The Franklin Expedition and climate change

The Arctic of John Franklin’s time was not the Arctic of today.

Franklin and his men set out for the Northwest Passage in 1845. At that time, civilization had just started to use fossil fuels on a large scale. Industry was generating small amounts of greenhouse gases compared to now. The human influence on climate had just begun.

Today, more than 170 years later, we know that climate change has taken its toll on the Arctic. Sea ice coverage, for example, is shrinking at a rate not seen in the last 1400 years.

According to the Canadian Ice Service, summer sea ice coverage in the Northwest Passage has been declining generally since scientists starting taking measurements in 1968. In some years, starting in 2012, the sea ice coverage in the Northwest Passage goes down to zero.

At this rate, some experts predict that the Northwest Passage will be generally ice-free in the summers by 2030. To the men of Franklin’s expedition, an ice-free journey would have been a beachside dream.

But the tricky thing about climate change is that within large-scale trends, you find small-scale variations. Even today, there are summers when the Northwest Passage can have a fair amount of ice.

It’s very, very important to Inuit, because it’s our ‘qaujiti,’ which means we were born to it and we’ve always lived in it…If the sea ice doesn’t form anymore, although we still get snow, our life would drastically change.

This variability probably held true in Franklin’s time as well. In 1985, the Canadian scientist B.T. Alt and her colleagues examined ice cores taken from glaciers and concluded that the Arctic was in a cooling phase during Franklin’s time. Conditions would have been unusually harsh for an Arctic expedition. Franklin’s ships would have had to fight through the castled pack ice that had built up over decades.

And yet the expedition managed to travel as far south as the northern tip of King William Island. This suggests that the sea ice must have been unusually light along some stretches of the route.

All this tells us that the story of Arctic climate, like the story of the Franklin Expedition itself, includes many smaller stories. We need to keep exploring, using both scientific research as well as human records such as Inuit oral histories, to unravel all the stories.

Marine Biology

When a ship sinks, it can become an artificial reef. Marine biologists and underwater archaeologists found that Erebus is home to a diversity of organisms from the region, including algae, sponges, and molluscs. Future study of Terror may well uncover a different suite of species, because it rests in a different location, in deeper, darker, and colder water. Analyzing the ecology of these artificial ecosystems will provide important information about what influences arctic marine life, and how marine organisms have influenced the wrecks.

Underwater archaeologists photographed and sampled organisms on and around Erebus to help understand how ocean ecosystems adapt. Biologists found 32 different species on Erebus. Most were returned to the sea—the rest will be studied for clues to how the ocean has changed in the past 150 years.

Artifact Conservation

From the sea to the lab

All artifacts retrieved from the wreck sites are first recorded by the archaeologists before they are excavated and taken to the laboratory in Ottawa for conservation treatment.

After the artifact is excavated, it can quickly deteriorate, causing the loss of many features of the artifact. The process of conservation begins as soon as the artifacts are out of the water. Taking the artifact from the sea to air and a dry environment can be very harmful to an artifact. We can keep newly excavated artifacts from deteriorating by maintaining similar conditions to those of the sea environment until it arrives at the laboratory.

We stabilize the artifacts by keeping them wet, dark and cold. Keeping artifacts cold while working in the arctic is easy but maintaining low temperatures during the trip to the lab can be challenging. The artifacts travel almost 3000 km from Nunavut to the laboratory in Ottawa.

Once the artifacts arrive at the lab, they are unpacked and their details are recorded and photographed thoroughly. Conservators check that the condition of each artifact is still stable.

Conservation and restoration

When the artifact is made from different materials (ex: glass, brass, wood, etc.), conservators need to make sure that treatment to clean one of the materials will not affect the other materials negatively. It’s important for the conservators to know and understand what the artifact is made of.

In the lab, the artifacts are gently cleaned of silt, seaweed and other marine life. It can be placed in an alkaline solution to remove the salt from the sea. This process can take many months but it is a very important step.

The solution is changed regularly until no more salt is detected. Once this is done, the artifact is rinsed and dried. The conservator careful cleans the rusted surfaces to show more details but the corrosion is not always all removed. Over-cleaning the rust from an artifact can result in losing some of the details or even reducing its authenticity.

The broad arrow and date of the bell recovered from HMS Erebus are actually preserved in the corrosion itself.