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The Aerial Exploration of the Polar Regions
                       1897 - 1939
(Frequently Asked Questions)
What is the difference between arctic and polar? Or do they both mean the same thing?
Technically anything north of the Arctic Circle at 66.5ºN latitude is considered arctic and anything north of 80ºN is polar. Therefore, anything that is polar is also arctic and the two terms can be used interchangeably. But not everything that is arctic is also polar; in this respect, the two terms are not interchangeable.
Any more terms that are confusing?
Yes, many, for example the terms Eskimos and Inuit for native northern peoples: Eskimos is from the French Eskimaux [literally "flesh eaters"]. Eskimo(s) is the term that was in use in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most accounts of early expeditions were written. It was not necessarily a derogatory term--the derogatory term would probably be "Husky." To avoid confusion, most contemporary writers have retained the name Eskimo when writing of early expeditions since this was the term that was in use then. Inuit [literally "the People"] now is  the preferred name for native northern peoples. However, it should be kept in mind that Inuit is plural and refers to a group. It is incorrect to refer to one person as "an Inuit." It's possible to be politically correct and grammatically incorrect!
Place names also are  a problem sometimes. Svalbard is now the preferred name for the archipelago of islands roughly halfway between Norway and the North Pole.  Spitsbergen is the name of a large island in the group where many of the early polar flights originated or ended and was the name always used in early accounts. Kings Bay, used to designate the place where several of the historic polar flights originated, is actually the name of the fjord there (Kongsfjorden in Norwegian). The area probably was  referred to as Kings Bay because of the Kings Bay Coal Company located there. Ny Ålesund now is the preferred name. Ny Älesund ("New Aalesund," named after a city in Norway) now is an international scientific community, but at the time of the early polar flights it was a small coal mining settlement.
One more example is Arctic Ocean and polar sea. Unlike the south polar region that is a continent, Antarctica, surrounded by water, the Southern Ocean, the north polar region is water, the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by land. Arctic Ocean is the more correct and preferred term; polar sea is an older term that is still in use. Both refer to the same body of water.
Why the current interest in the polar regions and especially the aerial exploration part?
In the late 1800s and early 1900s polar exploration held the same fascination that space exploration now holds; for post-World War II generations, outer space appears to have supplanted the polar regions as the "last frontier." However, several factors account for the renewed interest in the polar regions:
Tourism that is being promoted following the post-Cold War pullout of the military, particularly in such Cold War outposts as Greenland, Spitsbergen, and the Canadian Arctic that were all jumping off spots for early polar expeditions.
Recent Black History studies that have focused on the role of Matthew Henson, Peary's black companion on his north pole treks.
The current availability of funding for environmental and ethnic studies in the far north.
The ongoing Cook-Peary north pole controversy and a new look at the polar claims of national hero Richard Byrd. This in turn has fostered a renewed interest in the aerial exploration aspect.
How reliable are the early accounts of polar exploration and should we believe everything we read in history books and encyclopedias? I've heard there is a lot of controversy over some of the claims.
Anyone considering the validity of some of the early accounts should keep in mind that expeditions of that era were all privately funded. Although all were purported to be scientific pursuits, scientific and geographical organizations contributed very little money. Books, newspaper and magazine articles, and lectures were the primary sources of funding. It should hardly be surprising that a certain amount of embellishment took place. Further, books and articles frequently were ghostwritten by writers and editors whose primary concern was satisfying their readers' thirst for an adventurous story, not necessarily that of providing an accurate account.
An additional factor was nationalism and the quest for new land. There have been serious challenges to the claims of two of America's polar heroes, Peary and Byrd. The British made a hero and martyr of Robert Scott who arrived at the South Pole a month after the Norwegian Amundsen and who died of scurvy and poor planning on the return trip. (Scott's four companions who also died on the return trip are seldom mentioned).
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