The land of the midnight sun has enchanted humankind for centuries. Rarely does a visitor to this unique and storied region leave without impressions that last a lifetime. Whether it is images of immense glaciers, the shifting pack ice under steel grey skies, or bountiful wildlife grazing treeless, windswept tundra, the Arctic, even today, evokes images of a largely wild and untamed place. For many, the Arctic is as much a feeling as it is a region. Those with even a passing knowledge of the Arctic are familiar with the spirit of adventure – humans against nature – that drove some of the early exploration of the region. But the history of Arctic exploration and discovery is much more than Peary's glorified, albeit doubtful conquest of the pole. The expeditions of Bering, Franklin, Frobisher, Hudson, Nansen, Nares, Sverdrup, Wegener and others variously reflected nationalism, the shifting economic significance of the region, and scientific inquiry. Many of the geographic place names in the Arctic honor these explorers (Figure 1.1). To appreciate our present understanding of the Arctic, we need to step back and review some of this rich history over the past four or five centuries, recognizing, of course, that there have been indigenous populations in the Arctic for many thousands of years.
In the sixteenth century, the Arctic came to be seen by the nations of northern Europe as a potential route to China.