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Since the approval of WEG_Re (Centennial Climate Drivers of Glacier Changes in Greenland) by the Austrian Science Fund FWF in November 2021, the APRI team of the University of Graz together with the Know Center Graz has been working on this very extraordinary re-search project in Greenland. In this article, we summarize the way to approval, the lessons learned, the effort of implementation and the setbacks, but also the motivation behind it. In the second part, we report on the first results.

The WEG_Re project team. (© P. Wally)

Background to the project

The project had its beginnings during my introductory lecture in Graz in May 2019. At that time, I attempted to present my previous research and provide an outlook on the direction it could take in the future. As one of my concluding thoughts, I briefly mentioned stumbling upon the expedition reports from Wegener’s final Greenland expedition, of which a complete edition is available at the library of the University of Graz (for information on the historical expedition, see here). I mentioned that there seemed to be a natural connection for someone with ties to Graz, who works extensively in Greenland, and that this connection likely arose from the exceptionally warm conditions of the early 20th century. At that time, I was peripherally acquainted with Andreas Trügler; unfortunately, he was unable to attend the lecture that evening, but he heard about my comment and the next day, I received one of those motivational emails in my inbox, which said: Jakob, this is fascinating, I have a passion for old, wild expeditions – let’s discuss if we can collaborate on something together.

Thus, the project framework was established with the following pillars: enthusiasm for the Arctic, the warm phase of the early 20th century, extensive and high-resolution glaciological and meteorological measurements, and the idea of linking these data with modern artificial intelligence (AI) methods. On one hand, this would provide a new tool for investigating non-linear glaciological processes, and on the other hand, it would offer the unique opportunity to analyze high-resolution historical and modern AI training data from the same location.

A few weeks later, we had a preliminary draft, and after many iterations, a submission-ready proposal. Anyone who has gone through this process knows the phase of anxiety and hope. Therefore, the rejection and the feeling of starting from scratch were a strong disillusionment. However, we quickly regrouped and were repeatedly encouraged by the reality check that we viewed the idea, the underlying data, and the strong team as an extremely favorable starting point. With improvements based on the reviewers’ comments, we succeeded on our second attempt.

Planning the fieldwork and preliminary work

After receiving the approval, intensive months of preparation followed, including recruiting the two project employees, selecting and purchasing equipment, packing, shipping, and much more. In fact, most of my working time in the first year was dedicated to simple planning and logistics, which is often surprising for outsiders who might expect it to be more focused on the scientific aspects. At times, I wondered why I wasn’t researching something more tangible. The aftermath of the Corona pandemic didn’t make it any easier: supply shortages made the ablation sensors specially developed for our purposes by our technician Benjamin Schrei a close call, which we temporarily lost faith in. Acquiring and testing the measuring instruments was also a challenging task, but it worked because we had optimal support from our administration team. By early May 2022, the pallets were packed, the shipping company was hired, and a lingering feeling of unease remained, wondering if some essential components had been left behind.

Our expedition equipment a) in Graz, b) in Uummannaq, and c) during shipping. In total, we had approximately one ton of material. (© P. Wally)

One particularly memorable experience during this initial phase was a brief visit to the archive of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, where some of the original documents are preserved. We received competent assistance and had the opportunity to hold handwritten notes from expedition members. We learned a lot about the background of the historical expedition, which was crucial for a thorough understanding of the initial conditions.

To be as well-prepared as possible for the dangers and requirements of the ice, we also conducted a rope technique exercise in the climbing garden before the first expedition. With our team member Andreas, who is not only a scientist but also the deputy state leader of the Styrian Mountain Rescue, we had a highly experienced instructor.


Two exciting and intense fieldwork campaigns have followed since then. In the summer of 2022, we had our first intensive mission, where we finally got to experience the area, which we had only known from Google Earth and old photos, in reality. After an idyllic Nordic midsummer celebration in the heart of Copenhagen, we gradually moved north, and the journey to Uummannaq went smoothly without any significant delays. A few days of logistical fine-tuning on the picturesque island followed, and we were consistently accompanied by tremendously supportive locals. When a friendly pensioner heard that most of us had never tried lumpfish caviar, a kilogram was promptly delivered to us, which we joyfully consumed before relying on trekking food and generously rationed Parmesan for a few weeks.

