To the North Pole by airship

Fridtjof Nansen

Drawings by Johan Bull

Editor's note: This paper was published in "Forum", vol. 75, no. 4, April 1926 and it is unknown how much earlier the author wrote it. The same year, in May 1926, Amundsen flew over the pole in Umberto Nobile's airship Norge. This was also the year that Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland.


Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen, woodprint by Johan Bull

In discussing polar exploration one is often asked the same old question: What good does it do? Why should men risk their lives simply in order to fill in on the map those white patches of valueless frozen land and sea?

Yet the mere fact that these regions form a part, still unknown, of the surface of our world, is enough to make it impossible for us to rest until we have explored them. A fundamental characteristic of human nature is that the unknown, in whatever form, has an irresistible attraction for us, especially when it concerns the world in which we live.

Furthermore, it is precisely the fact of these polar regions being so cold and frozen and barren that makes their exploration of such importance. The physical conditions there, with the long summer day and the long winter night, are so different from those familiar to us in every other part of the world and exercise such a strong influence upon them, that it becomes a matter of paramount importance for our understanding of the physics of the whole globe that we should gain the fullest possible knowledge of the areas near the poles.

The north polar regions, being considerably nearer than the south polar regions, exert a stronger direct influence upon the conditions in our northern hemisphere. They have, therefore, the first claim upon our interest. It is only natural that polar exploration has chiefly concentrated upon these northern regions. In drawing up the program for future north polar exploration in its main outlines we must understand clearly which are the most important problems awaiting solution.

The first great question that confronts us is that of the distribution of land and sea. We now know the boundaries of all the continental land-surfaces both in the Old World and in the New. The last problem that remained to be settled here was the northern extent of Greenland; but even the northern coast of that country has now been surveyed by Peary and by the Danish travelers Mylius Erichsen, Knud Rasmussen, Lange Koch, and others. There no longer seems to be any possibility of any large continuous land surface within the unknown regions. This does not mean that there may not be large or small islands, still unknown, forming a sort of continuation of the groups of islands already known to us.

Chart of Nansen's proposed route

Nansen's proposed route

To discover and survey such possible islands in the unknown region will be an important task for future research, but there is another task that from a scientific point of view must be deemed of even greater importance. This is the determination of the northern extension of the continental land-masses and the rough limitation of the area of deep sea in the still unknown polar regions. It should be remembered that the boundaries of the great continental land-masses are not fixed by the coasts of the land above the sea, but by the edge of the so-called continental shelf, which, at a comparatively moderate depth below sea-level, often extends far out beyond the coasts and 'must be considered part of the continent itself. At the edge of this shelf, usually at a depth of between three hundred and six hundred feet below the sea level, the floor of the sea usually drops away precipitously to the great ocean deeps of several thousand feet.

From the north of Siberia this continental shelf extends very far, for hundreds of miles. Its surface, which is remarkably even, is not very far below sea-level, much of it being less than one hundred and fifty feet down. It was over this remarkably shallow continental shelf that both the Jeanette (1879-81) and the Maud (1922-24) drifted along their two years' drift routes. Only at one place, namely north of the New Siberian Island, on the Fram's drift route in 1893, has the edge of this shelf been definitely located. At that place it was in nearly seventynine degrees, north latitude, and more than three hundred miles north of the Siberian coast. At another point, about midway between the New Siberian Island and Cape Cheljuskin, the Russian expedition of 1913 took a sounding of 1319 feet without reaching the bottom, and it seems probable that they were then at the edge of the shelf. North of Canada the continental shelf also extends for a great distance, embracing the entire Arctic Archipelago; but how far it continues to the north of this, and north of Greenland, is entirely unknown. North of Alaska, at Point Barrow and eastward, the edge of the shelf comes very near the coast.

On the Norwegian Fram expedition in 1893-96 it was discovered that there is a deep ocean basin, with depths ranging from 9800 to 12,630 feet, in the regions near the North Pole, and that this extends, as a continuation of the Norwegian Sea, far around the north of Spitzbergen and Franz Josef Land to north of the New Siberian Island, and probably still farther to the eastward.

This ocean basin forms the northern end of a series of ocean deeps which stretch northward from the east of the Atlantic and constitute a line of demarcation between the two great continental masses,Eurasia and North America. These deeps form a more or less continuous sea, in which the separate deeps are separated by submarine ridges such as the Scotland-Faero-Iceland-Greenland Ridge, the low ridge between Jan Mayen and Bear Island, and the ridge probably existing between northwest Spitzbergen and northeast Greenland.

