National Geographic : 1956 Jan
Wringing Secrets from Greenland's Icecap In Six Years of Exploration, Daring and Resourceful Frenchmen Map a Lost World Buried Under Thousands of Feet of Ice BY PAUL-EMILE VICTOR 121 Director and Leader, Exp6ditions Polaires Francaises With Illustrations by Expeditions Polaires Franqaises Photographers MANY thousands of years ago, when the great ice desert that covered much of northern Europe, Asia, and America receded, it left behind it a huge wit ness of what that part of the earth looked like: the Icecap of Greenland. Four-fifths of this island, largest in the world, is covered by ice, which gradually so gradually that it is not even noticeable slopes up to a maximum known altitude of nearly two miles. The amount of ice in this enormous dome is almost inconceivable-2.7 million cubic kilometers, or 647,800 cubic miles. Cut up into jumbo-size ice cubes, it would provide a two-ton chunk for every person on earth every minute for a year. If it were spread evenly around the globe, it would envelop the entire world in an ice sheath 17 feet thick. Icecap Affects North Atlantic Weather In 1947, when I started the preparation of my expeditions to study this supermountain of ice-expeditions that were to last until 1953 and be reactivated in 1957-all too little was known of its characteristics and its in fluence on the Northern Hemisphere. The German geophysicist Alfred Wegener had tried, in 1930-31, to solve some of its mys teries. He died there, leaving behind him three scientists in the middle of the icecap. For six months they worked in the worst conditions possible, living in a hole in the snow; one man stayed alone for nearly three more months. They brought back observa tions that gave the scientific world a faint idea of what the icecap is: a huge reservoir of cold which affects the weather of the whole North Atlantic, and a tremendous recording machine of times and climates past. As our French scientific party landed in Greenland on a June day in 1948, many ques tions cried out for answers. With our seismic sounding equipment (pages 130 and 137), we wanted to discover and explore totally unknown plains, plateaus, val- leys, and mountain chains buried under a mile or two of ice. We hoped to find out how such an enor mous refrigerator-600 miles wide and 1,600 miles long-influenced the North Atlantic and the lands around it: populous Europe, Can ada, and the United States. Vast Arsenal of Instruments To do these and many other things, we carried a vast scientific arsenal for our studies. Our program included geodetic survey to "profile" the surface of the icecap; seismic reflection and refraction soundings to do the same for the substratum; measurements of gravity and terrestrial tides; mechanical and thermic borings; atmospheric electricity and atmospheric optics; meteorology, geology, and a dozen other -etries and -ologies. All this, we knew, would take years. We aimed to cover as much of the icecap as we could, and to build a scientific research sta tion right in the middle to be manned for as many years as possible (map, page 130). Greenland ice struck the first blow. It came as we were unloading our supplies at the head of Ata Sound, a fjord in Disko Bay. Suddenly a wave 30 feet high was run ning like a hurricane along the shore. When The Author Years of prewar exploration in Greenland made Paul-Emile Victor an expert on Arctic survival. After the fall of France he came to the United States and enlisted in the U. S . Army Air Corps as a private; he soon won a commission and trained squadrons in special techniques of parachute e rescue in the Arctic. After commanding a pararescue unit in Alaska, he served in Europe with the Ninth Air Force and Air Transport Command. Discharged as a captain after the war, this dynamic Frenchman immediately began organizing the French Polar Expeditions to Greenland-so vividly described in this article-and also to Antarctica. Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd has called Victor "the only man in history to have organized and success fully led two expeditions at the same time at the top and at the bottom of the world." Vilhjalmur Stefansson has referred to him as the "outstanding living active Arctic explorer of the Occidental World."