Polar Podcasts

21: Niels Henriksen: Reaching remote western North Greenland – mapping the Thule region

November 17, 2020 Julie Hollis Season 1 Episode 21
Polar Podcasts
21: Niels Henriksen: Reaching remote western North Greenland – mapping the Thule region
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we hear more from Niels Henriksen, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about geological mapping in remote western North Greenland in the mid 1980s.


21: Niels Henriksen: Reaching remote western North Greenland – north of the Thule region

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

Access to the western part of North Greenland is either from the Thule air base, but this is a little too far south. Otherwise, you could get in, if you could get access, via a Canadian military station called Alert on Ellesmere Island. 

Julie 0:16

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 geological mapping in remote western North Greenland in the mid-1980s.

Niels 0:58

When GGU had er, finished the work in eastern part of North Greenland, there was a big region to the west of that, which was also going to be covered in our one to five hundred thousand scale mapping. There all of the logistics were more or less being a continuation of what we already have done in the Peary Land region.

So we organized ourselves with establishing a new tent base camp, which was placed in a land area called Warming Land. From there you could cover the whole part of western North Greenland and close the open gap we had between what we knew already from the Peary Land region to what was known in the northern part of West Greenland, the Thule region.

When we started there, in 1984, we were in the situation where we already had all the topographical mapping finished. The Geodetical Institute, had finished all their ground control point measurements. Our areal photo interpretation could be continued with a man who did that internally here in GGU. His name is Hans Jepsen. He did continue his interpretation in such a way that all the geologists who worked in this part of western North Greenland were given a topographical map, which was the scale one to a hundred thousand map with contours of about twenty five metres. And at the same time as they got the topographical map, they got a photo interpretation made by Hans Jepsen. So a lot of the features, which were usually made by the field geologists in the field, were already at hand because he have done a fantastic work in the photographical instrument in house. 

We had to work with lower Paleozoic stratigraphy

Julie 2:44

That is sedimentary rocks formed between about 540 and 420 million years ago.

Niels 2:52

Lower Paleozoic biology with lots of fossils and all different fossil groups. Therefore we had specialists involved, specialists in various fossil groups. People who knows about trilobites,

Julie 3:04

Trilobites are an extinct form of arthropod, a phylum that includes insects, spiders, crabs, and centipedes. Trilobites lived in the oceans for almost 300 million years before they became extinct about 250 million years ago.

Niels 3:22

They are the ones to ask if you want to know, know about the stratigraphy in the Cambrian for instance, you had gastropods, 

Julie 3:30

Gastropods are a large class of shelled organisms that include snails.

Niels 3:35

You had trilobites,you had mussels and there was lots of different groups of paleontologists involved. Each group have their own speciality and they know their stratigraphy in such a way, if they have a fossil in their hand they, they can tell the age of it very precisely. Down to where you have a detailed stratigraphy all through the Paleozoic with, I think more than a hundred different stratigraphical levels.

Julie 4:00

This means that the paleontologists are able to finely subdivide the sedimentary rocks into distinct layers based on the fossils they find in each, which tell them exactly their relative sequence of formation through geological time.

Niels 4:14

Of course this has to be also registered in the mapping. They don’t do this in detail in the field. But they do it after coming back. You have fossil groups, which are fossils in mega size, where you can more or less observe the situation in the field because you have the fossils in your hand. And you have microfossils. You have to take samples home and prepare them in the laboratory, evaluating fossil groups and ages. It’s exactly the same you do in, in the field if you work with microfossils then you had to take samples home. A man, who is working with microfossils, takes samples every five, ten metres up through a section. And takes samples in the size of about one to three four kilos from each level, depending on how fine you want to do your detail up through the section. Then getting back in the laboratory, then he dissolve the big samples he have taken home with him. And then he start to look at the fossil content in the binocular microscope. And with his speciality, you could say that this is from level so and so and having this and this age.

So it’s a combination of what you observe in the field and what are the output of the laboratory work you’re doing after coming back.

So, you have one field season with preliminary sampling, preliminary observations. Then you take your material with you back to the laboratory. During the winter you, in the laboratory, can have all the details sorted out by dissolving the samples and looking at the microfossils. Then you know exactly which levels you think you have. Then you can go back and you can take more samples if that’s necessary. Then you know something about which you have a full coverage or whether you have holes in between where you have to get more information. You have approximately one hundred and fifty million years represented in that sequence.

In the western part of North Greenland, there we had to organize ourselves logisticially in a little different way than in the Peary Land region. Access to the western part of North Greenland is either from the Thule airbase, but this is a little too far south. Otherwise, you could get in if you could access via a Canadian military station called Alert on the northernmost part of the island called Ellesmere Island. To obtain possibility to use this Canadian military station, we had to establish contact with Canadian authorities first on the foreign ministry level and later on the direct level of contact to the Canadian military.

So I was involved in writing notes, which were presented to the foreign minister first and then they got in contact with the Canadian authorities. Then it ended up with that I was going to Toronto and Ottawa to have meetings with the Canadian forces headquarter people. And then it ended up with accept that we could get in and use this Canadian military base called Alert, which was only one hours flying distance from where we wanted to establish our basecamp in North Greenland.

