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Historical Expeditions

Historical Expeditions

Learn more about the fascinating history of Svalbard

Historical Expeditions

Expeditions to the North Pole
The history of Svalbard is marked by many exciting expeditions, dating back to 1850. Due to Svalbard's latitude in the high north combined with favourable ice conditions, the archipelago was an ideal point of departure for expeditions aiming to reach the North Pole. During the period from 1896 to 1928, no fewer than nine expeditions set off from Svalbard in the race to be the first to reach the North Pole. Though the nominal goal tended to be scientific, expedition leaders, participants and sponsors were often motivated by considerations such as national or personal prestige. The Arctic seemed to beckon to people of heroic mettle, goading them into feats of remarkable stamina, actions that became, as such, national symbols and that brought personal glory to the performer when he returned, be he dead or alive. (sysselmannen.no)

The Andrée expedition which ended with a polar bear attack
In 1897, Salomon August Andrée attempted to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon. However, the Swedish explorer and engineer led what proved to be one of the most disastrous expeditions in history. Svalbard Museum
The plan was to fly in the hydrogen balloon Örnen (the Eagle) from Svalbard to the North Pole. He was joined on the expedition by engineer Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg, who was the expedition’s photographer. He took off from Virgohamna in North-west Svalbard on 11 July 1897 and headed in the direction of the North Pole. The expedition was equipped with provisions for six months. However, the crew quickly experienced problems. During the ascent, they lost parts of the large tow line intended to balance and steer the balloon. Furthermore, the weather was unfavourable, and the balloon encountered fog and clouds on the first night. As a result, the balloon became heavy from the moisture and lost altitude. After just 65 hours and 33 minutes in the air, it was forced to land on the ice. The trio then planned an expedition across the ice to Frans Josefs Land about 300 km away. (polarhistorie.no)
The trio spent three months walking across the ice towards Frans Josefs Land and later Svalbard after the current led them in the wrong direction. This was an extremely strenuous trek, which left them physically exhausted. This may be put down to poor planning and heavy equipment. They had to discard equipment and provisions to reduce the weight of the sleds, and lacked essential equipment, including skis. Hunting food proved difficult with poor firearms and no fishing gear, but they managed to shoot seals and polar bears. In September of the same year, they spotted Kvitøya (White Island), where they decided to overwinter.
It took 33 years until their bodies were discovered, along with equipment, diaries, notes and photographs. This is how the world gained an insight into the battle for survival by Andrée, Frænkel and Strindberg. Recent research indicates the cause of death was a polar bear attack. (Svalbard Museum)
Read more about this fascinating expedition in the book The Expedition: My Love Story by Bea Uusma, published in 2014.

Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile and the airship Norge
Polar explorer Roald Amundsen was also involved in another exciting expedition, the flight over the Arctic in the airship Norge (Norway). Amundsen was joined by Italian Umberto Nobile, who designed and constructed the airship, American Ellsworth and a crew of seven Norwegians, five Italians and one Swede. They flew from Svalbard over previously unknown parts of the Arctic and the North Pole to Alaska. After exploring these areas, Amundsen established that there were no large land masses between the North Pole and Alaska, which led to the removal of the undiscovered piece of land from the world map.
Amundsen had long believed that using an aircraft was the best way to explore the unknown areas of the Arctic, and he became interested in the use of aircraft for polar research. The airship took off from Ny-Ålesund on 11 May 1926 and passed the North Pole the following day. The expedition continued to Teller in Alaska, which they reached in 72 hours.
The airship Norge was constructed by the engineer Nobile, and the expedition was based on Italian techniques. Nobile regarded the expedition as his great triumph as he had flown the airship over the ice and Amundsen’s task was ‘just’ to discover new land. Amundsen and Nobile strongly disagreed about who was the expedition leader and who should receive the honour for it.
In 1928, Nobile led a new expedition over the North Pole in the airship Italia. The airship crashed on its return, leading to a major international search and rescue operation. Among those searching was Amundsen, who was on board one of the seaplanes hoping to rescue Nobile. However, his aircraft disappeared in bad weather near Bjørnøya (Bear Island), claiming the lives of the six men on board. The wreck has never been found.

Visit the fascinating North Pole Expedition Museum in Longyearbyen to learn more about this and other airship expeditions from Svalbard.

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