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11.5: Tales of Navigation #2: Nansen

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Once radio arrived on the scene, early in the 20th century, the accuracy of chronometers became less critical, because broadcast time signals allowed shipboard timepieces to be reset periodically. But until then chronometers were essential to accurate navigation, as the following story illustrates.

In 1893 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen set out towards the north pole (located in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean) in a specially strengthened ship, the “Fram." Having studied the currents of the Arctic Ocean, Nansen allowed “Fram" to be frozen into the polar ice, with which it slowly drifted across the water. Nearly two years, later, realizing that the course of “Fram" fell short of the pole, Nansen (who had prepared for this possibility) left the ship with his colleague Johansen and attempted to reach the pole by sleds over the ice. About 400 miles short of the pole they had to turn back: they wintered on a desolate island, in a hut they built of stones and walrus hides, and the following spring they headed for the islands of Svalbard (Spitzbergen).

They had been in the icy wilderness for more than a year, completely out of touch, but they always knew exactly where they were, because each man carried a spring-powered chronometer. Then disaster struck --- in a moment of distraction, both forgot to rewind their chronometers and allowed them to run down. Suddenly, they were lost! Based on their last recorded positions, they made a guess and reset their timepieces, but the rest of their journey was clouded by uncertainty. Luckily, they did not have much further to go, and as chance had it, they encountered a British Arctic expedition which took them home. “Fram" broke free from the edge of the ice at about the same time; it is now on public display in Oslo.

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Date Created:
Feb 27, 2012
Last Modified:
Jan 30, 2016
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