Raiders of the Lost Lake Vostok?

As we reported yesterday, the Russian expedition to Lake Vostok has seemingly vanished into thin air. Now, we’re just 24 hours away from the looming winter deadline…and lethal temperatures of -90° centigrade. So, what’s the latest news on the expedition?

The Mysterious Lake Vostok?

As you may recall, Lake Vostok has been covered with ice for at least 400,000 years and possibly as long as 20 million years. Despite the chilly temperatures, it remains liquid thanks to heavy pressure from the ice overhang as well as geothermal heat. For quite some time time now, the Russian expedition has been attempting to safely breach the ice and take mankind’s first look into this “lost world.”

By mid-January, the Russians were using a thermal drill to churn through close to 6 feet of ice per day. At that point, they believed they were just 40 feet from breaching Lake Vostok’s surface. However, the team mysteriously broke off contact in late January, leading to questions about their whereabouts.

The Russian Team Surfaces?

According to an unknown source in contact with RIA Novosti, the team has finally reestablished contact with the outside world. While details remain skimpy, the source claimed the scientists “stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

If true, this would be gigantic news. Lake Vostok could contain new types of undiscovered life – life that might exist “in similar extreme conditions on Mars and Jupiter’s moon, Europa.”

However, the drilling procedures are difficult and there is a very real possibility of contamination when the drill breaches the surface. We’ll keep you abreast on the latest updates as they become available. In the meantime, here’s more background on Lake Vostok from the Daily Mail:

The scientific community is holding its breath for a team of Russian scientists that has not made contact with colleagues in the U.S for seven days, as they drill into a lake buried beneath the Antarctic ice for 20 million years.

The group has to evacuate its station by Tuesday – when winter kicks in and temperatures start to drop to an inhospitable minus 90C.

There has been no contact with the explorers for seven days and they have under 48 hours to make an escape from the icy depths before temperatures fall to deadly levels. There are fears that while hunting for new life forms they have been lost in the unwelcoming terrain…

(See the rest on the mysterious Lake Vostok at Daily Mail)

The Mystery of Lake Vostok?

Antarctica’s Lake Vostok has been covered with miles of ice for 20 million years. Now, just as it’s on the verge of being breached, something has gone wrong. The team of Russian scientists behind the operation has disappeared, vanishing into thin air.

Lake Vostok & the Missing Russian Team?

Eight days have gone by without radio contact and now, time is drawing thin. On February 6, temperatures around Lake Vostok are expected to drop an astonishing 40 degrees centigrade. Researchers are optimistic the Russian team is merely experiencing poor cellular reception or perhaps has already packed up and left for home. On a darker level, a drilling accident also seems plausible.

“The lake is known to have quite a bit of gas in it, like a carbonated soda, which could lead to a catastrophic geyser shooting up up out of the borehole when the drill finally hits water. If that happened, the lake could lose a quarter of its water and the weather above Antarctica could be altered, due to the sudden influx of water vapor into the air.” ~ Discover Magazine, 80 Beats Blog

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, what happened to the Russian team? Nothing at all? A drilling accident at Lake Vostok? An ancient dinosaur rising from the depths? The unleashing of a vicious plague? (Well, okay those last two seem pretty unlikely…). Here’s more on the mystery of Lake Vostok from Fox News:

The world holds its breath, hoping for the best after six days of radio silence from Antarctica — where a team of Russian scientists is racing the clock and the oncoming winter to dig to an alien lake far beneath the ice.

The team from Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) have been drilling for weeks in an effort to reach isolated Lake Vostok, a vast, dark body of water hidden 13,000 ft. below the surface of the icy continent. Lake Vostok hasn’t been exposed to air in more than 20 million years.

The team’s last contact with colleagues in the unfrozen world was six long days ago, and scientists from around the globe are unsure of the fate of the mission — and the scientists themselves — as Antarctica’s killing winter draws near…

(See the rest on Lake Vostok at Fox News)

Man vs. Meteorite?

