In 1845 explorers sought the Northwest Passage—then vanished

The failed expedition was one of the grimmest chapters in the history of Arctic exploration. New analysis may shed light on its mysterious fate.

H.M.S.Terror, one of two ships from the doomed Franklin expedition, was discovered in 2016 off King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. The small expedition boat seen here sank along with theTerror and rests on the seafloor a short distance from the ship.
Thierry Boyer, Parks Canada

For centuries the Northwest Passage seemed little more than a mirage. John Cabot urged his ships into the unknown in 1497 and 1498 to find it, but failed. Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, and James Cook searched icy northern waters for it, in vain. In May 1845 a celebrated British explorer and naval officer, Sir John Franklin, took up the quest to find a route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Arctic waters. With orders from the British Admiralty, Franklin and a crew of 133 sailed out from the Thames in two massive naval vessels, H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror, each specially equipped for polar service. It was the beginning of the grimmest disaster in Arctic exploration.

On paper, the expedition seemed to lack for little. The crew was young, tough, and seasoned. The ships, sheathed in iron, bristled with the latest Victorian-era technology—from steam engines to heated water and an early daguerreotype camera. The vessels carried more than three years’ worth of food and drink, as well as two barrel organs and libraries with some 2,900 books. Two dogs and a monkey kept the men company in their quarters.

But these small floating worlds were no match for the Arctic’s frozen seas. On Admiralty orders, the expedition sailed to one of the most treacherous, ice-choked corners of the far north. By September 1846, both vessels were imprisoned in sea ice northwest of King William Island. They remained so for at least a year and a half of brutal polar cold.

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