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Open Polar Sea

The overwhelming emptiness and terrifying beauty of the polar regions never fails to attract. That portion of the globe we inhubit which is most cheerless, dreary and desolate, which is farthest removed from civilization, which produces but little calculatcd to benefit humaninty, and which proved the grave of many hardy spirits who endeavored to explore its dark regions, was for many generations past a locality of deep and absorbing interest.

The Open Polar Sea, beyond the region of embayed and strangulatcd ice-floes, was a theory that was floated by theorists and explorers from the 16th until the late 19th century. It was thought that the North Pole may be surrounded by open sea rather than a thick ice pack and so would allow a navigable route and sea passage. This long fanciful idea of an Open Polar Sea and free sailing between Europe and the Pacific is now becoming a reality with Arctic ice shrinkage due to climate change.

Early expeditions to the Arctic attempted to force their way through sea ice in hopes of finding a practical northwest trade route to the East Indies. Up to the 1870s it was believed (incorrectly) that at certain times of the year warm currents would create ice-free passageways to the Open Polar Sea. Wrangell, in the end of March, 1821, met with thin ice at a distance of 140 miles from the mouth of the Kolyma. Wrangell also observed that north winds were always damp. The observations of Hendestrom, Anjou, and Wrangell, have led the Russian geographers to the conclusion that part of the Polar Ocean north of Siberia is always open water, and that this Polynia, as they call it, extends from twenty miles north of New Siberia islands to about the same distance off the coast of the continent. Admiral von Wrangell, using an allowable poetical license, has called the open water off the Siberian coast " the wide immeasurable ocean." Ever since the translation of his work, "the great Polynia of the Russians" has been a phrase on which geographical theorists have founded the wildest speculations.

Several explorers had hypothesised a stretch of ice-free sea between Greenland and the North Pole, and several expeditions set out in search of it. One of these was planned and led by Isaac Israel Hayes (1832–81), an American physician and explorer. This account of the expedition, first published in 1866, was compiled from his journals. Having left Boston in a small schooner so overloaded with equipment that a passenger could lean over the deck rail and touch the sea, Hayes and his crew almost faced shipwreck off Nova Scotia and regularly saw their cabins flooded on their way to Greenland, where, in calmer weather, they encountered the first palatial ice floes.

Even after unpredictable ice conditions and extreme cold made it clear that the tantalizing shortcut was impractical, if not impossible, explorers continued to push their ships and crews into the Arctic's icy waters. One reason for the persistence of these explorers was a theory that the seas around the pole were not covered in ice, but open and easily navigable--if the explorers could only push their way through the thick ring of ice surrounding those warmer waters. The theory of the open polar sea was persistent, with roots stretching back to the 1600s and lasting late into the 19th century. Its proponents included many prominent figures in the history of Arctic exploration.

Physician, scientist, and Arctic explorer, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane of Philadelphia contributed significantly to arctic study in the mid-19th century. His writings on the polar regions were very influential and his espousal of an "Open Polar Sea" was widely accepted. His explorations in Smith Sound, Kane Basin, and Kennedy Channel paved the way for Peary's North Pole expedition.

Dr. Isaac I. Hayes, the Arctic explorer nicknamed "Polar Hayes," was a young surgeon from Pennsylvania when he participated in his first polar exploration via Greenland, known as the Second Grinnell Expedition (1853-1855) under Dr. Elisha Kent Kane. In 1861, Dr. Hayes led an expedition in search of the Open Polar Sea-an ice free zone across the North Pole that ships would be able to navigate between Europe and Asia. He claimed to have seen it, but could not prove his sighting of a navigation route that did not exist. He was an author, a surgeon during the Civil War, a lecturer, and from 1875 to his death of heart disease on December 19, 1881, at the age of 49, a member of the State Assembly representing New York City.

