Tag Archives: Peary

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 Published in Greely (1888), 2:651-662” as well as 3 unpublished files on tides and tide gauges.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


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.


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.

Independence Fjord, Peary, and the First Thule Expedition

Independence Day 2012. Independence Fjord 1912. The mapping of northern Greenland.

I am reading 100-year-old travel reports by Danish polar explorers Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen who visited Independence Fjord exactly 100 years ago to resolve a puzzles of Greenland’s geography: Is Peary Land an island or Greenland’s North? It is Greenland, but their detailed report has data I want: glaciers mapped, temperatures recorded, ice described, rocks sampled, musk ox killed. It is all part of an ongoing scientific journey of discovery and writing, but I am getting ahead of my Independence Day and Independence Fjord story:

Map of Greenland as included in the Report of the First Thule Expedition 1912 by Knud Rasmussen also showing contemporary expeditions across the Greenland ice sheet.

The Greenland mapping and early science was done painstakingly via sled dog teams by hardy people and adventurous spirits who had to find and hunt game to avoid death by starvation. Rasmussen, Freuchen, and their Inuit companions Uvdloriaq and Inukitsoq set out over Greenland’s inland ice from Thule on April 19, 1912 with 54 dogs to return 5 months later with only 8 dogs.

Ascent of the Inland ice in April 1912 as the First Thule Expedition starts from Clemens Markham’s Glacier to Independence Fjord. All 4 explorers returned, but only 8 of the 54 dogs did.

This was the First Thule Expedition that was supported by the Thule Trading Post at North Star Bay that Rasmussen and Freuchen had privately established in the fall of 1909. Today it is the location of Thule Air Force Base. My father-in-law served here for a year as a young Airman in the 60ies. It is also where our Nares Strait science party will board the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen Aug.-1, 2012. I am thinking of Peter Freuchen and his Inuit wife Naravana, Knud Rasmussen, and Independence Fjord on this Independence Day.

The Freuchen family on a visit to Denmark: Naravana, Pipaluk, Peter, and Mequsaq [Source: Freuchen, P., 1953: Vagrant Viking. Julian Messner Inc., NY, 312 pp.]

Independence Fjord in the summer of 2007 as seen from Kap Moltke looking south. [Source: web]

Independence Fjord in north-east Greenland was named by Robert E. Peary on America’s birthday 120 years ago on July 4, 1892 when he was the first white person to get there. Prehistoric people of the Independence cultures left artifacts from 3000 years ago. Hunting was good then, too. The 120 year old photograph of Peary shows him standing atop Navy Cliff next to a cairn with two Star Spangled Banners fluttering in the wind. The view eastward is along the 120 mile (200 km) long and 19 miles (30 km) wide Independence Fjord that opens into the Greenland Sea.

Peary at Navy Cliff, Greenland on July 4, 1892 atop Independence Fjord. [Photo Credit: Bowdoin College]

Note left by R.E. Peary on July 5, 1892 at a cairn at Navy Cliff overlooking Independence Fjord which he named here such. The darker pencil at the bottom is Peter Freuchen’s.

Peter Freuchen of the Thule expedition recovered Peary’s note 100 years ago. He then made and left a copy, added his own note, and headed home to Thule, Greenland. Besides checking on Peary the two Danes were also looking for a lost Danish expedition led by Einar Mikkelsen, who in turn was looking to recover the bodies of two Danish explorers of Independence Fjord, Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and Niels Peter Hoegen-Hagen who had died nearby in 1907. Almost all these explorers have mountains, glaciers, land, and capes named after them or their sponsors, only Independence Fjord is different.

Independence Fjord celebrates the birthday of a young nation, the idea of a painfully evolving democracy, work still in progress. Peary may have made many claims that were not always supported by the evidence he presented, such as claiming to have reached the North Pole. He was no scientist, but a manager driving hard to secure funds, a ruthless self promoter, and autocrat assigning native women to men of his liking. But in this one instance of naming one of Greenland’s grand fjords Independence Fjord, he did good. Recall that this was the time when unelected kings, queens, generals, and dictators were ruling over expanding colonial empires. It was a few years before World War I and its follow-up World War II that caused global devastation to usher in a new set of world powers. The idea of independence is symbolized both in Independence Fjord and Independence Day. Both celebrate the same thing: freedom. There will be fireworks tonight …

P.S.: Some maps

North-East Greenland [Source: web]

MODIS-Terra imagery of Independence Fjord for June 18, 2012. Top panel shows reflectance in the near infra-red (1240 nm) emphasizing land while the bottom panel shows reflectance in the visible red (865 nm) emphasizing ice. The red dot indicates Navy Cliff, the vantage point at the western terminus of Independence Fjord with Academy Glacier to its south-east and Sophie Marie Glacier to its north-west.