10,000 years ago, a giant meteorite plunged to the earth, smashing its way into Savissivik, Greenland. In 1895, famed Arctic explorer Robert Peary trekked across the icy expanse and laid eyes on the 31-metric ton slab of iron. The three year struggle that followed would go down as one of the greatest “man vs. nature” battles in all of history. Did Robert Peary get his meteor? Or did it send him to his grave?

A Mysterious Meteorite?

In 1818, Sir John Ross landed in northwestern Greenland while in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. He discovered an unknown Inuit tribe and was surprised to learn that they possessed items made from iron. The area contained no natural iron deposits and the Inuits lacked smelting technology. Although the natives refused to show Ross their source, they told him that it came from saviksoah, or “mountain of iron.” Subsequent tests of the iron-based items showed that they contained a high degree of nickel, which indicated that the “mountain of iron” was in fact, a giant meteorite.

From 1818 to 1883, five separate expeditions tried to locate the meteorite. All failed.

Robert Peary Explores the North Pole?

By the 1890s, the world was engaged in a race of exploration the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until the 1960s space race. The goal was to locate and map the North Pole, one of the last remaining unexplored places on earth. Lieutenant Robert E. Peary aimed to be the first one there.

At that time, a man named Morris Jesup was President of the American Museum of Natural History. According to Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History, Jesup struck a deal with Peary. Jesup would “help finance the explorer’s work and pull strings to keep him on leave from the navy if Peary would make collections in the Arctic for the Museum.”

In 1894, Peary sailed to Greenland. While his main goal was to reach the North Pole, he also wanted to find things that could help fulfill his bargain with Jesup. The meteorite was one of those things. The natives liked Peary and one of them agreed to lead him to the iron mass on May 16, 1894.

Robert Peary Strikes…Iron?

After two days of traveling, a fierce blizzard caused the native guide to flee the expedition. Undaunted, Robert Peary and a man named Hugh Lee pushed on, found another village, and hired another guide named Tallakoteah. Tallakoteah told Peary that there were actually several iron slabs – the “Woman,” the “Dog,” the “Tent,” and the “Man.” After a brutal foray through ice, slush, and wind, Robert Peary finally found the two and a half ton “Woman” and the half ton “Dog” near Cape York. They were brown and covered with hammer marks, thanks to centuries of Inuit prospecting.

“The brown mass, rudely awakened from, its winter’s sleep, found for the first time in its cycles of existence the eyes of a white man gazing upon it.” ~ Robert Peary, Northward over the Great Ice

Peary was told that the “Tent” was even larger and rested on an island about six miles away. Lacking the equipment for a proper retrieval, he marked the locations and headed home.

Robert Peary Excavates a Gigantic Meteorite

In 1895, Robert Peary returned to Cape York. As the curious Inuits watched, Peary wrestled the two meteorites aboard his steamer, the Kite. However, the “Tent” was another story.

“The party dug around the object but it was too large to be conveyed to the ship, which could not be brought near enough without extra means of lifting the interesting specimen.” ~ New York Times, April 22, 1896

It measured 11 by 7 by 5.5 feet and weighed about 31 metric tons, making it the largest known meteor on earth at that time. Peary returned to Cape York in August 1896 with a new ship named The Hope. His crew dug around the meteorite and placed hydraulic jacks underneath it.

“The first thing to be done was to tear the heavenly visitor from its frozen bed of centuries, and as it rose slowly inch by inch under the resistless lift of the hydraulic jacks, gradually displaying its ponderous sides, it grew upon us as Niagara grows upon the observer, and there was not one of us unimpressed by the enormousness of this lump of metal.” ~ Robert Peary, Northward over the Great Ice

Next, Peary attempted to use the jacks to roll the meteorite down a steep hill. But the jacks were wearing out and ice threatened to trap The Hope. Ultimately, Peary was forced to abandon the giant iron beast near the shore line.

