I. Mapping the Arctic

Long before mariners explored the Arctic, ancient geographers knew that higher latitudes were colder than lower ones. On this basis, they predicted that the equatorial regions were stiflingly hot and that the Polar Regions were frigidly cold [1-8], dividing the world into a series of climatic zones. At the top of this global layer cake, they placed the North Pole, an axis point which sat in the middle of a cold, featureless “Mare Glaciale.” [1-1] By the 1500s, however, ideas about polar geography began to change. In particular, the existence of a “Northwest Passage” above the American continent fired the imagination of Europeans, particularly in the British Isles. [1-2] [1-3] As Britain sought to find its own sea route to Asia, the Arctic carried the promise of commerce. In 1527, merchants Robert Thorne and Roger Barlow urged Henry VIII to send ships to find a northern passage to the Spice Islands, a route that would cut time and distance from the long voyage around Africa. [1-4] By the end of the sixteenth century, Britain had fielded a number of expeditions to find the Northwest Passage under the commands of Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson and others. Although little evidence supported the existence of such a passage, mapmakers remained optimistic, placing watery channels at the top of their maps of North America. [1-5] [1-6]