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May 12, 1931: Alfred Wegener’s last Journey

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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March 1929 the German meteorologists Alfred Wegener, Johannes Georgi (1888-1972), Fritz Loewe (1895-1974) and Ernst Sorge (1899-1946) arrived to Greenland, searching a site for a coastal base camp – a starting point for an ambitious expedition to the inner ice sheet – they found it in the Kamarujuk Fjord.
One year later 18 scientists, 25 Icelandic ponies and 98 tons of material were unload onto the unusual thick ice of the fjord – as the expedition couldn’t reach the shore they had to wait 38 days, loosing  precious time in the short Arctic summer. Only in July 1930 the coastal base camp, named “Western Camp”, was completed.

The expedition’s most ambitious goal was to establish a base 400km farther inland, in the center of the ice cap itself, named appropriately “Mid-Ice“. In late autumn the station Mid-Ice was ready, manned by Georgi and Sorge, however both men were unsure if the supplies would last for the entire winter. September 22, Wegener and Loewe organized an expedition to bring the necessary supplies to Mid-Ice, temperatures were dropping fast and the first winter storms approaching -  soon only one young Inuit – Rasmus Villumsen – was willing to continue with Wegener and Loewe. The three men were ably only to transport a limited amount of material and so left back the radio – as they arrived to Mid-Ice on October 30, they knew that the supplies would never be sufficient for five persons. Only Loewe remained, as he had suffered a severe frostbite on his toes, which had to be amputated by Georgi with a pocket knife, he was not able to walk.

November 1, 1930 the men celebrated Wegener’s 50th birthday with some dried fruit and chocolate (a rare luxury during Arctic expeditions) and after some hours Wegener and Villumsen left for their long journey back to the safe coast. Whit no radio aviable, Georgi, Sorge and Loewe couldn’t inform the Western Camp of Wegener’s and Villumsen´s departure and had to wait until the Arctic spring for news.

Fig.1. Last photograph of Wegener and Villumsen taken on November 1, 1930, before they set out from Mid-Ice on their unsuccessful attempt to reach Western Camp, published in GEORGI (1935) “The Story of the Wegener Expedition to Greenland” (image in public domain).

April 23, 1931 another expedition was send to Mid-Ice, about halfway they found a pair of skis and ski pole in the snow, but continued until Mid-Ice, where they meet Sorge, who asked “Where´s Wegener?” Sorge and a part of the rescue team returned to the site , digging below the skis they found Wegener on May 12, 1931, carefully wrapped in two sleeping bag covers and laid on a sleeping bag and a reindeer skin. Karl  Weiken, one member of the rescue team, wrote that Wegener’s face appeared “relaxed, peaceful, almost smiling” and “looked more youthful than it had before.” Villumsen had buried Wegener with great care, taken his diary and some personal effects with him, maybe hoping to make it until the Western Camp. Villumsen was never found.

The German government wanted to bring the body back to Germany for a state funeral, but Else Wegener, Wegener´s wife, knowing of Alfred´s love for the Arctic, refused and so Wegener was left where Villumsen buried him.

Today his grave is long vanished beneath the ice, slowly drifting west – not only carried by the flow of the ice towards the sea, but also by the westward movement of the North American Plate.

A tribute to Alfred Wegener by “The Amoeba People”

Bibliography:

FRANKEL, H.R. (2012): The Continental Drift Controversy, Volume I: Wegener and the Early Debate. Cambridge University Press: 604
YOUNT, L. (2009): Alfred Wegener -Creator of the Continental Drift Theory. Makers of Modern Science Series, Chelsea House Publishers, New York: 160

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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