In the summer of 1897, Robert Peary returned once again to Cape York. Risking everything, Peary brought his ship right up to the bluff where the “Tent” lay waiting. Steel rails were placed between the deck and the bluff. Then the giant meteorite was slid over the rails and onto the ship. The compass needles went crazy, locking onto the great iron mass. But it was of little concern. Peary had won.

“Never have I had the terrific majesty of the force of gravity and the meaning of the terms ‘momentum’ and ‘inertia’ so powerfully brought home to me, as in handling this mountain of iron.” ~ Robert Peary, Northward over the Great Ice

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

On September 30, 1897, Robert Peary arrived at Brooklyn Naval Yard with the meteor in tow. While Mrs. Peary, acting on behalf of her husband, haggled over the price, the American Museum of Natural History took possession of the meteorite. In 1904, Mrs. Peary officially sold the meteorite to the Museum for $40,000.

The “Tent” has since given way to other names. It’s now commonly referred to as Ahnighito, in reference to syllables uttered by Peary’s four year old daughter when she first saw the iron mass. Experts prefer to call it the Cape York meteorite.

Today it sits in Arthur Ross Hall. It remains the largest meteorite ever moved by man. However, it is no longer the single largest intact meteorite known to man (that honor belong to the 60 ton Hoba meteorite).

Although Peary’s expedition is over, his story may not be finished. Five additional pieces of the same meteorite have been found over the ensuring decades, including the 20 ton Agpalilik, which is widely believed to be the lost “Man.” For the intrepid polar explorer, there may be other pieces still out there, waiting to be discovered.

Christopher Columbus: Climate Change Villain?

Christopher Columbus, the great explorer who brought the Old and New Worlds together, has been lauded in some quarters as a hero while attacked in others as a villain. Now, climate researchers have weighed into the debate, suggesting that Columbus’s arrival in the Americas may have touched off the Little Ice Age. Was Christopher Columbus a “Climate Change Villain?”

Did Christopher Columbus cause the Little Ice Age?

The Little Ice Age was a period of global cooling “that lasted from about A.D. 1550 to about A.D. 1850 in Europe, North America, and Asia.” It affected both Hemispheres and led to colder temperatures as well as increased ice formation. The Little Ice Age was characterized by crop failures, famine, hypothermia, strange weather patterns and bread riots. How in the world could a single explorer cause all that?

Well, it’s a pretty roundabout path, according to geochemist Richard Nevle. Prior to Christopher Columbus, some 40-100 million people lived in the Americas. They periodically burned vast swathes of land in order to farm crops, leaving large charcoal deposits in their wake.

Then Christopher Columbus arrived. While his own voyages were harmless, the same cannot be said of those of his successors. Europeans quickly followed in Columbus’s path. They sailed to the New World and set about colonizing it. It’s estimated that ~90% of the indigenous population died from either war or disease during this period.

The devastation left far fewer people to care for crops. Charcoal deposits vanished and trees began to grow in formerly-cleared areas. This new flora absorbed as much as 2-17 billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide in the process. The reduced levels of this greenhouse gas left the atmosphere unable to trap as much heat as in the past. And thus, the planet cooled.

“We have a massive reforestation event that’s sequestering carbon … coincident with the European arrival.” ~ Richard Nevle, Stanford University

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

It should be noted that this reforestation theory is not a new one. And it’s not necessarily limited to the Americas either. For example, paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman has suggested in the past that the Black Death, which reduced Europe’s population from somewhere between 30-60%, reduced farming and thus, allowed for new tree growth.

In terms of evidence, Nevle and his team point to ice core samples from Antarctica. Samples corresponding to the Little Ice Age tend to have increasingly higher concentrations of carbon-13, which could be explained by the fact that tree leaves tend to absorb carbon-12. Also, the samples “suggest that levels of the greenhouse gas decreased by 6 to 10 parts per million between 1525 and the early 1600s.

