Canadian Geographic
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The North from Space


Not until the 16th century, when trade between Europe and the Orient pushed many European explorers to seek a shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific — namely, a Northwest or Northeast Passage — did Arctic exploration really begin. As successive expeditions failed in their search for a traversable route, focus shifted from finding the elusive passage to reaching the North Pole.

In the 1850s, as the recording of meteorological events became a more common practice, the British Navy adopted a system of detailed observation. This led to the establishment of the first International Polar Year (IPY), in 1882. That year, a dozen countries collaborated to establish a series of research stations throughout the Arctic to study its climate.

For decades during the latter half of the 1800s, Swedish, Norwegian and British expeditions all competed to be the first to reach the North Pole. U.S. Navy engineer Robert Peary, along with Matthew Henson and Inuit explorers, would claim its conquest on Apr. 6, 1909.

In 1932, the second International Polar Year was organized, during which 94 meteorological stations were established. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Second World War would prevent publication of the data collected.

After the war, as the world ushered in the Cold War era, the Arctic became the front line between the Soviet Union and North America. Military interests thus drove both sides to establish a presence in the Arctic regions. Starting in 1947, the United States and Canada built the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a network of radar stations stretching along the Arctic coast that was intended to warn of a Soviet nuclear attack while also collecting meteorological data. The Soviet Union set a fleet of research stations adrift on thick ice floes in the Arctic (each station was manned for a year, allowing its crew to collect data on both atmospheric and oceanic conditions). This program operated continuously from 1950 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The end of the Cold War brought a decrease in Arctic observations, along with a shift from land-based to satellite models. From the early 1970s on, as remote-sensing instruments carried by satellites continued to improve, a record of the extent of the Arctic sea ice became possible.

In 1995, technological advancements led to the launch of RADARSAT-1, a Canadian observation satellite equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR). RADARSAT-1 delivered large amounts of data quickly and allowed scientists to obtain images of the Earth day or night and even through heavy cloud cover. Today’s satellites routinely take measurements of snow-covered terrain and sea ice and can record surface and atmospheric temperatures and moisture conditions, moisture content and ozone concentrations.


This piece has six sections to choose from, each outlining an aspect of the Ellesmere Ice Shelf’s history, shrinkage and how it has changed since 1852. Maps and satellite images are accompanied by narration of on-screen text.


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Quiz :

This sea route would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

The Arctic Passage
The Northwest Passage
The Atl-pac Passage