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Submarines in the Polar Sea: Encyclopedia Arctica 7: Meteorology and Oceanography
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Submarines in the Polar Sea

EA-Oceanography
(H. U. Sverdrup)

SUBMARINE S IN THE POLAR SEA

History
It is remarkable that the idea of using a submarine for arctic explora–
tion was advanced about 250 years before the first submarine was designed.
In 1648, the Rev. John Wilkins proposed “framing an ark for submarine naviga–
tion,” pointing out among its advantages that such a craft would be safe
“from ice and great frosts, which do so such endanger the passages towards
the Poles.”
After submarines had been designed, the inventor, Simon Lake, was
probably the first to advocate its use in the Arctic. On April 4, 1898,
Mr. Lake applied for United States patent of a submarine vessel that was
especially designed for travel under the ice. But thirty-three years passed
before Sir Hubert Wilkins, in 1931, tried to put the idea to a practical test.
Wilkins, who in 1913 to 1916 took part in Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s arctic ex–
pedition, tells that Stefansson first drew his attention to the possibilities
that a submarine offers for arctic exploration, but years passed before he
could think of following the matter up.
The opportunity came in 1930, when Wilkins succeeded in obtaining the
free loan of a United States submarie, the 012 which, according to the naval

EA-Oc. Sverdrup: Submarine

agreement of 1922, was to be scrapped. The 012, which had been built in 1917,
was removed from the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, converted, and renamed the
Nautilus .
After a number of delays due to various mechanical difficulties, the
Nautilus reached Advent Bay, Spitsbergen, on August 15, 1931. A week later,
on August 22, the first ice was encountered to the north of Spitsbergen, and
the Nautilus got ready to down beneath ice for the first time. When preparing
to dive it was found, however, that the diving rudder had been lost, so that
the “Nautilus” was useless as a submarine. During the next two weeks the
Nautilus operated as a surface vessel, reaching latitude 82° N. because of
unusually favorable ice conditions, but no experience as to the use of a sub–
marine for arctic exploration was gained.
From 1931 to 1949, no new attempt was made to explore the Polar Sea by
submarine. Thanks to enormous technical improvements, a 1949 submarine should
be so far superior to the older types that navigation of the Polar Sea should
not now entail any great risks. These risks are commonly exaggerated, as
will be shown in the next section.
Possibilities for Use of a Submarine
The following objections are generally raised against the use of a sub–
marine for exploration of the Polar Sea.
2. The Polar Sea is covered by compact ice, making it impossible for
a submarine to surface.
4. Even if there are openings, the submarine cannot find them.
6. Navigation under the ice is impossible.

EA-Oc. Sverdrup: Submarine

4. The ice cover is too thick for a submarine to advance underneath it.
6. Icebergs present a great hazard.
8. Unknown shoals may prove disastrous.
The first objection is correct so far as winter conditions are concerned,
but does not apply during the two to two and a half months in summer when the
air temperature over the entire Polar Sea remains at freezing point or a lit–
tle above. During this period excessive melting of the sea ice takes place
and lanes that open up do not freeze over. Furthermore, when the ice moves
apart, it generally breaks along a ragged line, and the ice fields move not
only directly away free each other, but, also sidewise. When, later on, the
ice is again compressed, the sawtteth do not fit, but corner meets corner,
leaving large open areas in between. Both the melting and the discharge of
ice by the East Greenland Current contribute toward reducing; the total ice
cover of the Polar Sea so much that in August the spaces of open water way
amount to 5% to 10% of the total area. All arctic travelers who are familiar
with the appearance of the polar ice in summer agree that numerous openings
exist, and that no region has been visited as yet where one could advance as
much as 10 miles on a straight line without striking an opening large enough
for a good-sized submarine to surface in. Aerial photographs confirm this.
Thus, in summer the character of the ice cover does not prevent the use
of a submarine which depends upon being able to surface at relatively short
intervals in order to charge batteries. In winter a submarine may be able
to drill a hole through the ice, using mechanical means or heat, and get air
through the hole; or the submarines of the future may be able to go submerged
across the Polar Sea.

EA-Oc. Sverdrup: Submarine

The second objection, that a submarine could not find such openings as
exist, is not valid in any circumstances. In summer the openings can be seen,
and in all seasons one can use an inverted echo sounder which records the
distance to the under side of the ice and which, combined with the depth gauge
of the submarine, gives the thickness of the ice.
The third objection, that navigating beneath ice is impossible, is some–
what more serious as far as navigation in the vicinity of the North Pole is
concerned, because the gyrocompass fails at the Pole, although it can be used
beyond [: ] 82° N. A magnetic compass cannot be used inside a steel hull, but
it may be possible to place it in a specially designed blister.
The fourth objection, that the ice cover of the Arctic Sea in too thick,
is not valid. The average thickness of relatively level ice floes is in summer
not more than about 3 meters (10 feet), but the ice that is accumulated below
pressure ridges may extend to a depth of 20 meters (65 feet), and in deep
near-shore areas to twice that depth. The temperature and salinity conditions
within the known part of the Arctic Sea indicate, however, that there the ice
extends nowhere below a depth of 30 to 40 m. because below these depths the
temperature of the water has always been found to be above freezing point,
meaning that no ice is reaching down into that water. A submarine traveling
at a depth of 50 meters should be in so danger of running into any ice, and
even at a depth of 30 m. the risk should be extremely small.
The fifth objection, about icebergs, is of no particular consequence, for
only a few small bergs occur, and only in the marginal areas of the Polar Sea
off northern Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, and Northern Land ( S Severnaya Zemlya);
and these bergs, as well as deep accumulations of ice below pressure ridges,

EA-Oc. Sverdrup: Submarine

can be discovered at some distance by sonic scanning devices.
The sixth objection, that the submarine might run into a shoal, is even
less important; for every submarine can be equipped with a sonic depth re–
corder, the indications of which will give ample warning if the depth to
the bottom should decrease so much that one say suspect the presence of
shoals.
Actually the oceanographic conditions in the Polar Sea in summer repre–
sent advantages to a submarine. At a depth of 30 to 40 meters the density
of the water increase fairly rapidly with depth, making it possible to trim
the submarine effectively. The variations with depth of temperature and
salinity is, on the other hand, not rapid enough to reduce the horizontal
range of echo-ranging equipment.
The depths to the bottom combined with the thickness of the ice will,
however, introduce great hazards to the use of a submarine in one special
locality, the shallow continental shelf off eastern Siberia,. Below very
large pressure ridges the ice may reach to a depth of 20 meters below the
sea surface, meaning that a large submarine can hardly advance safely when
the depth to the bottom is less than 40 m. This implies that a submarine
may have difficulties in reaching the deep parts of the Polar Sea from Bering
Strait and will be of no use in the East Siberian Sea. It can, on the other
hand, safely enter the Polar Sea between Spitsbergen and Greenland and can
leave by the same route.
The possibilities for oceanographic exploration of the Arctic Sea by
submarine are nearly unlimited. During two to two and a half months the
submarine can move freely in any direction, it can obtain exact depth profiles

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along every route it selects, it can occupy a large number of oceanographic
“stations” at which measurements of the temperature can be made at any depth,
and water samples can be brought up for chemical analyses. Net hauls can
be completed for collection of biological specimens, bottom samples can be
obtained, and so on. In addition, when the submarine is in surface posi–
tion, meteorological observations by means of radiosondes can be conducted
and magnetic measurements and measurements of gravity can be undertaken.
The investigations that can be made are so numerous and varied that the
exploration of the Polar Sea by submarine is one of the most attractive and
fascinating tasks which recent technical development has brought within reach.
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