First International Polar
Year was an edgy affair
By Ned Rozell
March 17, 2007
During the first International Polar Year of 1882-1883, an American
stole food from his comrades, and it wasn't the first time. The
act was all trip leader Adolphus Greely could stand. He ordered
three other men, two with bullets in their guns and one with
a blank cartridge, to aim at the chest of their comrade and pull
"This order is imperative and absolutely necessary for any
chance of life," Greely wrote.
His men carried out the command,
and Greely's scientific party, conducting a scientific mission
in Canada's high Arctic and starving on the retreat, was down
to seven men. Two years earlier, when the group had set out for
the Arctic, it numbered 25.
The 1882 IPY station
near today's town of Barrow. image from "The Expeditions
of the First International Polar Year, 1882-1883," by William
The first International Polar Year in 1882-1883 had a mission
similar to the fourth, which began March 1 and extends to March
2009: An effort of scientists to monitor the Earth's polar regions.
A lieutenant of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, Karl Weyprecht, thought
up the first polar year. A polar explorer, Weyprecht argued that
it was time to fill in the gaps of the map of the Arctic. Cartographers
then drew Greenland with no northern boundary.
"Decisive scientific results can only be attained through
a series of synchronous expeditions, whose task it would be to
distribute themselves over the Arctic regions and to obtain one
year's series of observations made according to the same method,"
Weyprecht said previous polar expeditions became nothing more
than polar highmarking, where explorers would try to reach the
farthest north point without achieving anything more of scientific
merit. Ironically, Greely also registered the farthest north
spot during his first polar year expedition. His men, stationed
at Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island, made it to 83 degrees
north before bad times set in.
Greely's station on northern Ellesmere Island was the farthest
north camp of the 12 established during the first International
Polar Year. The other American post was near Barrow.
The leader of a schooner expedition
to Barrow in the 1880s was U.S. Army Lieutenant P. Henry Ray,
another explorer/scientist who would later leave his name in
Alaska on the Ray River and Ray Mountains northeast of Tanana.
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University
of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ray established an observatory building near the site of today's
Barrow. Unlike Greely, Ray and his men had the good fortune of
having open ice leads that allowed relief ships to bring them
supplies during their two-year stay at the top of Alaska. Like
many successful arctic explorers, Ray adapted his men to the
ways of the Eskimos, once traveling with them by dog sled to
an area around Prudhoe Bay.
"It is very doubtful if this vast stretch of country contains
anything that will ever render it of any commercial value to
the world," Ray wrote in 1885.
After 27 months, including two winters in Barrow, Ray sailed
back to San Francisco with all his men in good health. His expedition
got little press because of the tragedy of "the reckless
attempt to add something more to the cause of science,"
as the Evening Telegram of St. John's Newfoundland described
Greely's mission. Reporters overlooked the fact that Greely came
back with two years of scientific observations.
"Collections from the station at Lady Franklin Bay were
jealously guarded by Greely throughout his ordeal and brought
safely back south," wrote William Barr in "The Expeditions
of the First Polar Year."
Like Ray, Greely would also leave many footprints in Alaska after
surviving the first polar year. He was head of the Army Signal
Corps in 1900 when the corps strung telegraph lines from Valdez
to Eagle and west to St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon, a
feat that would be tough to pull off today.
Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.
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