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Notes from the icefields

Wegener‘s expedition journals online

Munich, 05/10/2013

A fascinating picture of the Greenland expeditions undertaken by Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) emerges from his personal journals. LMU’s Rachel Carson Center has now put the documents on display on its website.

The Wegener Diaries: Scientific Expeditions into the Eternal Ice
Photos: Deutsches Museum

“10. September [1930]. Early We[dnesday]. Scheideck. As I was typing the communiqué yesterday afternoon, the Krabbe arrived, bringing Peter Freuchen and Magister Larsen... (Danish). We all went up to Scheideck yesterday evening, which was very tough on Peter Freuchen with his wooden leg. Holzapfel set out for Scheideck at 4 this morning to make sure they don’t leave without us – assuming they’re still there at all. We will have to return to Kamarujuk during the night, because I will have to leave on the Krabbe by around 4 in the morning in order to reach the Disko. The weather is splendid.
[Ice ablation measurement] ”

Alfred Wegener (Foto: Deutsches Museum, Archiv)“This” is the final entry in the last surviving journal that Alfred Wegener wrote on his third expedition to Greenland. Unfortunately, no record of the closing phase of the enterprise, from September to November 1930, has come down to us. Wegener died in November 1930, most probably from sheer exhaustion, on the return trek from the Eismitte station at the heart of the inland icecap to the West coast. His Inuit companion was left to continue the journey westward alone, taking Wegener’s notes with him. – He was never seen again. Wegener’s body was later recovered, but his last journal has been irrevocably lost.

Nevertheless, the surviving expedition diaries paint a vivid picture of the extremely trying conditions Wegener encountered in Greenland, the dynamics of the Arctic ice-sheet, the rigors of the climate, the vagaries of local weather conditions and the severe challenges he and his comrades faced. Nearly 25 years earlier, on his first trip, Wegener had noted in December 1906:

“(…) Every so often a sled would break up, and Brünlown had more than enough to do putting them back together again. The surface of the ice floes was completely smooth, and we were constantly sliding about and staggering, while the dog-teams took everything in their stride and rushed on at a furious pace. My dogs are very impetuous as it is, and here they were particularly difficult to handle, so that I often got into precarious situations. On several occasions, I lost my footing and my legs slipped under the sled or I was dragged behind it, and once the dogs got away from me altogether, and I only caught up with them when they reached the sled ahead of us, which had keeled over in the meantime.(…) ”

LMU’s Rachel Carson Center has now made all of Wegener’s surviving expedition logbooks available in digitized form for the first time on its Environment & Society-Portal. In addition to the facsimile pages, selected excerpts have been transcribed and are presented in the original German and in English translation. The reports describe Wegener’s three trips to Greenland in the course of his career, the Danmark Expedition (1906-1908), the Danish Expedition to Northern Greenland (1912-1913) and the German Greenland Expedition (1930-1931), which he himself led.

Alfred Wegener (Foto: Deutsches Museum, Archiv)Alfred Wegener, who was born in Berlin, made his name as a meteorologist, but is also remembered for his contributions to polar exploration and, nowadays above all, as a geophysicist. In his day, he was the leading proponent of continental drift, a hypothesis which he first put forward in 1912. The idea was highly controversial, not only in his own time but for several decades after his death. However, his pioneering vision of mobile continents was eventually vindicated with the formulation and verification of modern plate tectonics.

Wegener’s original expedition journals are now held in archives of the Deutsches Museum in Munich.


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