Arctic obsession drove explorers to seek the North Pole

Risking life and limb, countless expeditions braved Arctic cold and crushing ice in the 1800s. All failed, but each one came closer and closer to the top of the world.

An iceberg looms over the Panther during an 1869 expedition to Greenland undertaken by the American artist and explorer William Bradford.
SPL/Age/Fotostock

The phrase “on top of the world” carries ebullience and enthusiasm, as if nothing could be better than standing at 90° north latitude. In reality, Earth’s remote North Pole is frigid and barren, an inhospitable region of ice and snow. Finding this last “undiscovered” place became an obsession for European and American explorers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Few people lived near the North Pole. A small Inuit community had settled the closest, but for the most part the region remained isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. A few intrepid explorers—John Cabot, Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, and James Cook—tried to navigate the region in search of the Northwest Passage, a sea route believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the waters above North America. The North Pole was not a concern for these early explorers, but their work laid the foundation for a polar obsession to come.

(The Inuit strive to keep their culture alive despite as ice melts.)

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