Unused archival data provide new context for contemporary climate change

Wegener’s century old pioneering field observations from the pre-satellite era of climate change research proves valuable for re-analysis purposes today.

In a digital world, where we have become used to always verify field notes almost instantly remote sensing and climate data, it may seem there might be little use of digging into pre-satellite data. However, if the historical data are of great enough quality, they may still offer us valuable insights, as a new paper published in Scientific Reports shows.

Baptiste Vandecrux and Robert Fausto, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), are co-authors of ‘Learning from Alfred Wegener’s pioneering field observations in West Greenland after a century of climate change’. The authors found a treasure trove of historical data. As the first author, Jakob Abermann, Institute of Geography and Regional Sciences at the University of Graz, says:

“We stumbled over many hundred pages of virtually unused records of measurements and meticulously documented metadata that Alfred Wegener had collected on his Greenland expedition almost a century ago,” Jakob Abermann reports.

Alfred Wegener’s pioneering field notes left largely untouched

The field notes were done by Alfred Wegener during his last expedition to Greenland in 1930-1931. Wegener is famous for his work within geology, but polar meteorology was one of his core interests throughout his professional research career. The motivation for his last field trip was to learn more about weather and climate in Greenland.

“Although Wegener’s field notes and his brother Kurt Wegener’s subsequent documentation are of great quality, they have been used very little for research purposes since,” Baptiste Vandecrux says.

The lack of usage might be linked to the fact that Alfred Wegener did not get to analyse the data himself, as he tragically died during the expedition in November 1930.

“We hope to reintroduce this treasure trove to climate research by presenting the core findings of the Wegener expeditions in a modern perspective. The data have been digitised and are openly available,” Robert Fausto says.

Coincide with the early twentieth century warming period

The researchers analysed Wegener’s documentation on the characteristics of snow, ice and the atmosphere and compared them with current measurements and reconstructions from climate models.

“It is astonishing how well the measurements agree with the modelling in many variables,” says Jakob Abermann.
However, the complexity of local influences is not sufficiently covered. This in turn has implications for calculations on the evolution of glaciers.

“What is exciting for us is that Wegener’s expedition years 1929 to 1931 coincide with an exceptionally warm period, which is hardly backed up with data, particularly in the Arctic. Comparisons with today are therefore particularly relevant”, explains Jakob Abermann.

In 2022, a research team set up an observation network aiming at comparing the measurement results with present-day conditions. The observed glacier has become up to 120 m thinner and retreated by more than two km since Wegener’s time.

As a next step, Jakob Abermann and his team plan to use the data obtained since last year and apply methods of artificial intelligence to determine the drivers of glacier changes. These findings will help to better estimate future changes in ice and climate.


J. Abermann, B. Vandecrux, S. Scher, K. Löffler, F. Schalamon, A. Trügler, R. Fausto, W. Schöner: Learning from Alfred Wegener’s pioneering field observations in West Greenland after a century of climate change, Scientific Reports.
Published 23 May 2023. Go to the publication here, doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-33225-9