As you can read in his introductory post, Harald’s goal for this blog is to help build a bridge between the academic and business communities on issues regarding climate change and polar research. Before he left, he asked a few of his friends and colleagues to contribute. Read below for the first essay, by Cornelia Lüdecke, PhD, a lecturer at the University of Hamburg, and president of the International Commission on the History of Meteorology (see the end for a full bio).
Polar Research, in Context of Climate Change and Global Warming
Cornelia Lüdecke, PhD, Munich, Germany
In the 16th century, the first polar expeditions to the Arctic first reported weather and sea-ice observations from high latitudes to which expeditions from the 18th century onwards added instrumental measured data from both polar regions. These early observations and meteorological data are essential to the investigation of climate change and global warming, because the ice cover of land and sea in high latitudes is very sensitive to variations of temperature and other meteorological parameters. Today these historic observations are used as proxy data for describing the climate of the past and the measured data are used as starting points for long-term evaluation.
History of Polar Research
1. Economic Interest
After the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which divided new discoveries outside of Europe between the Spanish and Portuguese, exploration of the Arctic started in search of an alternative sea route to China – the Northwest and Northeast Passage – to evade the high taxes for sailing to the Far East. This economical background led to the discovery of the Barents Sea and Novaya Semlya by the Dutch William Barents in the 16th century and to the investigation of the Siberian coastline, the Bering Sea, and the Bering Strait by Dane Vitus Bering (an officer in Russian service) in the 18th century. The Swede Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld was the first to sail through the Northeast Passage overwintering, 1878-79. But not until the development of strong ice-breakers after World War I could the Northeast Passage be used to transport goods along the Siberian coast, to the big rivers Ob, Jenisej, and Lena.
It was much more complicated to find a sailing route through the Canadian Arctic. In the 16th century, British sailors John Davis, Henry Hudson and William Baffin gave the names to the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay separating Greenland from the archipelago of North America, and Hudson Bay within this island world. In 1831 the James Clark Ross discovered the magnetic pole of the northern hemisphere. In the middle of the 19th century, more than 40 search expeditions for John Franklin’s lost expedition proved that a Northwest passage existed. Finally Roald Amundsen completed the passage after two overwinterings (1903-1906). It was clear from the beginning that this passage was not usable for regularly shipping traffic. Further, Amundsen discovered that the magnetic pole was moving.
Antarctic research started with James Cook’s expedition (1872-1775) in search for the terra incognita australis, a construct of the Greek understanding of the world, where the known Arctic regions would have a corresponding Ant-Arctic in the south. Cook only found ice, but no continent, when he crossed the southern Polar Circle, which kept the area unexplored until a Baltic German Naval officer working in the Russian service named Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen made the first land sighting of Antarctica during his circumnavigation (1819-1821). His report of seals and whales attracted sealers and whalers like the British James Weddell, who made further discoveries like the Weddell Sea.
2. Scientific Interest
In the 19th century geographic questions triggered the start of scientific expeditions, for example the search of the magnetic pole of the southern hemisphere. It resulted in three national expeditions of the French Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville (1837-1840), the American Charles Wilkes (1839-1842), and J. C. Ross (1839-43), who determined the magnetic pole close to the co-ordinates, which the German Carl Friedrich Gauß had calculated with the help of his magnetic theory. But it was still unknown whether At´ntarctica was a continent or a gigantic atoll filled with ice.
The need for meteorological data of the Far North led to the first international meteorological co-operation, in which twelve countries established twelve stations in the Arctic and two additional stations in the southern hemisphere during the International Polar Year (IPY, 1882-1883). This became the base for further International Polar Years (1932-1933, 1957-1958 and 2007-2008), during which meteorological investigations of the upper air were executed with the most modern instruments and methods of the time. This began with registering instruments fixed on kites and captive balloons, then moved to free-flying balloons affixed with radio transmitters to, finally, the use of satellites today.
