Pronunciation key

( pōlẽr )



[ML. polaris < L. polus; see POLE].

  1. Connected with or in the vicinity of the North or South Poles.
  2. Pertaining to poles or a pole.
  3. Containing polarity.
  4. Central or pivotal.
  5. Characterized by two opposite extremes, nature or directions.
  6. Serving for guidance, like a earth pole or polestar.
  7. Measured from a pole or reference to, i.e., polar diameter or distance.
  8. Traveling in a polar orbit.

Polar Exploration

Image credit: Arctic Grab
The Arctic and Arctic Ocean in relation to Canada, Europe and Russia

Polar exploration had its earliest beginning in the 16th century quest for a northern passage in an aim to locate Asia. Before 1576, there is no record of search for a passage around North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. The first known endeavor was commanded by Queen Elizabeth in that year to Sir Martin Frobisher to search for such a route to the Far East by way of the northwest but his mission was never accomplished. In 1845 Sir John Franklin may have reached the goal but his entire crew and himself disappeared and no certain knowledge of his accomplishments are known.

Richard Chancellor, Willem Barents, Henry Hudson and others searched for the elusive Northwest Passage but were repetitively blocked by ice. Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook, and Captain George Vancouver searched for the Northwest Passage from perspective of the Pacific.

Antarctica remained the only continent unknown to the world in the early 19th century. However, in 1820 the Antarctic Peninsula was spotted by two seal hunters Nathaniel B. Palmer (United States) and Edward Bransfield (England).

William E. Parry attempted to reach the North Pole by sledge in 1827.

A U.S. Naval expedition commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes sailed over 1500 miles along the coast of Antarctica in 1840. Wilkes evidenced land enough to provide evidence of the mass being a a continent, although a vast majority of its surface was covered in ice.

In 1893-1896 Fridtjof Nansen had hope that the currents would carry it to the pole, but his ship, the Fram became frozen in the sea ice. Nansen and Fredrik Hjalmar Johanson abandoned ship and struck out for the pole on foot. Ultimately they were rescued by Franz Josef Land.

These discoveries led to two groups of explorers who wished to reach the South Pole. One was led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the second by Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the British Navy. The former's skill with sled dogs made it possible to reach the pole on December 14, 1911, several weeks before Scott. It was a short time after Scott and crew arrived at the pole, they were frozen to death.

Exploration of the Arctic, the opposite pole, had its beginning in the 1840's after the disappearance of an expedition commanded by the British explorer Sir John Franklin and 129 men who had journeyed to the Arctic in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage. Following that event, many teams of men went to search in the Arctic region for Franklin and company. Their bodies were never found but the search parties journeyed farther west through the Arctic islands north of mainland Canada. During 1903-1906 Roald Amundsen completed sail through the Arctic islands on the ship Gjöa, reaching the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, Amundsen was the first to accomplish navigation of the Northwest Passage, an endeavor which explorers worldwide had tried to accomplish for several centuries. Sir Robert McClure was given a formal award for the discovery of the Northwest Passage while on a searching expedition (1850-1854) for the lost Sir John Franklin.

Roald Amundsen's Exploration of the Polar Region and Discovery of the Northwest Passage
Roald Amundsen's Exploration of the Polar Region and Discovery of the Northwest Passage

The Northeast Passage was finally sailed by Adolf Nordenskjöld from east to west in 1878-1879.

Hundreds of attempts to reach the North Pole was undertaken, inspired by discoveries in the North Pole. One party was led by an American explorer, Robert E. Peary, who reached the pole on April 6, 1909. His expedition team included Matthew A. Henson, an aide and four Eskimos. One week before Peary returned from the expedition, Frederick A. Cook, another American claimed that he too had reached the North Pole during April 1908, a year earlier. The dispute which erupted was never satisfactorily settled.
Peary and Henson are generally credited with having reached the North Pole. They also conducted a series of exploratory expeditions which lasted 11 years.

Arctic and Antarctic explorations began to become less dangerous after the airplane was invented. Two Americans Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett from Spitsbergen and flew directly over the North Pole in 1926. Byrd and Bernt Balchen, a Norwegian-American pilot flew over the South Pole in 1929.

Image credit: Mapping, Austrian Govt.
Antarctica and South Pole

The first expedition to completely cross overland on the continent of Antarctica was accomplished in 1957-1958. It was achieved under leadership of Sir Vivian E. Fuchs, a British geologist, an expedition which included equipment such as snow tractors to carry them across the frozen land. They drove a total of 2,158 miles and a total of 99 days to complete this feat. In 1958, the United States nuclear powered submarine Nautilus was the first to pass beneath the Arctic ice to the location of the North Pole.


  • Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (College Edition) ©1955
  • The American Peoples Encyclopedia ©1960
  • The World Book Encyclopedia ©1981
  • The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition ©1985
  • Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge ©1991
  • Further Reading

  • Exploration
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