Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Ice Ghosts:A Shortage of Maps

I'm going to step outside the usual topic space here and cover an interesting but frustrating book I read partly on the flight to London Calling (which is about the only connection it has to genomics).  Ice Ghosts, by Paul Watson, covers the searches for the lost Franklin Expedition, a mid-1800s British Navy attempt to find the Northwest Passage.  It's a pretty good book, after all it did win a Pulitzer Prize,  The topic is thrilling: explorers under difficult conditions and a mystery that lasted over a century.  There are lessons for science in general, such as the value in carefully evaluating oral histories that some would discard as unreliable. But what is maddening for me is that in a book for which a central theme is poorly understood geographies and their interpretations, the set of supplied maps fail miserably at assisting in the telling of the story.
Sir John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer who had been on polar expeditions, but then had a politically disastrous stint as an administrator in what is now Tasmania.  Wishing to recover his good reputation and have one more go at polar exploration, he led a two-ship expedition which set out in 1845 with two ships, Erebus and Terror.  Both had been used on prior polar expeditions; Both had actually originally been warships and Terror had provided some of the "rocket's red glare" we Yankees sing about periodically.  Franklin had been nearly killed at Trafalgar; British naval history was very much present in the expedition

The ships had both steam and sail and had reinforced hulls for polar use.  Food had been loaded to enable the crew to survive at least three years.  Novel technologies, such as a collapsible boat, were included.  Even the best of long distance communication gear was aboard: homing pigeons. But despite all this, the ships disappeared into the Arctic.  

A key character in the book is Lady Jane Franklin, his second wife and an amazing woman, particularly in a time in which women were expected to remain quietly in the background.  Lady Franklin campaigned tirelessly for expeditions to search for her husband, running into stiff resistance from the British government.  She raised money to fund an expedition, and even traveled a bit in the Canadian north herself.  

Over time, many expeditions would be launched.  Many would themselves get into serious trouble.  Some would fine tantalizing clues, such as a stone cairn left by Franklin's men with a note.  Eventually, a number of persons in the modern era would become fascinated by the mystery and pursue leads both fanciful and useful.  In particular, an Inuit named Louie Kamookak would carefully untangle the Inuit oral histories, teasing apart similar names from different locations and also key bits of Inuit knowledge.  In particular, the Inuit do not orient their geographies by geographic north (compass north is a nightmare in this region, since it contains the magnetic north pole).  An expert in ice circulation patterns provided important clues. Finding the ships even became high policy during Steven Harper's administration in Canada.

All of this led to the discovery of the remarkably well preserved wrecks of the two ships.  The crews had carefully sealed them up before abandoning them, in accordance with proper British naval discipline.  As a result, ice and winds took the ships far south from where they had been abandoned, and they then sank in waters that miraculously preserved them from devastation by moving ice.

I've left a lot of good stuff out (for once!).  But what drove me nuts is trying to follow all this on the three provided maps.  I've always loved maps, they've fascinated me and stimulated my imagination.  The area of relevance to the book is a particularly problematic area, so grossly distorted by the common Mercator projections.  The many islands and peninsulas are quite vast, but not so ginormous as Mercator would lead you to believe.

The three maps aren't bad choices at first glance.  The first shows most of the Arctic, stretching all the way to parts of Russia.  The second shows the far north of Canada.  The third zooms in on the areas in which the expedition abandoned their ships, trudged across the ice and rock in a failed attempt at safety and the final resting points of the two ships.

So what's my problem?  Well, for starters most of the expeditions described in the book aren't labeled on the maps.  Franklin's is ,marked on the first and third.  Four of the search expeditions are marked on the second, but there are several more (including a U.S. expedition) not marked on any map.   The magnetic north pole, sometimes discussed in regard to expeditions trying to find it or being confused by it, isn't marked on any of these (yes, I know it moves around a bit, but still)
I didn't keep notes, but there must be at least half a dozen place names that are mentioned in the book but show up on no map.  Even worse, one point Watson makes is that the Inuit had their own names for many of these localities, many of which were relevant to the search.  No map with an Inuit view of the world is presented, yet another slight (though the book touches are far, far worse ones) of the natives by the West.

Picking the right visuals to tell a story can be challenge, and it is of course easier to pick apart after the fact than to do it in the first place.  But it is important in any scientific publication to think carefully about visuals: good ones can greatly enhance understanding, whereas poor ones can detract or even distort the essential message.  Ice Ghosts is a very good read, but it would be even more informative if the maps were as carefully thought out as the text.



Russell Potter said...

Ice Ghosts did not win a Pulitzer Prize. Its author, Paul Watson, won a Pulitzer in 1994 for spot news photography. And, although I'm the author of a competing book on the same subject, the maps question has been asked of my book, and many others on Arctic historical subjects. The simple truth is that to have a custom-made map of real quality -- which would really require color and shading and so forth -- is very expensive, and many publishers try to get by with fewer or smaller or less detailed black-and-white maps. It's a situation that can be as frustrating to authors as to readers!

Russell Potter said...

P.S. as to Inuit maps, there is an excellent online source at the Inuit Heritage Trust site.

Keith Robison said...


Thanks for the correction. Yeah, I'm aware of the financial reality aspect, but even a few more pages of black-and-white maps could have made a serious difference.

And thanks especially for the link!