The secrets of ice
The history of Wegener’s expedition to Greenland and the central Greenland ice station of Eismitte.
August 10, 2020
“Konrad Steffen, the well known swiss glaciologist, died tragically in Greenland. Steffen has fallen in a crevasse while going to a science station in the middle of Greenland’s ice. Steffen was known to the big audience because he often participated in tv programs as well as academics meetings, like IPCC or governments meetings, like the Paris climate meeting in 2015. Steffen had been following the evolution of Greenland’s ice for 20 years by warning of an increase of ice retreat in the last years.”
The news went around the world, relaunched by the tweets of many scientists and researchers. Newspapers sites and TV networks reported the news.
I saw the report about Steffen’s death on the evening tv news.
I asked myself how it was possible to lose life for science. And lose it while following the retreating ice, trying to know its secrets. Could this make sense? A fatality or fate?
Maybe that’s why I went, the next day, to the Swiss Polar Institute where Steffen worked when he wasn’t in Greenland.
In the Swiss Polar Institute in Losanna, there is a collection of photographs about the history of polar exploration. In the first room of the exhibition, there is a large photograph on the wall, a black and white photograph, with two men in fur.
The man on the left is Alfred Wegener, a German climatologist, the other on the right is Rasmus Villumsen, a Greenlander guide.
Not many people know Alfred Wegener, but someone maybe remembers the Pangea, the largest of the continents, and the continental drift.
Fifteen years before this photo, in 1915, Wegener published his most famous book: The origin of continents and oceans. The first theory about the continental drift.
But what is Wegener doing dressed in animal fur, together with a Greenlander guide in the snow and ice?
On his 50th birthday, November 1, 1930, he is exactly in the middle of the Greenland ice sheet., at over 3000 meters above sea level. It is the third time that Wegener has come to Greenland, this time leading a large scientific expedition funded by the German government. 21 people, including scientists and assistants. geophysicists geologists zoologists meteorologists engineers, plus 25 Icelandic ponies and 140 dogs.
Wegener established two research stations, one on the west coast and one in the middle of the ice sheet, 400 kilometres from the coast. He called this second station Eismitte.
On the day of his fiftieth birthday, he joined his expedition companions, who lived in a room dug inside the ice.
His companions wanted to spend the winter at Eismitte but they had little food: Wegener decided to bring them the provisions. A journey of 40 days, from west coast station to Eismitte, with dogs and sledges.
Many more days than he had expected.
The journey was very difficult because the snow was too soft and the wind was blowing hard throughout the day. But he couldn’t leave them without food and gasoline. They couldn’t survive the polar night, in an ice cave. they were his companions before they were scientists.
What is Wegener looking for in Greenland? 90 years before Steffen he wants to measure the thickness of the ice, he wants to measure temperatures and winds, even during the polar night. Nobody had measured the temperatures during the polar night before.
He wanted to understand if the glacier was growing or falling and how it changed over the course of the year. Because ice records climate changes and Wegener is a climatologist. These were the main reasons for the expedition.
He also wanted to measure the displacement of Greenland from the coast of Norway to prove his drift theory. But his tools were not adequate for this.
Using dynamite and seismographs, Wegener and his expedition companions make the first measurement of the thickness of the ice in Greenland.
1100 meters thickness at the highest point.
They studied the ice layers to establish its age. And so they entered the ice library for the first time. An archive that records climate changes.
Many years after that photo, the air bubbles contained in the ice reveal the first traces of global warming. The ice library still has many things to tell us.
This is Wegener’s last photograph, after the shot, Wegener and Villumsem make their way back to the west coast station. Wegener will never get there. The effort to return was too great for his heart. Wegener’s body was found lifeless the following spring, Villumsen’s was never found.
Like Wegener, Steffen loved reading in “the ice library”, studying the ice movements.
Ninety years later history repeats itself. A scientist disappears in the “white desert”.
There is a point beyond which what you want to know is worth more than what you are. But no one knows where that point is and when you cross it.
For Steffen, Wegener and Villumsen that point is in the secrets of the ice.
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