“6 to 10 parts per million? Wow. That’s an extremely small change and, from what I understand, far too small to account for a significant geological event like the Little Ice Age. Plus, this data can be interpreted in other ways. For example, the oceans might’ve absorbed the carbon-dioxide, “perhaps in response to cooling induced by lower solar activity and increased aerosols due to volcanoes.”

To be fair, Nevle is on record stating that reforestation in the Americas was not the only factor that led to the Little Ice Age. But he does consider it a significant one. And the idea that changes in land-use might foster long-term climate change is an intriguing and potentially viable concept.

“…change and variability in land use by humans and the resulting alterations in surface features are major but poorly recognized drivers of long-term global climate patterns … these spatially heterogeneous land use effects may be at least as important in altering the weather as changes in climate patterns associated with greenhouse gases.” ~ Roger Pielke Sr.

Still, the fact remains that a carbon-dioxide reduction of just 6-10 parts per million is far too small to account for the resulting change in temperatures associated with the Little Ice Age. At the same time, there are plenty of other natural variables out there that seem far more likely, namely orbital cycles, reduced solar activity, increased volcanic or cometary fragment activity, inherent variability of climate, and/or a slowing of thermohaline circulation. It’s even possible that it was caused by natural forces we don’t yet understand.

Future evidence could change things. But for the moment, I think it’s safe to say that Christopher Columbus and the explorers that followed him were most likely not a major factor in bringing about the Little Ice Age.

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

Today is Christopher Columbus Day, an annual celebration of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. For many centuries, Columbus was viewed as a great explorer. More recently, that reputation has come under attack. Was Christopher Columbus a hero? Or was he a villain?

Was Christopher Columbus a Hero?

Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. He called the island “San Salvador.” According to his journal, he encountered natives that same day.

“Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.” ~ Christopher Columbus

For the next four hundred years, Columbus was viewed as a brave explorer and credited with the discovery of the New World. Incidentally, that honor has since gone to the Vikings and I wouldn’t be surprised if evidence of even earlier expeditions eventually came to light. Still, Columbus, more than anyone else, brought the Old World and New World together, creating the interconnected world that we know today. But over the last century or so, his reputation has fallen considerably.

Was Christopher Columbus a Villain?

Attack on Columbus were led by an independent scholar named Kirkpatrick Sale. Sale accused Columbus of being an imperialist set on conducting a “conquest of paradise.” In Sale’s view, America’s native peoples were “noble savages” who lived in peace and harmony with the land. Columbus’s arrival screwed all that up and led to generations of suffering and slavery under European conquerors.

Columbus’s defenders didn’t take this lightly. Led by individuals such as Robert Royal from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, these scholars claimed that most of the native deaths originated from the accidental transmission of disease rather than from war. Also, they pointed out that the natives were hardly friendly to the environment nor were they peaceful (a point seemingly bolstered by Columbus’s diary entry above). Finally, they stated that Columbus himself acted in a peaceful, friendly fashion. It was the Spanish government administrators that followed him who were in fact responsible for violence committed against the native peoples.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, how should one feel about Christopher Columbus and his famous discovery of the Americas? Well, it’s clear that his voyages led to the eventual conquest of the Americas and its people. Horrible crimes were committed in the process. None of this is disputed and all of the atrocities deserved to remembered as such.

Still, we here at Guerrilla Explorer find much to admire in Columbus. He couldn’t have foreseen the negative side effects of his journey. The blame for that violence lies squarely with the Spanish government and its administrators.

In regard to that violence, there is a small silver lining, best expressed by historian Tom Woods in his article, Morality and Columbus Day: Another View.

“Reports of Spanish mistreatment of the natives of the New World prompted a severe crisis of conscience among significant sectors of the Spanish population in the sixteenth century, not least among her philosophers and theologians. The issue provoked substantial discussion and debate within the Spanish intellectual community. This fact alone indicates that we are witnessing something historically unusual: nothing in the historical record suggests that Attila the Hun had any moral qualms about his conquests, and the large-scale human sacrifice that was so fundamental to Aztec civilization appears to have elicited no outpouring of self-criticism and philosophical reflection among that native people comparable to what European misbehavior provoked among Catholic theologians in sixteenth-century Spain.” ~ Tom Woods

So, while far too many natives died during the conquest of the Americas, something else quite remarkable took place at the same time. For perhaps the first time in history, a civilization gave itself a hard look and “found it wanting.”