Silas Bent was born on 10 October 1820 in St. Louis, MO. He was appointed midshipman at age 16 and served in the Navy for the next 25 years, during which he became well versed in the science of oceanography. He crossed the Atlantic five times, the Pacific twice, rounded Cape Horn four times and the Cape of Good Hope once. He was serving in Preble in 1849 when that brig sailed into Nagasaki, Japan, to secure the release of 18 shipwrecked American sailors imprisoned by the Japanese. He was flag lieutenant in Mississippi, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's flagship during the expedition to Japan (1852-1854), and he made hydrographic surveys of Japanese waters. The results of his survey were published by the government in 1857 in Sailing Directions and Nautical Remarks: by Officers of the Late U.S. Naval Expedition to Japan. In 1860, Lt. Bent was detailed to the Hydrographic Division of the Coast Survey, but resigned from the Navy on 25 April 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, apparently because of Southern sympathies. He returned to St. Louis upon resigning from the Navy and took up the management of his wife's estate. Bent died on 26 August 1887 at Shelter Island, Long Island, NY, and was buried in Louisville, KY.

Silas Bent (AGS-26), launched on 16 May 1964, was the first of a new class of oceanographic survey ships, operated by the Military Sealift Command as an integrated system for the gathering of vital oceanographic data in both underway and on-station modes. The data she collects was recorded in a form immediately usable by computers. In her heyday, SILAS BENT was the "PATHFINDER" ship: the class ship, the model for the first of the newest and best of the Navy's oceanographic fleet.

Silas Bent was in his day North America's protagonist of an ice-free polar sea. Reports and theories of an open polar sea were much in the news and in the books of the period. The theories gained an ascendency over Bent, who read a confirmation of them into his own observations, especially those made during his voyages with Perry's squadron back and forth in the North Pacific. On December 10, 1868, he delivered to the St. Louis Historical Society a discourse, "Thermometric Gate–ways to the Pole," and deliver e d it again, changed, lengthened, and titled "Thermal Paths to the Pole," before the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association on January 6, 1872. These addresses were published as pamphlets at St. Louis in 1869 and in 1872.

Bent urged that tremendous quantities of warm water flow north from the tropics through both Atlantic and Pacific to enter the Polar SEa, the Pacific current by way of Bering Strait, the Atlantic by way of the gap between Iceland and Norway. The two currents, when they eventually joined up in the vicinity of the North Pole, would pool their heat so effectively that there resulted an ice-free space several hundred miles across. Bent considered that ships might attain this ice-free area, the Open Polar Sea, by following the course of one of the warm currents, a "Thermal Path to the Pole". Instead of being lonely and peculiar in thinking that an open sea around the North Pole had been seen, Bent was really in tune with his time. The Open Polar Sea captured and held in thrall the imagination of Europe and the United States.

Prior to the voyage of the Jeannette in 1879, all attempts to reach the North Pole had been voyages along the coast of Greenland. Each of these attempts was eventually thwarted when the ships reached an impenetrable wall of ice. The funding for the voyage of the Jeannette came from James Gordon Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald, one of the most influential newspapers of the time. In 1871, Bennett and the Herald had gained international fame by sponsoring the expedition of Sir Henry M. Stanley to find the missionary Dr. David Livingstone in central Africa.

The goal for the Jeannette was to travel through the Bering Strait to find a sailable passage to the North Pole. The fate of the USS Jeannette became a major news story worldwide in the early 1880s. The ship proved to be slower than anticipated and came upon the edge of the polar ice cap much farther south than expected. Trapped in the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean above Siberia, the ship kept the attention of the reading public in the United States for many long months. By the summer of 1882, the thrilling story of survival with the appearance of Engineer Melville's crew in Iakutsk had given way to the tragic news of Commander De Long's death and the evident loss of Lieutenant Chipp's boat.

Theoretical geographers had written of an open polar sea, through which, by a short passage, communication between the nations of the world might be had. By 1894, Joseph Crocker Sibley, a member of the US House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, stated "There may be a Northwest passage between the oceans, but no mariner has found it, and the Ice King locks in his death grasp the forms of multitudes who have sought that passage. There may be a Northwest passage; I know not; but I know that the prudent merchant sends his cargo by a more certain and safer route."

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:39:02 ZULU