Many of the early polar expeditions had geographical mapping as the main aim. At the same time they wished to set new ‘furthest north’ records. Natural science research developed fast at the end of the 19th century. The researchers understood that the Polar Regions were very important for studying fundamental natural phenomena. Not least this applied to geophysical subjects such as meteorology, geomagnetism and the northern lights.

Hanna Resvoll Holmsen, early botanist and photographer. Photo Svalbard Museum

In 1879 plans for an international polar year 1882-83’ were made. Eight nations co-operated to establish fourteen different research stations during The Polar Year. Twelve of these stations were situated in the Arctic. Sweden undertook responsibility for the station on Spitsbergen. This was established at Kapp Thordsen on the northern side of Isfjorden, where A.E. Nordenskiöld had already put up a house ten years earlier. Today the building is known as ‘Svenskhuset’. The house was expanded and equipped as an adequate research station for overwintering and making scientific observations. The engineer Salomon August Andrèe led the rebuilding work. The expedition consisted of six scientists under the leadership of the meteorologist Nils Gustav Ekholm. Three Swedish and three Norwegian workers also took part.

The expedition began its scientific work in August 1882. Throughout the entire winter regular observations and measurements were made, usually every hour in accordance with the programme. Scientifically speaking the expedition was a success, and the data records from Kapp Thordsen were of great use to many researchers. One of those who used the data was the Norwegian Kristian Birkeland, who in the years around 1900 worked on his theories concerning the northern lights. The expedition was successful on many levels: no serious illnesses or accidents occurred during the overwintering. This was by no means guaranteed on 19th century expeditions to the Arctic.

50 years later the Second Polar Year was carried out. In Svalbard there was an expedition that undertook geophysical measurements on Nordenskiöldmountain near Longyearbyen. The observation hut is still standing. In 2007-08 it is again time for an ‘International Polar Year’.

By Thor Bjørn Arlov