“If we consider the Age of Discovery in the light of sound historical judgment, we must conclude that the Spaniards’ ability to look objectively at these foreign peoples and recognize their common humanity was no small accomplishment, particularly when measured against the parochialism that has so often colored one people’s conception of another.” ~ Tom Woods

While we must never forget the horrors committed by the Spanish invaders, we can take some solace in the fact that these acts were noticed and criticized by Spanish theologians, philosophers, and intellectuals. In many ways, they provided us with the “moral tools” to recognize that these acts were indeed evil and should be condemned.

“The ideals which some Spaniards sought to put into practice as they opened up the New World will never lose their shining brightness as long as men believe that other peoples have a right to live, that just methods may be found for the conduct of relations between peoples, and that essentially all the peoples of the world are men.” ~ Professor Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America

A Hunt for…Yetis?

The Yeti, aka the Abominable Snowman, is a mysterious cryptid said to live in the Himalaya Mountains. It’s widely considered a mythological creature. But not all scientists agree. And now, some of them are launching an expedition to search for the Yeti. So, is the Yeti a legend? Or could this new expedition possibly bear fruit?

The Legend of the Yeti?

The exact origins of the Yeti mythology remain shrouded in mystery. But according to H. Siiger’s The “Abominable Snowman” chapter in Himalayan anthropology: The Indo-Tibetan Interface (edited by James F. Fisher), the creature predates Buddhism in the Himalayas, as a factor in both folklore and religion.

During the late 1800s, knowledge of the Yeti began to seep into the outside world. During the 1900s, it became famous. While leading the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition in 1921, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury spotted strange, man-like footprints. Howard-Bury thought they belonged to a grey wolf which had made double tracks in the soft snow. His guides claimed they belonged to Yeti. Later, this name was mistranslated into the famous moniker, “Abominable Snowman.”

But the Yeti really came into its own in 1951 when Eric Shipton photographed large footprints while climbing Mount Everest. These photos have proven highly controversial over the years. However, subsequent expeditions reported similar discoveries and explorers began to investigate the possibility of an unidentified species living in the Himalayas. But physical evidence remained elusive.

The Mysterious Yeti Hand?

Around this time, rumors began to spread that the monastery at Pangboche possessed a Yeti hand, which it used as a ritual artifact. Tom Slick, an oil tycoon and adventurer, was determined to examine it. One of his associates, a man named Peter Byrne, supposedly stole some bones from the hand and replaced them with human bones. Byrnes smuggled the bones into India at which point actor Jimmy Stewart (yes, that Jimmy Stewart) smuggled the bones out of the country. Sir Edmund Hillary later investigated the hand left at the monastery. Not realizing that he was looking at a combination of the original hand and a human hand, he declared the relic to be fraudulent. The bones recovered by Byrnes were later analyzed by the TV program Unsolved Mysteries, which decided they were “near human.” Unfortunately, the hand disappeared shortly afterward, making future tests impossible.

Slick wasn’t the only person during that time period to believe in the Yeti. Recent revelations indicate that the U.S. government considered the Yeti to be a bonafide creature during the 1950s. It even set rules for expeditions hoping to discover one.

“The first rule required that expeditions buy a permit. The second demanded that the beast be photographed or taken alive. ‘It must not be killed or shot at except in an emergency arising out of self defense,’ wrote Embassy Counselor Ernest Fisk on November 30, 1959. And third, any news proving the existence of the Abominable Snowman must be cleared through the Nepalese government which probably wanted to take credit for the discovery.” ~ Paul Bedard, U.S. News

Recently, scientists from Russia, the United States, and other countries announced an expedition to Siberia to “hunt down the Yeti.” The effort will focus on the Kemerova region which has experienced a large increase in sightings over the last two decades. Is this a fool’s errand?