Despite this, the northern coast of the Arctic and the interior of Greenland was still unknown at the time of the first Polar Year. The Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen crossed southern Greenland in 1888 for the first time reporting about very cold temperatures on the ice cap. The German Erich von Drygalski investigated the movement of the glaciers at the west coast of Greenland in 1891 and 1892-1893. Nansen’s famous expedition through the Arctic (1893-1896) aboard his ship ”Fram”collected a huge amount of various scientific data. It had been the credit of the American Robert Peary to guide many expeditions before and after 1900 investigating northern Greenland in search for a route to the North Pole, which he pretended to have reached in 1909.
During the International Co-operation of 1901-1903 Erich von Drygalski co-ordinated meteorological research in Antarctica according to the programme of the International Polar Year, in which his German Antarctic expedition worked together with the Swedish expedition under the leadership of Otto Nordenskjöld (1901-1903), the British expedition under Robert Falcon Scott (1901-1904), and the Scottish expedition under William Speirs Bruce (1902-04). The analysis of meteorological data together with other measurements indicated that the Antarctic is a continent of about 2000 m height. Ten years later, when Amundsen defeated Scott during the race to the South Pole (1911-1912), there was no co-operation at all between the British and the Norwegians, nor with the German expedition under Wilhelm Filchner or the Japanese expedition under Nobu Shirase.
Special meteorological programmes were performed by the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener, who established three stations at the west coast, the east coast, and in the middle of the ice cap of Greenland to investigate the meteorological condition of the cold region on the ice in 1930-1931. A year later a dense network of meteorological stations was set up to investigate the conditions of the upper air around the Arctic Ocean during the 2nd IPY (1932-1933).
Systematic co-ordinated meteorological measurements in Antarctica were not made before the International Geophysical Year (IGY, today called 3rd IPY, 1957-1958). The network of stations established at that time were the starting point of continuous meteorological measurements in the Far South. Now there are more than 50 years of data collection including ozone measurements, which led to the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the 1980s and over the Arctic in 1992.
Not only is the upper air above the ice sheets of scientific interest, but so also is the ice sheet itself. During the Greenland Ice Sheet Project (GISP, 1971-1981) several ice cores were drilled on the ice cap at the station Dye 3 (lenght 372 m), at Milcent (398 m), and at Crete (405 m). Finally another drill at Dyre 3 reached the bedrock at 2037 m in August 1981. Later the European Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP, 1989-1993) completed a 3,028 metre ice core drill at station Summit in Central Greenland, which provided a detailed record of climate variations of the last 100.000 years.
International projects like the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) started in 1995 with high expenditures to reconstruct the climate history of the last hundreds of thousands years. The drill at Concordia Station (Dome C, East Antarctica) was completed after three years in 2004 reaching a depth of 3270 m (5 m above bedrock). This is the longest ice core record revealing detailed climate and atmospheric changes including eight glacial cycles of the last 900,000 years. The drill of the second core at the German station Kohnen in Dronning Maud Land stopped at 2585 m in 2005 and covered the last 220,000 years of climate history.
In addition to the investigation of the climate in geological time scales, observations from satellites and those made from polar expeditions concerning growing or retreating glaciers, as well as modern satellite observations of glaciers and ice sheets provide an analysis of changes within small time scales.
Although today satellites are available to monitor ice sheets and glaciers movements world wide, polar expeditions are still needed to provide meteorological and glaciological data, as well as to collect data to calibrate satellite measurements. The ongoing process of ground-based data collection is important to understand global warning and climate change. This information is essential for the business community and therefore to support adjustments of business strategies of companies considering climate change. It becomes more and more crucial as the ice of the Northwest Passage is retreating and the possibility of a new shipping route for transporting goods – especially oil – seems to become feasible in the future.
Cornelia Lüdecke is President of the International Commission on History of Meteorology and Chair of the History of Antarctic Research Action Group of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. Her background is as a historian of science with a diploma in meteorology. In her PhD thesis she analyzed the history of German polar research of the period 1900-1939. With her second theses on special chapters from the history of earth sciences she passed her habilitation and became a “Privatdozent” (private lecturer) at the University of Hamburg.
She has participated in a number of international meteorological experiments in the Alps and in Australia and accompanied two scientific expeditions to Svalbard and two cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula as historian of science.
She can be reached at C.Luedecke@lrz.uni-muenchen.de