Question: Where in the world were attempts to prove the shape of the earth delayed by an icy channel prone to mood swings?
Answer: Hinlopen Strait, Norway
When you’re sailing well above the Arctic Circle, you expect extremes. And the Hinlopen Strait knows how to deliver. The 93-mile passage can warm up to shirtsleeve temperatures a few days every summer and yet plummet to 20-below (before wind chill!) in the winter. Its waters can be open and smooth as glass, allowing sailboats to speed along between dramatic cliffs, or clogged so thoroughly with icebergs that no vessel would dare pass. Despite this, sailors have been crossing Hinlopen since at least the 1600s, when Dutch whalers set up seasonal fishing camps and explorers began trying to map the waters.
In the 19th century, there was something of a scientific race to accurately map the arc of the meridian—the imagined line between the poles—and thus determine the Earth’s true shape. It had become increasingly clear that the world was not a perfect sphere and that the polar radius was shallower than it was at the equator. The only way to calculate this precisely was to navigate each of the poles. In 1864, the Royal Swedish Museum hired Finnish-born explorer-mineralogist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld to map out the arc of the meridian via Hinlopen. Previous teams had managed to map the northern half of the Hinlopen Strait or the southern, but each had been thwarted by bad weather and impassable ice packs. For the new mission, the museum retrofitted the gunship Axel Thordsen for the task.
Nordenskiöld got off to an excellent start, recording data from points as yet unconquered, and his expedition seemed destined for smooth sailing when they entered the last leg of the journey under clear skies. However, before he could complete the northern leg, his crew discovered 37 sailors bobbing in small lifeboats on the sea. Their ship had been forced aground in poor weather a week before. Nordenskiöld loaded the rescued men into the Axel Thordsen, knowing full well that it would be too heavy to complete its original mission, and sailed the men back to safety in Norway.
Nordenskiöld would eventually make history for being the sailor who made it furthest north by boat in 1868, but he did so by skirting the once-again-frozen Hinlopen. He went on to become the first sailor to navigate the entire Northeast Passage from the Arctic to the Pacific, and his calculations were factored into the establishment of the Prime Meridian in 1884.
Despite its reputation, Hinlopen Strait went on to become a destination for nature lovers and adventurers, known for its stunning multi-colored cliffs and surprisingly varied wildlife (see below). A 19th-century geography treatise described Hinlopen’s climate as “one of the healthiest in the world” and claimed it offered “perfect immunity from colds, catarrhs, and all affections of the chest.” Though that claim can hardly be proved, the waters of Hinlopen Strait are more frequently clear and easier to navigate today than they once were, and its summer can almost feel warm—a far cry from the landscape that thwarted Nordenskiöld.
Flora & Fauna of Hinlopen
- In the polar desert surrounding much of the strait, there are nonetheless 200 species of lichens and mosses.
- Though not easy to spot, there are 60 species of flowering plants, mostly quite low to the ground, including edible “scurvy grass.”
- The most visible plant is the butter-colored Svalbard poppy, the most northern flower on earth.
- Among the 16 species of mammals, there are reindeer, short-tailed rats, and arctic fox.
- Hinlopen is known for its polar bears and cubs, their numbers bucking trends and increasing slightly in recent years (climbing to just over 3,500).
- Walruses congregate in formidable clusters along the rocky shores of the strait, mostly in groups of males but with a rising number of females and calves.
- The 30 species of birds are almost all migratory, the exception being the hearty rock ptarmigan, which overwinters there.
- Two species, Brünnich’s guillemot and black-legged kittiwakes, compete to be the strait’s largest population, their numbers each swelling to as much as a quarter million during nesting season.
- Two kinds of seals, mighty bearded seals and sleeker ringed seals, swim in the strait and live here year-round, with ringed seals able to dive 500 feet for fish.
- 45 species of fish swim here, including species as diverse as the spiky hooknose, the vivid scarlet beryx (also known as red bream), and three kinds of skates.
- Whales have thrived here since before the first sailor, with some populations more elusive than others. They currently include bowhead, beluga, blue, fin, humpback, minke, sperm, bottlenose, killer, and pilot whales.
- In recent years, the unicorns of the sea—narwhals—have become more frequent visitors, their “horns” bobbing into view at ice’s edge.
Witness Hinlopen Strait and the jaw-dropping spectacle of life above the Arctic Circle with O.A.T. on our new Arctic Expedition: Untamed Norway & Svalbard Small Ship Adventure.