Archives For Polar Regions

civil war navy

Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson’s latest book, War on the Waters, is a concise naval history of the American Civil War. Most authors and historians focus on the great generals (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.) or the great battles (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh etc.) and often ignore the vital role the navies played in the conflict both on the rivers of the western Confederacy and the high seas. Entire books have been written on various aspects of the naval war – riverine warfare in the west, blockade running, Confederate merchant raiders, foreign intrigue in Europe and the innovations that made their debut in the conflict. McPherson neatly summarizes each of these topics and arranges them in easily digestible chapters that proceed in chronological order.

McPherson’s organization and writing style allow both the uninitiated reader and the Civil War buff to understand the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various personalities, events and inventions that influenced the war. Perhaps most importantly, McPherson accompanies his chapters with strategic or tactical level maps that enable the reader to understand the events which occur in the chapter. McPherson understands the unwritten rule that the inclusion of a relevant map is worth multiple pages of text in helping a reader establish an awareness of the events being described. Along with the maps, various etchings and photos accompany each chapter and neither maps nor illustrations are confined to a few pages in the center or the beginning of the book. This allows the reader to visually grasp the crux of each chapter and makes both the maps and the illustrations more relevant to the narrative being told.

Overall, War on the Waters is a fantastic single volume history of the Civil War’s naval history. McPherson hits all of the highlights of the Civil War – CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor, blockade running, William B. Cushing’s daring raid on the CSS Albemarle, and the first successful attack by a submarine – in only 225 pages. War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the naval literature of the Civil War and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history, naval history or the Civil War.

russian nuclear powered icebreaker

Icebreaker off Antarctica
CC Image Courtesy of Matt Geske on Flickr

Russia recently commissioned the building of the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker in an effort to increase traffic in the Northern Sea Route and better compete for resources in the Arctic. Global warming (anthropogenic or not) has made use of the Northern Sea Route a viable possibility in the past few years and the Barents Observer is reporting that a record amount of cargo may transit the route this year. The current record is 820,789 tons of cargo and 749,706 tons have already made their way through the shipping lane in 2012. Russia hopes to increase trade at its northern ports as the Northern Sea Route stays open longer and longer each season and through the artificial extension of the shipping season via use of its yet to be named icebreaker.

The new icebreaker will be 558 feet long and 102 feet wide, making the vessel 46 feet longer and 12 feet wider than any other icebreaker in Russia’s fleet. The ship’s enormous size will enable it to break up thicker sheets of ice than other ships. In addition to being vastly larger than anything currently in the Russian icebreaking fleet, the ship will have on-board ballast tanks allowing it to raise and lower its draft from 28 to 35 feet. Thus the ship will be able to sail up previously inaccessible Siberian rivers. Powering the icebreaker will be dual nuclear reactors producing 60 megawatts of power which make it capable of towing ships displacing up to 70,000 tons through Arctic waters. While the selection of nuclear reactors as a power source for civilian ships may seem strange, Russia’s first nuclear powered icebreaker, Lenin, first sailed in 1959 and the country currently operates around a dozen nuclear powered icebreakers. As a sidenote, the US experimented with nuclear powered civilian vessels beginning with the launch of the NS Savannah in 1959, but ceased operating her in 1972 due to cost inefficiencies.

While the icebreaker is chiefly intended for improving the commercial flow of goods in the Arctic, the ship’s strategic value can not be ignored. Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the US have all laid claim to parts of the region in order to secure access to the oil and gas believed to be located beneath the seabed. Just as China views its deep water oil rigs as “strategic weapons,” Russia’s possession of the most capable icebreaker in the world will have serious implications in who exercises control of the region.

Russian submarine

CC Image courtesy of The Bellona Foundation on Flickr

Nine years ago today the Russian Navy lost the nuclear powered submarine K-159 when it foundered in the Barents Sea . The sub had recently been slated for scrapping and was en route to a date with the breakers yard. Commissioned in 1963, the K-159 served in the Soviet Northern Fleet (the same fleet as Tom Clancy’s Red October) and suffered a reactor accident in 1965. Reports vary on the extent of repairs to the reactor, but the ship returned to active service and was retired in 1989. The K-159 lay derelict in a Russian naval yard for fourteen years with minimal maintenance until the decision was made to scrap the ship in 2003. Due to extensive rusting of the ship’s outer hull, pontoons were secured to the K-159 to provide additional flotation.

Manned with a 10 man skeleton crew, the sub was taken under tow to a Russian scrapyard. While under tow, a storm ripped away the K-159’s pontoons and the sub began to take on water. Within a few hours the K-159 dipped below the waves of the Barents Sea and came to rest in 781 feet of water. In addition to killing 9 of her crew members, the sub took with it 1,760 pounds of radioactive spent fuel. Plans for salvage have continually been postponed, however the Scottish salvage company Adus located the sub and published sonar scan images of it resting on the sea floor in 2010. The Dutch salvage company Smit & Mammoet (the same firm which salvaged the Russian sub Kursk) submitted a salvage proposal in 2011, but salvage work has yet to begin. While the wreck generated initial concerns of radioactive contamination of the Barents Sea, to date there has been no documented increase in radiation levels in the area.

Shackleton’s Whiskey

August 22, 2012 — 1 Comment
Shackleton's Whisky

CC Image courtesy of sandwichgirl on Flickr

Two years ago, three bottles of whisky were recovered from the base camp Sir Ernest Shackleton used during his British Antarctic Expedition (1907 – 1909). Shackleton and his team approached to within ~100 miles of the South Pole and turned back after Shackelton decided it would be too risky to continue. Two years later Captain Robert Scott’s Terra Nova expedition would return to successfully reach the South Pole (although they were beaten by a month by Norwegian Roald Amundsen), but perished on the return journey. Shackleton had been on Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition in 1904 and later returned to the South Pole as commander of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914 – 1917). The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is most famous for the loss of the ship Endurance and the subsequent account of the travails of the crew.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the recovery of the three bottles of whisky by the Antarctic History Trust. Although the whisky was not frozen due to its alcohol content, the bottles were slowly thawed in a New Zealand conservation lab. In 2011, they were then turned over to Whyte & Mackay, the distillery that succeeded the originally producer of the whisky. Using a painstaking process chronicled here and here, scientists at Whyte & Mackay discerned the whisky’s recipe and the distillery has released a limited run of 50,000 bottles of the whisky for sale.

Last week, researchers announced the discovery of the famous polar exploration vessel SS Terra Nova in waters off the southern coast of Greenland. SS Terra Nova was discovered during routine tests of mapping equipment aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falcor. The ship is lying in less than 160M of water, but its exact location has not been disclosed by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

Lost in 1943 after a collision with an ice pack, the SS Terra Nova was built in 1884 to withstand the rigors of operating as a whaler and sealer in polar regions. Following a ten year commercial career, the ship served the Jackson-Harmsworth Arctic Expedition from 1894 – 1897. Terra Nova is most famous, though, for its role in Captain Robert Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Expedition (1910 – 1912).  Captain Scott and his team of British explorers sought to become the first humans to reach the South Pole; however they were beaten by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen. Amundsen’s party reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911, beating Scott by approximately 30 days. Scott’s team perished on their return trek and their bodies were not discovered until nearly 8 months later. In death, Scott was mythologized throughout his native Britain and has been the subject of numerous books and articles. Historians continue to debate his legacy – historian Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth is a stinging critique of Captain Scott while polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fienne’s Captain Scott defends Scott and the choices he made during the expedition.