Fridtjof Nansen

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Fridtjof Nansen : biography

10 October 1861 – 13 May 1930

Oceanographer and traveller

After a period of mourning, Nansen returned to London. He had been persuaded by his government to rescind his resignation until after King Edward’s state visit to Norway in April 1908. His formal retirement from the diplomatic service was dated 1 May 1908, the same day on which his university professorship was changed from zoology to oceanography. This new designation reflected the general character of Nansen’s more recent scientific interests.Huntford, pp. 555–556 In 1905 he had supplied the Swedish physicist Walfrid Ekman with the data which established the principle in oceanography known as the Ekman spiral. Based on Nansen’s observations of ocean currents recorded during the Fram expedition, Ekman concluded that the effect of wind on the sea’s surface produced currents which "formed something like a spiral staircase, down towards the depths".Huntford, p. 476 In 1909 Nansen combined with Bjørn Helland-Hansen to publish an academic paper, The Norwegian Sea: its Physical Oceanography, based on the Michael Sars voyage of 1900.Reynolds, pp. 177–178

Nansen had by now retired from polar exploration, the decisive step being his release of Fram to his fellow-Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who was planning a North Pole expedition.Huntford, pp. 548–549 When Amundsen made his controversial change of plan and set out for the South Pole, Nansen stood by him.Huntford, p. 564 Between 1910 and 1914, Nansen participated in a several oceanographic voyages. In 1910, aboard the Norwegian naval vessel Fridtjof, he carried out researches in the northern Atlantic,Reynolds, pp. 179–184 and in 1912 he took his own yacht, Veslemøy, to Bear Island and Spitsbergen. The main objective of the Veslemøy cruise was the investigation of salinity in the North Polar Basin.Reynolds, pp. 184–189 One of Nansen’s lasting contributions to oceanography was his work designing instruments and equipment; the "Nansen bottle" for taking deep water samples remained in use into the 21st century, in a version updated by Shale Niskin.

At the request of the Royal Geographical Society, Nansen began work on a study of Arctic discoveries, which developed into a two-volume history of the exploration of the northern regions up to the beginning of the 16th century. This was published in 1911 as Nord i Tåkeheimen ("In Northern Mists"). That year he renewed an acquaintance with Kathleen Scott, wife of Robert Falcon Scott whose Terra Nova Expedition had sailed for Antarctica in 1910. Biographer Roland Huntford has asserted that Nansen and Kathleen Scott enjoyed a brief love affair.Huntford, pp. 566–568 Many women were attracted to Nansen, and he had a reputation as a womaniser.Abrams, p. 102 His personal life was troubled around this time; in January 1913 he received news of the suicide of Hjalmar Johansen, who had returned in disgrace from Amundsen’s successful South Pole expedition.Huntford, pp. 571–573 In March 1913, Nansen’s youngest son Asmund died after a long illness.

In the summer of 1913 Nansen travelled to the Kara Sea, as part of a delegation investigating a possible trade route between Western Europe and the Siberian interior. The party then took a steamer up the Yenisei River to Krasnoyarsk, and travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok before turning for home. The life and culture of the Russian peoples aroused in Nansen an interest and sympathy he would carry through to his later life.Reynolds, pp. 190–203 Immediately before the First World War, Nansen joined Helland-Hansen in an oceanographical cruise in eastern Atlantic waters.Reynolds, p. 204

Statesman and humanitarian

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Norway declared its neutrality, alongside Sweden and Denmark. Nansen was appointed president of the Norwegian Union of Defence, but had few official duties, and continued with his professional work as far as circumstances permitted. As the war progressed, the loss of Norway’s overseas trade led to acute shortages of food in the country, which became critical in April 1917 when the United States entered the war and placed extra restrictions on international trade. Nansen was dispatched to Washington by the Norwegian government; after months of discussion he secured food and other supplies in return for the introduction of a rationing system. When his government hesitated over the deal, he signed the agreement on his own initiative.Reynolds, p. 214