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Part 2 of the discovery of Franz Josef Land 150 years ago examines the scientific results of the Payer-Weyprecht expedition, the resulting international polar years and the contributions of Austrian polar research to Franz Josef Land after the end of the Cold War until the opening of the Austrian polar research station "Sermilik" in East Greenland in 2023. Austria's contribution to polar research was and is substantial!

Scientific results of the Payer-Weyprecht expedition

Although the actual goal of the 1872-1874 expedition led by Julius Payer and Carl Weyprecht to reach the Northeast Passage and the North Pole was not achieved, August Petermann’s theory of the open Arctic Ocean could no longer be upheld. The Arctic Ocean around the North Pole was covered by sea ice all year round and could not be reached by ship using the technological means available at the time.

Illustration of an ice-free polar sea according to the theory of August Petermann, Justus Perthes Verlag

However, the expedition discovered Franz Josef Land, the first large land mass in the Arctic in around 300 years of exploration. It was recognised that there was an ocean current running from north-east to south-west. This had an important influence on further expeditions, such as that of Fridtjof Nansen, who in 1892 – 1896 with the Fram – a ship specially designed for ice pressures, similar to the Tegetthoff – utilised precisely these ocean currents to drift slowly from Siberia across the North Pole towards Greenland.

The meteorological measurements taken daily by the Payer-Weyprecht expedition, together with the plumbed water depths and water temperatures, were published for the first time at the Imperial Academy of Sciences, providing clearer insights into the Arctic basin. The northern lights were also observed in conjunction with geomagnetic measurements. Specimens of fish and various marine animals were brought back, which are kept in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Some of them can be seen as part of the special exhibition “Arctic – The Changing Polar World”.

Payer’s maps have redrawn the world in the north. The original of his Franz Josef Land map is kept in the Austrian National Library. Payer’s book about the expedition was published in 1874 and became a bestseller in the monarchy. Payer had made many drawings and sketches, either from the location of the Tegetthoff or during the sledge voyages, which provided the interested public with a more concrete picture of the archipelago. The first globe showing Franz Josef Land was published in 1875.

Follow-up expeditions to Franz Josef Land

Even before Payer and Weyprecht’s discovery, there was probably a report from the Norwegian seal catcher Rönnebeck about a sighting east of Spitsbergen around 1865. However, the exact location was kept secret in order to protect the fishing grounds from competition. There is no clear evidence as to whether it was Franz Josef Land. After Payer and Weyprecht’s expedition, the first expedition to Franz Josef Land was organised six years later, in the summer of 1880, by the Briton Leigh Smith.

Franz Josef Land as a North Pole expedition base; memorial at the wintering place of Nansen and Johansen (Christoph Ruhsam)

Further expeditions by the British and later by the Americans followed. One important expedition was that of Frederick Jackson, 1894 – 1897, who explored and mapped large parts of the archipelago. At the same time, the Norwegian Fritjof Nansen was travelling on the Fram, but its drift did not cross the North Pole. He therefore left the ship with his companion Hjalmar Johansen and attempted to reach the North Pole on foot across the ice using sledges and kayaks. Like Payer and Weyprecht, they had to fight against the strong ocean current, which constantly pushed their route northwards across the ice back southwards. They realised that they could not reach the North Pole this way, as their provisions would not be sufficient and winter was imminent. They began the return journey southwards in the hope of reaching Spitsbergen, as the Fram had drifted on and would have been impossible to find. Towards the end of the Arctic summer, the waterways widened and they paddled on in their kayaks until they reached land. The maps at the time and the estimate of longitude led Nansen to believe that they might be in an unknown part of Franz Josef Land, coming from the north.

They had to spend an entire winter on Jackson Island in a piled-up stone hut covered with walrus skins. An incredible task, as they could only feed themselves by hunting walruses and polar bears. In early summer, they set off further south and unexpectedly met Frederick Jackson at Cape Flora, who greeted the two wild-looking guys with the legendary words: “You must be Nansen”. An event that can only be compared to Stanley finding Livingstone in the depths of Africa. In 1990, Nansen and Johansen’s winter hut was found by a Norwegian-Russian expedition. A commemorative plaque was placed next to the remains. Further expeditions to reach the North Pole followed, but were all unsuccessful. As a result, Franz Josef Land was constantly explored further and the picture of the archipelago was completed.

The International Polar Years

It was crucial for polar research that Weyprecht realised that the many measurements along the drift route were not really scientifically relevant in order to make more holistic statements about the state of the Arctic. What was needed were measurements at fixed locations with the same measuring instruments at the same time of day. This gave rise to his idea of the “International Polar Year”. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the first realisation in 1882 – 1883. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1881. Austria took part in the “First International Polar Year” with measurements on the Arctic volcanic island of Jan Mayen, north of Iceland. Meteorological and geophysical data were collected together with 11 other nations in the polar region over the course of a year.

“But however interesting all these observations may be, they do not possess that scientific value, even if they are supported by a long series of figures, which would have been the case under other circumstances. They only give us a picture of the extreme effects of the forces of nature, but leave us completely in the dark as to their causes.”

Carl Weyprecht

What happened next in Franz Josef Land?

Russia and Norway both showed interest in the archipelago until it was officially claimed by Russia in 1926. From 1912 to 1914, Georgy Sedov led an expedition during which he died, but subsequently established the first Russian polar station on Franz Josef Land in Tikhaya Bay (“Silent Bay”), which he had explored and which operated all year round until 1960. In the peak years of the station, up to 50 people were scientifically active each year, including women such as Demme Nina and Kotovshchikova Natalia for the first time. Between 1936 and 1956, there were also births by women who worked at the station.