We got a situation with the Canadians, which were very fortunate for us. They were very cooperative and we got them to get all our fuel, in to their fuel tanks at Alert. We had to bring in the fuel ourself with our Danish C130 flights. We simply supplemented the fuel system in Alert with what was taken out for our needs. So we got a very flexible system where we could have the heavy aircraft to do the flight between Thule and Alert and then we could use our own Twin Otter to bring fuel in from Alert to northern Greenland.

And then we established a tent base, which was exactly the same as in eastern part of north Greenland in Peary Land. We had tents, which were established for a period of nearly two months. After the summer all the tents were taken back and packed and stayed in the field until next year and then we opened the camp again. We had support by a Twin Otter, a small STOL aircraft,

Julie 8:21

STOL, S-T-O-L, is an acronym for short-take-off and-landing.

Niels 8:27

We had two helicopters there all the time. And we flew up to five hundred helicopter hours in the season with these two helicopters. That was a fantastic amount of support. But of course we had a flying distance from the central part from our basecamp and to the furthest away camps which was one and a half flying hours with a helicopter, so that was quite far away. Therefore we had to establish a lot of small fuel depots around in the field, which was laid out with the Twin Otter. Then the helicopters could fly in to the fuel depots and fuel when they were out in the area close to the camps where they were going to do reconnaissance for the geologists or shifting camps.

In the basecamp we had a situation, working wise, with the two helicopters being stationed there, going out from the basecamp every morning and returning every evening. Sometimes they were staying overnight out in the field but this was planned on beforehand. Sometimes they could stay overnight near to one of the Sirius huts, which are placed various places around in all of North Greenland.

Julie 9:31

The huts established and maintained by the Sirius Patrol – the Danish military patrol in North and Northeast Greenland.

Niels 9:39

All the flight operations we had, both with the Twin Otter and with the helicopters, were followed by our own small radio station. The way we have been working with helicopters both in Northeast Greenland and in North Greenland. At that time there was no radio possibility with Søndre Strømfjord,

Julie 9:57

The American military base and international airport in West Greenland, now known by its Greenlandic name, Kangerlussuaq.

Niels 10:05

There was no satellite connections, for instance, so we had to be in direct HF connection with the helicopters all the time, which meant that we have a radio operator sitting in the, our radio hut from whenever you started in the morning. We had a routine with this radio connection with all the teams. Every morning at 8 o’clock we had a contact with all the teams and then we started flying something like half past eight in the morning. The helicopters and also the Twin Otter were in contact with the radio operator with intervals of twenty minutes. Every time you had flown twenty minutes that you had to report back to the radio station and give your position. We had prepared maps divided into squares so every time you shifted position or at least every twenty minutes, you reported back to the radio operator, which square you were in. It could be X two letters and two ciphers This was simply to have the security for all the operations.

Also with teams, we have the security system built up that any time the radio was open then of course the teams could contact us if there was any problems. Otherwise, we had a routine contact with all the teams, every night at 8 o’clock in the evening. Or if some of the teams had decided to stay away for a longer period, maybe because it was bad weather in the morning and good weather in the afternoon, then teams decided that they want to work out later in the evening. And simply they gave us information about this and then we knew that they were ok. And then they reported in the next morning of course. But anyway, the security was such that we always had good contact with teams at least two times in every twenty four hours. And the same thing with the aircraft, but there the security was much higher and then they had to report every twenty minutes.

Niels 11:54

In the season of 1984, we had a visit of a Minister for Greenland. He came simply to get an impression of how we worked with our geological investigations. And at the same time he was very much interested in making a political point out of visiting an island which is in the middle between Greenland and Canada. This island is called Hans Ø. We should arrange that he should visit this island. He brought with him a flag, Danish flag, which was positioned in the middle of the island simply to mark to the Canadians that this was a Danish island.

Julie 12:31

Hans Island, or Hans Ø in Danish and Tartupalak in Greenlandic, is a tiny island, less than 1 km in diameter, that lies exactly midway between Arctic Canada and northwest Greenland.

Niels 12:44

That was a little problematic because the island was so far away from our base camp that it had more or less to be organized as a special thing. But he insisted that he wanted to visit this island. So we did so. I heard later on that the Canadians visited the island and put a Canadian flag at the place where he had previously put a Danish flag. And we built a small cairn and put a bottle of whisky or cognac in the cairn.

So now we have marked that Hans Island is Danish. But this still has been a controversy about who owns this island. It’s exactly in the middle between. Therefore the authorities now they have reached a conclusion between them that you draw a border line in the middle between the two countries, just in the middle of the sea. Then when the border line meets the Hans Island, the border line stops and then continues to the north of the island again, in the middle between the two areas in the sea. But there is no border line on Hans Ø. This has to be decided later on. 

Julie 13:51

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

Julie 14:02

In the next episode, we hear more from emeritus senior scientist Bjørn Thomassen about working at the Black Angel lead zinc mine in central West Greenland.