Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year..
Subscribe for Full Access

The footage is eerie, a plunge through a dim world of lush seaweed, the underwater forests of the treeless Arctic. Objects swim into view: a bell, a small fish, a stovepipe, the barnacled bow of the ship itself. One of the discoverers said, “We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.” This ship, the Terror, sank sometime after 1848 and was found in 2016. It’s easy to see the discovery as something far away and long ago, but there is another story to be told about the ship’s role in the scramble for the Arctic, which continues to shape the geopolitics of the world.

The Terror and its sister ship, the Erebus, set out from Greenhithe, a village on the Thames downstream from London, on May 19, 1845. The expedition was headed by John Franklin, an explorer who hoped to find the Northwest Passage, a short route between the Atlantic and the Pacific that would benefit trade and assert British dominance in the far north.

The ships were equipped with monogrammed silverware and three years’ worth of food, including half a ton of mustard, a dozen tons of sugar, 9,450 pounds of chocolate, and a mountain of canned goods, as well as a sizable library and 2,700 pounds of candles, and were piled with coal to burn.

They sailed up the west coast of Greenland. From there, they proceeded into the tangle of islands at North America’s frigid end. It was not unusual for ships to get locked into the ice over winter and then sail on after the thaw, but somehow the Terror and the Erebus never got loose. Things went wrong, and then wronger, though we don’t know much about how and why.

According to a note scrawled by two officers and placed in a metal canister buried in a cairn, Franklin died in the summer of 1847, though his body has never been found. The ships were abandoned in the spring of 1848, the note in the cairn adds, and the remnants of the crews set out on a bleak trek southward in pursuit of a last chance at survival. By that time twenty-three others had also perished. “H.M. ships Erebus and Terror were deserted on the 22nd of April, five leagues N.N.W. of this; having been beset since 12th September 1846.” The final addition reads, “And start tomorrow 26th for Back’s Fish River.”

Beginning in 1850, several expeditions were launched to search for what had become a cause célèbre. Franklin’s wife, Elizabeth, who had been ambitious for his glory, insisted for years that he might be alive and was furious when the British Navy awarded her a widow’s pension. She financed the expedition that found the note in the cairn, along with a couple of skeletons, a heavy boat on a sledge, and a pair of embroidered slippers.

In the Canadian Arctic in 1854, a fur trader and explorer named John Rae encountered an Inuit man wearing the band from what appeared to be a British Navy officer’s cap. The man told Rae that he had heard from local seal hunters that they had seen forty men dragging a boat and sledges across the ice. Native people in the region had articles from the expedition, and Rae purchased some of them — monogrammed spoons and forks, a star-shaped medal — as evidence of the explorers’ fate. In the Polar Museum in Cambridge, England, I saw four of these pieces with Franklin’s family crest on them. They suggest an unwarranted confidence about who these men were and what they were doing.

Soon after this discovery, Rae reported what he had learned from his Inuit sources:

From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative, as a means of sustaining life.

This was a Victorian circumlocution for cannibalism. In 1981, archaeologists discovered confirming evidence — a femur that had been hacked, other human bones scattered with the disarray of food scraps rather than the orderliness of a burial. Later research suggested that long bones were cracked to get at the marrow; this is termed end-stage cannibalism, the struggle to extract the last bits of nutrition from a corpse.

In the summer of 2008, Stephen Harper, then the prime minister of Canada, announced a partnership with private explorers to find the Erebus and the Terror. At the time, Harper was working to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic, not just over its own territory but all the way to the North Pole. It was a land grab, or rather a water grab, since there’s no land north of Canada. “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. Either we use it or we lose it,” said Harper.

His administration renewed interest in the Arctic. The polar regions have long been considered international territory, but also sources of power and wealth. In the seventeenth century, fishing ships around Greenland and Svalbard, the archipelago far north of Norway, were decimating the whale population in the area. In 1613, a fleet of British warships patrolled the international waters of Svalbard to defend British whalers and drive off ships from Holland and Denmark. By the Cold War, the United States had built an enormous air base in northern Greenland, less than a thousand miles from the North Pole. Later that decade, a US Air Force colonel noted that “the Arctic is to us what the Mediterranean was to the Greeks and Romans — the center of the world.”

As prime minister, Harper vowed to make Canada an “energy superpower,” in part by exploiting the Alberta tar sands through a vastly destructive recovery process. He was a staunch opponent of climate-change research, but he was well aware that global warming offered two opportunities. As the summer ice in the Arctic melted faster and faster with each passing year, trade through the Northwest Passage would become a reality, and lucrative for whoever controlled it. In addition, the enormous oil reserves are currently worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

When the first ship, the Erebus, was discovered in 2014, Harper used it to bolster a claim to historical legitimacy. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history,” he declared, “given that his expeditions, which took place nearly two hundred years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

It seemed peculiar for Harper to claim Franklin as a legitimizing predecessor. As the Inuit politician Jack Anawak put it, “Honoring somebody who’s a failure I don’t think is a good idea. I mean, he failed at first at finding the Northwest Passage, and secondly, failed at surviving in the North.”

