James Clark Ross

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James Clark Ross


British Naval Commander

James Clark Ross is remembered for his extensive experience and successes exploring both the Arctic and Antarctic. His most notable achievement was the discovery of the Magnetic North Pole in June 1831. In his time, Ross was recognized as the world's most successful and accomplished Arctic explorer.

Born in London, England, on April 15, 1800, Ross entered the British Navy at the age of 12. He participated in his first Arctic voyage in 1818, serving under his uncle John Ross (1777-1856), who was searching west of Greenland and north of Canada for an Arctic northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Later, between 1819 and 1827, James Ross sailed under British explorer Sir William Edward Parry (1790-1855). In 1823 Ross was promoted to lieutenant and, because of his skills as a naturalist, was elected to the Linnaean Society. In 1827 he was promoted to the rank of commander.

From 1829-33 James Ross sailed on John Ross's second Arctic voyage. James Ross was more popular with the crew than his uncle, who it is said often tried to claim credit for the discoveries and work accomplished by his nephew. Uncle and nephew are believed to have been often at odds.

During this voyage, when the ship became ice-bound and stranded in the winter of 1831, James Ross led a series of overland expeditions. He had become friendly with native Arctic peoples, the Inuit, and used their assistance and their knowledge of the Arctic to survive his overland expeditions.

On one expedition, during June 1831, he discovered the Magnetic North Pole, then located on the Boothia Peninsula, west of Greenland. The Magnetic North Pole is different from, and distant from, the geographic North Pole. Earth has a magnetic field that shifts and exists in varying intensity in different locations. Ross discovered that the Magnetic North Pole shifted constantly, even as he measured its location. Used by mariners to help plot their location, the Magnetic North Pole has since undergone a major shift in location since Ross discovered it.

In 1839 the British government placed James Ross in command of an expedition to the Antarctic to try to find the Magnetic South Pole. Although he failed to find it, he did get farther south than any other British navigator at that time and surveyed and named major Antarctic landmasses. For these accomplishments, and his past successes, he was knighted and given the title "Sir" when he returned to England in 1843.

After Ross married to Anne Coulman in 1847, he vowed never again to go to sea. However, when the famous British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) and his ships and crew disappeared on an Arctic expedition seeking the Northwest Passage, Ross broke his promise. He set out in May 1848 to find them, though failed to locate the missing men, who were three years overdue. Ross followed Franklin's route through Barrow Strait west of Baffin Island, but soon found himself blocked by ice. Ross and his crew, several of whom died and many more became seriously ill, endured a harsh ordeal until they escaped the ice. Ross himself suffered illness through the ordeal and returned exhausted and defeated.

During his explorations, Ross discovered and named many Arctic and Antarctic locations. On his voyage to find the Magnetic South Pole he discovered and named Ross Island in 1841, and sighted and named Victoria Land. He also discovered and named Mount Erebus, an active Antarctic volcano, after one of his ships. The Antarctic Ross Sea was subsequently named for him.

Ross's book, A Voyage of Discovery and Research to Southern and Antarctic Regions, was published in 1847, at the height of his fame. During his lifetime, he participated in six expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, where he spent nine winters and 16 summers.

His wife died in 1857 at the age of 40, and Ross himself died five years later in 1862.