National Geographic : 1959 Jan
Atomic cargo submarines may someday ply the ice-roofed depths of the polar ocean The Arctic as a Sea Route of the Future By COMDR. WILLIAM R. ANDERSON, USN Captain, U. S. S. Nautilus AN'S last unknown sea, the ice mantled Arctic Ocean, has yielded to the Atomic Age. Across the top of the world, blazed by thousands of instru ment readings, lies a maritime highway of tomorrow-strategic, commercially promising, and, I am convinced, safe. For centuries the Arctic Ocean has remained almost as unmapped as the far side of the moon. Even less than six months ago, the concept of a submerged shipping route through the Arctic might have been dismissed as science fiction. Today it is a distinct possibility. In four nuclear submarine cruises-three by Nautilus, one by Skate-that ocean has been sounded out, ice and bottom, to such an extent that we can now say that a new transocean route has been opened between Pacific and Atlantic. Submarines Chart the Arctic Depths My shipmate, Bill Lalor, describes on the preceding pages the now-historic 1958 voyage of Nautilus. I was privileged to lead the crew of that superb atomic submarine in attaining her "first": a west-to-east crossing of the Arctic via the North Pole, August 1-4, 1958. One week later the nuclear-powered Skate appended a highly significant chapter to our own tale of exploration. On August 11, cap tained by Comdr. James F. Calvert, she became the second vessel in history to reach the Pole, entering and departing the Arctic Ocean by the Atlantic side. Skate surfaced several times in open leads in the ice pack, once within 40 miles of the Pole, and another time directly in front of the manned IGY Drifting Station Alpha on a huge ice floe (pages 12-13 and 16). While at the North Pole itself, she made a complete circle around it, and hence "around the world," in only 50 minutes of maneuvering. The first two voyages of Nautilus beneath the Arctic ice, in August, 1957, and June, 1958, consisted of a series of tentative probes from the Atlantic and the Pacific. During these preliminary excursions much scientific data was collected and many lessons were learned about the new techniques of polar navigation and in-ice maneuvering and sur facing. The third voyage of Nautilus was the history-making rapid shot directly across the Arctic via the North Pole. The only direct, fast Northwest Passage had been opened. Both Nautilus and Skate sounded the Arctic depths along their courses and measured salin ity, temperatures, and ice thicknesses, giving valuable clues to the movements of water in the Arctic Basin. Nautilus alone compiled more than 11,000 individual soundings. We found that this is a very deep ocean, with deep approaches from the Atlantic side, shallower avenues in from the Pacific side. Though it was disconcerting at times to find variances of more than a mile between esti mated and actual depths of the sea, the basic features of the Arctic Basin were confirmed. It will take our chief scientist, Dr. Waldo K. Lyon, months to analyze the ice data re corded on our crossing-he brought back two trunkfuls of it-but I am sure that polar ice experts are due for some real surprises. The record showed two things: One, that the under-ice profile is fantastically rugged, far more so than anyone ever thought; and two, that there is, stating it plainly, a lot more ice up there than anyone has suspected. Ice No Bar to Atomic Subs This ice may forever bar the routine transit of surface ships. But it will not deny the Arctic Ocean to submarines-provided they are nuclear powered. Conventional subs, cruising submerged on battery power, possess limited endurance. They must surface frequently or raise air intake tubes, in order to fire up their big diesel engines and recharge batteries.* No such necessity haunts the atomic sub. Her power plant does not require oxygen, and a built-in atmosphere sustains the crew com fortably on long underwater cruises. * See "Our Navy's Long Submarine Arm," by Allan C. Fisher, Jr., NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, November, 1952.