The widely perceived failure of 19th-century expeditions to find and transit the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic is often attributed to extraordinary cold climatic conditions associated with the “Little Ice Age” evident in proxy records. However, examination of 44 explorers' logs for the western Arctic from 1818 to 1910 reveals that climate indicators such as navigability, the distribution and thickness of annual sea ice, monthly surface air temperature, and the onset of melt and freeze were within the present range of variability.
The quest for the Northwest Passage through the Canadian archipelago during the 19th century is frequently seen as a vain and tragic failure. Polar exploration during the Victorian era seems to us today to have been a costly exercise in heroic futility, which in many respects it was. This perspective has been reinforced since the 1970s, when paleoclimate reconstructions based on Arctic ice core stratigraphy appeared to confirm the existence of exceptionally cold conditions consistent with the period glaciologists had termed the “Little Ice Age” (Figure 1a), with temperatures more than one standard deviation colder relative to an early 20th-century mean [Koerner, 1977; Koerner and Fisher, 1990; Overpeck et al., 1998]. In recent years, the view of the Little Ice Age as a synchronous worldwide and prolonged cold epoch that ended with modern warming has been questioned [Bradley and Jones, 1993; Jones and Briffa, 2001 ;Ogilvie, 2001].