The North Pole, Land of Pygmies and Giant Magnets

According to Mercator, the North Pole was marked by a giant black magnetic rock

The North Pole, Land of Pygmies and Giant Magnets


Somewhere in the 14th century, a Franciscan from Oxford, a ‘priest with an astrolabe’, writes a travelogue about his discoveries in the North Atlantic, calls it the Inventio Fortunata (‘The Discovery of Fortunata’) and in 1360 presents it to the King of England.

This book has been lost since the late 15th century.

However, a Jacobus Cnoyen from the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch (in present-day Netherlands) summarizes the contents of the Inventio, related to him in 1364 in Norway by another Franciscan who had met the author. Cnoyen’s own travel-book is called the Itinerarium.

This book has also been lost.

All this we know by the extensive quotes from the Itinerarium in a letter by the Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercator to his friend, the English scientist, occultist and royal advisor John Dee. That letter, written in 1577 and now in the British Museum, mentions that:

“In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author (i.e. Cnoyen) years ago.”

A giant magnetic rock, exactly at the North Pole… well, that would explain why all compasses point north, wouldn’t it? Alas, the ominous magnet (described in the letter as “black and glistening” and “high as the clouds”) is a bit too fantastic an explanation for the phenomenon of magnetism. For even back in the late 16th century, mariners often found that their compasses increasingly deviated from ‘true north’ as they approached it.

But only later did the separate (and wandering) location of the magnetic poles become common knowledge. In the intervening Age of Exploration (and sometimes Fabulation), Mercator cites an author who clearly hadn’t seen the North Pole with his own eyes – nor had the author he quoted, nor in fact would anyone for centuries to come.

In the meantime, the invented geography in the Inventio Fortunata that came to us via that one letter greatly influenced cartographers’ views of the Arctic region. For if no other knowledge of yet-undiscovered lands is available, there’s really not much argument against unbelievable stories.

And so, the Black Cliff, the four countries and the whirlpool are evident in Martin Behaim’s globe (1492), which predates Mercator’s map. In 1956, a letter surfaced written by the English merchant John Day in 1497 or 1498 to ‘the Lord Grand Admiral’ (probably Columbus), with Day expressing regret that he hadn’t been able to find the Inventio Fortunata for him. In a marginal note on one of Johannes Ruysch’s maps (from 1508), the Dutch cartographer even mentions that two of the continents surrounding the North Pole are inhabited.

Mercator’s late-16th-century Arctic map (Septentrionalium Terrarum, ‘Of the Northern Lands’) was the first ever to be centred on the North Pole itself. It was a mix of fact and fiction, showing some recent discoveries but also the four fanciful countries surrounding the Arctic whirlpool with in its middle the Rupes Nigra et Altissima (‘Black and Very High Cliff’), supposedly responsible for animating navigators’ compasses.

On the subject of mixing fact with fiction, Mercator incongruously includes in his map two other magnetic poles, along the 180° meridian, indicating that he did know of the magnetic deviation from the ‘true North’, but wasn’t yet prepared to ditch the preceding fabulation (thanks to Greg for pointing this out).

Mercator’s map was included in the last of three volumes constituting his ground-breaking work (the first geographic tomes to be called an Atlas). The cartographer didn’t live to see it published: the last volume was brought out by his son Rumold in 1595, the year after his death.

In 1604, cartographer Jodocus Hondius acquired the printing plates of Mercator’s Atlas, and over the years improved on the Arctic map (and others) as explorers and whalers came back with ever more accurate descriptions of the coastlines, in the case of the Arctic map especially those of Spitsbergen and Nova Zembla (also, and more correctly known as Novaya Zemlya, ‘New Land’ in Russian).

Mercator’s authoritative (but wrong) depiction of the North Pole persisted well into the 17th century, only to be dispelled gradually by real discoveries.

On the map, the Rupes Nigra can be seen surrounded by the four countries, all of which are labelled with Latin texts, some of which I can make out:

• The island on the bottom right is labelled: Pygmei hic habitant & ad summum pedes longi quem admodum illi quos in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant. Which translates as something like this: ‘Here live Pygmies and (something about long feet), like those in Greenland that are called Skraelinger’.

• The island to the north of Pygmy-land is labelled: Hic euripus habet ostia et propter angustiam ac celerem fluvium nunquam congelatur. Which goes something like this: ‘This narrow channel has a harbour and due to its narrowness and swift current never freezes’.

Let me know if your Latin is better than mine...

Map found here at Wikimedia Commons.

Strange Maps #116

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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