The approach to our base camp was particularly impressive: passing steep granite walls, the village at the end of the world – Ukkusissat – glaciers that until a few years ago reached the sea, and finally the abandoned Maarmorilik mine. With our nearly one-ton heavy equipment, we relied on a transport boat provided by the seemingly frail but incredibly strong Greenlandic fisherman, Siimmi. He effortlessly handled every heavy crate, always finishing with one of the few English adjectives he knew, “easy”.

The study area in Greenland. a) Overview of Greenland and the snow and firn measurement positions from Wegener’s expedition; b) the transect between the coast and the center of the ice sheet (Eismitte – EM) including the firn density locations from later expeditions; c) the region near the coast; d) the Qaamarujup Sermia with glacier margins at different time points (colored lines), a longitudinal profile (black line), the weather stations Fjordstation (FS) and Weststation (WS), and the approximate locations of ablation stakes (red dots). (© Abermann et al. 2023)

The following 10 days were dedicated to the implementation of our ambitious field plan, although not everything worked out as hoped due to the scale of this project. However, in the end, we had a good overview of the study area and collected some interesting data. We were impressed by Wegener and his team’s achievements. Occasionally, we stumbled upon artifacts left by our great predecessors – from shovel and fence remnants to spark plugs, we encountered a variety of items. Unfortunately, the helicopter charter, which was important for the project, could never be carried out. Air Greenland lived up to its reputation for unpredictability (with a smirk, it is often called the “Immaqa Airline” in Greenland, meaning “Maybe Airline”). After countless satellite phone conversations, they left us standing in the fjord. Luckily, Siimmi and the boat company did not. Tired and exhausted, we went our separate ways a few weeks later, eagerly awaiting the time to work with the data. The absence of the top meteorological station due to the lack of air support continued to bother us. Fortunately, with the support of our good Danish partners, we were able to solve the problem, and by the end of August, it was finally in place.

Unfortunately, we soon realized that the data was being only partially collected as desired. As the winter progressed, it became clear that to answer our questions, we needed a short but crucial spring expedition. This led to another intensive planning phase, which was relatively simple this time due to the shorter field period and smaller team size. Andreas and I spent an exciting week in the field in April, which demanded a lot of improvisation. Originally, everything was planned with skidoos across the sea ice. However, on the way to the airport, a friend who frequently works in Uummannaq sent alarming posts from the local police, informing us that the sea ice was no longer passable due to an early warm air intrusion. We briefly considered whether we should do the field work at all, and there were several twists and turns. Eventually, the possibility of a helicopter charter emerged. One can easily imagined that a limited project budget always poses significant challenges in such situations. We have been fortunate to receive generous support from the University of Graz and the Know Center in various contexts, both of which have supported our project with internal resources. However, for logistical reasons, we had only a 24-hour window that needed to be well-utilized. The conditions were generally good but very challenging, especially in the upper part of the monitoring network. We were able to visit both weather stations and get them to work again, which was a great relief. We also performed maintenance and replaced some of the installed sensors. Exhausted, after only a few hours of sleep and covering many vertical meters, we hurried back to the depot to pack up as the helicopter blades started spinning. It was another close call after a challenging operation. In this regard, the warm welcome by our friend in Uummannaq and the prepared reindeer stew with red wine was an almost surreal conclusion.

The Film Crew

The collaboration with our film team in the summer of 2022 was highly enjoyable and built on a long-standing friendship with director Stefan Fauland. Stefan managed to create such a professional yet pleasant atmosphere during every interview and sound recording that we completely forgot about the filming process. This allowed us to work and discuss in a very relaxed manner. Our cameraman, Patrick Wally, had a keen eye for the surroundings and was often the first to spot the historical remnants of Wegener’s expedition, as well as snow hares, arctic foxes, and the fin whale that visited us almost daily in the fjord. Sometimes, when we stayed longer at the glacier and returned to camp late in the evening, the film team had already prepared dinner and boiling water for us. If we had the opportunity, we would take Stefan and Patrick with us on every expedition – and not all scientists can say that about their media companions.

Qaamarujup Glacier captured by the Wegener expedition in 1930 (a) and by us in the summer of 2022 (b).

A slightly modified version of this article will be published in GeoGraz, the journal of the Institute of Geography and Regional Science (Institut für Geographie und Raumforschung).

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