Alumnus Proves Missing Piece in Franklin Discovery

Tom Zagon

By Sam Toman, Faculty of Environment

Ever since the Sir John Franklin’s expedition to Arctic Canada vanished in 1845, everyone from governments, to anthropologists, historians and relatives of the lost crew-members has been trying to find it.

This past September, a handful of dedicated sleuths, including Geography grad Tom Zagon, finally put the puzzle together in a multidisciplinary effort that speaks to the power of combining satellite imagery, ice climatology and historical records.

The project that eventually discovered Franklin’s ship, the HMS Erebus began in 2008. The same year Zagon brought his remote sensing skills, and passion to solve the mystery to the table.

“The whole search was being based on historical evidence without taking into account the ice movement that could be derived from the detailed satellite image record of the last few decades,” says Zagon.

The exact problem was that the Arctic is terrestrial riddle of stationary islands and shifting ice floes. As such, the geographic land and ice features noted in historical accounts and Inuit oral histories are open to interpretation.

Zagon who has been working with imagery from RADARSAT-1 and 2 his whole professional career knew he could help.

“By analyzing thousands of satellite images it became possible to re-evaluate the historical evidence and identify higher probability sinking positions for the two vessels based on patterns of ice movement.” says Zagon on the phone from Ottawa where he now works as a physical scientist for Environment Canada scouting safe navigation routes for Arctic shipping.

For five years the team, which included Robert Parks, from the University of Waterloo’s Department of Anthropology, poured over more than 150 years of information, combining it with the interpretation of satellite imagery, until they were confident they had a plausible location for the ships.

On 1 September 2014, a larger search by the Canadian team under the banner of the "Victoria Strait Expedition" found two items on Hat Island in the Queen Maud Gulf near Nunavut's King William Island. It was a significant breakthrough, and it emboldened the team.

Then, on 9 September 2014, the expedition announced that it had located one of Franklin's two ships -- the HMS Erebus. The ship was preserved in very good condition.

The discovery made headlines around the world. It was heralded as one of Canada’s great mysteries solved, and even prompted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to personally congratulate the team. 

Zagon is humble about the whole experience, and is quick to credit the team’s multidisciplinary approach for the success.

“One needs to combine physical geography, human geography and remote sensing, techniques to fully understand what happened to the expedition. Overspecialization is maybe one of the reasons people have not made the connection before, because those who knew the historical details were not aware that the remote sensing aspect could help interpret that historical evidence,” he says.

However, the mystery isn’t quite over yet. Another of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Terror still has yet to be located.