Is Arctic Exploration Worth its Cost?
The Century; a popular quarterly. / Volume 28, Issue 6,
Open letters section
Editor's note: Do you believe it iwas worth it? Read the Ralson Diary (Greely Expedition)
     A FULL affirmative answer could be made to this inquiry; its outlines only can be laid down within an open letter. The reply may run counter to a widely entertained feeling, yet it is justified by history, and is due to the interests of science. Sympathy with the losses sustained by the DeLong and Greely expeditions is sincere, deep, and wide-spread. But sympathy with the sufferers, and with the bereaved, cannot dim the value of the results secured by the sufferings of the lost and the living. Their work is a compensation for at least something of the severe sacrifices made, and history shows that the well-being of  man has ever been and will be advanced by sacrifice.

     To meet the inquiry fairly, is to recall the true objects and gains of Arctic exploration; its history, like that of other experimental progress, begins with a single object which, in the logic of events, evolves other and far more important issues. Its gains have been made with a remarkably small loss of life, for the whole number of deaths occurring in all the Arctic expeditions from the year 1819 to 1875 was but one and seven-tenths per cent. of officers and crews, while in carrying on the work of the fourteen meteorological stations of the past two years, but two deaths have occurred outside of Greely’s party of Lady Franklin bay. With the sufferings of Greely’s men before their minds, people are heard to exclaim: “Four miles nearer the Pole! Is this worth nineteen lives?” Forgetting the true objects of Arctic exploration, they  lose sight of all but the polar problem alone, and they deal inconsiderately with even this, the origin of more  important issues.

    The first point in the inquiry here is to recall the fact that the search for the Pole itself was begun, three centuries ago, in no motives of mere curiosity or even of theory. The impulse was of the most practical character, to find a new commercial route from northern Europe to Asia. Columbus and De Gama had opened up the world West and East, but seemingly only for the two nations Spain and Portugal; these two powers promptly setting up for themselves the exclusive right, not only to the new lands found and to be found, but to the navigation of the great oceans. As they were then able to maintain their claim by force of arms, northern Europe soon set about the search for a safer and a shorter route to the rich lands of Asia.

    The history need not be traced in full. It began with the voyage of old Cabot, in 1497, and was closed only in 1847 with the discovery of the passage by the drifting and crushed ships of Franklin. The north-west passage will not be pursued. Sir Allen Young’s latest disappointment in the Pandora (1876) closed the question even for the curious. Tortuous and shallow channels, if found, could, indeed, offer no advantages except for the small exchanges carried on by whalers. Nor is it likely that for years to come national aid will be given for further attempts to push through any one of the supposed gate-ways to a theoretical “open Polar sea,” found by Koldwey, Payer, Hall, Nares, De Long, Ray, and Lockwood, to be sealed up as ever by the paleocrystic masses.

    Have, then, the labors, exposures, and patient endurance, of Arctic exploration, been profitless and discouraging to future effort? By no means. They have teemed with incidental results in value immeasurably greater than could have been gained from success in their first object. They are a record of extensive geographical discoveries, of large additions to scientific knowledge, of material gains for navigation, commerce, and industry, and of moral lessons taught by these examples of heroism. It is something to learn the true boundaries of the land and water surfaces of the globe on which we live; it is yet more to have eliminated from the sphere of human attack the absolutely unconquerable of nature’s forces. Lockwood’s latest daring advance has again done much in both of these directions.

     A true estimate of what Arctic exploration has gained will, in part, be reached by a comparison of the knowledge of our own continent half a century ago with that shown upon the school-boy’s map of to-day. The maps of 1825 exhibited for our northern coast-line Baffin’s Bay only on the east, and westward, dots only for the mouths of the Mackenzie and Hearne Rivers, up to the icy Cape of Cook and the Behring Sea,— all which was then known except the new sweep of Parry’s voyage in the far north. The charts of to-day accurately delineate the zone of land and the coast-lines within the 60th and I30th degrees of west longitude, up to Cape Parry, latitude 71deg. 23’, a region now largely frequented by the trader. To these add the explorations in the Eastern Hemisphere by  the Russians, Danes, Austrians, Dutch, and Swedes, crowned by the circumnavigation, first in the world’s history, of northern Asia. And now Lockwood has extended the line of North Greenland.

