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HomeSpitsbergen informationHistory → Early scientific expeditions

Early scientific expeditions

History of Spitsbergen

Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld

Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld

At the same time as trappers found Spitsbergen, scientists from various nations got interested in the island. One of the earliest expeditions, which had science as one of the main goals, was the one of German Barto von Löwenigh in 1827. One of the members of this expedition was the Norwegian geologist Balthazar Matthias Keilhau and he was the first one to publish results of systematic geological investigations, which he had made in southern Spitsbergen as well as on Edgeøya and Bjørnøya. This is why this expedition has earned the reputation of having started scientific work on Svalbard.

During the later 19th century, mostly Swedish explorers such as Otto Torell and Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld dominated the field with their expeditions, during which science played a role, not the only one, though. For example, Nordenskiöld had also plans to dash to the north pole, but he did not get very far.

In the late 19th century, another large and very successful expedition was launched jointly by Sweden and Russia: The Swedish-Russian Arc-de-Meridian expedition (1899-1904). The scientific aim of this truly international and purely scientific expedition was to define the shape of the Earth by means of very precise astronomical determination of latitude and longitude as well as topographic work. This should then be compared to the result of similar investigations from near-equator latutitudes: Was Earth a perfect ball, then the distance between two degrees of latitude should be the same near the equator and near the pole. In case planet Earth was flat at the poles, then the lines of latitude had to be closer to each other near the poles than in the tropics. It was decided to measure a very precise north-south profile from the Sjuøyane in northernmost Svalbard through the Hinlopen Strait and Storfjord (between Spitsbergen and Barents-/Edgeøya) down to the south cape of Spitsbergen. As the astronomical investigations needed a lot of time to be done with sufficient precision, stations were built in the Sorgfjord (northeastern Spitsbergen) and in the Hornsund. Topographic mapping was done along a transect between these places to get the distance. Several years were needed to complete this work, which lasted from 1899 to 1904. This logistically and scientifically demanding task was successfully solved due to the cooperation of two nations. Both the purely scientific motivation of this expedition as well as the international cooperation and the successful completion without any loss of lives make the Arc-de-Meridian expedition one of the most interesting and remarkable projects of the area.

In the early 20th century, the Norwegians were increasing their efforts. Lecturer Adolf Hoel, who was one of the driving forces for Svalbard-expeditions in Norway, did certainly not only have scientific objectives, but was also interested in increasing Norwegian influence in the arctic. The result was the Svalbard treaty from 1920. Hoels organisation Norges Svalbard- og Ishavsundersøkelser was later renamed and was the predecessor of today’s Norwegian Polar Institute. Next to topographic mapping, geology was one of the most important fields in which scientists worked in Svalbard in the early 20th century. As a result of this, the early 20th century saw a remarkable number of efforts to start some mining business in Svalbard.

There was also a number of expeditions starting from countries outside Scandinavia. It would be too much to mention all of them here, but is certainly worthwile mentioning those of Prince (later Duke) Albert of Monaco. He financed a whole series of expeditions to Svalbard (1989, 1899, 1906, 1907, 1909) and participated in several ones himself. The scientific work being done during those expeditions is considerable, and well-known figures such as the Scotsman William Spierce Bruce and Norwegian Gunnar Isachsen joined in.

