When Fridtjof Nansen was born in 1861, there were no new shores to discover. The outlines of the world map had been virtually completed; Nansen helped to fill in the details.
Fridtjof Nansen was a scientist, statesman and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. His devotion to humanitarian causes saved the lives of countless thousands after WWI. But he regarded himself first and foremost as an explorer and scientist. It was in this role that he was happiest.
Nansen was born into a family with a distinguished record of service to the nation. A paternal ancestor, Hans Nansen – one-time mayor of Copenhagen – had explored the White Sea. Fired with this same urge to probe the unknown, the young Nansen, only 26 years of age, decided to mount an expedition to cross the Greenland icecap
His six-man strong expedition set forth in 1888. It faced a totally hostile environment. Twelve days passed before the team was even able to set foot on the mainland, after leaving the safety of the expedition's main vessel. The men completed the trek across the icecap, reaching the west coast of Greenland in September. Throughout the hazardous journey, Nansen and his men meticulously recorded the meteorological conditions and compiled other scientific data.
The six returned to Norway and national acclaim. But Nansen was not content to rest on his laurels. Earlier observations had convinced him that a strong east-west current must flow from Siberia towards the North Pole, and from there down to Greenland.
Determined to prove the truth of his theory, Nansen drew up the specifications for a ship strong enough to withstand the pressure of the ice. The plan was to sail it eastwards along the Northeast Passage to the New Siberian Islands until it froze into the ice. The crew would remain on board the ship while it drifted westwards with the ice towards the North Pole and the straits between Svalbard and Greenland.
The expedition left Christiania (now Oslo) in June 1893, with enough provisions for five years and fuel for eight. The "Fram" sailed east along the northern shore of Siberia. About 100 miles short of the New Siberian Islands Nansen changed course to due north. By 20 September, at latitude 79 degrees, the "Fram" was firmly locked in the pack ice. Nansen and his men prepared to drift westwards towards Greenland.
The "Fram" did not drift as close to the North Pole as Nansen had hoped. He resolved to make a bid for the Pole, taking with him one of the strongest and most stalwart of his men, Hjalmar Johansen. Their attempt was unsuccessful. Conditions were far worse than expected; their way was often barred by ice ridges or by patches of open water that caused delays. Finally, at 86 degrees 14 minutes north, they decided to turn back, and to make for Franz Josef Land. Nansen and Johansen had not reached the Pole, but they had been closer to it than any person before them.
In August 1897 an expedition vessel deposited Nansen and Johansen at the Norwegian port of Vardø. On that same day, and unbeknownst to them, the "Fram" had shaken off the last of the pack ice near Spitsbergen, and was steaming south for the first time in three years. Nansen's theory had proven correct. It had followed the current that he had argued must exist. Furthermore, the expedition had collected valuable information on currents, winds and temperatures, and proven beyond doubt that there was no land close to the Pole on the Eurasian side, but a deep, ice-covered ocean. For the new science of oceanography, the voyage of the "Fram" was of major importance. For Nansen it marked a vocational turning point. Oceanography became the focus of his research.
Nansen's major exploring days were over. However, he continued to contribute to science by compiling extensive data from both the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.