Wednesday’s Book Review: “Eismitte in the Scientific Imagination”

EismitteEismette in the Scientific Imagination: Knowledge and Politics at the Center of Greenland. By Janet Martin-Nielson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Eismette means “middle ice” in German, and this book is about the quest to reach that middle point on the Greenland ice sheet and to learn the knowledge that might be gleaned about it. Janet Martin-Nielson has written a fine study of the four major efforts to reach that middle point. Although explorers had been enamored with this location for centuries, the first expedition to reach it was led by the German explorer, Alfred Wegener, who undertook an expedition there in 1930-1931. They came overland using dogs and sledges, established a makeshift camp, and wintered there while taking meteorological readings, ice samples, and other research. They ran out of supplies and Wegener died during the expedition but the harvest of data was very real.

Wegener’s was the last expedition of its type, all that came afterward used motorized vehicles and airplanes to support the effort. With the use of this technology, those efforts yielded massive amounts of scientific data, reduced the risks to members of the research teams, and allowed for the establishment of a near permanent station on the middle ice.

The second expedition, under the leadership of Paul-Emile Victor, the French undertook the Expéditions Polaires Françaises between 1949 and 1953. Using surplus World War II tractors designed for harsh climates the expedition pushed its way to the Eismitte, established one of the more impressive stations in the Arctic, and systematically collected scientific data for years. Resupplied by airdrops Victor’s expedition reaped a treasure of data and reestablished a post-way France which still had designs on maintaining its empire as force to be reckoned with at the Poles.

The third expedition, Project Jello, was operated by the Americans at the Eismitte for several years beginning in 1955. As much as anything this was an offshoot of the Cold War situation, as the Poles became locations of competition and strategic surveillance between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Americans did not so much accommodate to the harsh environment as overcome it with their wealth and their technology. At its height of operations these stations involved several hundred people and data collection emphasized geodetic, magnetic, and other studies that would aid in ballistic missile accuracy. At sum, the American effort was a triumph of technology and logistics, lessons also proved out in Antarctica during this same era and improved upon by all scientific expeditions since that time

The fourth effort was the Expédition Glaciologique Internationale au Groënland between 1956 and 1960. This expanded on the American work, casting it into a larger international context. In very case, the scientific knowledge about this planet, and especially about Polar Regions, expended through this work. As Janet Martin-Nielson concludes that research “from the early days of the first overwinter of the ice sheet in 1930-1931, shed light on the shape, movement, and melt of Greenland’s ice, on the circulation of contaminants through the atmosphere, and on the earth’s climatic past” (p. 122).

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