4 August, 2003
We reached our highest latitude of the voyage at about noon today, or put another way, our furthest north. My preconceived mental image pictured a bitter cold, pure white icescape sculpted smooth by the wind. Instead, our furthest north at 74 degrees and 23 minutes turned-out to be relatively ice free, and the sea was choppy and gray. In fact, it was raining!
My misconception reminded me of an observation made by the Greek geographical thinker Strabo who noted, "The sailor on the open sea, or the man who travels through a country, is guided by certain popular notions." And it has always been this way.
Tradition has it that the three voyages of Captain James Cook between 1768 and 1779 represented a proverbial testing of the theoretical waters. Influenced heavily by a potent mixture of myth and reality, geographical thinkers of the day asserted the following: (1) a great, unknown continent lay in the vast reaches of the southern Pacific Ocean; (2) the western entrance to the Northwest Passage was located somewhere along the rocky coastline of northwestern North America; and, (3) an ice free polar sea would permit easy navigation between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It was left to Cook and his crew to test those waters, and as the Captain demonstrated, on all three counts the armchair theorists were wrong. Nonetheless, Cook was instrumental in accelerating the exploratory process that ultimately revealed the true nature of the Pacific basin.
In a way, we too are explorers, probing the depths and the inner workings of the Arctic Ocean. Although we are largely focusing on what lies below the surface, the scientists and technicians on board the Research Vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer are simply fulfilling their parts of the exploratory process. Like blank areas on a map, the empty spaces between our lines of stations invite speculation about the nature of the waters’ properties where we have no data.
So in the spirit of oceanographic exploration, I can't help but wonder what it's like at 75 degrees north.
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