Roald Amundsen, Pioneer at the Ends of the Earth
It’s one hundred years this week* since Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, becoming the leader of the first expedition to reach this inhospitable point on the Earth (and beating British explorer Robert Scott by a month). But it wasn’t the only—or even the first—time that the Norwegian explorer secured his place in history.
Amundsen’s South Pole expedition placed him at the forefront of the grandly named ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’, a 25 year period in which there was a flurry of expeditions to the southern-most continent. But he had previously spent years in Canada’s Arctic zone, carving a name for himself out of the ice-covered Northwest Passage.
The Northwest Passage had been a highly sought prize among ocean-bound explorers for centuries: a fabled northern sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans which, it was believed, would expand trade between Europe and Asia. Interest in finding the Northwest Passage dated back to the days when Christopher Colombus was crossing the Atlantic. Many attempts were made to find the Northwest Passage, and stories abounded of ‘ghost ships’ trapped in the Arctic ice for years, their crews frozen where they sat or slept.
Roald Amundsen set off on his attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1903, finally reaching the Pacific ocean in 1906. Incredibly, part of his route across the top of North America took his ship through waters only 90cm deep (in Rae Strait).
Dramatic Changes in a Century
If Amundsen made his pioneering journey today, it would be less arduous. Satellite imaging has tracked a reduction in sea ice covering the Northwest Passage in the last few years, potentially making the waters navigable to more than just ice-breakers. The satellite image shows the 30-year average minimum ice coverage of the Arctic as a yellow line, and the Northwest Passage shipping route in red, along with the actual ice coverage in September 2011.
*At the time of writing: December 13, 2011. Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911.