James Clark Ross and the Discovery of the Magnetic North Pole

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James Clark Ross and the Discovery of the Magnetic North Pole


James Clark Ross (1800-1862), commander in the British Navy and England's most experienced and successful Arctic explorer, discovered the Magnetic North Pole in June 1831. During the eighteenth century, explorers wanted to find a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was one of the most important exploration goals of the time. While Ross did not discover the Northwest Passage, his discovery was judged a significant achievement both in science and in Arctic exploration. Finding the Magnetic North Pole advanced knowledge of the Earth's magnetic field. Knowing its location allowed mariners, sailing in any part of the world, to better fix their position.

While the scientific discovery of the Magnetic North Pole had little social or political impact, Ross raised the obsession with Arctic exploration to a fevered pitch. For the rest of the century, explorers continued to seek, but with greater passion, the Northwest Passage and the geographic North Pole. Their quest also became a test and affirmation of human ingenuity, stamina, and desire.


When nineteenth-century explorers sought a Northwest Passage that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, they expected to find it by sailing through the icy waters west of Greenland and tacking around frozen landmasses in the far north of Canada. Finding the passage became an obsession, similar to the quest for the Holy Grail (the chalice Christ was thought to have used during the Last Supper) in the Middle Ages, or the race for the moon during the twentieth century.

Some Arctic explorers were driven by their blind expectations and desires for fame rather than by scientific proof that such a passage might exist. As a result, many expeditions proceeded unwisely and were trapped when their ships become lodged in ice as winter closed in. Many Arctic explorers died.

Arctic explorers also sought the Magnetic North Pole and the geographic North Pole. The geographic North Pole is at the top of the world, but the Magnetic North Pole, some distance from the geographical North Pole, is the polar part of the northern hemisphere's magnetic field. Earth's magnetic field can be measured by several means: a compass that points horizontally north or a wire instrument, called a dip circle, that dips due south at the Magnetic North Pole (the same instrument at the magnetic equator would register horizontally).

By 1830 scientists knew that Earth's magnetic field varied in intensity from location to location and that Earth's magnetic field could be measured by three elements: horizontally (by a compass that points to the north magnetic pole), vertically (by the dip circle that dips either at an angle or, on the north magnetic pole, dips straight down), and what is called the "total magnetic field." All three measurements intersect in a certain way at the Magnetic North Pole.

The fact that the Magnetic North Pole and the geographical North Pole do not coincide is important to mariners charting their position who must know not only the horizontal direction of north via the compass, but the angle between the direction north, as indicated by the compass, and the angle of the magnetic dip, called the "declination" of Earth's magnetic field. Declination varies around the world and accurate measurements of declination in various places in the world are maintained and charts drawn from measurements. From these charts and a compass, a mariner can know his or her position.

The precise location of the Magnetic North Pole, however, has not always been known.


In 1831 British Navy commander, naturalist, and explorer James Clark Ross searched for the Magnetic North Pole on Boothia Peninsula, north of Canada and west of Greenland. At that time, Ross was Britain's most experienced Arctic explorer. He joined the British Navy at the age of 12, served on his first Arctic voyage at age 18 under his uncle John Ross (1777-1856), and was promoted to commander in 1827. Ross had earlier searched for the Magnetic North Pole during his 1827-31 Arctic voyage with John Ross.

Interest in Arctic expeditions reached its height in Great Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. Part of the excitement was tied to the notion of a British sense of superiority and the necessity to prove it. Success in the harsh Arctic climate was regarded as a way to demonstrate the worth and power of the British people, whose colonial empire was still extensive, but also beginning to decline.

During the winter of 1831, when James Ross's ships were trapped in the Arctic ice, he led a series of overland expeditions aimed at mapping Arctic features and, if it could be located, finding the Magnetic North Pole. Expeditions could not start until the long Arctic winter of darkness was over. By March 1831 Ross and his party, accompanied by Inuit (Eskimos) with sleds and dogs, were able to set out to chart land features and explore.

