On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 took off on a routine trip from Kuala Lumpur north to Beijing. Shortly thereafter, the plane disappeared from radar screens and, other than a few satellite pings, no trace of it has been found. Two hundred and thirty nine people are missing and presumed dead. There are several clues as to its whereabouts that surprisingly led south, to one of the most inaccessible regions of the Indian Ocean. Even a massive international effort involving dozens of boats, airplanes, and submarines has failed to unravel the mystery of MH370. Commentators have called this the “largest maritime search in history.” But is it?
Readers of this blog know of my interest in polar exploration. So it should be no surprise that I find a connection between MH370 and the biggest polar search in history.
On May 19, 1845 the ships Erebus and Terror departed England under the command of Sir John Franklin. Franklin and his 129 crewmembers set forth on what was expected to be a triumphant journey through the North-west Passage. Discovering a navigable route through the Canadian labyrinth of islands and ice-clogged passageways was one of the great geographical mysteries yet to be resolved. On July 25, 1845, just west of Greenland, a whaling ship pulled along side Franklin’s ships. After that, not a word. At the time, that was not a problem. After all, this expedition was expected to be away for a year or more.
As Andrew Cohn writes in Lost Beneath the Ice (2013):
But when nothing was heard from Franklin by late 1847, the [British] Admiralty worried. … Tens of thousands of worshippers filled churches across England, and the efforts to find Franklin became a cause célèbre. A massive international effort was launched... It ‘was the greatest activity the Arctic would ever witness’… Over the next dozen years, some forty ships and 2,000 officers and men would join the search for Franklin, making this ‘the longest and most expensive search and rescue operation ever undertaken.’ Between 1848 and 1853, some twenty-eight expeditions on sea and land were sent to the Arctic.
The search area was literally the entire Canadian Arctic, at the time regarded as one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Expeditions probed from the Eastern Arctic, trying to retrace Franklin’s path. Others entered from the Western Arctic, expecting him to have completed or come close to completing the North-west Passage. Yet others explored the northern reaches, thinking that he might have gone into the mythical Open Polar Sea that supposedly existed around the North Pole. The British public was hungry for news. But each expedition took many months to return home, and most took several years. There were no telephones or Internet to keep the public informed. The drama in the Arctic was played out in painfully slow motion.
In 1850, the first trace of Franklin was found. On Beechey Island, close the geographic center of the Canadian Arctic, the Franklin’s 1845-46 winter camp was found. But no note was discovered – nothing to indicate where he went once the summer came, the ice melted, and his ships were free to continue their journey.
It wasn’t until 1854 that evidence emerged as to the fate of Franklin and his men. John Rae, on a routine mapping mission, encountered Eskimos with stories of white men who died of starvation many years before. Rae returned to England with the stories and artifacts from the lost crew. The public had to wait until 1859 to get most of the story. Francis Leopold McClintock led an expedition that was able to reach the site of the tragedy (King William Island) and recover the only surviving document of the expedition. The single page of paper told a sad tale of being hopelessly trapped in the ice and a starving crew forced to abandon ship in a desperate attempt to march south. None survived.
It took 14 years to discover what happened to Franklin’s expedition. Over the course of that time, most of the blank areas on the map of the Canadian Arctic were filled in. A navigable North-west Passage turned out to be illusionary, at least for ships in the nineteenth century.
The Franklin mystery was eventually solved, as will that of MH 370 eventually. The search for MH 370 has been ongoing for only two months. With today’s sophisticated equipment, we can only hope that the search won’t take as long the Franklin search.