The history of climatology in the Arctic: German weather stations at Spitzbergen 1941–1945
The overall aim of this new international history of science project is to study the establishment of the science of climatology in the Arctic in the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Arctic weather conditions influence the weather of the temperate regions in various ways. Most depressions affecting northern and western Europe come from the west, originating in high arctic latitudes. Arctic weather has for obvious reasons long been an object of study – for sailors and fishermen working and living in the North, and also for scientists travelling in the area. Strange northern atmospheric phenomena, such as mock suns, mirages and the aurora borealis, and their possible relationship to the weather have also interested many scientists. As early as the mid-16th century the Swedish humanist Olaus Magnus wrote about the se phenomena in his famous Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555). But it was not until the second part of the 19th century that climatology became a scientific discipline, and not until the after the second World War that a permanent weather station network covering the entire Arctic was established.
During the Second World War, Germany was in dire need of reliable Arctic weather information for planning its warfare in all the European theatres of war. One example of the importance of good weather data was when a German weather submarine based in the Atlantic gave the German High Command the weather information needed for determining the time to launch the Ardennes offensive in 1944. The Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe forces based in occupied Norway also needed weather data to know when to attack the Allied convoys going to Murmansk.
Germany, however, lost the Danish and Norwegian radio/weather stations at Greenland, Jan Mayen and Bjørnøya to the Allies in 1941. But when the Canadians evacuated Spitzbergen in the same year, both the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine took the opportunity to establish manned weather stations at remote locations on the islands. Later in the war these manned stations were supplemented by innovative automatic weather stations. The manned naval stations are very interesting objects of study for an historian of science. As the limited German literature on the subject points out, doing polar science was also a task of the stations. The expedition leaders had solid scientific training in disciplines such as geology, zoology and geography. Field research in these subjects was, as in the case of the Unternehmen Haudegen station, even encouraged in the official plan of operations.
The aim of the history of science group that participated in SWEDARCTIC 2000 was to locate and document some of the remains of the German Naval Weather stations on Spitzbergen. Working from the sparse literature on the subject, and complemented by personal contacts with Franz Selinger, a German historian who has worked on the subject for twenty years, we planned to concentrate our fieldwork on the last station, Unternehmen Haudegen of 1944-1945. But due to difficult ice conditions the site could not be visited, so we had to relocate the work to weather stations active further south, to Unternehmen Kreuzritter of 1943-1944, and to the two Unternehmens of Knospe/Nussbaum of 1942-1944.
It was rather difficult to locate the station of Kreuzritter. A search party was sent ashore from the ship and they soon found the grave of the expedition leader Hans Robert Knoespel who accidentally died when he tried to defuse same explosives. About 200 metres from the grave the remains of the station building were then located. The station was hastily abandoned on 1 July 1944, and was later burned by the Germans themselves in September 1944.
A geographic information system was used at the site to measure the entire station area and surroundings, and also for (indicating) pinpointing the most prominent material remains that we managed to identify using old supply lists. We identified some interesting artefacts such as Abwerfbomben (supply bombs), Kraftstoffkanistern (jerry cans), Einheitskisten (standard U-boat provision boxes), a lot of antenna components, some batteries and even an interesting weather instrument – a barograf. These items were digitally photographed.
The next site to be documented was the Winter station of the two Unternehmens Knospe/Nussbaum, active in 1941-1943. Despite the limited time available, the various parts of the station were located and surveyed through the excellent teamwork of the entire expedition crew, including technicians, archaeologists and historians of science. The main camp was documented using the geographic information system while another team documented the other parts of the station, including the nearby site of the automatic weather station. Extensive use was made of digital cameras, geographic information system and the old-fashioned but still useful drawing board.
Although the Allies destroyed the main hut in the summer of 1943, much important material evidence in good condition is still extant, and can be evaluated from different historical perspectives. Complete documentation of this site could provide very important knowledge of how the Arctic German Naval weather-service operations (Die Arktisunternehmen des deutschen Marinewetterdienstes) actually organised their work in the field, and how they designed their stations. Such historical knowledge can only be gained from the documentation work done on the spot at Spitzbergen.
The documentation of the other sites provided much useful information that is now being evaluated. The three-dimensional, digitally constructed geographic information system pictures of the sites have not yet been finished, but they already indicate that the use of the geographic information system in this history of science project is certain to be of great value. With geographic information system programmes, one can make pictures of the station and vicinity that highlight different categories of objects one category at a time. The presence of batteries and radio and antenna components could, for instance, indicate the possible location of the radio room. Such identification is actually much harder to do on the spat because de bris often covers the objects on the site. The geographic information system thus allows the historian of science to concentrate on certain objects that are interesting from his or her particular point of view.
Department of Historical Studies, Umeå University
History of Polar Research, Specialist Group of German Society of Polar Research
Center for History of Science, Royal Swedish Academy of Science
Arlov, Thor B. 1996. Svalbards historie 1596-1996. Oslo: Aschehoug.
Ulvensøen, Jon. 1991. Brennpunkt Nord: Vaertjenstekrigen 1940-45. Försvarmuseets småskrift, 6. Oslo.
Nusser, Franz. 1979. Die Arktisunternehmen des deutschen Marinewetterdienstes in den Jahren 1940-1945. Deutscher Wetterdienst seewetteramt Einzelveröffentlichungen, 96. Hamburg.
Selinger, Franz. 1991. Abriβder Unternehmungen des Marinewetterdienstes in der Arktis 1940-45 nach dem Erkenntnisstand von 1990. Deutscher Wetterdienst seewetteramt Einzelveröffentlichungen, 96 a. Hamburg.