Science X-Files

Arctic’s Biggest Mysteries: First-Ever Map Of The North Pole

The Arctic has long been a mysterious, icy wonderland known only to intrepid explorers and the strong indigenous people who call it home.

These days we there are a lot of scientific reports that the Arctic is the fastest-changing region on Earth. As the global climate warms, feedbacks such as winter sea ice shrinking and cracks appearing mean that the Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the planet – researchers try to understand the reasons for these changes, and determine what we should expect in the future.

Centuries ago, though, when people tried to map the Arctic, they weren’t too concerned with what was happening to it—they just wanted to know what the heck was up there. And, if they didn’t know, they pretty much made it up. Such was the case with the first known map of the Arctic: the Septentrionalium Terrarum, which is filled with magnetic stones, strange whirlpools, and other colorful guesses.

Arctic's Biggest Mysteries: First-Ever Map Of The North PoleThe second draft of the Septentrionalium Terrarum, released in 1606

Mercator projection

The map’s creator, the Flemish cartographer geographer and cosmographerGerardus Mercator, is best known for the “Mercator projection,” the now-famed method of taking the curved lines of the Earth and transforming them into straight ones that can be used on a flat map.

Arctic's Biggest Mysteries: First-Ever Map Of The North PoleLeft: Gerardus Mercator. Right: Jodocus Hondius

The Mercator projection was invented for sailors, who, thanks to its design, could use it to plot a straight-line course from their point of origin to their destination. It’s been widely used for centuries, including today in various forms by Google Maps and many other online services. This map preserves directional bearing, presenting rhumbs (imaginary lines that cut all meridians at the same angle) as straight lines, thus making it a useful tool for navigation.

Despite its benefits, the Mercator projection drastically distorts the size and shape of objects approaching the poles. This may be the reason people have no idea how big some places really are.

(This is also why so many people think Africa is the same size as Greenland, when it is really about 14 times bigger—the Mercator projection is still very common in schools.)

Under the terms of this Mercator math, the North Pole would appear so large as to be almost infinite. So instead of including it in the overall projection, Mercator decided to set a small, top-down view of the Arctic in the bottom left corner of his world map.

Geographical historians consider this to be the first true map of the Arctic.

Arctic's Biggest Mysteries: First-Ever Map Of The North PoleMercator’s 1569 map of the world, the first to feature his famous projection. The Arctic inlet is on the bottom left.

First map of the North Pole

In time as new information came to light, Mercator and his followers enlarged and updated this original map but those original bones remained in place.

Despite not many people were able to reach the arctic at the time (no explorer would set foot on the Pole itself until 1909) Mercator, was during into some dicey sources to suss out what he should include. 

Mysterious lost book called  Inventio FortunataFortunate, or fortune-making, discovery”  was said to be a travelogue written by a 14th-century Franciscan (Minorite) friar from Oxford who travelled the North Atlantic region in the early 1360s became main source of inspiration for cartographer. It gave Mercator the centerpiece of his map: a massive rock located exactly at the pole, which he labels Rupus Nigra et Altissima, or “Black, Very High Cliff.”

Arctic's Biggest Mysteries: First-Ever Map Of The North PoleAt the time, many assumed the pole itself featured a giant, magnetic mountain.

The presence of this formation was widely accepted at the time. Most people thought it was magnetic, which provided an easy explanation for why compasses point north. But Mercator was not quite convinced by this argument, and included a different rock, which he labels “Magnetic Pole,” in the top left corner of the map, just north of the Strait of Anián.

The Arctic drawn by Mercator is four large chunks separated by channels of flowing water, which meet in the middle in a giant whirlpool. This idea came from two 16th-century explorers, Martin Frobisher and James Davis, who each made it as far as what is now Northern Canada. Both documented their experiences with vicious currents, which, they wrote, pulled giant icebergs along like they were nothing. “Without cease, it is carried northward, there being absorbed into the bowels of the Earth,” Mercator wrote on his original map.

According to Mercator each piece of the Arctic also has particular qualities, following his labels the one in the lower right is supposedly home to “pygmies, whose length is four feet”—likely another reference to the Inventio Fortunata, which described groups of small-statured people living in the polar regions. (It’s possible that the author of the Inventio was referring to the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland.) The one next door, on the bottom left, is apparently “the best and most salubrious” of all the chunks, although no evidence is given to support this—or to explain why the pygmies wouldn’t want to live there, instead.

Arctic's Biggest Mysteries: First-Ever Map Of The North PoleThe supposed home of “Pygmeis.”

After Mercator death in 1594, few explorers continued to gain new knowledge of the Arctic, and cartographers revised their view of both Poles. By 1636, up-to-date maps of the region lacked Mercator’s four regions, along with the Rupus Nigra and the central whirlpool. Instead, they showed one large piece of land, surrounded by smaller islands and, often, adorned with the ship’s routes that enabled this geographical knowledge in the first place.

Map of The Arctic, Emanuel Bowen, 1780

As we look at modern Arctic maps, suggesting what changes are ahead, it’s fascinating to think back to Mercator’s original version, mysterious and broken from the beginning.

Giant hole at North Pole

In recent times what scientists do know of the region makes them want to find out more. Even equipped by modern advanced technological tools we still dont know much about what is hidden on the roof of our planet.

Some images went public last year revealed NASA is hiding a huge hole leading directly to the centre of the Earth, conspiracy theorists have claimed.  The “devastating” pictures are said to support the bizarre theory the planet’s core is actually hollow – and there is another world hidden inside.

It has been claimed the Earth’s middle has its own Sun and is roamed by “monstrous animals resembling the mammoth”.

Arctic's Biggest Mysteries: First-Ever Map Of The North PoleThese NASA images were quickly deleted from existence, according to UFO enthusiasts (Photo: Secure Team)

YouTube conspiracy theorists secureteam10 claim the US Government is covering up the secret hole – a theory they say is supported by the fact aircraft are blocked from flying over the North Pole .

Polar explorer Admiral Richard E Bird wrote in his diaries that he had entered inner Earth and travelled 1700 miles among mountains, lakes, vegetation and animal life.

He also apparently found thriving civilisations on his 1920s trips and was once “attacked by flying saucers that burst out of the ocean and wiped out half of his fleet”.

Despite of thousand of reports have been written on the Arctic there is still a lot of unknown things hidden on this mysterious continent.

featured image: HMS Erebus in the Ice, 1846, oil painting by Musin, Francois Etienne

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