The Yeti: A Real-Life Cryptid?

I find cryptozoology to be an interesting field of study. At its best, it combines elements of zoology and folklore.

“The zoology-based cryptozoologist looks at the mystery animals being investigated by the folklore-based cryptozoologist, and thinks that they are highly unlikely to exist as real animals. The folklore-based cryptozoologist looks at the often rather mundane animals being investigated by the zoology-based cryptozoologist and thinks that the creatures concerned are so ordinary that they’re probably nothing to do with cryptozoology. A dedicated cryptozoologist – who combines investigation of both of these fields – is interested in both areas, and finds both real animals, and entities that exist only in folklore, of equal research interest.” ~ Darren Naish

After a long period of disrepute, the field is finally started to gain some interest from the established scientific community, thanks in large part to the recent Cryptozoology: Science of Pseudoscience conference conducted by the Zoological Society of London. At that conference, Henry Gee (Senior Editor of Nature), Dr. Michael Woodley, Dr. Charles Paxton, and Dr. Darren Naish argued convincingly that it’s possible to conduct scientific studies with cryptozoological data.

From my perspective, the most believable cryptids are so-called sea monsters. The ocean is a vast place and its depths remain largely unexplored. And while I rarely trust eyewitness testimony, it’s difficult to ignore the cases of the Daedalus Sea Serpent and the Valhalla Sea Serpent which involved experienced sailors and respected zoologists, respectively.

Land-based cryptids are another matter. Unlike a deep ocean, land doesn’t easily hide skeletons. And the commonly-held theory that cryptids bury their own kind, while possible, doesn’t constitute proof. Still, there have been a few famous cases of supposed mythological land-based creatures being discovered in nature:

“A list of species have been discovered following the investigation of either local tales and legends, or fleeting observations of what were (at the time) mystery animals. One of the great classic examples is the Okapi. Referred to as the Atti and thought to be a donkey-like equid, it had been mentioned in passing by Henry Stanley in 1888. It was on the basis of this anecdotal information that Harry Johnston went in successful pursuit of it. Just two recent examples of this sort of thing include the Kipunji Rungwecebus kipunji (discovered in 2006 following observations of a mystery monkey) and the Burmese snub-nosed monkey Rhinopithecus strykeri (discovered in 2010 following investigation of local reports about a “monkey with an upturned nose”).” Darren Naish, Scientific American

All in all, I think the Yeti is one of the more believable land-based cryptids. Unlike Bigfoot, it resides in the frigid, treacherous Himalayas. Few people live in that area and the conditions make it difficult to search effectively.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Assuming that the Yeti is a truly unique species, what is it? One intriguing possibility is presented by Igor Burtsev, who is connected to the most recent Yeti expedition.

“When Homo sapiens started populating the world, it viciously exterminated its closest relative in the hominid family, Homo neanderthalensis. Some of the Neanderthals, however, may have survived to this day in some mountainous wooded habitats that are more or less off limits to their arch foes.” ~ Igor Burtsev, International Center of Hominology

This may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. The recent discovery of Homo floresiensisin Indonesia shows that other hominids were still alive as recently as 12,000 years ago. This has led some scientists, most notably Henry Gee, to think that “perhaps stories of other human-like creatures might be founded on grains of truth.”

Around the World in…One Minute?

In Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout attempt to circle the Earth in eighty days in order to win a £20,000 wager. Now, thanks to modern technology, you can accomplish the same trip…in the span of just one minute.

Around the World in 80 Days…or just One Minute?

Check it out…just one minute to circle the world. Breathtaking huh? This is actually a motion interpolated version of the original movie. That original video is a “time lapse video taken from the front of the International Space Station as it orbits our planet at night.” Here are the details of what you’re seeing.

