It has a decidedly 21st century ring, even though The Purchase of the North Pole (a.k.a. Topsy Turvy) by Jules Verne was published in 1889. Yes, its characters are searching for massive coal reserves instead of oil, but the auction of the Arctic energy reserves is as chilling today as the region itself. The Jules Verne North Pole novel predicted an Arctic land grab and foreshadowed global warming.
It’s no surprise that so much of Jules Verne’s work rings true to us even today. He was passionate about the sciences and surrounded himself with some of the best minds of his day. The many devices that he envisioned well before their time included electrical submarines, newscasts, lunar modules, spaceships, video-conferencing and tasers. While The Purchase of the North Pole is a playful adventure, it could also read as a satire for today’s struggles over the Arctic region.
In this book, The North Pole Association secretly wins an international auction for all of the land north of the 84th parallel. These are the same people from the Baltimore Gun Club who twenty years earlier appeared in From The Earth To The Moon and Around The Moon.
Their plan is simple, yet grand in scale. The design for the giant canon they used to launch a man to the moon will now be fired into the earth at a strategic point. The jolt of its recoil will remove the tilt of Earth’s axis. This shift will give the Arctic region a temperate climate, thus warming the globe. The new landowners will easily access the large coal deposits believed to be ready for the taking in the Arctic.
The public is outraged when they learn of the plan, but the authorities cannot find the gun. Fortunately for the public, but sadly for the new owners of the Arctic, there was a snafu in the calculations used to determine the necessary size of their gun. When J.T. Matson was working at his board, he was hit by lightning, which caused him to erase several zeros. As a result, the gun is grossly undersized.
When fired from its hiding place near Mt. Kilimanjaro, the massive gun causes severe damage in the immediate area. The Arctic region remains unscathed.
Verne was an avid fan of science. He was also a child of the Industrial Revolution who embraced change and the endless possibilities held by the future. Even so, the Jules Verne North Pole Novel and many other works show a vigorous skepticism of the possible downsides of man’s inventions.
According to Arthur B. Evans in his book Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel:
“… the detrimental social effects of science are not limited to the corruption or megalomania of scientists or to the dangers that these misguided individuals represent to humanity. The industrial applications of science are also shown to pose grave threats to the human habitat and to the quality of life on this planet..”
In Topsy Turvy, Verne says, “The stomach of industry thrives on coal: it will not eat anything else. Industry is a carboniverous animal.”
As in Topsy Turvy, it seems that today’s industry will stop at nothing to procure natural resources to construct and maintain its machines or to manufacture its goods. The resulting negative impact on the environment takes many forms. Among those cited by Verne is the near extinction of certain species of animals that have industrial uses such as whales or elephants.
In the Jules Verne North Pole Novel, an international auction of the supposedly worthless region takes place. In recent times, the land grab for the Arctic has been escalating rapidly. In truth, there’s no land to grab, at least not on the surface. The Arctic region is made of ice, unlike Antarctica at the South Pole, which is a bonafide continent. Still, the Arctic region is where the interests of many countries converge—even if it is on ever-thinning ice.
Its “owners” are the United States, Russia, Denmark, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. They are coordinated in part by the Arctic Council, composed mainly of those countries with a little help from their friends including the United Kingdom, the European Union and China. There’s also some oversight by NATO and the UN. With all that help what could possibly go wrong? The Jules Verne North Pole Novel, while it is fiction, might offer some clues.
In Verne’s story it was coal. But according to estimates published by the U.S. Geological Survey, almost half of the world’s remaining oil deposits lie under the frozen Arctic Circle. Of course, this is an estimate, since no one can be sure until production begins.
Even so, Russia is already claiming a monopoly over a large part of the Arctic Region. Their hope is to exploit deposits from the Lomonosov Ridge, an aquatic protuberance from under the Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been claiming its part with icebreakers to mark its territory near Alaska.
Jules Verne would most likely have a few keen observations regarding the effects of man’s footprint on the area when the exploitation begins.
In the book, global warming is a quick result of a big gun blast. As it turned out, the slow steady progress of industrialization has apparently caused the same effect on planet Earth. Thankfully, not all scientists are dedicated to exploiting Earth. Some are even intent on reversing human damages to the planet.
Jules Verne would have loved a recent paper published in the Jan. 24 editions of Earth’s Future, a journal published by the American Geophysical Union. With the Arctic warming up too quickly for comfort, the paper proposes a plan to thicken the ice cap with millions of autonomous ice machines. These would be floating, wind-powered pumps designed to spray water over sea ice during the winter.
While the fleet of ice machines would add an extra mere of ice to the Arctic each winter, there might be some other consequences that would have haunted Jules Verne. The researchers did the math, just as J.T. Matson did in the Jules Verne North Pole novel. They determined that the Arctic does indeed have adequate wind capacity. Hopefully, a few zeroes were not erased from the chalkboard as they were in the Jules Verne North Pole novel.
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