Ghosts of Discovery Harbor: Digging for Data

Death by starvation, drowning, and execution was the fate of 19 members of the US Army’s Lady Franklin Bay Expedition that was charged in 1881 to explore the northern reaches of the American continent. Only six members returned alive, however, they carried papers of tidal observations that they had made at Discovery Harbor at almost 82 N latitude, less than 1000 miles from the North Pole. Air temperatures were a constant -40 (Fahrenheit or Celsius) in January and February. While I knew and wrote of this most deadly of all Arctic expeditions, only 2 days ago did I discover a brief 1887 report in Science that a year-long record of hourly tidal observations exist. How to find these long forgotten data?

My first step was to search for the author of the Science paper entitled “Tidal observations of the Greely Expedition.” Mr. Alex S. Christie was the Chief of the Tidal Division of the US Coast and Geodedic Survey. He received a copy of the data from Lt. Greely. His activity report dated June 30, 1887 confirms receipt and processing of the data, but he laments about “deficient computer power” and requests “two computers of standard ability preferable by young men of 16 to 20 years.” Times and language have changed: In 1887 a computers was a man hired to crunch numbers with pen and paper.

Data table of 15 days of hourly tidal sea level observations extracted from Greely (1888).

Data table of 15 days of hourly tidal sea level observations extracted from Greely (1888).

While somewhat interesting, I still had to find the real data shown above, but further google searches of the original data got me to the Explorer’s Club in New York City where in 2003 a professional archivist, Clare Flemming, arranged and described the “Collection of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition 1881-1884.” This most instructive 46 page document lists the entire collection of materials including Series III “Official Research” that consists of 69 folders in 4 Boxes. Box-4 File-15 lists “Manuscript spreadsheet on Tides, paginated. Published in Greely (1888), 2:651-662” as well as 3 unpublished files on tides and tide gauges. With this reference, I did find the official 1888 “Report on the United States Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay” of the Government Printing Office as digitized from microfiche as

https://archive.org/details/cihm_29328

which on page 641 shows the above table. There are 19 more tables like it, but at the moment I have digitized only the first one. Unlike my colleagues at the US Coast and Geodedic Survey in 1887, I do have enough computer power to graph and process these 15 days of data in mere seconds, e.g.,

Hourly tidal observations at Discovery Harbor taken for 15 days by Greely in 1881 and Peary in 1909.

Hourly tidal observations at Discovery Harbor taken for 15 days by Greely in 1881 and Peary in 1909.

A more technical “harmonic” analyses reveals that Greely’s 1881 (or Peary’s 1909) measured tides at Discovery Harbor have amplitudes of about 0.52 m (0.59) for the dominant semi-diurnal and 0.07 m (0.12) for the dominant diurnal oscillation. My own estimates from a 9 year 2003 to 2012 record gives 0.59 and 0.07 m for semi-diurnal and diurnal components. This gives me confidence, that both the 1881 and 1909 data are good, just have a quick look at 1 of the 9 years of data I collected:

Tidal sea level data from a pressure sensor placed in Discovery Harbor in 2003. Each row is 2 month of data starting at the top (August 2003) and ending at the bottom (July 2004).

Tidal sea level data from a pressure sensor placed in Discovery Harbor in 2003. Each row is 2 month of data starting at the top (August 2003) and ending at the bottom (July 2004).

There is more to this story. For example, what happened to the complete and original data recordings? Recall that Greely left Discovery Harbor late in the fall of 1883 after supply ships failed to reach his northerly location two years in a row. This fateful southward retreat from a well supplied base at Fort Conger and Discovery Harbor killed 19 men. Unlike ghostly Cape Sabine where most of the men perished, Discovery Harbor had both local coal reserves and musk ox in the nearby hills that could have provided heat, energy, and food for many years.

It amazes me, that a 1-year copy of tidal data survived the death march of Greely’s party. It took another 18 years for the complete and original records to be recovered by Robert Peary who handed them to the Peary Arctic Club which in 1905 morphed into Explorer’s Club of New York City. I suspect (but do not know), that these archives contain another 2 years of data that nobody but Edward Israel in 1882/83 and the archivist in 2003 laid eyes on. Sergeant Edward Israel was the astronomer who collected the original tidal data. He perished at Cape Sabine on May 29, 1884, 25 years of age.

Edmund Israel, astronomer of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of 1881-1884.

Edmund Israel, astronomer of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of 1881-1884.

References:

Christie, A.S., 1887: Tidal Observations of the Greely Expedition, Science, 9 (214), 246-249.

Greely, A.W., 1888: Report on the Proceedings of the United States Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Guttridge, L., 2000: The ghosts of Cape Sabine, Penguin-Putnam, New York, NY, 354pp.

3 responses to “Ghosts of Discovery Harbor: Digging for Data

  1. Siegfried R. (on FaceBook): Schön. Und aus der Welt, ganz ohne Politik. Oder?
    Translation: “Nice. And out of this world, without politics. Or?”

    • @Siegfried: No, it takes a community of people (polis) to put expeditions out and it takes another community (the people on it) to make it succeed or fail. Resources are always limited (money, people, time) and rules exist to distribute them. Strict adherence to rules can be both a strength and weakness: One member of the expedition was executed for stealing food; 19 people starved to death because the commander was following orders to abandon a well-supplied and sheltered location.

      All these are political aspects of human interactions. The failure of the US Army to get its people out of the Arctic provided a basis for the US Navy to shine and get a larger amount of funds for future ship-building. Politics, again.

  2. Raymond G Mcintire

    “Ghosts of Cape Sabine” was one of the most fascinating books I ever read, and at the same time, most troubling….congratulations to you on your quest for finding the data you were looking for.

    The story is one that most people don’t know about: it isn’t taught in U.S. History in schools, and geography isn’t taught anywhere these days in the U.S. However it paints a very poor picture on the politicians and bureaucracies during that time period.

    I chanced upon your article, and glad I found it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s