UM “Greenland Expedition” creates first polar weather station

The following article initially was published in the Spring 1990 edition of the “Mott Exchange,” a quarterly newsletter of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Although the Foundation made relatively few grants for environmental purposes in its early years, the “Greenland Expedition” grant confirms Mott’s willingness early on to consider projects with both environmental and international implications. Since 1987, that pattern began to change significantly with the growing realization that many environmental challenges facing the United States are international in scope, as illustrated in the Foundation’s latest annual report: Toward Sustainability: Helping communities engage with and protect the environment.

Buried within the University of Michigan’s (UM) archives, a copy of the November 1928 edition of The Michigan Alumnus unlocks the tale of the Mott Foundation’s first international and first environmental grant — $500 — for the University’s “Greenland Expedition.”

One of many contributors underwriting the expenses of this scientific expedition, the Foundation provided support for a third trip in 1928 to a meteorological station established at the head of Sondre Stromfjord in Greenland by UM scientists.

Like the first and second expeditions, this trip took place during the summer months; though, as in the case of the 1927 expedition, a winter party was left at the base to continue systematic meteorological and aerological observations throughout the year.

According to William H. Hobbs, a university professor and director of the third expedition, the primary objective of the expeditions was to study air circulation patterns on the margin of the Greenland ice cap by means of balloons and kites.

During the summer of 1928, the research team was able to record such important meteorological elements as air pressure, temperatures, and humidity across the ice cap via airplane, when Hobbs was able to convince a flight crew to stop for refueling in Greenland. The flyers hoped to chart a “Greenland-Iceland” route that would help “solve the problem of airplane communication between America and Europe,” Hobbs wrote. Known as the “Rockford” flyers, the crew overshot their landing field, landing instead on an ice cap about 70 miles away. Their rescue and the subsequent shipwreck of the rescue party made front-page news back in the United States. Undaunted, the crew vowed to repeat the flight the following summer. Although Hobbs was unsure as to exactly how long he could keep the weather station open, at least one additional expedition to Greenland was taken in 1929.

“Already so much attention has been focused (sic) upon Greenland and so much weight given to its indications with respect to weather over much wide regions that several European nations are now considering setting up similar weather stations at other points in Greenland,” Hobbs wrote.

He noted that Germany had firm plans in place for the erection of two such stations the following year, and the director of the German expedition had appealed to the University to continue operation of its station through 1929-30 for “simultaneous observations.”

One final note: the cost for all three expeditions, including the erection of a radio tower and semi-permanent campsite, was $45,000.