Swiss Camp Greenland – The end of an era | Polarjournal
The Swiss Camp was located about 80 kilometres from the town of Ilulissat on the Greenland ice sheet. For 30 years, among other things, the influence of climate change on the cryosphere was studied here, until this influence now also cost the camp. Image: Capricorn4049 via Wiki Commons

When Alfred de Quervain had carried out his research in Greenland in 1912, he also launched Swiss polar research on the world’s largest island. A highlight of Swiss polar research was the establishment of Swiss Camp in 1990 by cryosphere researcher Konrad “Koni” Steffen, who died there last year. But the impact of climate change, which has been studied there by so many teams of researchers, also gnawed at the very foundation of the camp. Therefore, it was decided to dismantle the camp.

Switzerland is known for doing many things quietly and humbly. In this spirit, the Swiss Camp, the only permanent Swiss polar research facility in Greenland, was also dismantled this year. This was after the founder of the camp, the late head of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, Professor Koni Steffen, had to recognise that it was no longer profitable to continue operating the camp at this location. The effects of warming, which Steffen and his colleagues had studied there for 30 years, were too severe for the camp. Twice the supports on which some of the camp’s buildings had stood had collapsed, most recently in 2012. Again and again, the researchers themselves had to set up and further strengthen the camp. Then last year the platform of the main buildings collapsed when Koni Steffen was there with some assistants. Climate change had finally won.

In addition to the tents on the ground, the main buildings of the Swiss Camp had been erected on a platform to take into account the climatic conditions. For often enough Steffen and his team found the station either almost snowed in or, from the 2000s onwards, almost free-floating. Three times the camp had to be completely rebuilt. Picture: Simon Steffen

Two of his assistants, Dr. Derek Houtz of WSL and Simon Steffen (now with an outside firm), who had been at Swiss Camp on and off with Koni Steffen since 2013 and 2011, respectively, were assigned to dismantle it. They had already been there last year on the expedition together with Koni Steffen and had taken a first look before the accident. Together with the experienced polar explorers Alain Hubert and Nighat Johnson-Amin from the Belgian International Polar Foundation, they set to work organising the expedition. But before work could begin, the two encountered a major obstacle: the Greenlandic permitting process. “We needed an expedition permit from the authorities to be able to do our work,” Derek Houtz explains in an interview with PolarJournal. “It was not an easy thing to do, even though we had already submitted the applications five months in advance.” In the end, they received the permits and the knowledge that Koni Steffen was not only a master in Greenlandic cryosphere research, but also in its official jungle. “Until this year, we thought the process shouldn’t be that difficult. With Koni, it always looked very easy,” says Simon Steffen. “But the reality was very different and until the very end we weren’t sure if we could even get going.”

There wasn’t much left of camp this year. Unusual amounts of snow and other weather extremes had taken a massive toll on the camp since last year. What was left was more of a debris field than a research station. Picture: Derek Houtz

“We could hardly believe what we were seeing”

Simon Steffen, Expedition Team
Metre-high snow had almost completely covered the remains of the platform, which had already collapsed in 2020. In the background, one of the chartered helicopters flies in. Video: Simon Steffen

When the formalities had been settled, the weather did not play along. The three men and one woman had to hold out for two days out of a total of almost seven days in Ilulissat before they finally made their way to the ice sheet in chartered helicopters. And what the four expeditioners found there made their blood run cold (despite unusually high temperatures): where at least the basic structures of the Swiss Camp had once stood, they were looking at a field of rubble. Buried under metres of heavy wet snow, surrounded by numerous pools of melt water and lakes, there was hardly anything left to see of the sleeping tents and the main buildings on the platform. The mess tent was practically all gone. Under the snow was a layer of water almost 30 centimetres deep before the ice came. “We could hardly believe what we were seeing,” Simon Steffen said. “We had been there many times before and always had to repair and maintain the camp. But this was just unbelievable.” And Derek adds: “In the past, when we came here with Koni, he would just say mischievously that we had a lot to do now and would just laugh.” The sight of the destroyed camp must also have been painful for Alain Hubert. Because he was involved in the last build-up in 2012 together with Koni Steffen and was also a close friend.

Chartered helicopters were used to transport the dismantled material, including the snowmobiles, to Ilulissat. There was a particular focus on potentially hazardous materials such as batteries, snowmobiles, propane cylinders and metals. Video: Derek Houtz

But despite the devastation and the fact that there were only four of them in the middle of the Greenland ice sheet with only 4.5 days left, the four people got to work. “We worked about 12 hours a day,” Derek Houtz recalls. “We are definitely used to heavy work in the field. But I’ve never felt as sore on this expedition.” It was also a back-breaking job for Simon Steffen: “Everything was wet from the oversaturated snow. The boots barely kept out the water we were standing in. We had to dig everything out and get it ready for transport. It was one of the hardest jobs I had ever undertaken. We hauled away about 4- 5 tons of material.”

All the material was buried deep in the snow and had to be laboriously shoveled free by hand. The efforts are written all over Simon Steffen’s face (pictured). Picture: Derek Houtz

During the cleanup, the group also had to keep their eyes open: New crevasses could be lurking under the snow. Koni Steffen probably fell victim to one of these last year. In addition, the danger of polar bears was a constant companion, something that neither Derek nor Simon had imagined in earlier years. “We had a rifle with us, which we never had to do before. But the authorities required it for the permit,” Simon explains. Another sign of how the climate has changed on Greenland.

Since the start of the Swiss Camp, one of the longest climate and cryosphere data series has been recorded there using automatic stations. These are now being continued and upgraded by the Denmark Geological Survey GEUS. Image: Capricorn4049 via Wiki Commons

Even the automatic measuring stations that had been set up around the station were only peeking out of the snow in places, one had disappeared altogether. The end of one of the longest continuous data series on climate and ice? “No,” Derek Houtz explains. “The Denmark Geological Survey GEUS takes over the measurements and the stations. But since they are older, new, more modern stations will be integrated into GEUS’s network. Data collection will continue.” Research in Greenland will also not end with the loss of the camp. “In the future, people will rely on mobile camps that are set up as needed and then taken down,” adds Simon.

Not all the material was sent back by helicopter. The wooden foundation and some of the combustible material was burned in a large pile. Also a memorial to Koni Steffen from Simon (left) and Derek (right) and Alain and Nighat (not pictured). Photo: Simon Steffen

Despite all the adverse conditions, the team managed to finish the work and bring most of the material back to Ilulissat. “Almost everything we sent back was reused in Ilulissat,” Simon says. “Even all the utensils like knives, spoons and dishes are needed again.” Some of the measuring equipment that Koni Steffen and his team had used there came back to Zurich, along with some of Koni’s belongings. “There were some odd moments when we were packing up,” Derek says. “It’s especially sad that when the camp ends, so does the teaching and education on the spot about climate change and the cryosphere. That was very important to Koni.” For Simon, the dismantling was also emotional, but less so than he had anticipated. “All the wood material, the foundation of the main buildings, we burned there,” he says. “For one thing, it’s a much smaller footprint CO2-wise than transporting it by helicopter to Ilulissat. For another, it was our way of honouring Koni one last time in the place he had loved so much to come back to again and again.” A quiet but dignified end for a piece of Switzerland in the middle of Greenland.

Farewell Swiss Camp and Koni (middle) and thank you for 30 years of top-class research in Greenland!

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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