The allure of the ice

Historical Norwegian Arctic expeditions cleared the way for today’s sea ice research


Photo: Morven Muilwijk / Alfred Wegener Institute
A summertime inspection of the floe by kayak takes place in the Arctic.

Asker, Norway

On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette, a former British Navy ship designed specifically for Arctic waters, departed from San Francisco, tasked with making the United States the first country to reach the North Pole. At that, the Jeannette failed. She sailed northward but was trapped in ice on Sept. 5, 1879, and thereafter drifted with it. On June 13, 1881, she was crushed by the ice and sank north of the 75th parallel near the remote New Siberian Islands. The story of her ill-fated voyage is a horrific tale of early Arctic exploration.

The legacy of the Jeannette story lingers to this day. Three years after she sank, the wreckage of the Jeannette was found on an ice floe in the Fram Strait passage between Greenland and the Svalbard archipelago, about 100 degrees of longitude farther west. The finding was consistent with with a postulate put forth by Norwegian meteorologist Henrik Mohn that there was a continuous transpolar ocean current flowing from east to west across the polar sea. Many of the established scientists of the time contested Mohn’s postulate. But one young Norwegian scientist, Fridtjof Nansen, found it not only plausible, but to be the key to pursuing the goal that eluded the Jeannette. In turn, that became the scientific basis for Nansen’s famed Fram expedition of 1893-1896.

Today, being “first” to the North Pole is no longer a challenge. According to the Wikipedia entry “List of firsts at the Geographic North Pole,” there have been 23 firsts, by all thinkable means. The challenge now is to gain greater understanding of the Arctic as the epicenter of global warming. That is now being done by MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate), the largest Arctic expedition in history.

MOSAiC involves hundreds of researchers from 20 countries. It is managed by the Alfred Wegener Institute Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) of Germany ( Following Nansen’s visionary plan for the Fram expedition, it is centered on a ship in the ice, the RV Polarstern (RV is the abbreviation for Research Vessel; Polarstern is German for “Pole Star”), a 17,300-ton-displacement icebreaker operated by AWI, famed as the first ship ever to circumnavigate the North Pole.

More than a dozen Norwegian scientists, postdocs, and staff members are involved in the expedition, representing the University of Tromsø, the Arctic University of Norway, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the University of Bergen, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Further reading:

“The Hair-Raising Tale of the U.S.S. Jeannette’s Ill-Fated 1879 Polar Voyage,” by Simon Worrall, National Geographic, Sept. 25, 2014:

“The Expedition: An entire year trapped in the ice,” MOSAiC expedition:

“Why an 1879 Voyage is a Time Machine for Climate Change, by Hampton Sides, Wall Street Journal, Aug 1, 2014:

“Sterkt å være øyenvitne til det dramaet som skjer i Arktis” (“Vivid eyewitness account of drama unfolding in the Arctic”) by Ole Mathismoen, Aftenposten, print edition Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, p. 14-15:
(in Norwegian).

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.