In Earth’s frigid north, the Bering Sea – named after a Dane – is alarming climate scientists. The sea ice began a spring melt two months earlier than normal and very fast, leaving more open sea than ever recorded in late February. This may spell trouble for the ecology and, without a strong ice buffer, the coasts of Alaska and Russia are more vulnerable to battering waves from storms that rage every three to five days.
It was into these challenging waters, where waves can soar 40 feet, that Danish explorer and cartographer Vitus Jonassen Bering ventured in 1728. His connection with the sea had begun early. He was born in the Jutland port of Horsens in 1681 and at age 15 he became a ship’s boy. He sailed to many far-flung places, took naval officer’s training and then joined the fleet of Russian Tsar Peter the Great. In his mid-40s, he was asked to captain an expedition to document whether Russia and Alaska were joined in the north.
Bering completed this voyage, and a decade later sought to lead a second expedition to the area. While in command of Sct. Peter, he made additional discoveries, but he never came home. In November 1741, a storm battered his ship and everyone took refuge on land. There, during the following months of winter, Bering and nearly half his crew died, probably of scurvy – a disease later discovered to be caused by lack of vitamin C. But Bering’s legacy is his geographical permanence, with a sea, strait, island and glacier bearing his name. More recently, scientists chose “Beringia” for the steppe landmass that once joined Asia and North America but is today submerged. That land bridge enabled migrating humans to populate the Americas.
Bering’s birth town of Horsens has several remembrances of their famous citizen, including a park with a bronze memorial showing a global map and Sct. Peter, as well as a modern fountain sculpture named “Bering Sea.”
– Photo of memorial plaque in Vitus Bering Park in Horsens by Hans Jørn Storgaard Andersen via Wikimedia Commons
– Article: Unprecedented: Bering Sea loses half its sea ice over two weeks, USA TODAY
– Vitus Bering: Danish Explorer, Encyclopædia Britannica
– Article: Kamchatka – Siberia’s Forbidden Wilderness: Bering Island by Kim MacQuarrie
– Bering Climate: How does sea ice vary in the Bering Sea from year to year
– Article in Horsens Folkeblad about restoration of the Vitus Bering plaque (in Danish)
– Book: Frost, Orcutt William, ed. (2003), Bering: The Russian Discovery of America, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10059-0
– Detail from undated portrait of Vitus Bering by Dutch-Danish painter Abraham Wuchters, kept at Denmark’s Frederiksborg Castle