Fridtjof Nansen

History of Geology
James S. Aber

Born: 10 Oct. 1861, Store Frøen near Christiania, now Oslo, Norway.
Died: 13 May 1930, Lysaker, near Oslo, Norway.

Table of Contents
Abstract Introduction & Greenland
Arctic expedition Nansen's later life
Historical assessment Related websites


Nansen was a Norwegian explorer, oceanographer, statesman, and humanitarian. His early schooling was in Christiania, and he entered Christiania University in 1880, where he studied zoology. In 1882, he was appointed curator of zoology at the Bergen Museum, and he received the Ph.D. in 1887 from Christiania University. He had a great love for nature and was an athlete and artist.

Nansen announced his plan to cross the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1887. He adapted Lapp ski and sled techniques as well as Inuit snowshoes and learned the Inuit language. Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and four companions completed the crossing from east to west in only a few weeks of late summer, 1888. They overwintered in Godthåb on the west coast and returned to Norway in May 1889. Nansen's crossing proved for the first time the existence of a continuous ice sheet in Greenland and, thus, gave support to Agassiz's still-controversial glacial theory.

Nansen's greatest expedition was crossing of the Arctic Ocean in a specially designed ship, the Fram. Nansen, Sverdrup, and a crew of 11 sailed from Norway in 1893. They followed a course along the northern coast of Siberia, and became frozen into the Arctic ice pack near the New Siberian Islands. In March 1895, Nansen and Frederik Johansen left the Fram and travelled over the ice in an attempt to reach the North Pole. They were able to reach 86°14' N latitude before turning back. They overwintered in Franz Josef Land during 1895-96. Nansen, Fram and crew were eventually reunited and returned to Christiania in 1896 to a hero's welcome. A 2-volume work on Fram over Polhavet was published in 1897, along with an English translation titled Farthest north. The journey was remarkable for Arctic exploration of the time; not a single casualty or major mishap took place.

Upon his return, Nansen was appointed Professor of zoology (later changed to oceanography) at Christiania University. He participated in many oceanographic voyages and developed scientific instruments. He also became quite active politically, first nationally and later internationally. He was an outstanding member of the League of Nations after World War I, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his humanitarian work.

Introduction and Greenland

Nansen was a Norwegian explorer, oceanographer, statesman, and humanitarian. He was first to cross the Greenland Ice Sheet and first to cross the Arctic Ocean. Nansen attended school in Christiania (now Oslo) and took the entrance exam to the University of Christiania (now Univ. of Oslo) in 1880. He studied zoology. He loved the outdoors, was an athlete and an artist. In 1882, he was appointed curator of zoology at the Bergen Museum, and in 1887 he received the Ph.D. degree from the University of Christiania for a dissertation on the central nervous system.

His first oceanic trip was on the Viking sealing ship to Greenland waters. There he began to develop a plan for an expedition to cross the Greenland Ice Sheet. He announced his plan in 1887 to cross Greenland from east to west. All previous expeditions had attempted the crossing from west to east; all had failed miserably. Nansen adapted Lapp ski and sled techniques, as well as Inuit snowshoes. He learned the Inuit language beforehand, as part of his thorough preparation.

Space-shuttle photograph of Greenland. View toward the north showing the southern portion. All land and the ice sheet are snow-covered, and the surrounding sea is clear (except some clouds) in this winter view. Nansen's first major accomplishment was crossing this portion of the ice sheet. Space-shuttle photograph STS27-32-17, 12/88. Obtained from the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and four other companions departed Norway in May 1888. After weather delays, they were set on the eastern coast of Greenland in July, 200 miles (300 km) south of their intended starting point. They journeyed north and finally began the crossing on August 15th. This was several weeks later than originally planned. During the crossing, they endured extreme cold (-70 °F) and snowstorms. They were able to "sail" sleds over hard ice at times. They reached a maximum altitude of 8920 feet elevation. The party eventually made the west coast on September 26th. There, they constructed small boats of willow branches and sail cloth to sail to Godthåb, the Danish capital of Greenland. Because of their late arrival, they missed the last ship back to Europe, so they had to spend the winter. During this time, Nansen gathered material for a book on Inuit culture. The expedition finally returned to Norway in May 1889 to a hero's welcome.

Portrait of Fridtjof Nansen in 1890 shortly after his return from Greenland. In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Arctic Expedition

In 1879-81, the United States expedition of DeLong and Bennet ventured into Siberian Arctic waters. Their ship, the Jeannette, became frozen into ice and was destroyed near Jeannette Island. Three years later, relicts of the Jeannette were found in southwestern Greenland. The possibility of pack-ice drift across the Arctic Ocean was realized, and this was the basis for Nansen's next great expedition to the north. He conceived a specially built ship that would freeze into the ice pack near Alaska and drift across the Arctic to Greenland or Svalbard.

