measure the thickness of the Antarctic Ice Sheet in this margin area. To this day, this expedition is regar-ded as a model for international cooperation in polar research.
Soon thereafter, the international scientific community succeeded in organizing an International Geophysical Year from 1957 to 1958, which historically became the Third International Polar Year. It was the largest meteorological and geophysical experiment that had been carried out up to that time. Twelve nations installed a total of 55 stations in Antarctica – not only on the fringes of the continent, but also directly at the South Pole and on other parts of the ice sheet. With the help of the most modern methods of that time, including the early Russian and American satellites, Antarctica and its overlying atmosphere were extensively studied.
These scientists thus provided the impetus for a peaceful and purely scientific perception of the continent and laid the groundwork for the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by twelve states in 1959 and entered into force in 1961. The signatories to the treaty not only relinquished their ownership claims, they also agreed that:
- The Antarctic is to be used only for peaceful purposes;
- They support international cooperation in research with the free exchange of information;
- Military activities in the Antarctic are prohibited;
- Radioactive waste may neither be introduced or disposed of here.
- To date, 53 states have signed the Antarctic Treaty and committed themselves to permanently protecting Antarctica and using the area south of the 60th parallel exclusively for peaceful purposes. The participating countries include 29 Consultative Parties. These nations actively conduct research in Antarctica and are entitled to vote at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, which the other signatories are also invited to attend. At the annual conferences, the principles and objectives of the Treaty are amended and supplemented according to the rule of unanimity.
Since the enactment of the Antarctic Treaty, research activities in the Antarctic region have been coordinated by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which was established at that time. The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) plays a similar role in the Arctic region. It relies, however, on the voluntary cooperation of all nations conducting research in the Arctic. There are no regulations for the Arctic similar to those laid out in the Antarctic Treaty. The political and economic interests are too divergent for that.
In contrast to the early days of polar research, scientific expeditions today are no longer adventurous journeys into the unknown. Satellite data include the extent of sea-ice cover, enabling the long-range planning of routes. Weather services generally warn of approaching storms well in advance, and automated measuring systems such as ARGO gliders, moorings below the ice, weather stations, and sea-ice buoys transmit data directly to research institutions via radio from many scientifically fascinating regions. Despite all of the technological advancements, however, the ice cover, extreme climate, and geographical remoteness of many polar regions still represent significant obstacles to scientific work, so that polar research is only possible through international cooperation.