“This movie begins over the Pacific Ocean and continues over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica. Visible cities, countries and landmarks include (in order) Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Phoenix. Multiple cities in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, El Salvador, Lightning in the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Lake Titicaca, and the Amazon. Also visible is the earths ionosphere (thin yellow line), a satellite (55sec) and the stars of our galaxy.”

Jules Verne is often referred to as the “Father of Science Fiction.” For example, his books, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, detail a rather ingenious method for launching a vehicle into space via space cannon. But for all his vision, I doubt even Verne ever imagined the day when mankind could travel around the earth in a minute’s time and all from the comfort of one’s living room.

The Lost Franklin Expedition?

In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin departed England on a voyage to pass through the last unexplored part of the Northwest Passage. He never returned. What happened to the lost Franklin Expedition?

The Disappearance of the Franklin Expedition?

By 1845, large portions of the Canadian Arctic had been explored. The last remaining section covered about 70,000 square miles and was considered extremely important since it was believed to contain a route allowing sailors to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Eager to locate this Northwest Passage, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, recruited Sir John Franklin to sail into the unknown.

Franklin wasn’t Barrow’s first choice. In fact, he was the sixth choice. But the other candidates either refused or weren’t considered right for the task. Franklin accepted, a decision that he would soon regret.

On May 19, 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail with 24 officers, 110 men, provisions for seven years, and two ships – the Erebus and the HMS Terror – under his command. It never returned.

What happened to the Franklin Expedition?

In 1848, the first of many search parties were launched to find the lost Franklin expedition. In 1850, a second search effort uncovered a winter camp site and three graves. Subsequent expeditions have uncovered additional graves, messages etched on rocks, and oral accounts from the local Inuit people who claimed to have seen the Erebus and HMS Terror lodged in ice.

Most historians believe that the two ships hit ice in Victoria Strait, which is near King William Island. The crew travelled south to hunt for food and Franklin died shortly afterward. After a year in the Arctic, the Franklin Expedition had lost 15 men. The survivors grew sicker, due to a mixture of pneumonia, scurvy, tuberculosis, hypothermia, starvation, and lead poisoning caused by poorly soldered canned goods and/or the expedition’s distilled water systems. Eventually, they were forced to resort to cannibalism of their dead comrades. Around 1848, the survivors abandoned ship and vanished.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Despite numerous searches, the ships and Franklin himself have never been found. Recently, a Canadian expedition threw its hat into the ring, only to come up empty. Its not surprising. The terrain is vast, icy, indistinguishable, and always changing. Plus, the ships were lodged in moving ice for several years and may have drifted hundreds of miles during that time.

For the moment, the lost Franklin Expedition remains lost. But the search continues. Someday soon, explorers will hopefully find the missing ships and Franklin’s frozen corpse. Then we can finally put to rest one of the greatest explorers in history…as well as one of the greatest mysteries of history.

Was Marco Polo a Fraud?

In 1271, Marco Polo set sail for Asia, beginning a remarkable 24-year, 15,000 mile journey that led him all the way to China’s Mongol court. Scholars consider him one of history’s greatest explorers. But new evidence suggests otherwise. Was Marco Polo a conman?

The Travels of Marco Polo

In 1269 or 1270, Marco Polo’s father and uncle returned to Venice after a multi-year expedition that made them the first Europeans to meet Kublai Khan, the fifth Great Khan of China’s Mongol Empire. They proceeded to plan a new expedition back to China. In 1271, the expedition, which now included a young Marco Polo, set forth. After three and a half years, they finally reached the Mongol court. But Kublai Khan refused to let them leave. It wasn’t until 1295 that Marco Polo finally returned to Venice.

However, Venice was at war with Genoa and he subsequently imprisoned. While there, he dictated the story of his journey to a romance author named Rustichello da Pisa. The Travels of Marco Polo became a gigantic hit for the time and enshrined Marco’s place in history.

Was Marco Polo a Fraud?

