In the early 20th century, Fridtjof Nansen set off on a journey through the Arctic to open up the Northeast Passage. His scientific observations made then may be more relevant now than ever.
By M. Michael Brady
On Tuesday, August 5, 1913, explorer, scientist and later Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) set off from Tromsø, Norway to open a Northern Sea Route across the Eurasian continent. He was on board the Correct, a passenger freighter chartered by Norwegian businessman Jonas Lied carrying a cargo of cement bound for the city of Krasnoyarsk in Krasnoyarsk Krai of Siberia for the ongoing building of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
For centuries, explorers had sought Northern Passages, to the East as well as to the West along the northern coast of North America. Unlike his daring Arctic expeditions of the late 19th century that had tested the limits of human strength and endurance, the 1913 journey was for him a vacation during which he made scientific and other observations while assisting businessman Lied in opening up a regular trade connection with Siberia. The result from prolific author Nansen was a book, Through Siberia, a benchmark account of the geography and indigenous peoples of Siberia.
Nansen is widely known as an explorer. Yet in the sciences he is remembered as one of the great minds that contributed to our understanding of the globe, particularly in oceanography, his principal pursuit. His 1893-96 expedition in an attempt to reach the North Pole is regarded to be one of the major achievements of the heroic age of polar exploration that started in the late 19th century and ended with the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922). That said, Nansen’s North Pole expedition principally was a scientific undertaking. The results of it had a lasting impact on the sciences of the Arctic.
One of Nansen’s seminal scientific findings was triggered in late August 1893, as he sailed the purpose-built Fram polar ship off the Taymyr Peninsula near the Nordenskiöld Arctic Archipelago. Suddenly, the ship came almost to a dead stop, though its engine was at full speed. The Fram had encountered what Nansen called “dead water”, which as he wrote is “a peculiar phenomenon that occurs where a surface layer of fresh water rests upon the salt water of the sea, and this fresh water is carried along with the ship, gliding on the heavier sea beneath as if on a fixed foundation”. It was the first-ever such explanatory hypothesis, though dead water had long been experienced by fishermen in the Norwegian fjords, which are bodies of salt water sometimes also fed by fresh water from glacier runoff. Later research by others proved that Nansen’s hypothesis was correct, and now dead water is fairly well understood.
Scrolling ahead a century to the turn of the Millennium, the Arctic has changed significantly since Nansen’s journeys there. Though it may seem remote and thereby of lesser interest to people living at lower latitudes, the Arctic plays an increasingly vital role in the health of the globe. Just how so concerns the scientists from 20 institutes working at FRAM, the High North Research Center for Climate and the Environment in Tromsø. The eighth annual Arctic Frontiers international conference was held this year. The Arctic Council of eight countries with territory within the Arctic Circle has become the international clearinghouse for debate and discussion on Arctic matters. A scholarly journal in English, the Arctic Review on Law and Politics, now is in its sixth year of publication, and this year the Eighth Polar Law Symposium will be held in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Vast deposits of oil and gas have been found under Arctic waters, though the recent fall in oil prices has set a stop to thoughts of extraction due to the costs and risks of it in the extreme environment. Perhaps more important, global warming has opened Arctic waters permitting ships to sail the Northeast Passage about two summer months a year.
The relatively recent surge of academic, cultural, and commercial interest in the Arctic raises the intriguing question of what Nansen might have made of it all were he to see the Arctic of today. In 2012, Øyvind Ravna, a professor at the University of Tromsø, speculated that there was one certain way to answer that question: celebrate the centennial of Nansen’s 1913 expedition by replicating it. His suggestion gained support, most encouragingly from the two universities of the High North, the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway and the Northern Federal University at Arkangelsk, Russia. Research institutes as well as businessmen joined in, reflecting and extending the multidisciplinary purposes of the 1913 journey. It was to be the largest ever joint Norwegian-Russian expedition.
On Monday, August 5, 2013, to the day a hundred years since Nansen had departed from Tromsø, the 20-some strong Norwegian contingent of the expedition team including Prof. Ravna and led b y Jan Gunnar Winter, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, left Tromsø by air to fly southeastward to Arkhangelsk to join the Russian contingent and board the Professor Molcanov, an ice-strengthened Russian research ship, to retrace Nansen’s wake through the Arctic Ocean to Siberia. The Norwegians had chosen to fly the first leg of the journey, principally to avoid the delay of customs clearance at sea.
After nearly three weeks covering more than 3000 miles, eastward through the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea and then southward up the Yenisei, Siberia’s largest river, the journey ended at Krasnoyarsk, as had that of 1913. On the way, the international team of experts observed changes since Nansen’s time in the Arctic climate, the landscape and its peoples. Few of their observations could more vividly describe the effect of global warming of the Arctic than the brief anecdote of team members sunning themselves on deck on August 11, as the Professor Molcanov glided effortlessly across the ice-free Kara Sea, at a point where Nansen had been obliged on the same date to change course a century earlier due to impenetrable sea ice. The ethnographic observations are as poignant. Industrial pollution has ruined the traditional grazing lands of the once nomadic Enets south of the industrial center of Norilsk. Now numbering just 200, they risk extinction. The same fate awaits the slightly more numerous Kets, the only people still speaking a language of the Yeniseian family, living further south up the Yenisei River.
Ravna has collected these and myriad other observations in a book illustrated with his color photos as well as vintage black-and-white photos of the 1913 expedition, many of them previously unpublished. He’s the right man for that task in more ways than one. He was born, brought up and now works north of the Arctic Circle, in Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county that borders on Russia and has a large subpopulation of the once nomadic Sami reindeer-herding people. Like many residents of Finnmark, he is of Sami heritage. In addition to his native Norwegian, he is fluent in English and proficient in Russian and Sami. His wife, Zoia Vylka Ravna is of a Nenets reindeer herding family, born in western Sibera and educated in St. Petersberg. They met in 1995, when he was working on a book on the indigenous peoples of Siberia, My Russian North (published in 1996).
This book is his eighth photo documentary work. As the editor of the Arctic Review on Law and Politics, he has an in-depth familiarity with the subject matter. He’s a freelance photographer (His photo of Norwegian reindeer herders illustrated “Dateline Europe: Norway’s Snowmobile Laws Headed to Court”, Mountain Gazette, January 6, 2015). That said, this landmark book may be the last of its sort for a while. The unrest in the Ukraine of 2014 has altered relations between Russia and the rest of Europe. The journey that was possible in 2013 would have been difficult in 2014 and even more so now. So until the war rhetoric subsides, Nansen’s vision of Siberia as “The land of the future” may remain a dream.