Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nansen: the Ice King

Image from Wikipedia article on Nansen.
Excellent documentary by Paul Rose on Fridtjof Nansen was shown on BBC4 last week, and I finally got a chance to watch it yesterday. Paul Rose is a former vice president of the RGS, and there was a lot of Geography here as well as some fascinating information on Nansen's efforts to reach the North Pole using the ship 'Fram' which was specially designed to survive being trapped in the pack ice. There was also a demonstration of the Nansen bottle, which he designed for taking samples of sea water from depth.

He overwintered on Spitsbergen on the way back from his failed attempt. Lots of useful detail on pressure ridges on the ice, how to survive for 5 months by digging a hole in the permafrost, and the important discoveries he made about the circulation of ocean currents.

Here is the description of the programme.

Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen was the founding father of polar exploration and he is Paul Rose’s all-time hero. In the spring of 1892, he made a bid to become the first man to set foot on the North Pole. His audacious plan was for his ship to become stuck in pack ice in the hope that it would carry him with the ocean currents to the Pole. Until then, ships had been crushed to pieces by the force of encroaching pack ice. Scientists refused to join his mission, claiming it was doomed. But Nansen had designed a special revolutionary hull for his vessel ‘The Fram.’ It was shaped like a duck, so instead of being crushed by the ice, it was simply lifted from the water and sat on top of the ice. At first, the plan seemed to be working and the ship slowly moved towards the pole, but the ice wasn’t taking her as close as Nansen hoped. So he struck out on foot, instead. He used breakthrough polar survival techniques such as the use of layered clothing, compressed gas for cooking, a revolutionary ski design and dogs to pull his sleigh. Nansen discovered that, unlike the South Pole, the North Pole was all ice with no land. He proved that it was possible to survive in the frozen wastes of the poles and travel great distances without support. However, there was a huge problem. The pack ice Nansen was crossing had begun travelling in the opposite direction from the pole – slowing his progress with devastating effect. Nansen had no option to turn back. But this was the most successful failure ever – he had travelled further north than anyone and pioneered a series of new techniques and discoveries which are still with us, even today. His work is even being used by NASA as they develop ways for astronauts to deal with the loneliness and isolation of space. Crucially, unlike leaders of the doomed expeditions before him, Nansen had brought all his men back alive. He was a true pioneer. He laid the foundations for the study of the planet’s ocean currents which today are crucial to our understanding of global weather systems and climate change.

Well worth catching a repeat of the programme, or watch out for it on terrestrial TV.

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