Over the centuries however, the book has been called into question by numerous historians. Adding fuel to the fire, a team of Italian archaeologists recently pointed out inconsistencies in Polo’s descriptions of Kublai Khan’s two separate invasions of Japan.

“He confuses the two, mixing up details about the first expedition with those of the second. In his account of the first invasion, he describes the fleet leaving Korea and being hit by a typhoon before it reached the Japanese coast. But that happened in 1281 – is it really possible that a supposed eye witness could confuse events which were seven years apart?” ~ Professor Daniele Petrella, University of Naples

Also, Polo described ships with five masts while shipwrecks found off the coast of Japan had only three masts. He used Persian terms rather than local ones to describe places in China. And despite his claim to have worked in Kublai Khan’s court, his name does not exist in any surviving records from that court.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Professor Petrella believes that Marco Polo probably gathered stories about the Orient from other traders in the Black Sea. Since he never actually experienced the events in his book, mistakes were inevitable. Others are less skeptical. They point out that the discrepancies could be due to honest mistakes or perhaps, embellishments by Rustichello. Furthermore, it is difficult to pinpoint Marco Polo’s exact account since no authoritative version of The Travels exists. The book was originally copied by hand and adapted by other writers meaning that even early versions of it differ significantly.

Regardless, Marco Polo’s story is still important. His book inspired a generation of explorers to action, most notably Christopher Columbus. For that alone, he deserves to be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of exploration.

Who Discovered Machu Picchu?

Although constructed around 1450, the spectacular city of Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside world until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. But did he really discover Machu Picchu? Or did someone else beat him to it?

Hiram Bingham’s Expedition to Machu Picchu

Situated almost 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu towers over Peru’s Urubamba Valley. Its exact purpose remains unknown although modern researchers believe it was a royal estate for Pachacuti, the ninth Sapa Inca, or king, of the Kingdom of Cusco.

In 1911, historian/treasure hunter Hiram Bingham led the Yale Peruvian Expedition into the Andes. A few days later, on July 24, he “discovered” Machu Picchu thanks to a young local boy named Pablito Alvarez. At the time, other locals resided in the ruins. Bingham is rightly recognized as the explorer that brought world attention to Machu Picchu. But was he the first outsider to lay eyes on the ruins?

Other Claims to Machu Picchu’s “Discovery”?

As soon as Bingham’s discovery went public, other people came forward to dispute his claim. A missionary named Thomas Payne claimed to have found the ruins in 1906 with the help of Stuart McNairn. He even said that he told Bingham about Machu Picchu in the first place. Another early claimant was a German engineer named J.M. von Hassel.

More recently, Peruvian historians have gathered evidence pointing to a German adventurer named Augusto Berns. In the 1860’s, Berns purchased land near Machu Picchu and secured permission from Peru’s government to prospect it for gold and silver. In the process, he supposedly plundered a series of old Incan sites.

The question of who reached the site first is not just an academic one. The stakes are high and future revelations may impact the destination of 40,000 artifacts that currently reside at Yale University.

Who owns Yale’s Machu Picchu Artifacts?

An 1887 prospecting authorization given to Berns indicates that Peru held national sovereignty over the area prior to Bingham’s arrival. They are using this to help lay claim to Yale’s artifacts. Yale’s lawyers counter that if Berns reached the site first, it stands to reason that he removed the most important artifacts. Thus, they don’t feel that the artifacts in their possession are unique or important enough to require their return to Peru. Adding to the drama, property records show that local families owned Machu Picchu before Bingham arrived. Their descendants are seeking compensation for loss of property.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

I’d be surprised if Bingham was the first outsider to ever set eyes upon Machu Picchu. But as far as I can tell, there is no solid evidence to support any of the other claims. New evidence will continue to emerge however, so anything is possible. But regardless, Hiram Bingham will always be remembered as the man who shone public light on the fabulous ruins known as Machu Picchu.

“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead, gigantic precipices of many-colored granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids; it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle.” ~ Hiram Bingham, 1922