Nansen presented his proposal to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890 and to the Royal Geographical Society (London) in 1892. The plan was severely criticized. However, the Norwegian Parliament funded two-thirds of the cost; the remainder was paid by King Oscar II plus private contributions. The total cost was 25,000 £. Fram (meaning "forward") was an immensely strong, more than 400-ton ship built in Scotland. The design criteria included three main points.

  1. Shape of hull should offer a minimal vulnerable target for attack by ice.
  2. The hull should be able to withstand great pressure from any direction.
  3. Mechanical system and crew provisions to survive a 5-year voyage in isolation.

This was the most remarkable set of criteria ever laid out for a voyage of exploration to that time. In its day, it was analogous to space-shuttle missions of the late 20th century. The resulting ship had a triple oak/greenwood hull, 24-28 inches (61-71 cm) thick. It could proceed under steam or sail power.

The Fram Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway. Nansen's ship is on display in the A-framed building, along with other famous ships in the water. Photo © J.S. Aber.
Nansen's Fram on display in the Fram Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway. This ship was used also by Roald Amundsen, who was first to reach the South Pole in 1911. Photo © J.S. Aber.

The Fram set sail from Christiania with Nansen, Otto Sverdrup (capitan), and a crew of 11 on June 24, 1893. The expedition sailed around Norway, to Novaya Zemlya (Russia), across the Kara Sea, and past Cape Chelyuskin. The ship became frozen in north of the New Siberian Islands at 78°N latitude in late September. The long drift began. The Fram bore the ice pressure easily.

In March of 1895, Nansen and Frederik Johansen departed the Fram and attempted to reach the North Pole. They took three dog sleds for crossing the ice and kayaks to traverse open water. They actually reached 86°14' N latitude, the farthest north anyone had been at the time. They turned back when their dogs began to give out and reached Franz Josef Land, where they spent the winter, August 1895 to May 1896. They lived in a hut they made of stone with a roof of walrus hides; they ate polar bear and walrus using the blubber as fuel.

Nansen and Johansen started to Svalbard the next summer and met Jackson's party from a British expedition. They returned to Norway on the British ship Windward, reaching Vardø on August 13, 1896. Meanwhile, the Fram drifted as far north as 85°57' and eventually was released from the pack ice. Many scientific observations and experiments were conducted. Nansen, Fram and crew were reunited finally and returned to Christiania on September 9, 1896, once again to a hero's welcome.

A 2-volume work on Fram over Polhavet was published in 1897. The English translation, titled Farthest North, came out the same year. Nansen's success as an explorer was due to his careful evaluation of difficulties and risks, thorough planning, and meticulous attention to detail.

Nansen's Later Life

Upon Nansen's return to Norway in 1896, he was appointed professor of zoology at Christiania University. Later his title was changed to professor of oceanography in 1908. He conducted much scientific work until 1917, including several oceanographic cruises and scientific reports. Among his notable credits are improvements of instrument design (Nansen bottle), explanation of wind-driven currents, and understanding Arctic waters.

Nansen became deeply involved in the political movement for Norwegian independence from Sweden. The Swedish-Norwegian union was dissolved peacefully in 1905. Nansen was appointed the first Norwegian minister in London, 1906-08. In 1917 he headed a Norwegian commission to the United States, and he negotiated an agreement to import essential supplies to Norway during World War I.

Following World War I, the League of Nations was formed, and Nansen was appointed head of the Norwegian delegation in 1920. He was the commissioner in charge of repatriation from Russia of nearly half a million German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war. Russia refused to recognize the League, but was willing to negotiate with Nansen. Most prisoners were returned. He was also the Red Cross commissioner to deal with Russian refugees of famine. He raised funds privately and created an identity card (Nansen card) for refugees. For his humanitarian efforts, Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. He remained an outstanding member of the League of Nations until his death in 1930.

Portrait of Fridtjof Nansen in 1922 upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Historical Assessment

Nansen was clearly a person of many talents, abilities, and interests. His main contribution in geology was in the field of glaciology. He proved the existence of the Greenland Ice Sheet, thereby gaining general acceptance for the theory of glaciation that Agassiz had popularized half a century before. To commemorate Nansen's achievement, a group of Norwegians conducted a similar Greenland crossing in 1988 using the same kinds of equipment and techniques that Nansen had used a century before (Hagen 1989). His other major scientific works were in the field of oceanography, but he was not really a geologist.

Nansen developed an entirely new approach to Arctic exploration, one that was based on understanding and working within the environmental limits. Previous expeditions had attempted to transfer temperate European techniques into a hostile environment without success. Many men and ships were destroyed, lost, or killed by such tactics. Nansen's expeditions, on the other hand, involved small crews and carefully conceived methods based on Inuit and Lapp techniques of survival. In all of Nansen's exploits, not a single person, major piece of equipment, or important scientific observation was lost. No other person or exploration program, before or since, can claim such an outstanding record for success and safety under such adverse conditions.

Related Websites


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© J.S. Aber (2017).