Century-old weather records and snow and ice data collected by Alfred Wegener during his Greenland expedition are helping scientists to better understand climate change
The unique treasure trove of data from Alfred Wegener’s third Greenland expedition in the years 1929-1931, safely stored in the archives of the University of Graz, Austria, has been virtually ignored by science until now. A team of scientists from the university studying climate change in Greenland recognised the potential of these historical observations and linked them to current measurement data and reconstructions from models of how the climate is behaving.
“We discovered several hundred pages of previously fallow measurement results collected by Alfred Wegener on his Greenland expedition nearly a hundred years ago,” Jakob Abermann, a University of Graz climate researcher and lead author of the study, said in a news release. “It is amazing how well the measurements agree with the modelling in many variables.”
What was particularly exciting for the research team was that Wegener’s 1929-1931 expedition coincided with an exceptionally warm period from which hardly any data have been available, according to Dr Abermann. Comparisons with today are therefore particularly relevant.
In the summer of 2022, Dr Abermann and his team began repeating Wegener’s data collection. From Qaamarujup Sermia, a glacier on the western coast of Greenland, to the Eismitte station set up by Wegener at the centre of the ice sheet, the researchers collected data on things like glacier morphology, meteorology, snow and firn — snow that has been partially compressed into glacial ice — temperatures and density, and ice conditions in the fjord.
When comparing the data, the team found that the Qaamarujup Sermia has changed significantly. The glacier has retreated by more than two kilometres and its thickness decreased by up to 120 metres. Similarly, firn temperatures have increased significantly since Wegener’s expedition, and the density of snow and firn has remained similar or decreased.
The snowline was at about the same elevation as in the extremely warm years of 2012 and 2019. In addition, the researchers found that, compared with today, there was considerably less fjord ice in the early spring of 1930, but considerably more in late spring of that year.
The 2022 expedition was preceded by the digitisation of the results from the Wegener expedition. The data are now freely available in the original resolution together with the scanned original reports. The next phase of the project, the researchers will use new technologies to gain deeper insights into the interactions between the surface ice and the atmosphere.
“In addition to conventional methods, we are primarily using artificial intelligence and deep learning here to identify patterns and correlations in the data,” said Andreas Trügler, an AI-processes expert with Know Center Graz and co-author of the study.
Wegener was an extraordinary scientist who became famous after his death for his theory of continental drift. A meteorologist, geophysicist and polar explorer, he was mainly interested in polar meteorology. He died in November 1930 during his third expedition to Greenland, presumably of heart failure.
The current study appeared in Nature Scientific Reports as part of the multi-year “WEG_Re – Centennial Climate Drivers of Glacier Changes in Greenland” project. The project is led by the University of Graz and involves the participation of Know Center Graz, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and GEUS (Denmark).
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
J. Abermann, B. Vandecrux, S. Scher et al.: Learning from Alfred Wegener’s pioneering field observations in West Greenland after a century of climate change, Scientific Reports https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-023-33225-9
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