Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Remnants of Lost Polar Expedition Sought

Lost in the Canadian Arctic, two British polar exploration ships more than 150 years old are frozen in some icy nook and cranny.

Despite more than 30 search and rescue missions for Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew, only scraps of evidence -- forks and spoons, shoes, a letter -- have been found of the 1845 expedition.

Now a team of Canadian archaeologists is setting off with modern sonar sea-floor mapping instruments, along with historical records to locate HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, reports a BBC News article. The researchers hope to finally piece together what happened to the shipwrecked crew.

Veteran explorer Franklin led two ships and 128 men north in search of the legendary North-West Passage -- a narrow channel that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The existence of such a channel would revolutionize trading; ships would no longer need to circumnavigate around the Americas to reach the West Coast or Asia. For this reason, the Royal Navy was offering a £10,000 reward for finding the North-West Passage.

The passage was eventually discovered by Captain Robert McClure in 1855 during a failed rescue mission for Franklin’s crew. Today ships can use the iceberg-filled pathway, but only in the dead of summer.

When Franklin set off on his final voyage, he was motivated by the prize money, adventure and glory. No stranger to the harsh, cold conditions of the Arctic, Franklin had already mapped 1,200 miles of Canadian coastline on previous expeditions.

The crew outfitted the front tips of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus with iron so the ships could bust through any icy barriers. The ships also featured the latest technology at the time -- small steam engines.

But the Arctic proved a formidable foe. The ships crashed, and whether due to lead poisoning from poorly packaged food, scurvy or simply not enough food, the entire crew perished.

Interviews with Inuits during early rescue missions revealed that some members of the crew got crazed and desperate, resorting to cannibalism.

The mystery of how all the explorers died is one of the many questions the Canadian archaeologists hope to resolve.

The archaeologists are following the same sea route used by Franklin and his crew in 1845: entering the Arctic from the East and maneuvering past Greenland into the vast Canadian Arctic archipelago.

The team is basing their search on the few clues researchers have already accumulated. For example, the location of the shipwreck is suspected to be somewhere along Mercy Bay and could be marked by debris of the wreck, including a pile of coal.

If the investigation in Mercy Bay proves unfruitful, the team plans on flying more than 621 miles east to another potential crash spot. In this second location, west of the Adelaide Peninsula, the archaeologists hope to survey the sea floor for remnants of the ships.

And maybe, fingers crossed, this will be the final search mission for Franklin and his crew.

Hijri, Zahra. 2010. "Remnants of Lost Polar Expedition Sought". Discovery News. Posted: July 25, 2010. Available online:

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