Jim McNeill – life as an Arctic explorer
Hi, I’m Jude Holland, one of the Exhibition Curators here at the National Maritime Museum. In May, we opened a new temporary exhibition: ‘The North-West Passage: an Arctic Obsession‘. The Passage is the fabled sea route that links the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans across the top of Canada. Explorers tried to find the Passage for over 400 years.
As well as delving into the fascinating personal stories of those who searched for the Passage from the 15th to the 19th centuries, the exhibition examines what’s happening in the Arctic today in an era of global climate change.
I wanted to find out what today’s explorers are doing in the Arctic, so met up with Jim McNeill. Jim has been going to the Arctic for over 25 years. He now runs his own company, IceWarrior, which organises expeditions that allow ordinary people to experience the Arctic. When we met earlier this year, Jim told me about next year’s project: an attempt to reach the ‘Northern Pole of Inaccessibility.’ What is this I wondered?
Well the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility was defined probably around the late 1800s by a guy called Stephansonn, it’s a bit difficult to tell but I’ve done extensive research. And he was looking for the furthest point from rescue because he was trying to find the North Pole, or the ‘North Water’ as they thought it was then; they thought it was an open area of water.
But… the history sort of skips from there to 1927 when a prolific explorer, cinematographer and aviator called Sir Hubert Wilkins, he wanted to find the furthest point from land on the Arctic Ocean, or the very centre of the Arctic Ocean, because his expedition, which was a flying expedition, an aviation expedition, wanted to fly right the way over the Arctic sort of traverse the Arctic, for the very first time. And so he established the point to begin with.
And so in 2005 I was working with NASA, and I thought about this point which I’d been researching since 2001, and asked them to re-establish its position using modern day satellite technology. And we discovered that they missed out some islands on the Russian side called the Henrietta Islands and so the latest position is quite different from the one that was established in 1927, and so it’s all very exciting – a new position and we know no-one’s ever been there and it’s the very centre of the Arctic Ocean.
I asked Jim why he wanted to go the the Pole.
Well I suppose when you look at a body, scientifically speaking, and I started off as an environmental scientist, if you haven’t looked at the central region then perhaps you’re missing something within, particularly an icecap because obviously that shuttles around and if you haven’t been to the centre, perhaps we’re missing something that’s going on. So it’s significant from a scientific point of view.
And really I suppose it’s a PR hook to hang our hat on in terms of establishing interest and engaging school children and everyone else really in the whole project. It’s the last significant place on Earth arguably, or certainly in the polar regions, that hasn’t been visited by man so that’s the reason behind it. And of course en route, we’re doing this traverse, this transect, this scientific transect from the very edge, Ward Hunt Island to the Geographic North Pole first and then onto this centre of the Arctic Ocean and en route we will be measuring the absolute condition of the Arctic Ocean in all the ways we possibly can.
Early in 2010, Jim will lead a small team to the Geographic North Pole before trekking off on his own towards the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility.
Before I left Jim, I was eager to find out about his personal experiences of the North-West Passage. He described the unpredictable nature of the ice coverage in the region today.
I’ve probably travelled half of the North-West Passage and they are fascinating areas, and you get all the historical side of things.
Friends of mine were born and brought up in Cresswell Bay which is effectively a large part of a large bay on the eastern side of Somerset Island, a great part of the North-West Passage as it was originally. But that search for the North-West Passage, the history and everything else is a fantastic story and one that we can learn an enormous amount from.
Physically speaking it’s changing all the time, the ice is breaking up, but you cannot predict it. In 2007 when I flew over it, there was virtually no ice there and it was a very easy passage for any vessel to go through, with 1% ice left in the Passage itself. Last year, although the ice had broken up, there was an enormous amount of ice left there so it was very difficult to traverse the Passage because of the danger of doing so in anything less than an icebreaker.
You can see Jim’s kit, and hear more about his experiences in the region in our exhibition, ‘The North-West Passage: an Arctic Obsession‘. It’s free and runs until Janurary 2010.