Polar opposites

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Elisha Kane, an American explorer, wrote two words on a map in 1856. In doing so he inspired the world - and made a big mistake. He inscribed "open sea" on that frozen end of the Earth that the polar bears call home. With a flick of his pen he surrounded the North Pole with "bright and lonely waters", describing an "open and iceless area, abounding with life". News of his discovery spread rapidly. The Times, envisaging the view from an icy shore, remarked that: "The lashing of the surf against this frozen beach of ice was, we are assured, impressive beyond description."

Matthew Maury, father of oceanography, wrote a whole chapter about it.

"Seals were sporting and water-fowl feeding in this open sea of Dr Kane's," he said. "Its waves came rolling in at his feet, and dashed with measured tread, like the majestic billows of old ocean, against the shore."

All fantasy - Kane had not seen any of this. Two men from his expedition had spotted open water at the top of Baffin Bay and the explorer wanted to believe they had glimpsed the fabled polar sea.The theory that such an ocean existed dated back at least to the 16th century. Despite numerous expeditions which had foundered in frost-bitten misery, it was revived in the mid-19th century, by men such as Maury and the German geographer August Petermann.

They based their theory on several erroneous beliefs. They thought that sea ice only formed near land and concluded that there was none at the pole.

They pondered on the 24-hour sunlight of the Arctic summer and concluded that anything frozen would melt. And they knew that the polar icebergs flowed south, concluding that they were being pushed out by a warm lake.

The tenacious theory was finally laid to rest by the strange voyage of the Fram in 1896. The specially constructed ship was carried by the ice across the polar region for three years. It found no bright and lonely sea. Mind you, if global warming carries on the way it is going, there may yet be a place on the map for "open water" where the polar bears used to roam.

Stephanie Northen

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