2. Elusive Passages through the Arctic

Northern Europeans sought for centuries to forge routes to Asia’s wealth through the Arctic. Merchants and settlers were already exploring parts of the northern coasts of Russia and Asia as early as the eleventh century. Attempts to open up the “Northeast Passage” began in earnest with Dutch voyages led by Gerrit de Veer and Willem Barentsz. in 1594–1597, which rounded Novaya Zemlya and explored the coasts of Spitsbergen and Bear Island. Martin Frobisher’s 1576–1578 voyage inaugurated the active search by the English for the “Northwest Passage” around the top of America. Such efforts were encouraged by maps such as Gerhard Mercator’s of 1595, which depicted large areas of open waters between the known continents and four suggested islands [items 15–16]. Their results were eventually incorporated in maps of the Arctic [items 17–18, 21–23].

The freezing winters defeated many of the voyages of exploration, the ships and their crews never being heard from again. But the British and Russians persisted. In the eighteenth century, they began to explore both passages from their opposite ends in the Pacific Ocean [items 19–20]. It was not until 1903–1906 that the Northwest Passage was successfully navigated by an expedition led by Roald Amundsen. Such expeditions mapped the limits of pack and drift ice in the Arctic [items 24–25]. The ice has always prevented regular marine shipping from using the Arctic, but recent climate change has reduced the pack ice, making the Arctic passages navigable for several months of the year.

Gerard Mercator first mapped the Arctic in an inset to his great 1569 world map, in which he imagined four great islands, separated by great rivers, surrounding an inner sea centered on the huge lodestone of black rock that supposedly formed both the magnetic and true north poles. Cornelius De Jode included this imaginative geography, with its encouragingly open waterways, in his 1593 map of North America [item 16]. Mercator later turned this inset into the first separate map devoted to the Arctic regions, which his son Michael published posthumously in 1595. In this enlarged map, Mercator incorporated the results of recent explorations in search of the Northwest and Northeast Passages [item 15].


15. Gerard Mercator

Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio

Amsterdam, 1595


16. Cornelius De Jode

Americae pars borealis, Florida, Baccalaos, Canada, Corterealis

Antwerp, 1593

The exploratory voyages into the Arctic were followed by more mundane voyages to exploit the region’s resources. Item 17, for example, includes several scenes of whaling. Geographers recorded the results of the voyages in their maps of the Arctic Ocean.

In 1676, the Dutchman Henricus Hondius exaggerated the success of his countrymen in exploring the Northeast Passage [item 17]. He extended the north coast of Asia almost to the other side of the earth even though much of this coastline was conjectural, as he admitted in the label, Tartariae maritima incognita (“unknown coastal Tartary”). By contrast, the English appear to have been much less successful in the northwest, although they had actually traced a much longer series of coastlines.

This geographical imbalance was continued by the great French geographer Guillaume Delisle [item 18]. A Russian expedition in 1725–1729, led by Vitus Bering (1681–1741), had traced the eastern coastline of Siberia, almost completing knowledge of the northern coast of Asia and, in the process, encountering portions of the Alaskan coastline. By contrast, the Arctic reaches of North America remain largely a land of ignorance and conjecture (the latter indicated by printed coastlines that remain uncolored).


17. Henricus Hondius

Poli Arctici, et circumiacentium terrarum descriptio novissima

Amsterdam, 1676


18. Guillaume Delisle

L’Hemisphere Septentrional pour voir plus distinctement les Terres Arctiques

Amsterdam: J. Covens and C. Mortier, ca. 1742

These two French maps show the two attempts on the Northwest Passage made by James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific [see also section 4]. In the general map [item 19], a dashed line traces his 1778 voyage up the Pacific coast of North America, starting at Nootka in March and reaching sea ice in Bering Strait in August; a dotted line traces the 1779 voyage along the coast of Kamchatka and Siberia, which was again blocked by sea ice in July. Item 20 gives a more detailed map of the two routes (but now dashed and solid, respectively) at the southern end of the straits.


19. Rigobert Bonne

“Carte de la côte N.O. de l’Amérique et de la côte N.E. de l’Asie reconnues en 1778 et 1779”

From: Atlas Encyclopédique, vol. 2 (Paris: Panckoucke, 1788)


20. Rigobert Bonne

“Carte de l’Entrée de Norton et du Détroit de Bhering, où l’on voit le Cap le plus Oriental de l’Asie, et la pointe la plus Occidentale de l’Amerique”

From: Atlas Encyclopédique, vol. 2 (Paris: Panckoucke, 1788)

The mismatch of early modern European knowledge about the two poles is evident from these beautifully engraved “calottes” constructed by Vincenzo Coronelli (1650–1718) for a very large globe. They depict the region within just 20º latitude of each pole. The calotte for the North Pole [item 21] sweeps round from Novaya Zemlya, at about 9 o’clock, through Greenland at noon, to the Canadian Arctic at 3 o’clock. (Coronelli covered more territory in an earlier atlas map [item 23], in which he framed an account of early polar explorers in an image of the aurora borealis, or “northern lights.”)

Because Coronelli sought to depict polar coastlines only as observed by explorers, he properly left his calotte for the South Pole empty of geographical content [item 22]. Instead he used part of the calotte for an ornate cartouche and legend in praise of Ferdinand Magellan who, as first circumnavigator, had revealed the globe to European commerce (symbolized by the god Mercury). Coronelli also gave an account of the Greek conception of the earth’s five zones [see item 1 in section 1].


21. Vincenzo Maria Coronelli

Calotte (cap) of the North Pole for a globe

From: Libro dei globi (Venice, 1697)


22. Vincenzo Maria Coronelli

Calotte (cap) for the South Pole for a globe

From: Libro dei globi (Venice, 1697)


23. Vincenzo Maria Coronelli

Terre Artiche

Venice: ca. 1690

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of the systematic investigation of all aspects of Nature. Of particular interest was the determination of how specific phenomena — such as terrestrial magnetism or specific species of plants and animals — varied across the earth’s surface. The drive to measure everything included temperature, of critical importance for the frigid polar regions. Enough measurements had been taken around the northern hemisphere by 1850 to permit the German geographer Joseph Meyer to construct this remarkable map of isotherms (lines of equal temperature), defined in degrees Celsius. He also depicted, across the northern Atlantic Ocean, the southward limit of pack ice.


24. Joseph Meyer

Die Isothermkurven der nördlichen Halbkugel

Leipzig: Joseph Stieler, 1850

Results of the careful scientific investigation of the Arctic in the nineteenth and twentieth century are summarized in this detailed map, originally published in Germany in 1924 and then updated by the scientists of the American Geographical Society. In particular, the map shows the limits of ice: the southernmost limit of drift ice (i.e., ice floating free in the ocean) is marked by a blue dashed line, which can be seen for example just south of Iceland; the extent of thicker, year-round pack ice (i.e., ice that has been driven together in a single mass) is shown by “chunk” symbols. The routes of various expeditions to reach the North Pole are marked; beyond them, the map remains blank. As a note in the bottom margin states:

“Unexplored or unseen areas in the Arctic Basin are left white. Areas that were within the mathematical horizon of visibility from sledge, ship’s masthead, or aircraft, as the case may be, are assumed to be known.”


25. American Geographical Society

Physical Map of the Arctic

From: New York: American Geographical Society, 1929