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A date with History: Fram polar expedition leaves Norway June 24 1893

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Helen Czerski Helen Czerski | 16:30 UK time, Friday, 24 June 2011

Distance travelled ~ 450'240'000 km: day 175 

Ice is an important contributor to our weather, but finding out about the Earth's ice was very hard work. It's still less than a hundred years since Amundsen first reached the South Pole (he arrived on the 14th of December 1911, beating Scott by 35 days). My favourite polar expedition is one that is rarely mentioned because it wasn't an expedition in the normal sense. It was made by a ship called the Fram, and there were no sleds or dogs, and there wasn't even any navigation. The Fram was designed to become a piece of pack ice, and it spent three whole years doing just that (from 1893-­‐1896). Its voyage was not only a fantastic oceanographic experiment but also an amazing illustration of the dynamic nature of the Arctic.



We tend to think of polar ice as being a bit like giant dollops of whipped cream on top of a dessert, as smooth white splodges that from space almost look as though they're about the run down the sides of the Earth. 

Ice at the South Pole is fairly static, but things are very different at the North Pole because the Arctic is an ocean, not a continent. In the Arctic ocean the ice is dense pack ice, always moving, breaking apart and reforming. Pushed by ocean currents below and by wind above, Arctic ice never gets to sit still. The ocean at the North Pole is about 4.2 km deep, and there's no flag there and no base because no piece of ice is ever over the North Pole for any length of time.

Fridtjof Nansen designed the Fram to test the theory that there was an ocean current that crossed the entire Arctic basin. He reasoned that if the jostling ice chunks were pushed along from one side to the other, a ship could be pushed along too. It would be a bit like a conveyer belt to the North Pole, and all he would need was patience and the right ship. The danger was that the ship would be crushed by the huge slow-­‐moving pieces of ice, so the Fram was designed with a very round keel so that it would be lifted out of the water and carried rather than crushed. This plan worked beautifully, except that the Fram never quite got to the pole. The ship and her crew were pushed about all over the place [link to map], eventually drifting to the edge of the Arctic ocean and freedom after three years. The furthest north she reached was nearly 86 degrees, 280 miles from the pole.

Even though she didn't get to the North Pole, the Fram clearly demonstrated the dynamic nature of ice in the Arctic, and we now know that individual pieces of ice can indeed travel from Siberia to Greenland in 3-­‐4 years, or can go round a sort of giant ice-­‐roundabout (called the Beaufort Gyre) in 7-­‐10 years. Most polar expedition stories are about humans struggling against natural forces to achieve their goal, but I like the Fram's exploits because they're about humans working with the enormous forces of this planet instead of against them. What are your favourite examples of that?


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