In the 1930s, the last attempts were made to reach the North Pole by airship from Franz Josef Land by Umberto Nobile and Graf Zeppelin. From 1931, Russia also began to utilise the area for military purposes and completely sealed it off from the outside world after the Second World War until the end of the USSR in 1989. From 1957, the new research station “Krenkel” on Hayes Island began to replace the old station in Tikhaya Bay.

However, non-Russian expeditions were no longer able to carry out research in Franz Josef Land, meaning that valuable Arctic research was published exclusively by Russian researchers in Russian-language publications. Russia established military stations such as Nagurskoye on Alexandra Island as important defence stations against the West.

The second international polar year 1932 – 1933 was again spent on Jan Mayen by the research team led by Hanns Tollner and Professor Wilhelm Schmidt for 14 months as part of a four-man expedition. The new station was located very close to the old station in the “Wilczek Valley”, named after the main patron of the polar expedition, Graf Hans Wilczek.

Second International Polar Year: Austrian research station on Jan Mayen

Rediscovery of the grave of Otto Krisch

After the collapse of the USSR, it was once again possible for Western expeditions to visit Franz Josef Land from 1990 onwards. In 1990, Susan Barr from the Norwegian Polar Institute reached Otto Krisch’s grave on Wilczek Island for the first time with a Norwegian-Russian expedition. In 1991, the geographer Prof Heinz Slupezky from the University of Salzburg went on an expedition and was the first Austrian to visit the grave after Payer and Weyprecht, without knowing that it had already been discovered in 1990 by Susan Barr and a few days before his arrival by the Ice Sail expedition of the German Arved Fuchs.

In search of the grave of Otto Krisch (Heinz Slupetzky)

Austrian Franz Josef Land research after the end of the Cold War

The Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF financed a total of four large-scale Franz Josef Land expeditions from 1992 to 1994 for the millennium celebrations “1000 Years of Austria” in 1996, from which the film documentary “Arctic Northeast” was created. The aim was to retrace the Payer-Weyprecht expedition in every detail. No expense was spared, Russian nuclear icebreakers were used to reach Franz Josef Land in winter and a full-size replica of the Tegetthoff was even built on site and frozen in the ice for the filming.

The expedition camp was set up on Ziegler Island. The connection to science was part of the project. The petrologist Professor Wolfram Richter from the University of Vienna took over the coordination of the use of the ORF base camp for scientific expeditions. As a result, the Payer-Weyprecht Society for the Promotion of Austrian Polar Research was founded in 1996. An initial idea for a polar station on Jackson Island was drawn up by architect Anton Schweighofer in 1992. After the successful scientific expeditions in various disciplines from 1995 onwards, another expedition was planned for 1997. However, it was not realised due to bureaucratic obstacles on the part of Russia.

During the two years of research, Professor Richter carried out important investigations into the geology of the basalts of Franz Josef Land. Other research groups carried out snow analyses, using Russian helicopters to fly to the individual islands and measure ion concentrations. In comparison with Alpine snow, they recognised the dominance of chloride, which comes from seawater, over nitrate and sulphur ions in the Alps, which originate from human activities. Biological studies were carried out in the lakes during the short Arctic summer. During the very short vegetation period of only one to two months, there is a rapid growth of bacteria and algae. Mapping of vascular plants for species identification was carried out by another research team.

Due to the deterioration in relations between Russia and Austria, the project for an Austrian polar station was not realised. In the International Polar Year 2007 – 2008, it was possible for Austrians to conduct research in Franz Josef Land for the last time. As part of the SMARAGD project by ZAMG (now GeoSphere) and Joanneum Research Graz, Prof Wolfgang Schöner, current director of the Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI, and two other people were able to carry out glacier measurements on Koettlitz Island and on McClintock Island in the footsteps of Payer as part of a tourist expedition. The aim was to analyse the mass balance of the glacier systems and compare it with satellite data for changes since the 2000s. Massive losses were detected, which were depicted in colour on a newly created map.

An outlook for Austrian polar research

On the initiative of Professor Andreas Richter and Professor Wolfgang Schöner, the Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) was founded in 2013 as the successor to the Payer-Weyprecht Society. Since then, the APRI has acted as an umbrella organisation for the coordination of Austrian transdisciplinary polar research by all participating research institutions.

Foundation of the APRI 2013

From 2016, the initiative of Dr Christian Palmers led to the consideration of setting up a polar research station financed by him. Due to the uncertainties in the relationship with Russia, a polar research station in Franz Josef Land was ruled out, which can be considered a wise decision under the current circumstances in Russian-Ukrainian-Western relations. Several locations in Greenland were examined until the Danish station “Sermilik” in East Greenland emerged as the best solution for an extension by Austria.

Long-term glaciological and meteorological measurement records, the location on the large Sermilik Fjord for studying marine ecosystems and the involvement of the local East Greenlandic population in the Ammassalik district are excellent foundations for future-oriented research in all three of APRI’s key disciplines. In 2023, the Austrian Polar Research Station was handed over to the scientific community in a pre-opening ceremony. This will ensure Austrian polar research with international participation in the research projects for the next generation of scientists. What an excellent consequence of Payer and Weyprecht’s daring expedition 150 years ago!

Media information

Written by Christoph Ruhsam.
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About the Author

Christoph Ruhsam is Media Officer of the Austrian Polar Research Institute. He travelled to Franz Josef Land in 2012 and, as a passionate landscape photographer, shares his expedition experiences in the book Frozen Latitudes. In the book, APRI Director Wolfgang Schöner explains the scientific connections between the cryosphere and the climate.

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