Category Archives: North Circumpolar Cap

To Catch the Polar Drift and Thus Your Mind Uplift

If you must go down to the sea again, the lonely sea and the sky,—I am thinking specifically of the Arctic Ocean with its particular aspect of lonely sea and sky,—you will need more than a tall ship and a star to steer her by. In fact, you probably don’t want a tall ship at all, as Sir John Franklin and many others discovered. It’s one thing to go coasting along the edges of that sea or among the passages between islands, as Roald Amundsen did for example, and the St. Roch, and many others, and quite another to chance your seamanship upon the broad reaches of said ocean where land is only a distant memory. For that you need a tubby kind of specially reinforced ship like the Fram, of one Fridjof Nansen. A modern icebreaker will do too.

We are setting out to explore, as best we can from our vantage ground, the country we will call, for brevity’s sake, Northcapia, a.k.a. the North Circumpolar Region, that part of the Earth lying north of 55° north latitude, a.k.a. the Fifty-Five. None of the governmental sectors we have previously identified matters if you are north of the Eighty-Five, where our minutely conscientious survey of the country begins, in that expanse of snow and ice where the strange device on your banner should be “Latior!”, rather “Excelsior!”. Judging by historical accounts, however, you are equally likely to have left any maidens behind, the more fool you.

We intend to explore Northcapia by a method we call “girdling”, or “pucking”, which takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s puck Robin Goodfellow and his promise to “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”. We will do it in modest bites of words. Once we strike land at Kaffeklubben Island in the Eighty-Three (that is, between 82.96 and 83.95 degrees north latitude), and especially when we begin to encounter permanent human habitations, we will need to girdle each puck several times to pick up everything of interest. The first seven girdles are both simpler and more complicated, due to the terrain, which is not terrain at all, of course, but a shifting mosaic of aquain, nixain, and glaciain which we will call ‘ocearcticain’, and which scientists for some reason call the ‘cryosphere’. Let there be no crying in the cryosphere when we put out to see the sea.

Most people nowadays who have any opportunity to observe the expanses of ocearcticain at all do so from the air and indeed, flying over them, even without landing (or icing, as it should be termed) has become an accepted form of exploration. Those desiring more intimate acquaintance can select one of two modes: trekking, or drifting.

Trekking usually has some objective in mind: to reach the North Pole, for example, located by definition smack in the precise centre of Northcapia, or the North Magnetic Pole, now wandering through the Eighty Six or thereabouts, or the North Pole of Inaccessibility, apparently now officially fixed in the Eighty-Five, although some volcano in the high latitudes supposedly could someday change that. It doesn’t matter very much in any case. The point of trekking is to choose an objective and trek to it, or as close as you can get. Given the nature of the ocearcticain even those who don’t get to it leave their footprints honourably on the pages of history.

Drifting is usually pursued for the purpose of taking scientific observations, and here the Soviets, later the Russians, excel, although the inventor of the sport was a Norwegian, Fridjof Nansen. He “confirmed the existence of the Transpolar Drift and discovered that the Polar Basin was deep,” according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, whom we may trust to get their facts right. Somebody else discovered the Beaufort Gyre, confirming the existence of poetry, even in the deep cryosphere of the Arctic Ocean itself, not to mention visual art showing interesting patterns of arrows, as the picture below sets out to show. As for the poetry:

O the seas of the world are seven, they say, all of them large and deep;
To tell their stories one by one would put you, no doubt, to sleep;
But there’s one that won’t, and I’ll tell it you, as I’ve been so often urged,
About how I got caught in the Beaufort Gyre, and never again emerged.

Of the Arctic Vortex you may have heard, but it’s away up high
In the stratosphere, a lifeless place where only airplanes fly,
But here on ocearcticain, where the wind o’er the cryosphere streams,
The dreadful clutch of the Beaufort Gyre comes to haunt a sailor’s dreams.

And so on to its monotonous conclusion. The artist who created the following meant to convince us, it appears, that girdling comes naturally in Northcapia.

Retrieved from National Snow & Ice Data Center :: :: Image courtesy of Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Figure 3.29, AMAP (1998)

Girdling the Earth: The Puck Starts Here!