It is not yet known how far this deep north polar basin stretches eastward toward Bering Strait and Alaska. I assume that it continues to within a short distance of the north coast of Alaska, which assumption seems to be confirmed by the previously mentioned soundings in this region, which showed that a deep sea extends south to a distance of about fifty miles from the north coast of Alaska and reaches as far north as at least seventy-four degrees, north latitude, or more than two hundred miles north of the coast. How much farther this deep sea extends and whether it connects with our deep sea north of the New Siberian Island or is separated from it by submarine ridges, remains an open question. That there exists in the upper layers of the sea an open connection between the sea north of Alaska and the sea between Spitzbergen and Greenland is proved by the drift of various objects in the ice. These and other evidences show that there is a steady, if slow, drift of the ice-masses from the sea north of Alaska and Bering Strait, across the sea near the North Pole, and on southward between Spitzbergen and Greenland. But whether this sea is mainly deep or shallow is not known.

The largest geographical task that still has to be performed in the north polar regions is to determine the extension of the north polar deep sea in all directions, and to establish roughly the boundaries of the continental shelf on both sides. If the surface of this shelf rises above the sea at various places, thus forming large or small islands, their discovery will be very interesting but scientifically it will be of more value to determine the extension of the actual shelf.

In addition to these purely geographical problems awaiting solution in the unknown north, we must emphasize the fact that it is of vital importance to study the physical conditions in these northern regions. The circulation in our atmosphere is due, mainly, to the heating of the air by solar radiation in the warmer regions and its cooling in the colder ones, especially in the polar areas. To try to discover the laws governing the circulation of our atmosphere without a knowledge of the polar regions and their physical conditions is comparable, therefore, to the action of a man attempting to study the laws by which water circulates in the heating apparatus in a house, without knowing anything about the radiators, that emit the heat. It is generally recognized that the meteorological conditions in the Arctic regions exercise a decisive influence upon the weather conditions in our latitudes, and that meteorological observations of the different layers of the atmosphere,near the surface of the earth and at great heights,in different parts of the north polar regions are of the utmost importance for the understanding of the laws which govern the weather.

Investigations of the earth's magnetism in the unknown regions will also be valuable, and, especially, accurate records of magnetic variation and inclination. Pendulum observations on the drift ice, with the object of ascertaining the force of gravity above the deep Polar Sea and the continental shelf, will be of great scientific interest in supplementing the observations made by Scott-Hansen on the Fram expedition (1893-96). These, then, are the more important of the unsolved scientific problems that await us in the unknown north polar regions. How can we best solve them by the means available to-day? Formerly three means of transport were employed in the exploration of the north polar regions: voyaging in a ship, sledge expeditions with or without dogs (or reindeer or horses), and drifting with the ice. The first of these methods has the disadvantage that the ship's movements are greatly restricted by the impenetrable polar ice. The second method is laborious and also restricted in range, while it hardly admits of carrying the equipment needed for the various scientific investigations. The third means of transport is very slow, besides having the great disadvantage that the traveler cannot himself decide in which direction he will go, since this depends on the current and the wind. But if one can drift in a well equipped vessel, this method has great advantages for scientific research.

Recent years have put within human reach two new means of transport which, more particularly as regards mobility, are infinitely superior to their predecessors. These are the airplane and the dirigible airship. That the airplane may be useful for reconnoitring appears certain, but there are limits to its utility, at any rate in its present form, as, inter alia, Amundsen's remarkable polar flight seems to prove.

The airship, on the other hand, has great advantages even in its present stage of development. In several respects it seems to me an almost ideal means of transport for the geographical exploration of the polar regions, as well as of other unknown parts of the world. If it can be built sufficiently large it will have a lifting power capable of carrying a crew and equipment sufficient for all the necessary investigations. Its radius of action will cover the whole area of the unknown north polar regions.

Given a large airship of this kind, we can practically solve, in my opinion, the most important of the geographical problems of the unknown north in the course of a few weeks. I will try to give a brief sketch of the manner in which the exploration mIght be carried out, in accordance with the plan first put forward by Hauptmann Walther Bruns, and given in more detail in the "Denkschrift": "Das Luftschiff als Forschungsmittel in der Arktis" recently issued by The International Society for the Exploration of the Arctic by Airship, of which the present writer is President.

Our plan is to travel by airship from the Murman coast, over Franz Josef Land, or perhaps preferably between that and Spitzbergen, through the region about the North Pole, on through the unknown regions north of the North American Arctic Archipelago toward Alaska, and thence to Nome in Alaska, where the airship would be moored to a mast in order to take in a fresh supply of fuel for the motors and, if necessary, an additional supply of lifting gas.

It is estimated that the voyage from Murmansk to Nome, a distance of less than four thousand miles, would take three or four days at the outside. The route would be to a very great extent through wholly unknown regions. Soundings would be taken as often as possible by various methods which, we hope, could be used from the air without a landing. In this way it should be possible to establish whether we were above deep sea or shallow sea. The area of the deep sea and the position of the continental shelf could thus be ascertained to a certain extent in this region. But we would also bring the ship down, if possible, on the ice or in open lanes, in several places, in order to make soundings, to take the temperature of the sea at various depths, and to obtain water-samples from deep water.

