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Latitude, Not Altitude

February 25, 1996

Georgia Jones-Davis' review of Sheila Nickerson's "Disappearance: A Map" (Book Review, Feb. 4) caught my eye and upon reading it, I noted a number of misstatements.

Given the topic, I believe the last two words of the book's subtitle should read "High Latitudes," not "High Altitudes." Most of what is being discussed happens at or near sea level, and if not, then generally within the first 10,000 feet of the Earth's atmosphere--not what could be called "high altitude" by any stretch of the imagination.

The initial sentence of the review implies that the north geomagnetic pole is near Alaska, when it is really located in Canada's Northwest Territories, in the general vicinity of Prince of Wales Island, the Boothia Peninsula and western Baffin Island. This is about 2,500 miles to the east-northeast of Alaska's northeasternmost point. The geomagnetic pole's actual position does change with time, but very slowly--not nearly as wildly as the reviewer's words might imply. The change in the value of magnetic declination at any one point is usually less than one degree per 20 years. I don't have a reference for the magnitude of the drift of the geomagnetic pole, but in the 350-400 years of study of the drift of this pole, I would doubt that it has traveled much more than about 400 or 500 miles.

The John Franklin expedition commentary is another area of serious error. Franklin's expedition left England in May 1845 and sailed from east to west. They began the search for the Northwest Passage from Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland, then through Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait. Franklin never came closer to Alaska than about 100 degrees west longitude--2,000 miles. He never "sailed into Alaskan waters" as claimed in the review.

It is also certainly not true that "no trace of the ships or men has ever been found." It has long been known that a message about the death of Franklin and many of his crew, and the loss of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (their correct designations) was placed in a cairn in May 1848 on the northwest coast of King William Island by Capt. Francis Cozier of Erebus. The final encampment of the last 30 survivors of the crew appears to be on Starvation Bay on the Adelaide Peninsula. The expedition's journals were found there in 1923.

ROBERT de VIOLINI, OXNARD

The complete title of Sheila Nickerson's book is indeed "Disappearance: A Map, A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitudes." Both Nickerson and de Violini are correct: Traces of Franklin's crew and information about them placed in a cairn were found. The ships themselves were not recovered.

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