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Why an 1879 Voyage Is a Time Machine for Climate Change

By Hampton Sides (The Wall Street Journal) - August 1, 2014

Climate-change researchers have long grappled with a particularly vexing problem: finding a way to figure out what the polar ice cap truly looked like a century ago in order to compare it with today’s ice—its extent, its thickness, its overall strength and condition. To understand that, you’d have to take a time machine back into history, build a research station and trap it for years in the dangerously drifting icepack.

As it happens, a group of U.S.Navy explorers did just that in the early 1880s—by sailing a small ship deep into the Arctic ice pack and keeping exacting records of what they found. When the USS Jeannette sailed from San Francisco in 1879, its captain, Lt. Cmdr. George Washington De Long, quixotically hoped to reach the North Pole through the Bering Strait. At the time, many seafarers thought that a warm-water current called the Kuro-Siwo swept through the Bering Strait and softened up the ice cap, creating a “thermometric gateway” to a giant warm-water basin—the Open Polar Sea, it was called—that many believed covered the top of the world.

De Long never found this mythic Open Polar Sea. Instead, the Jeannette, which had been massively reinforced for the ice, became trapped in the pack just north of the Bering Strait. It drifted for two years and a thousand miles, heading more or less toward the North Pole. Along the way, the ship’s crew discovered three Arctic islands and claimed them for the U.S.; this archipelago (still known as the De Long Islands) is now held by Russia.

Every hour of the day for two years, De Long and his crew braved the freezing cold and took measurements of air and sea temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, ice thickness and drift, as determined by the ship’s daily position. It was arduous, sometimes tedious work, and De Long wondered whether his notations would do the world a whit of good.

Finally, in the early summer of 1881, the terrific pressure of the ice pack crushed the Jeannette’s hull, and the ship sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. De Long and his 32 men and 40 dogs were marooned on the ice. To survive, they had to drag their open boats south for nearly a thousand miles, find open water and sail their fragile crafts to the nearest landmass—the central coast of Siberia.

De Long, one of the great forgotten American explorers, held his expedition together during the harrowing trek, avoiding the three great banes of Arctic exploration: mutiny, scurvy and cannibalism. As they struggled over the crust and sludge, De Long’s men lugged dozens of heavy meteorological logbooks containing troves of information about the Arctic ice and weather. When they finally reached Siberia’s shores three months later, starving and exhausted, De Long buried the heaviest of his records in the sand.

He and his men became hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine delta of Russia’s Lena River and met terrible hardship. De Long was forced to slaughter his last dog. One of his crewmen had to have his frostbitten feet amputated and died of infection. “What in God’s name is going to become of us?” wrote De Long.

In the end, only 13 of the 33 explorers made it home. The Jeannette’s survivors were greeted as heroes and her dead hailed as martyrs to science. While little-known today, the expedition was a sensation at the time—chronicled in newspapers and spurring songs, poems, monuments, paintings, congressional inquiries and best sellers.

Miraculously, the Jeannette’s logbooks and records were later found by Navy rescuers. They were placed on a reindeer-pulled sled, taken by train to St. Petersburg, then taken by steamer to New York. They wound up in the National Archives in Washington, where they’ve been preserved for 135 years.

Over the past year, an international team of climatologists and historians, working with the National Archives, has dug back into those historic logbooks and started digitizing and analyzing De Long’s work. “The data De Long gathered is quite valuable and amazingly thorough,” says Kevin Wood, a scientist affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The Jeannette was well-equipped for science, and it was the first vessel ever to go through that part of the Arctic.”

The climate-change story that De Long’s logbooks tell is a sobering one: The once impenetrable polar ice cap, at least in that 1,000-mile swath of the High Arctic north of Siberia, has shrunk, weakened and thinned far faster—and far more dramatically—than anyone had realized. Dr. Wood has taken dozens of research trips to the waters north of the Bering Strait and has closely compared recent ice conditions with those described by De Long. “If the Jeannette were embarking today in the same season,” says Dr. Wood, “she probably wouldn’t find any sea ice to get stuck in.”

The extent to which the ice in the northern Chukchi Sea has shrunk since De Long’s ordeal is astonishing. “For the most recent decade, satellite data show that summer ice concentrations in the Chukchi Sea south of the 80th parallel have declined by as much as 70%,” Dr. Wood says.

As the extent of the ice has shrunk, its quality has weakened. De Long’s journal speaks of enormous pressure ridges and towering bergs of multiyear ice unleashing a din of shrieks, groans and shuddering explosions. “The kind of ice that De Long describes seems almost fantastical to me,” says Dr. Wood. “In his journal, he repeatedly describes ridges and grounded floebergs that are as tall as 60 feet that have run aground in 150 feet of water. You just don’t see this kind of ice in that part of the Arctic anymore.”

The precise cause of this ice deterioration—whether it is the result of human activities, part of larger climatic fluctuations or some of both—is, of course, the subject of great and often politicized debate. Still, all these years later, the disastrous voyage of the Jeannette has proven strikingly useful to science.

At the heart of the Jeannette’s last voyage lies a deep irony: De Long set off in search of the nonexistent Open Polar Sea. Now climatologists warn that one day soon, such a sea may indeed come into being. Maybe George De Long wasn’t crazy or quixotic after all—just off by 140 years.