Gayathri Vaidyanathan

Environment/science reporter

Mysterious lost ships, HMS Terror and Erebus, reveal new layer of clues in Arctic

Articles

The Washington Post; Nov. 27, 2016

Almost two centuries ago, 134 men set sail on two British naval ships to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, a trade route through the Arctic linking Europe to the riches of the East. They never returned. The Inuit, native residents of the North, tell tales of the three-masted ships caught in ice and of men afflicted by scurvy and going hungry, until finally they broke the biggest taboo of humankind: cannibalism.

Despite search efforts, neither ship was found. It was not until 2014 that the first traces emerged, when divers located a shipwreck that they identified as HMS Erebus, named after the spiritual limbo between Earth and hell. Last month, the second big piece of the mystery fell into place when an Inuit ranger and a team of explorers announced that they had located HMS Terror — in near-pristine condition, not far from the Erebus — at the bottom of the Northwest Passage.

The story of the ships’ loss and eventual finding reveals how much the Arctic, and our relationship with this frontier, has changed in just a few decades. The ice is no longer what it once was; scientists think that the Arctic will be reliably ice-free and navigable in the summer by the middle of the century, if not earlier. A cruise ship carrying more than 1,000 tourists traversed the northern ocean of North America for the first time this year.

The conditions today are balmy in comparison to what the expeditioners faced in the middle of the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire. The admiralty asked John Franklin, a 59-year-old polar explorer, to find a northern sea path linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.