In spite of its harsh environment and dangerous terrain, we just can’t help but be drawn to the Arctic. Scientists and settlers alike have made the trek (or sent their tech) up to and over the far North and PopSci has chronicled many of their wildest stories.
What once began as journeys to mine its gold, hunt its animals, and traverse its skies have evolved into missions to unlock the Arctic’s secrets and understand its demise. From riding caribou to living on an ice float, humankind has had many unusual adventures at the top of the world, and I doubt we’ll stop anytime soon.
See the gallery.
Wish You Were Here, January 1923
If you’ve always wanted to ride a caribou and live in a sod house, the icy North is your dream destination. You might even be lucky enough to get your hands on the unshrinkable wool of a “sheep cow.” Vilhjalmur Stefansson, explorer and anthropologist, wrote this PopSci piece about the Arctic’s destiny as the Last Frontier. Building upon the theory that world powers are forever destined to move north (as they did from Egypt up until England) Stefansson encouraged readers to get a jump on their neighbors and head up top before all the good reindeer were taken. Read the full story in “Go North, Young Man!”
Polar Perils, December 1929
The way we treat nature in the North has certainly changed. This PopSci story detailed two expeditions: One to gather specimens for the Chicago Field Museum, the other to break a path through the ice for Norwegian seal hunters. While the article is chock-full of photos of dead walruses, polar bears, and seals, the “tragedy” in the title actually refers to the 50 Norwegian crewmen (out of 300) who died while battling the Arctic ice. Read the full story in Science and Tragedy in the Arctic.
Arctic Aviation, February 1931
Glaciers downed by dynamite and deliveries via man-pulled sled were just two of the odd scenes produced by this German expedition, sent to Greenland to scope out potential airstrip locations. When times were tough, the dog teams scrambled over treacherous fissures. When they weren’t, the explorers simply powered up their “air-propelled motor sledge” and skimmed across the ice at 50 mph. Read the full story in Seek Airports in Arctic Ice.
Continental Drift, November 1931
Another expedition to Greenland, led by Capt. Flavel M. Williams, hoped to investigate Alfred Wegener’s “theory of migrating continents.” Though Wegener died on his fourth exploration of the icy subcontinent, his theory lived on and this team, gathering one year later, was determined to test its muster. Less than a decade old at the time, Wegener’s theory originated from a night in spent his study, imagining a map of the world on his wall as a jigsaw puzzle. Once he saw the pieces fit, Wegener also found that this union explained the geological and faunal similarities of continents that resided on opposite sides of the world. His final journey was an attempt to reveal that the landmasses were still moving. Greenland — Wegener’s “speed king” — was believed to be the likeliest proof. Read the full story in Tests in Arctic to Prove America is Drifting Toward Equator.
The Golden Jubilee, February 1932
To celebrate the Golden Jubilee (50th anniversary) of Arctic Exploration, 31 expeditions from eight countries (including Capt. Williams’) agreed to work together with the common goal of “wresting scientific secrets from the frozen upper hub of the earth.” Areas of study included glacial movements, star radiation, and the effects of the aurora borealis on radio static. Read the full story in 31 Expeditions Invade the Arctic.
Settling Siberia, May 1937
Following discoveries of platinum, gold, and oil, Russian pioneers set their sights on Siberia. With the help of giant radishes and amphibious “aero-sleds”, they managed to create the settlements of Tiksi Bay, Nordvyk, and Kirovsk — a 40,000-person community with apartments, schools, hospitals, and a 1,200-seat “talkie theater.” Read the full story in New Cities in the Arctic.
Arctic Rescue, October 1945
Once flight paths over the Arctic came into common use, a quick-response rescue service became a necessity. Thus was born the Arctic Search and Rescue Squadron, made up of military men, arctic guides, and just about anyone who had substantial experience in the northern wilderness. Using dogs, planes, tractors, and something called a Weasel, these men had a near-perfect recovery record. Read the full story in Men, Dogs, and Machines Save Flyers Who Crash in the Arctic.
The Floating Lab, July 1965
Within: the story of ARLIS II (Arctic Research Laboratory Ice Station II), a floating research space that scientists from around the world inhabited for four years. They battled polar bears, blizzards, and weight gain (believe it or not) while studying Arctic Ocean currents, new species, and underwater topography. They also recorded the coldest temperatures ever on arctic ice — a bracing 72 below — which may have been what prompted one researcher’s (fulfilled) request for a sun lamp “so I can melt the island and get off.” Read the full story in Four Brutal Years on a Floating Ice Island.
Mars on Earth, September 1999
The Mars Society, a private non-profit devoted to putting a human on Mars, decided the next best thing to a person on Mars would be a few in Canada. In preparation for a mission to the Red Planet, the society devised the Mars Arctic Research Station (MARS). The station’s destination was Devon Island, home to craters and valleys akin to those observed on Mars. It was designed to house four to six people and featured its own simulated air lock. Read the full story in Arctic Outpost.
Autonomous Arctic Sub, January 2000
In order to gather data from “remote, inhospitable marine areas,” researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium invented ALTEX (Arctic Layer Tracking Experiment). This $2 million autonomous sub would cruise 50 feet below arctic ice cover, using ice-melting buoys to send its data via satellite back to the scientists. Its first mission: measure ocean temperatures for a global warming study. Read the full story in Under the Ice.
Icy Time-Lapse, July 2008
Researchers studying arctic melt previously relied on side-by-side photo comparisons of the ice cap. Thanks to Google Earth and National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Walt Meier, the process became much easier. By animating daily images of sea ice, Meier and his colleagues were able to make videos the Larsen B ice shelf loss and 25 years of Greenland’s disappearing act. Read the full story in Arctic Eye.