Discussion Starters – Explorers (Historic)


Image courtesy: New Land, Otto Sverdrup

Historic Explorers – Discussion Starters

Teachers: Use the following information to spark discussion in your classroom. Familiarize students with the events, people and organizations in the following paragraphs and then encourage students to discuss their opinions and reactions. There are several example questions and suggested areas for discussion. Remind your students that discussion requires well-supported opinions, respectful listening, and sometimes agreeing to disagree.


Some polar historians compare the early European and Euro-American Arctic expeditions to the lunar expeditions of the 1960s and 1970s. Akin to the astronauts seventy years later, the early Arctic explorers were entering unknown territory with a real chance of failure and even death. Some of the expeditions were out of contact with the rest of the world for as long as four years, enduring hardships including bitter cold, storms and malnourishment.
Some journal entries from the Aldolphus Greely expedition (1881 – 1884) give a glimpse into the reality of the daily reality of one of the most ill-fated of the early expeditions (19 of the 25 men on this expedition died from starvation, drowning, or hypothermia. The survivors, however, were praised as heroes):

  • “Everyone complains of excessive weakness, and even the strongest of our party may be seen to stagger.” David Brainard, October 21, 1884.
  • “Personally I would rather take almost any chance that offered than stay here another long winter night.” James Booth Lockwood, August 4, 1883
  • “God only knows what the end of all this will be. I see nothing but starvation and death.” James Booth Lockwood, September 26, 1883

Not all expeditions were as miserable as the Greely expedition, however. Otto Sverdrup’s book recounting his 1898 – 1902 Arctic expedition received the following review in the New York Times (May 24, 1904):

“Unlike the narratives of most Arctic explorers, this of Sverdrup’s does not read like a catalogue of horrors and privations. It reads rather like the record of a pleasure jaunt on a rather large and adventurous scale. One hears little of frost bites and freezings, nothing at all of dying of starvation. One reads instead of comfortable Winter quarters on the Fram, of wild dashes into the surrounding country upon dog sledges, of great slaughters of polar oxen, of seal and walrus hunting, of gunning for that giant beast, the Arctic hare, described as an ‘extraordinary fat creature’.”

Whether the early Arctic expeditions were miserable disasters or wildly successful, they captured the popular imagination of the day. Royal Geographic Society member J. Scott Keltie recounts joining Norwegians Nansen and Sverdrup as they sailed the last few miles to return home after their 1893 – 1897 Arctic expedition:

“We sailed up the fjord to Christiania, amid a scene never to be forgotten. All the way up we passed through a double procession of vessels of all kinds, with continuous cheers and firing of guns, the vessels turning after passing the Fram and ranging up behind. We landed in a boat at the pier where the crowd was impenetrably dense. There were festivities of all kinds lasting almost a week.” Source: The Geographical Journal, 49(5), 350-372.

The expeditions also inspired the public with a sense of pride and emboldened them to take on new challenges. Historian Rasmus Hansson writes in Norway and the Polar Regions:

“The expeditions [Nansen and Sverdrup] carried out, and the manner in which they did so, gave a great boost to Norwegian self-confidence and Norway’s sense of national identity at a time when union with Sweden was nearing a breaking point…So polar research played its part in the re-establishment, after several hundred years, of Norway as an independent nation.”

Even today the actions of the early explorers inspire many. The books that recount their adventures continue to sell well, expeditions try to recreate their feats, and documentary films recreate the excitement.


  • What aspects of these expeditions do you think helped to capture the popular imagination of the day?
  • Why do these stories still resonate with people?
  • What about these expeditions helped embolden people to take on new challenges?
  • Is there anything to learn from these early explorers that could help us take on modern challenges like slowing global warming?
  • What do you feel is the current attitude of the public in regards to the challenge of slowing global warming? Do people feel inspired and emboldened? Why or why not?
  • Historians liken the early Arctic expeditions to the lunar expeditions of the 1960s and 1970s. The lunar expeditions also captivated the imagination of the public and led to giant strides in technology and science:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” President J. F. Kennedy

  • Some people have suggested that what we as a society need now to face the challenge of global warming is the same type of focus we showed as a nation during the space race:

“For this generation, climate change is our space race. The climate crisis is also one of the greatest economic opportunities in the history of our country. It will unleash a wave of innovation, create millions of new jobs, enhance our security and lead the world to a revolution in how we produce and use energy.” Hillary Clinton, November 6, 2007.

  • Do you see any similarities between the space race and the climate crises?
  • What was it about the space race that motivated the nation?
  • What would it take to motivate the nation now to work to slow climate change?
  • What excites and motivates you?
  • Think back to a time when you successfully motivated or inspired someone else. How did you do it?


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