Ross, unlike many Arctic explorers before him, had become friendly with the Inuit. He learned their language, learned about their culture, and learned how to cope with the environment as they did, using clothing made of furs and seal skins. He also learned to travel by dog sled and to live in native igloos. These adaptations not only allowed him to explore and hunt for food more efficiently than his predecessors, but also prepared him for his ultimate successes in discovery.

After the expeditions, each lasting weeks, the Ross party returned to the iced-in ship. On his third foray away from the ship, in June 1831, Ross took the proper instruments that would tell him if he had found the Magnetic North Pole, which he thought was nearby. At the time, he was traveling in a large area of land British explorers had named "Boothia," after the British gin manufacturer Felix Booth, who had financed exploration.

At 8 o'clock in the morning on June 1, 1831, Ross reckoned that he had reached the Magnetic North Pole. To make sure, he used a "dip circle," an instrument from which he suspended horizontal delicate needles. When his dip circle registered a dip in the needle of 89 degrees and 59 minutes, due south, close to 90 degrees, Ross knew he was at the Magnetic North Pole. Their compass and chart readings also told him that he was at latitude 70 degrees, 5 minutes, and 17 seconds north, and longitude 96 degrees, 46 minutes, and 45 seconds west. This was then the first time the Magnetic North Pole had been located and stood upon. But there was nothing there to be seen.

Ross wrote in his log that "even I could have pardoned anyone among us who had been so romantic or absurd to expect that the magnetic pole . . . was a mountain of iron, or magnet . . . but nature had here erected no monument to denote the spot which she had chosen as the centre of one of her great and dark powers."

Ross and his party claimed the barren but important spot for England and King William. They erected a pile of stones, called a "cairn," on the spot after placing a canister bearing record of the discovery at the bottom.

Ross was surprised to find that the Magnetic North Pole moved even as he measured its location. A century and a half later, scientists said that Ross was fortunate to be able to measure the Magnetic North Pole because it was later found that the location could change as much as 30 minutes in an hour; Ross took an hour to measure his location. Since Ross first found it, the Magnetic North pole has moved to latitude 75 degrees, 5 minutes north, and longitude 100 degrees, and 5 minutes west.

Earth is not uniformly magnetized over its entire surface. Scientists also now know that not only does the Magnetic North Pole move, but also the intensity of Earth's magnetic field varies from place to place and, over time, diminishes.

When they returned to England after four winters in the Arctic and the achievement of finding the Magnetic North Pole, James Clark Ross and his men were cheered as heroes. Ross enjoyed fame and was even the subject of a poem recited by school children:

Sir James Clark Ross, the first whose sole / Stood on the North Magnetic Pole!

Ross was offered knighthood with the title "Sir," but he turned it down. He was later knighted after his expeditions to the Antarctic in an unsuccessful bid to locate the Magnetic South Pole.

Excitement over Arctic exploration and the search for the Northwest Passage became less important in the 1850s after Ross's fellow explorer and noted British Navy commander John Franklin (1786-1847) and his crew disappeared in the Arctic. Not even Sir James Clark Ross could find them. Ross, who sailed in 1848 to search for them, eventually returned tired and sick from the ill-fated and unsuccessful rescue voyage.

Using many of Ross's charts and techniques, including his practice of relying upon the technology and assistance of Arctic native peoples, the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was successfully navigated by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) in 1903-5. Amundson used the Magnetic North Pole, which Ross charted, to help locate his positions and find his way. American Robert Peary (1856-1920) was the first to set foot upon the geographical North Pole in 1909. The Arctic "grail" had finally been retrieved.

After the Arctic was successfully explored and the magnetic and geographic North Poles located and stood upon, interest in Arctic exploration waned. However, the successes of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration, both scientific and heroic, inspired subsequent adventurers to seek out new places to explore. The same spirit of adventure that motivated Ross and other Arctic explorers would later drive twentieth-century efforts to travel into space and to visit the moon.


Further Reading

Berton, Pierre. The Arctic Grail. New York: Viking, 1988.

Dodge, Ernest. The Polar Rosses. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Lee, E. W. Magnetism, An Introductory Survey. New York: Dover Publications, 1970.

Nanton, Paul. Arctic Breakthrough. Toronto and Vancouver: Clarke Irwin, 1970.

Ross, M. J. Polar Pioneers. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.