Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 Franklin search

Everyone has heard the news -- this time, there was no need to use Vessel Finder maps to seek out the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, or to sift through online rumors: the government announced it in advance. Perhaps significantly, this time the press release came from an Inuk, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, whose surname recalls the name given by the Inuit to Francis Crozier, Franklin's second-in-command, usually transcribed in 19th-century documents as "Aglooka."

Still, despite this auspicious association, one wonders: what will be different about the 2014 search for Franklin? I was pleased (and somewhat bemused) to see that it seems as though this year the plan has incorporated a number of things that I've repeatedly argued for in this blog: 1) A larger number of support vessels; 2) Significant public-private partnerships; and 3) Use of relevant satellite and other remote imaging technology. In fact, I think it would be accurate to say that this is largest and most ambitious single-season search for Franklin's vessels since the early 1850's. According to the press release, not only will it involve the Laurier, along with the venerable scow Martin Bergmann, but the warship HMCS Kingston, a 55-meter long vessel with side-scan sonar capabilities, along with the "One Ocean Voyager," a.k.a. the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a still larger ship originally outfitted as a research vessel, but more recently chartered by One Ocean Expeditions as a passenger ship taking a mix of researchers and "extreme tourists" to the polar regions. It's not every ice-strengthened vessel that can boast a formal dining room, a fitness center, a bar, a library, and a lounge, all conveniently accessible by elevator! It's not clear, though, whether the Vavilov will be actively participating (launching, as it is capable of doing, Zodiacs or submersibles) or serving more as a floating platform for those who wish to share in the adventure. The Parks Canada launches (Kinglett and Gannet) will be there as well, along with their research vessel Investigator -- all in all, more personnel, more tonnage, and more equipment than has ever before been dedicated to the search.

We're also fortunate that, this year, we've been told something about the search area, as the very name  indicates: the Victoria Strait. This is, when not filled with old ice, a quite large body of water (see map above) and so the specificity conferred by the name is limited. Earlier searches seem to have taken place near the Royal Geographical Society Islands (visible at the lower right of this map), so in a sense this is an extended search of an area already identified in past seasons. But is it the right place to look?

Not to go into too many tedious details, we have some good information about Franklin's ships, both from the Victory Point Record and Inuit testimony. We don't know which is which, but either the Erebus or the Terror was apparently crushed in the ice within visual distance of the coast of King William Island. The second vessel, either drifting or re-piloted, succeeded in getting further south, where it sank, according to the Inuit, near an island where the water was shallow enough that its masts were still visible; this is the wreck sought years ago by David C. Woodman and others in the Vicinity of "Utjulik" -- with several islands, such as O'Reilly Island, off the western shores of the Adelaide peninsula among their key targets.  So it's safe to say that, if they're looking in the Victoria Strait, it would be this first vessel that Parks Canada would be seeking. Although crushed by the ice, it may -- as was the HMS Breadalbane -- still be reasonably well-preserved, particularly if it sank in deeper water untouched by passing ice, which annually scours on the sea-floor in shallower areas. If not so lucky, it may have been reduced long ago to more of a d├ębris field than a ship. Despite this, the ship's engine -- Erebus and Terror used two re-purposed railway engines -- would likely be intact, and would serve to identify the vessel immediately (the two engines were of different designs).

Is it a perfect search? None could be. I always wish that some land-based archaeological work will be done, but the odds of that seem low this time -- and no one who's really tried to puzzle out all the surviving evidence -- Inuit testimony, physical relics, ice cores climate histories, and the reports of nineteenth-century searchers should be sanguine about any plan. Still, I hold out some hope that this year, if ice conditions and weather allow, a good deal more progress will be made -- even if it turns out to be simply establishing where Franklin's ships are not. And, whatever the political hoopla, I still put some confidence in the extraordinarily persistent, careful, and well-trained teams at Parks Canada; everyone who cares about Franklin, whatever their politics, should wish them well.