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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­onHisto­ry → Ear­ly sci­en­ti­fic expe­di­ti­ons

Early scientific expeditions

History of Spitsbergen: Nordenskiöld, Arc-de-Meridan-expedition, Schröder-Stranz, Büdel

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 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 Sjuøya­ne in nor­t­hern­most Sval­bard through 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 at Cro­zier­pyn­ten in Sorg­fjord (nor­the­as­tern Spits­ber­gen) and in Gås­ham­na in 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 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 (back then also known as Treu­ren­burg Bay or Sor­ge Bai). After a short excur­si­on into the Hin­lo­pen Strait and Lom­fjord, the ship beca­me ‘beset’ (trap­ped in the ice) in 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 Wij­defjord.

Seve­ral reli­ef expe­di­ti­ons set out, among others Kurt Wege­ner, lea­der of the geo­phy­si­cal sta­ti­on in Kross­fjord and brot­her of Alfred Wege­ner. Tog­e­ther with three men and dogs­led­ges, he crossed nor­thwes­tern Spits­ber­gen and rea­ched 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 Schrö­der-Stranz-Expe­di­ti­on as well as the ship Her­zog Ernst 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.

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, to a les­ser degree, Ant­ar­c­tic. 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 Lief­defjord (nor­thwes­tern Spits­ber­gen) and Elles­me­re Island (arc­tic Cana­da).

Büdel’s ‘Würz­bur­ger Hüt­te’ at Sund­ne­set on Barent­søya

Büdel's 'Würzburger Hütte' at Sundneset on Barentsøya



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last modification: 2019-03-06 · copyright: Rolf Stange