_L4A9201Back when much of the world remained unexplored, Europeans filled the blanks on their maps with whatever they wanted most, the cartography of wishful thinking.  During the Renaissance, when a bag of nutmeg from the East Indies (present Indonesia) reaped 1,000 percent profit in Madrid, Lisbon, and London, what Europeans wanted most was a sea route to the silks, perfumes, gold, coffee, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and the rest of the riches of the East.  In 1493, when it became clear that Columbus, sailing for Spain, had discovered something out there in the west that might be the East, the Portuguese, who had already learned that there was open-water access to the Indian Ocean south of the Cape of Good Hope, and the Spanish sat down to divvy up the world between them.  By the terms of the Treaty of Tordesilles, a document almost comic in its bombastic arrogance, Spain got everything west of the “Demarcation Line,” Portugal got everything to the east, never mind that no one could reckon longitude for next 250 years (the line cut through the bulge of Brazil, and that’s why Brazilians speak Portuguese) or that they had no idea where the line landed on the other side of the world, the part they cared about.  Since the treaty exclusively sewed up the known sea routes to the riches, England and Northern European nations got nothing.  Unacceptable. There had to be another route—there just had to be—so cartographers concocted one.

_L4A9997It would be an easy trip, they decided, shorter than the known routes, through a strait up in polar waters, much like Gibraltar—you could see through it—beyond which lay Cathay (China), Zipangu (Japan), and the Golden Chersonese (vaguely the Spice Islands) a short sail eastward.  Since the strait had to exist, it had to have a name, so they picked the Strait of Anian, after the wealthy Chinese province of Ania described by Marco Polo.  The strait appeared first in 1562 on Giacomo Gastaldi’s map, and then soon after on maps by Ortelius and Mercator.  During the reign of Elizabeth I, the myth, which gradually morphed into the Northwest Passage, set explorers—Frobisher, Davis, Gilbert, Hudson, Cabot, Verrazano—searching the coast of the New World from Chesapeake Bay to Baffin Bay for a way around, over, or through the damn thing.  But of course there was no easy northern route, only dead-end bays and rivers in the south, frozen ocean and a maze of ice-choked channels in the north, where periodically explorers would die of scurvy, starvation, and exhaustion for the next 300 years.

So compelling was this notion of a northern route, armchair geographers and cartographers concocted what became one of the most stubborn of geographical myths (the Bermuda Triangle being the most stubborn): the Open Polar Sea.  This one had “scientific” validation. In 1765, the (landlocked) Swiss geographer Samuel Engle wrote a book with about a twenty-five-word title propounding the theory that only fresh water freezes; that’s why you see ice near coastlines, especially around estuaries.  But the polar sea, comprised of saltwater, remained perpetually in the liquid state, “Une mer vaste et libre,” as he put it.  Engle even included instructions about how to reach the open polar sea.  Really, all you had to do was pick your way through the shore-fast ice along the Arctic rim—the Bering Strait was the best bet—and then you’d have clear sailing right over the top of the world past the North Pole and into the history books. The pioneering American oceanographer Matthew F. Maury lent further scientific credence, claiming that the transfer of heat by the Gulf Stream into the Arctic Ocean precluded a frozen Polar Sea.  Why else, he pointed out, would birds and animals migrate north except that it’s warm up there?

_L4A9242Whalers—who had actually been to the Arctic—knew better.  When William Scoresby, whaler turned scientist/explorer, deigned to say that there was nothing but impenetrable ice in the Arctic Ocean, the British bigwigs, who didn’t want to hear that, ignored him.  When he dared to say it in writing, Scoresby, one of the finest “Arctic hands” the English-speaking world ever produced, was excoriated by establishment geographers and Royal Navy know-it-alls like John Barrow, as “a mere whale catcher.”

There was no Strait of Anian, no Open Polar Sea (the Bermuda Triangle still abides).  Mythmakers had allowed self-serving supposition, ideology, and wishful thinking to harden into certainty—sort of the opposite of the scientific method. Now here we are in the early years of the 21st century, when the climate is changing in the Arctic ten times faster than in the temperate zone, an open polar sea in summer is, by most climate-science reckonings, imminent and inevitable.  Now post-modern personifications of the mythmaker syndrome, who still regard belief as higher truth than scientific fact have turned the notion of the open polar sea on its head, saying, no, it’s not possible, we won’t believe it.  Nineteenth-century explorers trying for the Pole lugged heavy-laden boats northward across the ice, fully expecting to set sail when they reached the end of the ice, and died of exhaustion when none appeared.  And now, 150 years on, they’re likely to be proved in right, in a darkly ironic development, for all the wrong reasons.

About The Author

Dallas Murphy

Dallas is an author with nine published books, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, most recently "To the Denmark Strait", an account of a 2011 oceanographic expedition with Bob Pickart. The Healy cruise will be his sixth Arctic expedition serving as outreach writer.

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