Despite massive cutbacks to Parks Canada and earth sciences, the Canadian government has made it a priority to search for the lost Franklin expedition. The CBC has a great archive of articles detailing how the search is going.
Sir John Franklin was a British explorer (and at one point, governor of Tasmania). He made several attempts to find the fabled Northwest Passage – a shipping route through the Arctic islands in Canada that would significantly reduce the distance required to reach eastern Asia from Europe. During the 1800s, it was not yet known if such a route actually existed, and Franklin attempted to find it through two routes – from the West by going through mainland Northwest Territories, and from the east through the straight that is north of Baffin and Victoria Islands, and south of Ellesmere Island. The first expedition, known as the Coppermine Expedition, was a failure, due to the crew being under-supplied and unprepared. Then end result was that many of the crew members dying, and Franklin himself almost starving to death. There is a reason why the region is known as the Barrens.
Over 20 years later, in 1845, Franklin set sail to go through the Northwest Passage via the eastern entrance. What happened next was disaster. The ships, ominously named Erebus and Terror became trapped in the pack ice in 1948, and eventually sunk. Compounding matters, the crew members were afflicted with lead poisoning, possibly due to poorly soldered food tins, or their water distilling unit. The boats made it as far as King William Island, where Franklin himself died in April 1947.
The search for the Franklin expedition is aided through Inuit oral history. The Inuit have stories of the ships being stuck in the pack ice long enough for them to salvage material, and the masts sticking out of the water for at least a year after their abandonment. Even their description of the type of ice helps with the search, as a particular kind of ice forms in certain areas due to nature of currents. There is always the possibility that the ice has completely destroyed the ship, and that efforts to find it are futile. The scientific expedition on land has yielded some artifacts, while ships survey the ocean floor with sonar to determine if there are any remains of the ship.
Of course, the current search has benefited greatly from the fact that the Northwest Passage is completely ice free. The dream of finding a shortcut to Asia is now a reality. Franklin’s lost expedition may soon be a reminder of the way things used to be. The crew of the equally ominously named Belzebub II became the first sailing boat to cross through the Northwest Passage. This expedition has the goal of raising awareness of the impacts of global warming, and that a route that has captured the imagination of explorers for years is now navigable.
Finally, here is the famous song by Stan Rogers, released in 1981, about the quest to find the Northwest Passage, and the troubles involved.