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SFAR in the service of scientific research

Excerpt from: Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research, 1939 to 1970. Published in Zurich in 1972


Research into glaciers has a long tradition in Switzerland. The phenomenon of the ice ages has continued to fascinate researchers and the general public alike. The expansion and disappearance of glacier “tongues” has troubled farmers from time immemorial, as reported in the Vrenelisgärtli myths and the legends about the devastation of once-fruitful Alps by the advance of glaciers.


Annual measurements have been carried out on the Rhone glacier for more than a century and have provided a vast amount of data, some of which is only now being analysed scientifically. Over the decades, measurements of the changes in the glacier tongues have developed into investigations into the water content in glaciers and corn snow. The study of water balance was necessary in order to acquire reliable information for the technical design of the large Alpine dammed reservoirs. Surface measurements on glaciers were no longer good enough for these technically-oriented tasks; the designers needed details about the volume of ice, the annual increase in corn snow, the outflow of water and the speed with which the ice is flowing. They wanted models that would allow them to calculate the multi-layered relationships involved in the water balance from their measurements. Researchers had to develop new measuring techniques in order to solve this range of tasks. The search for conformity of the changes in the glaciers with natural laws required comparative observations to be made in the polar regions and in the glacier regions of non-Alpine high mountains. In view of all these requirements, glaciology fitted outstandingly well within the scope of the Foundation. The Foundation’s support for research into glaciers began with the two Baffinland expeditions in 1950 and 1953, organised by the Arctic Institute of North America under the leadership of Col. Patrick D. Baird. Both of these expeditions included a Swiss working group equipped by the Foundation. In 1950, Hannes Mülli, Hans Röthlisberger and Franz Elmiger were actually engaged as mountain climbers, but geophysicist Hans Röthlisberger grasped the outstanding opportunities offered by the highland glaciation of the arctic island for glaciological investigations. When the second expedition to explore the Penny Icecap in Baffinland was being planned three years later, Röthlisberger equipped a working group with the intention of using seismic methods to measure the thickness of ice at the edge of the ice cap at various locations along an outflow glacier of about 20 kilometres in length. It was planned that the working group should be dropped by a ski plane on the ice cap in the spring, and that their equipment and the necessary explosives would later be transported in stages on hand-drawn sledges over the glacier to the base camp.


There were four Swiss nationals in the 1953 team. Under the leadership of Hans Röthlisberger, engineer Hans Weber took on the responsibility for the technical maintenance of the sensitive devices. The work physiologist Jürg Marmet was responsible for measuring tasks. Botanist Fritz Hans Scbwarzenbach worked as an explosives assistant before the snow melted, and later collaborated with other participants on botanical investigations. The scientific results obtained by the working group were published in several publications.


The Foundation has made another contribution to the support for glacier research, by providing financial support to the international Greenland expeditions EGIG I and EGIG II. Under the leadership of the French polar explorer P. E. Victor, these expeditions were concerned with the investigation of the inland ice in Greenland. In this case, questions relating to snow metamorphosis, ice balance, surface measurement of the inland ice and the dating of certain ice layers were at the forefront of consideration. The technical organisation of this international research programme lay in the hands of the French; these expeditions continued over several years, and resulted in valuable experience relating to expeditions technique, as well as scientific results. They showed how tracked sledges, surface planes, helicopters and modern measuring and adhesive methods can be employed in modern polar expeditions. Most of the costs of the Swiss participants in this research programme were paid by the Swiss National Fund. The Foundation contributed financially to the first project and provided a bridging loan so that Swiss participants could be included in Project EGIG II.


The scientific works of the Swiss participants were published in the official series of publications issued by the EGIG. They are associated with the names of Marcel de Quervain, Robert Haefeli, Hans Peter Kasser, Fritz Kobold and Andre Renaud.


Just as the Foundation gave financial support to the EGIG programme in recognition of the efforts of Swiss experts to collaborate in international research projects, so was the main aim in subsequent years to support young academics in the field of glaciological research. Comparative work in other regions of the Earth is of particular value for the training of researchers in the geographically-oriented sciences. For this reason, well-qualified specialist students were helped to take part in polar expeditions or on research trips to the Himalayas and the African mountains.


A typical example of the way in which the Foundation took on the support of young academics in the field of glaciology is that of Fritz Müller, who was appointed as Professor of Geography at the ETH in 1970. He travelled to the Arctic for the first time in 1952, as assistant to the geologist Erdhart Fränkl. As part of the Danish expedition to east Greenland under Lauge Koch, he addressed himself to geomorphological investigations in Crown Prince Christian’s Land, which lies at a latitude of 80 degrees north. In the following year, he again accompanied Erdhart Fränkl, as he crossed Peary Land (see Mountains of the World, Vol. XII, 1958/59). Later, he worked on a dissertation about the remarkable peri-glacial phenomenon of the "Pseudovolcano" (Pingos).


In the meantime, preparations were underway in Switzerland for the Everest Expedition planned for 1956, under the leadership of Albert Eggler. Funds were released for a glaciological-geomorphological investigation of the Khumbu glacier on Mount Everest. Fritz Müller was entrusted with this work, which could be viewed as scientific reconnaissance. He later set down in manuscript form the results of his investigations, which should be regarded as pioneering work, and the Foundation made a financial contribution to the completion of this work.


Having benefited from unusually rich experience of expeditions, gained during his activities in the American Arctic, Greenland and in the Himalayas, and a long period of work at the Institute for Hydrology and Glaciology at the ETH, Fritz Müller was appointed leader of the McGill University Expeditions to Axel-Heiberg Land. The exploration of this island in the far north of the north American archipelago was prompted by the Canadian entrepreneur Jacobsen.

Specialists from McGill University and the Arctic Institute of North America in Montreal carried out the scientific investigations. Whether in his position as permanent expedition leader, as co-ordinator of the scientific activities or later as Professor of Glaciology in the Department of Geography at McGill University, Fritz Müller has made a personal effort to offer a whole series of young Swiss people a chance to benefit from further training. The Foundation has supported him in this effort by granting travel bursaries to Swiss participants, and by procuring and despatching special items of equipment. About a dozen students of the natural sciences at various Swiss universities took part in the Axel-Heiberg-Land expeditions, including Otto Hegg, Albert Maag, Hans and Jakob Weiss, Jürg Leisinger and Karl Schroff.


As part of the Axel-Heiberg expedition in 1961, Eduard Leuthold and Jürg Marmet climbed a series of attractive mountains for the first time. These were part of a range of mountains that has since become known as the Swiss Range, located on the western side of the island. The highest summit in the range has been officially named as Foundation Peak, in honour of the support provided by the Foundation for Alpine Research.

Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research . Schweizerische Stiftung für Alpine Forschung . Fondation Suisse pour Recherches Alpines . Fondazione Svizzera per Ricerche Alpine