Arctic Team Seeks 1840s Explorer's Lost Ships

Donald Dawson in Ottawa
for National Geographic News
April 30, 2002
When you're looking for a needle in a haystack, best take a magnet. And if your haystack's the Canadian Arctic, and your needle is a ship last seen by Inuit hunters in the late 1840s, it helps to have a very good magnet.

That's the thinking behind the latest hunt for the remains of the lost voyage of Sir John Franklin, whose two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, disappeared during a quest to find a northern sea route to Asia.

The Irish-Canadian Franklin Search Expedition begins today in the Canadian Arctic, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of the town of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

The members of the expedition plan to pull a magnetometer behind a snowmobile across the ice in two areas where the remains of Franklin's ships are thought to rest beneath the frigid sea.

A magnetometer is a device that, like the magnet of a compass, reacts to changes in the earth's magnetic field. The team hopes the magnetometer will identify the wreck site by detecting the iron used in the hulls and steam engines of the sunken ships.

The Erebus and the Terror set sail from Greenhithe, England, on May 19, 1845. On board were Sir John Franklin, a crew of 129 men, and three years' provisions.

Franklin's plan was to find the Northwest Passage, a northern sea route to Asia that had eluded European explorers for hundreds of years. He was never heard from again.

When Franklin failed to report back, search expeditions were launched. The search for the remains of the voyage has continued to the present day.

Over the years, artifacts, records, and bodies were recovered, offering clues as to what happened to Franklin and his men.

The evidence indicates that Franklin died during the journey and the ships became hopelessly trapped in the ice. The expedition's second-in-command, Francis Crozier, abandoned the vessels, then led 105 men on a cold, deadly march southward.

But no traces of the Erebus and the Terror have ever been found. Only small items from the ships have washed ashore, leading the Irish-Canadian team to conclude that the wrecked ships may lie relatively intact somewhere on the ocean floor.

Targeted Site

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."

Join the National Geographic Society, the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.