The Search for the North Pole | Polar Unbound

The Search for the North Pole

The search for the North Pole began rather belatedly, and even then the earliest attempts at the pole were truly in search of the Northeastern Passage. Hudson made an attempt for the pole in 1607, after which 200 years passed before the next attempt. This attempt was inspired by Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, who believed—as many others did at the time and for the next 100 years—that an open polar sea existed. The Russians sent out several expeditions who operated under Lomonosov’s proposition and attempted to reach the pole from Greenland and Svalbard. 

Search parties for Franklin opened up another option running up Greenland’s western coast. Several attempts, largely led by Americans and the British, made attempts for the pole via this new route in the late 19th century. Attempts from the Svalbard route also occurred during this time, though they were no more successful. 

The Fram expedition, during which the ship drifted for 3 years and proved the polar basin’s central region was an ice-covered sea, changed the nature of the international race for the pole. With the discovery that any remaining undiscovered Arctic land was peripheral rather than interior, countries became less interested in scientific exploration and more interested in polar exploration as a form of sport. 

A significant controversy mars this era, as rival claims still exist as to who reached the North Pole first: Robert E. Peary in 1908-09 or Frederick A. Cook in 1907-09. Neither explorer produced conclusive evidence in support of his claim, so both claims remained shrouded in doubt. 

As such, American Ralph Plaisted has the honor of having the first confirmed surface expedition to have reached the North Pole in 1968. Britain Wally Herbert reached the North Pole the following year via dog team, while U.S. nuclear submarines reached the pole in 1958 and 1959 and the Soviet icebreaker Arktika was the first surface ship to have reached the pole in 1977.