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In the 1595 Map of the Arctic, Mercator shows the North Pole as having a substantial landmass surrounding a rock.

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Source: Wikipedia

A little over a hundred years later, Guillaume de L'Isle's 1714 map (updated 1741) of the Arctic regions shows no land beneath the polar ice cap.

enter image description here

Source: Wikipedia

Apparently, Guillaume de L'Isle was not the only person to believe there was no substantial landmass under the Arctic ice cap. Wikipedia's article on the North Pole states:

As early as the 16th century, many prominent people correctly believed that the North Pole was in a sea

In the absence of solid proof provided by modern scientific techniques such as bathymetric measurements of the sea floor, what led de L'Isle and others to believe there was no land under the Arctic ice cap?

  • 10
    Point of order; that second map doesn't actually show the pole is free of land. It shows the mapmaker doesn't know how far north Greenland goes. – Joshua Dec 17 '18 at 23:04
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    There is land under the North Pole, it just happens to be covered with 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) of water AND some ice. – James Jenkins Dec 18 '18 at 18:41
  • Was the omission of Alaska from his map motivated any differently from the omission of land at the North Pole? – Aaron Brick Dec 18 '18 at 18:58
  • @AaronBrick: Perhaps, because James Cook and George Vancouver weren't born yet, there was insufficient knowledge of the Alaska coastline for a mapmaker with obvious high standards to venture on an outline. Ivan Fyodorov didn't reach Alaska until 1732 according to Wikipedia, nearly two decades after first publication of he second map. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 18 '18 at 22:23
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    @PieterGeerkens Yes. Mercator was more willing to imagine coastlines than de l'Isle. – Aaron Brick Dec 19 '18 at 23:49
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The answer lies in your second map, and the extensive exploration of Siberia's Arctic sea coast through the 1600's in search of a Northern Passage. Note how well mapped that area has become in the intervening century.

Russian settlers and traders on the coasts of the White Sea, the Pomors, had been exploring parts of the northeast passage as early as the 11th century. By the 17th century they established a continuous sea route from Arkhangelsk as far east as the mouth of Yenisey. This route, known as Mangazeya seaway, after its eastern terminus, the trade depot of Mangazeya, was an early precursor to the Northern Sea Route.

Further, the process by which icebergs are formed by calving from glaciers was well known. The absence of large icebergs in the Arctic Ocean north of the Kara Sea would have strongly suggested the absence of any glaciers, and thus any land, in that corner of the world.


Update

In regards a comment about the sinking of the Titanic:

Titanic sank just south of Iceberg Alley, off the southern tail of the Grand Banks. That is ~1900 km south of Greenland, and ~3800 km south of the Arctic Ocean north of Iceland and Ellesmere Island.

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    TL;DR: (TIL) because there's no icebergs. – Mazura Dec 18 '18 at 2:26
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    @Mazura: Not just that there were no icebergs - but also that they knew with great certainty that there were no icebergs. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 18 '18 at 2:30
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    Well, in 1912 they found out there exist icebergs large enough to sink a 270 meter ship made of steel. – Damon Dec 18 '18 at 14:57
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    @Damon That iceberg calved off a glacier in Greenland and floated down into the North Atlantic, where icebergs can be found. Pieter Geerkens says there are no icebergs in the Arctic Ocean, a thousand miles north of where the Titanic sank, just pack ice a foot or two thick, which implies there are no glaciers or land in the Arctic Ocean. I don't know if his answer is correct, but your objection to it is clearly wrong. – MAGolding Dec 18 '18 at 15:02
  • @Damon: Titanic sank just south of Iceberg Alley, at the southern tail of the Grand Banks. That is ~1900 km south of Greenland, and ~3800 km south of the Arctic Ocean north of Iceland. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 18 '18 at 15:16

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