Arctic Survival Stories and the Conclusion of the Anthropocene

On Dutch cartographer and navigator Willem Barentsz’s third voyage questing for a Northeast passage from Europe to China in 1596, the entire crew of the De Witte Swaen almost perished from carbon monoxide poisoning over a brief period of an hour or so. With the bitter cold of the Arctic winter on Novaya Zemlya, a Russian archipelago that sits in what is now called the  Barents Sea, being simply unbearable, the crew decided to start a coal fire inside “Safe House,” a log and driftwood based dry shelter they made after the ice disabled their ship from moving. The “burghers of Novaya Zemlya,” as they called themselves, were trying their best to clog every place air could escape to prolong the effects of the coal fire. The sick felt the impact first, according to Andrea Pitzer’s Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, but everyone eventually felt queasy as the coal poisoned them. Those least affected had to scramble to open every point of access, praying the cold would save them.

As twenty-first-century people who learn about the dangers of carbon monoxide in middle school home economics class, it’s easy to accuse Barentsz’s crew of stupidity or worse. Let’s grant them the benefit of the doubt, seeing as the discovery of carbon monoxide came nearly two centuries after the famed third-voyage of Barentsz. Without knowing of the potential calamity awaiting them, can they be blamed for turning to the coal to ameliorate the bitter cold, a cold that can frequently broach -30°F? Perhaps not…but according to Pitzer, only a week or so after, unable to tolerate the Arctic climate once more and having already encountered the dangers of those deadly sable rocks, the crew debated another coal fire. Later into the winter, their temptations got the best of them. I think we can call that stupid. 

That’s how Arctic survival (or near-survival) stories tend to go. 

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