Worth mentioning is also a German expedition which left Tromsø in August 1912 on board the small motor vessel Herzog Ernst, with leader Herbert Schröder-Stranz from Prussia on board. Their claim for fame is nothing less than a total desaster. They wanted to explore the largely unknown northern coast of Nordaustland to prepare for a later, larger expedition in the area of the Northeast Passage. Together with three more men, boats, dogs and sledges, Schröder-Stranz left the vessel near Scoresbyøya near the entrance of the Rijpfjord. None of these four men was ever seen again, only some bits and pieces of their equipment was found on several places on Nordaustland in later years. The Herzog Ernst sailed back to the Sorgfjord (aka Treurenburg Bay or Sorge Bai). After a short excursion into the Hinlopen Strait and the Lomfjord, the ship became ‘beset’ (trapped in the ice) in the Sorgfjord. Disagreements regarding to what the best thing to do was led to the splitting up of the remaining expedition. Some men stayed on board, enjoying the relative comfort and safety of the ship in the ice, whereas others left the ship, trying to reach Longyearbyen – a long way at the most difficult time of the year, the early winter, when it was dark, cold and stormy, but the fjord ice not yet stable. The only one who managed to get through to Longyearbyen, more dead than alive in the end, was Captain Alfred Ritscher. The other ones were either missing or waiting in trapper huts in the Wijdefjord. Sveral relief expeditions set out, among others Kurt Wegener, leader of the geophysical station in the Kongsfjord and brother of Alfred Wegener. Together with three men and dogsledges, he crossed northwestern Spitsbergen and reached the Woodfjord, but then had to return. A German journalist, Theodor Lerner, was convinced that a German polar expedition should get help from Germans. He chartered a ship in Tromsø, which sunk in the ice near Nordaustland. On 12th April, the Norwegian Staxrud started another relief expedition from Longyearbyen with sledges pulled by dogs and reindeer. With him were experienced Svalbard-veterans such as, among others, Daniel Nøis and his nephew Hilmar. Staxrud managed to bring the surviving members of the as well as the ship Herzog Ernst, together with Lerner’s relief expedition back to Longyearbyen. The Schröder-Stranz-expedition was a tragedy, which cost eight lives, and some of the survivors got home only with severe frost injuries. This drama could have been avoided at least partly with some more experience and better preparation.

The Sorgfjord in northeastern Spitsbergen

The Sorgfjord in northeastern Spitsbergen

After the second World War, Sweden started once again with systematic research in Svalbard during the International Polar Year 1957/58 and built at station in Kinnvika on the eastern side of the Hinlopen Strait. Several buildings are still in good condition. For a whole year, they measured standardised parameters within meteorology, Earth magnetism, northern light observation and others simultaneously with other stations in the Arctic and Antarctica. On one hand, the station in Kinnvika was remote and out of reach during most of the year, spending some time with adventures such as hunting polar bears during the winter, on the other hand, a modern scientific programme was carried out. Thus, this expedition is somewhere between the old, ‘heroic’ days and modern scientific work. Also Finish and Swiss scientists were involved in the work carried at at Kinnvika.

The Swedish station of 1957/58 in Kinnvika

The Swedish station of 1957/58 in Kinnvika

Maybe somewhat unappropriate under the title »Early scientific exploration«, the Stauferland-expeditions of the German geographer Julius Büdel shall also be mentioned here. This was a series of summer expeditions, which went to eastern Svalbard during the late 50s and 60s, mainly southwestern Barentsøya, where a hut was built, which is still there (‘Würzburger Hütte’). Both scientifically with work focussed on relative details such as beach ridges after post-glacial landrise, erosion in permafrost climate as well as frost patterned ground, as well as logistically – at times, the expedition even had its own helicopter in days, when the Norwegian gouvernor still had to do everything with a dogsledge – the Stauferland expeditions belong to the modern age of polar research. On the other hand, they still had to do a bit of basic topographic mapping on a medium scale, and a number of place-names was given to larger landscape features such as mountains. Based on the results of these expeditions, Julius Büdel developed a theory of landscape development in polar regions which was based on the idea of very intense frost weathering and transportation systems (e.g. solifluction). It is certainly amongst his merits to have started a scientific controversy, which has lasted for decades within physical geography especially in Germany and was at least indirectly a reason for other scientists from Germany and other countries to test this in other area such as the Liefdefjord (northwestern Spitsbergen) and Ellesmere Island (arctic Canada).

Büdel’s ‘Würzburger Hütte’ on southwestern Barentsøya

Büdel's 'Würzburger Hütte' on southwestern Barentsøya


last modification: 2013-10-11 · copyright: Rolf Stange