Arctic Team Seeks 1840s Explorer's Lost Ships

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Canadian David Woodman is leading the latest search, along with Irish backers John Murray and Kevin Cronin, who are planning a film about the original 1845 Franklin expedition.

Murray and Cronin were part of a team that sailed through the Northwest Passage last year in a 50-foot (15-meter) aluminum-hulled sailboat. They want to return this summer on a research ship if the results of the search using the magnetometer are successful.

"If we cover half the ground and don't have any outstanding hits to check out, then we might say 'Forget it,'" said Murray. "But then if we covered most of the ground this time and there were exciting anomalies to check out, then we might decide we'd go back in August."

Woodman, the author of two books on the Franklin expedition, has already made seven trips to the Arctic over the past decade in search of the remains of the Franklin expedition. He believes that if Inuit testimony is correct, one of the ships—nobody is certain which one—lies in 70 to 140 feet (20 to 40 meters) of water off a rocky spit of land called the Adelaide Peninsula.

"I'm picturing this beautiful wooden wreck sitting upright with everything but the masts, pristine, probably one of the best-preserved wooden wrecks in the world," said Woodman. The icy waters surrounding the ship, he explained, would likely preserve the wooden planks from the ravages of time.

Magnetic Attraction

Nearly identical in design, the Erebus and the Terror represented the cutting edge of technology in sailing ships. They had iron-reinforced hulls and steam engines to power them in the absence of winds.

The magnetometer, sheathed in caribou hides to protect it from the cold, will be held above the ice by means of a boom. The device will be towed back and forth at 160-foot (50-meter) spacings over a 30-square-mile (70-square-kilometer) search area toward the north.

It will then be moved 25 to 30 miles (40 to 50 kilometers) south of the first site and used across an area of about 60 square miles (140 square kilometers) where artifacts of the Franklin voyage have washed up.

As it's towed across the ice, the magnetometer will record a constant stream of data on changes in the earth's magnetic field. Expedition members will monitor what's being picked up, but won't get a clear view of the big picture until the complete data is analyzed.

That's the job Brad Nelson, an Ottawa-based physicist, will perform in his spare time once the expedition returns in late May.

While his day job involves keeping tabs on submarines, mostly through the use of airborne magnetometers, Nelson has been helping Woodman search for the Franklin ships over the past decade. The team has used magnetometers mounted in planes, ships, and sleds to aid the search.

Although past expeditions have been hampered by the Canadian Arctic's magnetic geography, Nelson is confident he'll be able to recognize the magnetic aura of a ship. "If it's up there in the area that Dave Woodman claims it is, we will detect it," he said.

"Can we differentiate [a wreck] from all the other magnetic signals and noises that are up there?" he asked, answering: "I believe we can."

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