The Arctic Circle has loomed large in the imaginations of many people over the centuries. Due to its extreme climate and remote location, few humans are able to live there, and even fewer have been able to explore it extensively. Recent advancements in technology as well as glacial retreat have opened up large sections of the Arctic for shipping and resource exploitation, a process made possible by the legions of explorers who charted the region over the centuries.
While indigenous peoples have resided in the Arctic for millennia, it wasn’t until relatively recently that explorers began mapping out its lands and bodies of water. Here’s a brief history on the exploration of the Arctic Circle.
The Discovery of the Arctic Circle
It is believed that the ancient Greeks were the first non-indigenous people to attempt to explore the Arctic. Indeed, the name “Arctic” is derived from the Greek language, referring to “arktos,” the Greek word for “bear” and a reference to the Great Bear constellation. The Greek sailor Pytheas claimed to have explored the far northern reaches of Europe, in search of the source of tin that sporadically washed up on the shores of the Greek colony of Massilia (now known as Marseille and located in southern France).
According to Pytheas, he set sail from Massilia in 325 B.C., traversing the Iberian and French coasts, reaching Brittany in northwestern France, and circumnavigating the British Isles. Interacting with locals in the area, he set sail further north searching for the mythical land of “Thule,” but his journey was cut short by a frozen sea which he described as “curdled.” Pytheas also witnessed what is believed to be the Northern Lights and the midnight sun, suggesting that he crossed into the Arctic Circle. Later historians believe that the land he called “Thule” was either the coast of Norway or the Shetland Islands; his journey was later dismissed as fantasy by successive generations of Greek and Roman historians.
The next recorded explorations of the Arctic would not come until the Middle Ages, when Viking captain Garðar Svavarsson sighted Iceland after being blown off course en route from Norway to the Faroe Islands. In the 900’s, Viking captain Gunnbjörn Ulfsson sighted Greenland after becoming lost in a storm; his reports led to Erik the Red, an outlawed Viking chieftain, to establish a colony there in 985. While Viking colonies in Greenland initially flourished, the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 1300’s led to the colonies dying out by 1450.
Later Viking explorers pushed west of Greenland in search of new territories. This led to the discovery of Vinland in the 1000’s, believed to be located in modern-day Newfoundland in Canada. In 880, Viking captain Ohthere of Hålogaland succeeded in journeying around the Scandinavian and Kola Penisulas, eventually reaching the White Sea. In 1533, Russian monks founded the Pechenga Monastery on the Kola Penisula, using it as a base to explore the Eurasian Arctic, eventually mapping out the Northern Sea Route and penetrating deep into Siberia. In 1648, Semyon Dezhnyov charted the Bering Sea between Siberia and Alaska.
Western European interest in the Arctic was reignited in the 1400’s and 1500’s following Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World. Expeditions focused on the Northwest Passage, a mythical all-sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, allowing direct European trade with China. Jacques Cartier’s discovery of the St. Lawrence River in 1564 spurred interest in the Northwest Passage, with Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, and other explorers trying and failing to locate it over the next few decades.
Improving maritime technology led to renewed expeditions to find the Northwest Passage in the 1800’s. Robert McClure is believed to have discovered the Passage in 1851 when he sighted Melville Island; however, the route was blocked by sea ice. Overland expeditions also became common during this period. It was not until 1906 when the Northwest Passage was fully explored, by Norwegian captain Roald Amundsen.
Around this time, interest was also spurred in mapping the North Pole. In 1909, American explorer Robert Peary claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole, traveling via dogsled and using a team of support crews. However, Peary’s claims are disputed by modern explorers, who claim it would have been impossible to reach the North Pole in the time that he did using the equipment that was available to him at the time. In 1908, Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole, but this is also disputed.
A number of other expeditions to the North Pole were launched around this time, most ending in failure, such as the Jeannette Expedition of 1879. In 1926, American pilots Robert E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett claimed to have flown over the North Pole, but this is disputed. The first undisputed sighting of the North Pole came in 1926, when the airship Norge, led by Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth, flew over the Pole.
In 1948, a Soviet party led by Alexander Kuznetsov landed their plane near the North Pole and walked to it, the first people confirmed to have reached the pole by foot. In 1959, the U.S. submarine Nautilus reached the North Pole by traveling underneath the polar ice cap, though it did not surface at any point. The first traveler to make an all-surface journey to the North Pole and back was Ralph Plaisted in 1968, who made the journey by snowmobile. One year later, American Wally Herbert successfully reached the North Pole on foot and using dog sleds.
In the years since these expeditions, many hobby travelers have successfully made journeys to the North Pole. In 1995, Canadian skier Richard Weber and Russian skier Misha Malakov reached the Pole on foot without any outside help, the first to do so. In 2007, the BBC’s Top Gear TV show successfully journeyed to the North Pole in a modified Toyota Hilux. Later that year, as part of the Arktika 2007 expedition, several Russian manned submersibles reached the sea-bed underneath the Pole.
The Arctic Circle will remain a point of fascination for people and governments around the world due to its vast bounty of natural resources. With climate change opening up parts of the Arctic to settlement for the first time in millennia, it is clear that interest in the region will only increase as the years wear on. We have the many explorers over the centuries to thank for mapping the Arctic and opening it up to large-scale human habitation.