When Justin Trudeau replaced Harper in 2015, he charmed many Americans, yet he pursued the development of the Alberta tar sands and their attendant pipelines, launched by the previous administration. In doing so, he ignored warnings from climate scientists, including James Hansen, who predicted that fully exploiting the immense reserves in the tar sands would lead to runaway climate change.

On September 3, 2016, the Terror was finally discovered, almost intact, in a bay of King William Island. Several years earlier, Sammy Kogvik of Gjoa Haven, the sole settlement on the island, had been out hunting when he spotted the masts sticking out of the ice, but he had been quiet about it for fear of being disbelieved. His father-in-law, reports Paul Watson in his book Ice Ghosts, had seen them, too, and remembered old stories of a sunken ship. Kogvik’s information eventually led to the official discovery.

Just the day before, Russian president Vladimir Putin personally denied that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. That fall, the connection between the discovery of Franklin’s ship and Russian interference in the American election was not explicit, but they were two points on the same map. Four days after the Terror was found, Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, warned Putin against further meddling. The evidence of Russian interference piled up like wood for a bonfire, but somehow it never became a powerful enough story to prompt the outgoing administration to act decisively or to make urgent the question of whether one candidate was colluding with a foreign power.

Putin’s motives were variously stated as sowing discord, weakening the United States, revenging himself on Hillary Clinton, or undoing the Magnitsky sanctions imposed by Congress in 2012 on members of the Russian elite. Oil and gas are major sources of wealth for Russia; it now rivals Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.

As the climate journalist Alex Steffen argued last year, perhaps Putin’s agenda during the election was not least — maybe most — about the Arctic and oil. For Putin, Trump held the key to keeping petroleum valuable enough for long enough to let Russian profit-making continue. Trump was the candidate to rubber-stamp fossil-fuel exploration, to abandon the goals of the Paris Climate Accord and throw out the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions regulations, and to be too incompetent and distracted to compete for power in the Arctic. Not only was Trump endlessly eager to oblige the Putin regime, members of his campaign team and then his Cabinet were entangled with Rosneft, an oil and gas company majority-owned by the Russian government.

After the election, Trump appointed Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, which couldn’t have been better for Putin. In the past, Tillerson had opposed sanctions against Russia. As ExxonMobil’s CEO, he had led the world’s largest oil corporation as it acquired drilling rights to 63.7 million acres of Russian land, much of it in the Arctic. After the election, Trump’s pro-Russian rhetoric suggested a potential thaw in relations, leading analysts to speculate about ExxonMobil’s prospects in the Arctic. The corporation again filed for a sanctions exemption in April so that it could begin Arctic drilling with Rosneft, which plans to spend more than $4 billion on exploration in Arctic seas.

“Stranded” is a word that comes up again and again in the history of the Franklin expedition. Ships like the Erebus and the Terror, frozen into the ice, became a recurrent subject for nineteenth-century painters. The ships caught in that jagged white and blue look fragile, tiny. Some were crushed; some sailed again after the thaw.

Financiers use the term “stranded assets” to describe reserves that may be impossible to exploit. The conventional valuation of oil reserves assumes, first, that they will be extracted and, second, that they will be sold, but progress in green technologies has made this less likely. Oil companies are valued on the basis of their assets, but many factors may undermine their value, including low prices and policies limiting or banning extraction. It’s now widely believed that the transition to a clean-energy future is inevitable; the question is only how long we will take to get there and how much damage we will do en route. From the perspective of the oil barons, of course, the question is actually how much profit they can still wring out of the ailing earth.

The melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice, sea ice, and the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating. In coming decades, Arctic summer ice is expected to shrink so much from historic levels that the narrow straits and roundabout route of the Northwest Passage, so desperately sought by Franklin and his crew, may become irrelevant — new routes will open up where once only sledges and nuclear submarines could pass. Other changes are speeding up, too. Parts of the Siberian and North American Arctic that are now navigable may become too treacherous for vehicles and large animals as the permafrost melts. In northwestern Canada, 52,000 square miles are melting, slumping, and creating landslides that choke rivers and lakes. Many of the world’s highest mountains are themselves frozen together; rocks and soil may start to slide and slough. The Arctic is a place few will ever see, but its fate affects us all; the push to develop it is both easy to miss and important to understand.

The maps, charts, and atlases from the era of the Franklin expedition were incomplete, omitting many features of the Canadian Arctic, but they were not wrong about the general outlines of the coasts. They will, however, become obsolete in coming decades as continents and islands assume new shapes. These landforms will shrink; coastlines will change. The coastlines that were recognizable 170 years ago will be in many cases profoundly different. The most dramatic new estimates suggest that sea levels could rise eight feet by 2100. Many islands will vanish altogether, and new atlases will need to be drawn up to chart the world we are making.

More from

| View All Issues |

March 2018

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now