That memorable puck, Robin Goodfellow, as reported by one William Shakespeare, promised to “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”. Since we may assume from his location, apparently near Athens, Greece, at around 38° north latitude, his distance would be about 30,000 km, for a speed of 45,000 kms/hour, which is a pretty good clip. If he moved further north, however, to 55°, say, he could girdle at a more leisurely pace, around 34,500 kms/hour, and the further north he went the slower he could go, until he arrived at the North Pole where he could girdle the earth in no time at all, literally, no matter how fast or slowly he went. This matter is of more than academic interest, since in Canada the velocity of pucks consumes a significant share of the national attention span.

Fifty-five degrees north latitude (“the Fifty-Five”) is a mystic line, at least in the minds of one Canadian government agency, which has given us a map of what it calls the North Circumpolar Region, defined by that latitude. Since this line cuts the area of Canada more or less in half, it constitutes a Significant Canadian Latitude, one of several, some of the others being 45° (part of the southern boundary of Québec and also, interestingly, approximately the median latitude of the Canadian population: 45.7° according to one estimate), 49° (the southern boundary of almost all of western Canada), and 60° (the southern boundary of the northern Territories).

If we girdle the Earth along the Fifty-Five and take in everything to the north of it, we find ourselves passing through an interesting array of countries, parts of countries, or territories attached to countries. Moving from Canada easterly:

We recognize that some controversies could arise from our choices of who is in or out. Why is Belarus left out, for example? It could be in, of course, because the Fifty-Five does cross it, although not nearly bisecting. The same rationale applies to England, even more strongly. Why are Denmark, Lithuania, even perhaps Latvia and Estonia in, since they would not normally be considered “northern” countries? We include them because they are north of the line, and face the Baltic Sea, the bulk of which lies north of it, as do Sweden and Finland, which are certainly northern, although they do not touch the arctic seas as most of the others do. But the crucial criterion for our purposes is the line of the Fifty-Five. We wish to understand what it means to live in Earth’s North Circumpolar Cap, or to have it within your jurisdiction. We wish to be true to the axioms of Pluralism, one of which says that elements should not be excluded simply because they do not conform to some predetermined set of assumptions. We have defined the geographic area of our interest, and then we will find out what the patterns are, and if they emerge as diverse, then so be it. The Cap is the Cap, the “nordicity” of its elements merely one of their features, although for some it will have vital even defining importance.

People sometimes accuse others, or themselves, of “not being able to see the forest for the trees”. We hold this blindness to be impossible. The forest is the trees, and all creatures great and small living under and in them, or feeding on or using them, either directly or indirectly. You can’t see the forest without looking at the trees, and all these other denizens. As we engage with the North Circumpolar Cap, and everything else we engage with, we are going to start by looking at the trees, because they are most conspicuous, and through them to comprehend the forest. Who are the people of Northern Earth, and how do they live? What lands and waters surround them, and just how frozen are they? What conditions do they face? What do they hold in common besides latitude, these hardy people, and how do they differ? What stories would they tell each other if they ever got together? “Where are you from? What’s it like there? How did you or your ancestors get there? How do you live? What have you learned? What do you still not know?”

We have a preliminary list of “settlements”, using the term broadly, from 55° north latitude on up, and it tells us there are about 800 of them. We have already discovered that the list is not complete. The furthest north is about 82.5°(Alert, closely followed by Nord at 81.7°; these are the only ones north of 80, although no doubt when we start looking around in detail we will discover some no longer inhabited), yielding (with a few gaps at the top) about 25 inhabited “girdles” of one degree each, averaging some 30-plus inhabited place names per girdle. Girdling down from the North Pole we first strike land on Kaffeklubben Island, at about 83.66°. That’s where we’ll start. Nobody lives there, but it appears the island has been explored, and by Canadians too! We’ll find out more about that, along with the rest of the 82nd Girdle, and report back.

As we girdle the Earth twenty-five or thirty times, or however many times we do, we will adopt the convention that we start at 141° west longitude, an obvious choice for Canadians, and work our way around widdershins.