Showdown in the Arctic
The first time the Arctic was referred to in print as a “new Mediterranean” wasn’t in a recent edition of the U.S. News and World Report, the Financial Times or the New York Times. It was in a book written some 90 years ago by polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. After sledging around the western Arctic in search of a band of “blond Eskimos,” Stefansson moved to Greenwich Village and reinvented himself as a visionary author. In The Northward Course of Empire, a popular work of nonfiction published in 1924, he made the following prediction:
A glance at a map of the northern hemisphere shows that the Arctic Ocean is in effect a huge Mediterranean. It lies between its surrounding continents somewhat as the Mediterranean lies between Europe and Africa. It has in the past been looked upon as an impassable Mediterranean. In the near future it will not only become passable but will become a favorite route, at least at certain times of year, safer, more comfortable, and much shorter than any other…
Stefansson did not foresee the environmental changes that have captured our attention today. His Mediterranean analogy was based on the advent of aviation and the presence of approximately one million square miles at the very top of the world that no one had substantially penetrated, the largest blank space remaining on the map through the first quarter of the 20th century.
The geography of the Arctic Ocean was as poorly understood in the early 20th Century as the mechanisms of climate change are thus far in the 21st Century. Our knowledge of climate change derives principally from ice-core drilling—the analysis of samples of ice recovered from deep in the Greenland and Antarctic icecaps. Knowledge of the Arctic ocean in the early 1900s derived from the navigational records of ships that had gotten stuck in the ice and drifted with the floes, and from random studies of the rise and fall of the polar tides.
Rollin Harris, a researcher at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, put the sparse numbers together and concluded that there was land in the Polar Sea and that it was about “half a million square miles” in area, which would have made it the second largest island in the world. He published his conclusions in a monograph in 1911 and from that point on became the authority cited by explorers, journalists and government officials speculating on what might be found in the unexplored region.
Stefansson saw the Arctic as a new Mediterranean because he envisioned it crisscrossed with aerial trade routes. He proclaimed the region to be endowed with mineral wealth and predicted an influx of miners and wildcatters to exploit these resources. (“People will live in any place,” he said, “if the financial returns are adequate”). He also foresaw ranchers homesteading on the endless tundra, raising reindeer and musk-ox and producing enough meat to feed a burgeoning world. Like modern climate change writers, Stefansson anticipated a change in the geopolitical order.
Wrangel Island, frequented then solely by geese, seal and marooned explorers, would acquire strategic importance as a new Gibralta. Another explorer turned visionary writer, Lieutenant Commander Fitzhugh Green, USN, touted Point Barrow, Alaska as a new Chicago, the hub of the future commercial air route between Europe and Asia. “Let the Arctic traffic begin to flow,” he reasoned in a feature article in the New York Times, “and, like Chicago, Alaska must spring to wealth.”
The signal geopolitical change was expected to occur with the discovery of Harris Land,the name the press had attached to the mythic continent postulated by Rollin Harris. Airplanes would land and refuel on the white runways of Harris Land, warehouses would be erected on the icy wastes and garrisons installed. Whoever controlled Harris Land would control the new Mediterranean and the aeronautic shipping lanes and supply lines of the northern hemisphere.
The widespread belief in the Harris theory catalyzed an international competition to find and claim the lost world. Some of the biggest names in exploration participated in the excitement (Peary, Amundsen, Byrd, Ellsworth, Wilkins), and the leading industrialized nations flirted with the notion of sponsoring expeditions. Even the former Soviet Union, then in its collectivist infancy. The “Soviet North Pole Flight” was conceived as an instrument of the class struggle. The Bolsheviks threatened to deploy “a specially designed airplane with four engines and powerful wireless equipment.” As soon as the pole was reached, the following message would be transmitted: “Workers of the entire world: Arise, the red flag of revolution floats at the top of the world.”
The matter wasn’t cleared up until Byrd’s controversial flight to the pole in 1926 and Amundsen’s subsequent flight across the Arctic Ocean.
Those banking today on the mineral resources of the far north and the region’s supposed strategic and commercial advantages ought to consider the wisdom of Donald B. MacMillan, America’s foremost Arctic explorer between Peary and Byrd. MacMillan lived with the Inuit and understood their culture and traditions better than any of his contemporaries. He set sail with two ships and three biplanes in 1925, in an effort to locate Harris Land, a venture bedeviled by thick ice, adverse weather and an uncanny series of mishaps.
“The evil spirit of the Arctic is always watching,” he said, “and can change success into misfortune and failure within a few hours.”
Sheldon Bart is president and founder of Wilderness Research Foundation and a member of the Board of Governors of the American Polar Society. His most recent book, Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole, is due this fall from Regnery History.