Polar Podcasts

07: Niels Henriksen: Lifting the ‘iron curtain’ on geological mapping in Northeast Greenland

August 18, 2020 Julie Hollis
Polar Podcasts
07: Niels Henriksen: Lifting the ‘iron curtain’ on geological mapping in Northeast Greenland
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we hear more from Niels Henriksen, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about the late 1960s, when the survey embarked on an ambitious and very successful campaign of systematic geological mapping in remote east Greenland, a completely different undertaking from their work on the west coast. 


07: Niels Henriksen – Lifting the ‘iron curtain’ on geological mapping Northeast Greenland

Based on interviews held on September 26–27, 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark

Note: Polar Podcasts are designed to be heard. If you are able, please listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that is not evident in the transcript.


Niels 0:01

The dispute between Lauge Koch group and the Danish group from the Geological University here in Copenhagen, was mainly because they accused each other for not handling things in a scientific way. So therefore, there was simply an iron curtain between the west and the east in Greenland for a period of nearly twenty years.

Julie 0:22

Welcome to Polar Podcasts, where you’ll hear stories from geologists who’ve spent their careers, their lives, exploring and studying the remarkable and remote geology of Greenland. Why did they become fascinated with Greenland? What were the problems and the discoveries that drove them? And what was it like working in these remote places, where few people venture, even now? I’m Julie Hollis.

In this episode, we hear more from Niels Henriksen, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about the late 1960s, when the survey embarked on an ambitious and very successful campaign of systematic geological mapping in remote East Greenland, a completely different undertaking from their work on the west coast.

Niels 1:12

In 1967, we started to work in East Greenland, besides the work that we had done up to that time that was mainly concentrated on West Greenland, a little bit on North Greenland. Up to that time we didn’t work in East Greenland. The reason for that was that some previous geologists working in north and East Greenland have been doing the preliminary work there. The group was led by a geologist called Lauge Koch, the former polar explorer and he was the first who ever did both topographical and geological mapping in the northern part of North Greenland. He started there as a very young man, about 1920. In the early 30s, he started also to work in the northern part of Northeast Greenland.

He was a very successful polar explorer and he got a lot of money from the Danish state to do part of the work in East Greenland. At that time there was a dispute between the Danes and Norwegians about North Greenland, whose territory that was. The Norwegians claimed that they had the right to part of Northeast Greenland. There was an international process in Hague in 1933 and because Lauge Koch already at that time had done a lot of work, then it was finally decided by the international court that northeast Greenland belonged to Denmark.

After this decision in the international court, Lauge Koch was allowed a lot of money from the Danish state, so he started general systematic mapping in the northern part of East Greenland. This continued after the Second World War.

Unfortunately there was a dispute between the Lauge Koch group and the Danish geologists who have previously been working in West Greenland. They came from Copenhagen University and from the Geological Museum. The dispute between Lauge Koch group and the Danish group from the Geological University in Copenhagen, was mainly because they accused each other for not handling things correctly in a scientific way. Therefore there was simply an iron curtain between the west and the east in, in Greenland, for a period of nearly twenty years.

This meant that GGU

Julie 03:34

GGU – the Geological Survey of Greenland

Niels 03:37

didn’t get a possibility to work in East Greenland because this was already being included in the Lauge Koch group’s work. In 1958, Lauge Koch didn’t get his allowances from the Danish state prolonged. There was a dispute between him and the Minister for Greenland and therefore they simply closed the money for him and this meant their investigations stopped.

They had at that time already quite a lot of information about the central part of East Greenland from the seventy two north, where we had an airport called Mestersvig, and then up to about seventy eight north, which is about five, six hundred kilometres further north.

Lauge Koch, he died in 1964 and after his death, then negotiations started again between the Greenland geologists, mainly represented by the people from the Copenhagen University, the Greenland Geological Survey, and part of the people from, from the Geological Museum. It was decided that GGU should continue work in East Greenland to succeed what was done by the Lauge Koch group previously. And this meant that from 1967 it was possible for GGU to start work in East Greenland. Stuart, one of my colleagues,

Julie 04:58

Stuart Watt, who started working with the Geological Survey of Greenland in 1958.

Niels 05:05

and myself, got the possibility to make the first small reconnaissance job in central East Greenland in a large fjord region called Scoresby Sund. There we went with a small boat, Jytte, around in the fjord for one and a half months going all around the area simply to give us a possibility to learn a bit about the practical situation with the, the deep fjords and the long distances and the high mountains and lots of icebergs.

It was a completely different situation from the work we were used to in West Greenland. So in that summer, one and a half months, Stuart and I covered the whole of the Scoresby Sund region, sailing around in a small motor boat where we could only be four people. There was a skipper and a Greenlander who was our general assistant, and then the two geologists – Stuart and myself. We made a reconnaissance sailing around the fjord, which was in an east-west dimension, two hundred and fifty kilometres in width and about one hundred and fifty kilometres in north-south direction. The mountains there are up to nearly three kilometres in height. So it’s very different from West Greenland. And there’s lots of glaciers and there’s lots of icebergs in the fjords. It’s fantastically spectacular.

And the situation in East Greenland is, weatherwise, very different from West Greenland. The low pressure which is very frequent passing West Greenland is not nearly as frequent in the east. Therefore you have very frequently, very fine weather during the whole season, which meant that you could work there full time. And of course you know to the north of seventy north, which is the southern level of Scoresby Sund region, we have daylight twenty four hours a day all through the summer.