Should we discover land or islands on the way, it would be easy to make an extremely accurate photographic survey while flying over them, provided there was no fog. An airship is ideal for surveying purposes. Underneath it, fore and aft, are hung two cameras in an exactly horizontal position. By pressing an electric button photographs can be taken with both cameras simultaneously, of the region over which the airship happens to be. As these cameras are separated by the length of the ship, that is, by about six hundred and fifty feet, which forms a good base line, and as the correct altitude of the airship above the surface of the land can readily be determined, it is easy to construct from the two photographs a map of the region photographed, even to give altitudes with a remarkable degree of accuracy. By taking these double photographs at proper intervals a survey could be made of the whole region traversed. In the same way we could secure very interesting maps of the drift ice, with all its unevennesses, pressure-ridges, and lanes, which would help us to understand it better than hitherto.

As regards other observations en route, I may mention that we should be able to determine, with a fair amount of accuracy, the magnetic variation in the region through which we passed; while a variety of valuable meteorological observations and investigations could be made.

From Nome the plan would be to make the return voyage nearer the Siberian side of the unknown region, in order to find out the extension of the deep sea and the shelf on this side as well. During this journey we would carry on observations and investigations similar to those on the outward trip. If possible we would go down several times to make soundings and oceanographic examinations. Then we would shape our course for the unknown northern part of Nicholas II Land, northwest of Cape Cheljuskin, in order to determine the extension of this land toward the north and west. From there we would proceed round the north of Nova Zemla and home to Murmansk.

The airship required for a voyage such as this would have to have sufficient lifting power to carry, in addition to fuel for one hundred hours (considerably more than for the long voyage of four thousand miles) a crew with full equipment, also equipment for all the scientific investigations and soundings, and, lastly, to provide for a possible, although improbable, accident to the airship, full equipment for the whole crew for a sledge expedition over the drift ice, with extra provisions for three months. We consider that it would be desirable to have an airship of about 130,000 or 150,000 cubic meters capacity. Possibly this cubic capacity could be reduced somewhat by careful economy in the weight of the necessary equipment; but in any event the ship would have to be considerably larger than the largest Zeppelin built up to now, namely the Los Angeles, which flew from Friedrichshafen to America in 1924, and had a capacity of 70,000 cubic meters.

A large airship of this nature should be capable, when using the full power of its engines, of a speed of seventy-five miles an hour. If it traveled at full speed all the way in calm weather it should do the 3700 miles from Murmansk to Nome in fifty hours. Even supposing there were a headwind all the way of thirty-five miles an hour, – a velocity seldom met with in the interior of the North Polar Regions, – the ship could cover the distance named in less than one hundred hours.

Should any unforeseen accident happen to the airship on the way, the distance to the nearest known coast, from wherever one happened to be in the unknown region, would never be so great that she could not get near it in a few hours, before the mobility of the ship was completely destroyed. An accident to a ship of this kind would not, as a rule, occur so suddenly that there would not be a reasonable chance of taking this course. With full sledge equipment for three months, the crew would be able to make their way to habitable regions. It must be conceded, therefore, that the risk to the lives of the participants in an expedition like this is so slight that it can scarcely weigh at all in comparison with the important results which may be expected to flow from the expedition.

The most favourable time for the expedition would be the spring, preferably May, when the temperature in these regions is no longer so very low, when the winds as a rule are not high, and when fog occurs very rarely in the interior of the north polar regions, – which, of course, is extremely important. During the Fram's three years' drift across the Polar Sea fog was observed, on the average, on only two days in the whole of May.

As I have explained already, even a single air voyage out and back would suffice to furnish a general solution of the chief geographical problems in the unknown regions. Smaller local expeditions by airship across the route outlined above, wherever this was considered especially advisable, would supplement the discoveries made on the first voyage.

But there are still other tasks awaiting us in the unknown north, which cannot be dealt with satisfactorily during such short air expeditions. I refer especially to the examination of the physical conditions and their changes, mentioned earlier in this article. An adequate knowledge of these can be obtained only by continuous observations over a long period. But even here our airship would come in useful. With its great lifting power of over a hundred tons, it would be able to carry to any point in the polar regions a small expedition of four or five members, with a house and complete scientific and radio equipment, and with provisions and fuel for a sojourn of one or, preferably, two years. The ship could leave them there and return one or two years later to fetch them home.

The best plan would be, undoubtedly, to take this party to a fixed point on land, because, among other reasons, the series of meteorological observations would be of greater value if they were all made at the same place. But for other investigations, especially oceanographic ones, the observations made from drift ice over deep sea would be very valuable. With this object in view an expedition with the necessary equipment might be landed on the drift ice over the deep Polar Sea in the far north, to drift with the ice for a year, and then be picked up. This would presuppose reliable communication by radio, to report their whereabouts at all times.

From what I have set forth it will be seen that the modern airship has made it possible, in my judgment, to solve all the important problems still bound up with the unknown north polar regions; and that the solution of these will mark an important advance in our knowledge of this world and of its physical conditions.


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