National Geographic : 1953 Apr
Three Months on an Arctic Ice Island 489 Floating on a Glacial Fragment, U . S. Air Force Scientists Probe Top -of-the-World My.steries Within 100 Miles of the Pole BY J OSEPH 0. FLETCHER Lieutenant Colonel, Unit ed States Air Force H IGH over the cold, vast Arctic Ocean , the radar officer in a converted B-29 Superfortress droning toward the North Pole stared unbelievingly into his scope. There, outlined against the characteristic pat- tern of the ice pack, was radar's picture of land- an island rising from deep sea where no land should be. Quickly the airman called the plane com - mander on the interphone and verified the position as 300 miles north of Point Barrow, Alaska. He sketched the discovery on his chart and marked the date- August 14 , 1946. I think this marked chart and accompanying report, turned in by the 72d Photo Recon- naissance Squadron at Ladd Air Force Base, Fairbanks, Alaska , should rank with the im- portant documents of Arctic exploration. This young American had not discovered new land , as he believed. But he had provided a key which was to unlock one of the Far North's old mysteries and give his country a valuable base closer to the Pole than men had ever lived in comfort and safety. For me personally, that key opened the door to a white world of scientific discovery and adventure. I was first commander of America 's northernmost outpost, and for a quarter of a year lived 150 miles and less from the very top of the world . "Land" That Moves w ith Arctic Wind s After the B-29 's return other airmen roared over these northern wastes to confirm the existence of what was now termed " Target X. " They looked down on the robin 's-egg blue of lakes, the steely glint of rushing streams, and a coast 20 to 40 feet high rising from the tumbled sea ice of the polar pack. R ocks, they reported , jutted from a wind- swept plain. Patches of earth showed darkly. In vain did the pack, destroyer of explorers ' ships , attack the island 's shores. Giant frag- ments piled under coastal cliffs attested the strength of this 200-square-mile mass. But, mysteriously, it was several miles from where it had first been plotted. There could be only one answer. Target X was a drifting island of ice! " Ptarmigan" flights- planes sent regularly over the North Pole by Air Weather Service to observe conditions there- were alerted to watch for more ice islands. They found two other large ones drifting far from land in the central Arctic basin. Canadian flyers later discovered some 40 smaller fragments in the channels of their country 's Arctic archipelago. Gentle parallel swells, or waves of ice, from a few inches to 15 feet high and from 800 to 1,000 feet apart, crossed the islands ' relatively flat surfaces. Imperviousness to the battering of the pack suggested frozen fresh water , harder and stronger than salt ice. Thicknesses of 200 feet or more, 20 times that of the sea ice, were deduced from their height above sea level. P eary's Exploration s Give a Clue Somewhere along an Arctic shore a giant glacier must be spawning these immensities. But where was such a glacier? Narratives of early explorers supplied an important clue. Lt. Pelham Aldrich , member of the British Arctic expedition headed by Sir George Nares in 187 5-6 , and Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary 30 years later, had seen a unique ice foot, or shelf , fast to Ellesmere Island 's north shore and extending far seaward. This was appar- ently a glacial remnant, part of the prehis- toric ice that once covered Ellesmere and the surrounding sea as an icecap now covers the interior of Greenland (page 494) . A puzzled Peary wrote a description of the shelf that perfectly fits today 's ice islands. Later we were to land on E llesmere ourselves , and , by comparing corings, match islands to the glacial shelf still extending 10 miles to sea in places. It is thus still true that there are no icebergs in the Arctic Ocean ; bergs as we know them in the Atlantic break from " live, " moving glaciers when they reach the sea. Arctic ice islands, much older and larger, have split off from the dead Ellesmere shelf. The process must have been rapid since the turn of the century, for Peary described a far more ex- tensive ice foot than now exists-further evi- dence of a steady warming in the Arctic. From a geographer's point of view , the most interesting result of recent ice island studies is a possible solution to mysteries of " new lands" never seen again after " discovery. " Crocker Land, sighted by Peary in 1906 and marked on Arctic maps until Comdr. Donald B. MacMillan in 1914 disproved its existence, may well have been an ice island.