After the first reconnaissance in 1967, we got agreement on that we should start a complete new project, which should be a five year project based on sending out a large expedition group with geologists and people supporting the geologists and it would be supported with helicopters. We got money for that, which was more or less doubling the GGU budget. All the work we had in west Greenland continued unlimited, as it was before, and we got a new sum of money, which allowed us to start the work in the east coast.

We got money enough to hire a polar ship, an icebreaker type, which was equipped with two helicopter platforms. So we had the ship with two small helicopters and we took the expedition group with everybody, all participants on board the ship and sailed across to East Greenland over the Atlantic. And then we worked in the fjords for one and a half months, nearly two months with the ship staying there as a floating base for us. The two helicopters, they were supporting people in the inland area, which was people working in the crystalline rocks

Julie 08:05

That is the igneous and metamorphic rocks

Niels 08:08

and in the same time there was a group of people working in the so-called Jameson Land area, which is a sedimentary sequence, Mesozoic deposits and sediments.

Julie 08:19

These are sedimentary rocks formed between about 250 and 66 million years ago.

Niels 08:25

So that was a very efficient and effective way to work because we always had the base with us, just outside the working area. So the flying time with the helicopters from the ship in to the working areas were usually less than twenty minutes to half an hour. So it was very short distances. And then of course, it was very convenient with the ship because you had all your equipment and everything which was necessary for the field camps. The field work was more or less the same routine as we have used in the west coast. Geologists were working in two-man camps and they were shifted with intervals between five and eight days. Every time they had a visit by the helicopters, they got what we call reconnaissance hours, which meant that they could fly around in their own areas, visiting points or areas which were difficult to access. In the Jameson Land area, where the sedimentologists were, it was easy ground because they could walk more or less all over. Whereas in the inner part of the fjord it was high and mountainous and lots of glaciers and therefore it was necessary to have the helicopters to lift you around.

The geologists who took part in this work in central East Greenland, the Scoresby Sund region, were divided in two groups. One were the people working in the inland area with crystalline rocks.  They were more or less people who were, apart from old, hands from West Greenland, they were people which was contacted via our former connections with geologists in Switzerland from universities in Zurich, Basel, Bern, Lucerne, and from some British universities. And in contrast to that, we had a complete different situation in the sediment areas because there we started to establish a connection with a group at the institute for historical geology and paleontology at Copenahgen University. That was led by Professor Tove Birkelund, who previously have worked with GGU in central West Greenland in the Nuussuaq region. She was a student of Professor Rosenkrantz, who at the same time has personal experience from his early work in East Greenland. So he knew a lot about what was necessary to be prepared to work in East Greenland.

Tove Birkelund, got a group of paleontologists and stratigraphers, mainly Danes. They were mainly elder students, who worked for her at the university and many of them finished their work in the few years after they started and got their PhDs. So all the names we put on this group today are Danish names, who are making the nuclei of what is at Copenhagen University today in paleontology and sedimentology. Whereas the  people who have been working with the crystalline rocks are mainly associated with the group who worked in West Greenland. But in East Greenland the geology of the crystalline areas is very much different from, from West Greenland because in East Greenland it’s part of the Caledonian fold belt.

Julie 11:37

The Caledonian Fold Belt is an ancient mountain range, formed about 400 million years ago when Scandanavia and east Greenland collided.

Niels 11:46

The Caledonian Fold Belt is very much younger than any of the crystalline areas, which GGU had mapped in West Greenland.

After we have finished the first year with the ship, which was a Norwegian seal-hunt boat, a former polar ship owned by a Danish shipping company called Lauritzen. This Norwegian ship was a little than the ones we have got the two next years. The reason we got bigger boats the next two years was that the Danish owner of the shipping company, felt that it was necessary with a Danish expedition that they should use Danish ships. Therefore he offered us one of his bigger boats for that, and offered us a price which we were able to pay. But really it was a ship which nearly should cost maybe half the time more than we have paid for the first the first year. And this meant that we got ships from this shipping company for two more seasons. The Lauritzen boat we got first, the bigger one, we got that in 69, and then the last year we had the Lauritzen boat, that was in 1970. These two boats we got were bigger and more comfortable than the one we got in the beginning, but still it was the same basic equipment. 

Niels 13:03

All the mapping work we did in the Scoresby Sund region, we were able to compile sixteen geological maps in scale one to a hundred thousand. When I say in one to a hundred thousand, it must be taken with a knowledge about the detail we were able to do in the east coast mapping. That was different, very much different, from what we did in West Greenland because in West Greenland, we were able to walk more or less over the complete ground and cover this in much greater detail than we were able to do in, in East Greenland. So therefore our one to a hundred thousand maps in East Greenland are not as detailed as the hundred thousand maps in West Greenland.

In 1970, we had an overall impression of Greenland geology so that we were able to publish a map of all of Greenland in scale of one to two and a half million. And at that time GGU was really having a fantastic situation internationally because knowledge about Greenland geology was widespread in western European countries and in northern America as well, Canada, USA. And you know we have a book.

Julie 14:10

The book is called The Geology of Greenland.

Niels 14:13

This was published then in 1976, being edited by two of the people who are still here. Stuart is still here. Arthur is in Switzerland. He became professor in Switzerland at Lausanne University. All the people who had been cooperating with GGU for a number of years, supplied information for this book. And this book has still fantastic value, I think.

Julie 14:38

I’m Julie Hollis and you’ve been listening to Polar Podcasts.

Julie 14:49

In the next episode, we hear more from Emeritus Professor Brian Upton about his early Greenland research when the theory of plate tectonics was first being developed.