Scientific advances may finally reveal Franklin’s lost ships

At its time, the loss of Sir John Franklin and his 128 men, who, as depicted here as they attempted to reach safety, was an enormous disaster, one which continues draw the interest of historians and others

By Randy BoswellNunatsiaq News


A Parks Canada-led team of researchers is trying — again — to unravel the ultimate Arctic mystery: the whereabouts of the lost ships of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

The experts are armed with everything from historical Inuit testimony and the scrawled writings of 19th-century explorers to state-of-the art seabed scanners and the latest computer simulations of ice movement through the Arctic Archipelago.

And while underwater archeologist Ryan Harris and his colleagues from a host of federal and Nunavut government agencies are optimistic that this could be the year for a worldshaking discovery, they know they’re not the first to harbour that hope.

Still, the veteran Parks Canada diver and marine historian is excited about fresh data being supplied by Canadian Ice Service scientists that should help the search team retrace what happened to the stranded Franklin ships more than a century and a half ago — and to help pinpoint where they might lie on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

“They’ve undertaken a historical ice climatology study to help us narrow our search area,” Harris said in a preexpedition interview. “It’s quite innovative.

It’s looking back at archived Radarsat ice imagery and trying to reconstruct patterns of ice formation, drift and breakup” in the waters known to have been sailed by Sir John Franklin when his ships — HMS Erebus and HMS Terror —  fell prey to pack ice 165 years ago.

The freeze-in led to the loss of the two vessels and, eventually, to the deaths of Franklin and all 128 men under his command.

“There were some very simple questions which we didn’t know the answer to, like what happens to the ice coming from Victoria Strait ?

Does it all go west of the Royal Geographical Society Islands or does it bifurcate ?” asks Harris, noting that a key pinch-point appears to lie where the Victoria Strait reaches the southerly Alexandra Strait near the southeast tip of Victoria Island.

The ice “bottlenecks at the top of Alexandra Strait and that is the area where one of the vessels luckily made it through and the other got pinched and sunk.”

It appears that the ice data “reinforces our suspicion that there’s a big stoppage as it enters Alexandra Strait” and that “this is what imperilled the expedition in the first place.

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Canada Franklin expedition Labrador Sir John Franklin Erebus and Terror Grenier Strait of Belle Isle