Yakov Yakovlevich Gakkel' (1901-1965)


  • Terence Armstrong






Yakov Yakovlevich Gakkel' died in Leningrad on 30 December 1965 after a short illness. He was a geographer of the broadest kind, who gave almost the whole of his working life to arctic studies. He enjoyed a considerable reputation in the Soviet Union, and became known overseas mainly in the last phase of his life, when he was working on problems of the Arctic Ocean. He was born in 1901 in St. Petersburg, and was educated there. In 1921 he joined the Geographical Institute, which became in 1925 the geography faculty of Leningrad University. During this period he undertook his first expeditions: to study limnology in Karelia in 1924, and geomorphology in Yakutia in 1925. Meanwhile he was already active in sea-ice studies during the winters in the Gulf of Finland. In 1932 he joined the Arctic Institute, also in Leningrad, where he was to remain until his death. He was associated with many different sides of the Institute's work - oceanography, sea-ice studies, navigational problems, geomagnetism, geomorphology, and the history of exploration. He was in turn Head of various departments, latterly of that of geography and history of exploration, and in 1941-42 he was Deputy Director for Research. While with the Arctic Institute, he took part, often as leader, in 21 expeditions. Among the best-known of these were the first one-season navigation of the Northern Sea Route in the Sibiryakov in 1932, the ill-fated Chelyuskin expedition of 1933-34, high-latitude expeditions in Sadko in 1936 and Ob' in 1956, and the first double transit of the Route in the Mossovet in 1937. In 1948 he became interested in the idea, then mooted, of making wide use of the technique of studying the central polar basin by means of drifting stations on the ice. He was active in the work which led to the identification of the Lomonosov submarine ridge, and devoted much time to construction of bathymetric charts of the Arctic Ocean, based largely on drifting station data. This in turn led to an interest in the relation between bottom relief and the structure of the earth, a study he pursued with success, and on which he was still engaged when he died. He published widely in many fields. Of particular note are his contributions to sea-ice studies, especially on drift of floes; to problems of practical seamanship, such as magnetic compass behaviour; to the geomorphology of the Arctic Ocean (one of his last papers was a contribution on this subject to the still unpublished American Encyclopaedia of Earth Sciences); and to the history of Arctic studies, notably his history of the Arctic Institute (Za chetvert' veka, 1945) and his more general survey of Soviet achievements in this sphere (Nauka i osvoyeniye Arktiki, 1957) . He received the degree of Candidate of Geographical Sciences in 1938, Doctor in 1950 and the rank of Professor in 1953. He did not travel abroad much, and therefore was little known personally to his foreign colleagues. He was a likeable person, large, good-humoured, and helpful. I saw him last at an evening party in Leningrad three months before his death. The question arose: which of the company - all were polar specialists - had been longest at this game? Very modestly, he made his claim - and won by a year. When a scientist of the experience and judgement of Yakov Yakovlevich is no longer among us, we all feel the loss.