    Again, no Arctic expedition has been fruitless of commercial and scientific gains. Cabot failed to find the passage, but he established the claims for our inheritance of English liberty and law. The first attempt to find the passage by the north-east brought from the ill-fated Willoughby news like that from our De Long:

“He, with his hapless crew,
Each full exerted at his several task,
Froze into statues.”

    But Willoughby’s second ship made for England the discovery of Russia’s wealth — "a new Indies "— the beginning of maritime commerce on the north. Among the direct or indirect gains of this kind for us have been the whaling grounds of the north-east and  the fisheries of Bearing Strait, a region rendered safe by the voyage and charts of the Vincennes, the explorations of theCoast Survey, and latest by the Corwin and the Signal Service. Alaska is now attracting immigration; but its shores seemed forbidding in the extreme before the surveys of Rodgers and the trial observations of Dall and others were charted for the guidance of the mariner. The increasing returns to the Government and to the merchant from the fur seal and the otter have shown the wisdom of the purchase.

   Still higher results are associated with the hydrography of the great oceans; the observations needed for the further knowledge of the laws governing the origin and the course of storms; and magnetism, with its relation to the compass, the telegraph, and the telephone. “We shall never accurately know,” says the President of our own Geographical Society,  “the laws of aerial and oceanic currents, unless we know more about what takes place in the Arctic Circle.”

   Such research was made the special object of the stations at Point Barrow and Fort Conger. The chief of the Signal Service had justly reported that “the study of the weather maps of England and America cannot be fully prosecuted without filling up the blank of the Arctic region”; and among the results to  be expected from the colony at Lady Franklin Bay, the act making the appropriations recited “a more accurate knowledge of the conditions which govern the origin and paths of the storms, the descent of polar waves of unusual cold, and uncertain movements in the Atlantic.” The instructions of the Signal Service and the Coast Survey have now been carried out by continuous observations at Ooglamie during two years, and at Lady Franklin Bay for a yet longer period. A casual inspection, courteously permitted, of Ray’s reports warrants an expectation of results of much practical value. They include, among many points of  interest, long-continued observations of the temperature of the earth at great depths, and of the waters on the shores of the great ocean, with hourly observations of the magnetic force and dip, a reverse of the usual experience of these being observed in the increased force and dip at Ooglamie during the morning hours and a decrease in the afternoon. Ray’s magnetic work, discussed by Mr. C. A. Schott of the Coast and Geodetic survey,— the same officer who discussed Kane’s and Hayes’s,— will form Appendix 13 of the Coast Survey report of 1882; the whole work at Ooglamie making a full quarto volume.

    Of the labors of the party at Fort Conger it were premature to speak as yet with fullness; but enough has been reported by Lieut. Greely to warrant the expectation at the Signal Office that the observations and the topographical work of Lockwood at this point, north of other expeditions, will develop themselves, when reduced, with a completeness and scope in advance of what has ever been attained before. The party were well housed for more than two summers, and were supplied with instruments such as neither Kane nor Hayes could in their day secure. When Ray’s and Greely’s observations shall have been placed with those received from the other thirteen stations of the Arctic, they will form a full link in the series of synchronous observations thus carried on for the first time around the northern zone.

    If such investigations are worth pursuing, if the existing relations between all branches of science and between the individual facts of each be admitted, Arctic exploration will not be soon abandoned — not until the problems referred to are fully solved. Let such as henceforth go to the ice zones depend on native help more largely than in the past; two Esquimaux to every three or four white men, at least. Natives alone can provide sustenance in the extremities of want; they alone improvise the snow hut and capture the seal and the walrus. They saved Hall and the party of Tyson’s ice-floe; they would have saved Franklin, and I believe would have preserved the Greely party also.

J. E. Nourse.

source: Nourse, J., E. "Is Arctic Exploration Worth its Cost?", The Century; a popular quarterly. / Volume 28, Issue 6, New York: The Century Company, Oct 1884, pp 952,963
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