Ghost Islands in the Arctic

In 2021, an expedition off the icy North Greenland coast discovered what appeared to be a previously unknown island. Small and gravelly, it was declared a contender for the title of the northernmost known landmass in the world. The discoverers named it Qeqertaq Avannarleq – Greenlandic for “the northernmost island.”

But there was a mystery brewing in the region. Just north of Cape Morris Jesup, several other small islands had been discovered over the decades, then disappeared.

Some scientists theorized that these were rocky banks that had been pushed up by sea ice.


But when a team of Swiss and Danish surveyors traveled north to explore these “ghost islands” phenomenon, they discovered something completely different. The announced their results in September 2022: These elusive islands are actually large icebergs lying on the bottom of the ocean. They probably came from a nearby glacier where other recently calved icebergs, covered in debris from landslides, were ready to float away.

This was not the first such disappearing act in the High Arctic, or the first need to erase land from the map. Almost a century ago, an innovative airborne expedition resumed mapping large swathes of the Barents Sea.

The view from a zeppelin in 1931

The 1931 expedition sprang from American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s plan for a spectacular publicity stunt.

Hearst suggested having Graf Zeppelin, then the world’s largest airship, flew to the North Pole to rendezvous with a submarine that would travel under the ice. This ran into practical difficulties and Hearst abandoned the plan, but the idea of ​​using the Graf Zeppelin to conduct geographical and scientific studies of the high Arctic was taken up by an international polar science committee.

The airborne expedition they envisioned would use cutting-edge technologies and make important geographic, meteorological and magnetic discoveries in the Arctic – including remapping much of the Barents Sea.

The expedition was known as Polarfahrt – “polar journey” in German. Despite the international tensions at the time, the zeppelins carried a team of German, Soviet and American scientists and explorers.

Among them were Lincoln Ellswortha wealthy American and experienced Arctic explorer who wanted to write first scientific report of Polarfahrt and its geographical discoveries. Two important Soviet scientists also participated: the brilliant meteorologist Pavel Molchanov and the expedition’s chief scientist, Rudolf Samoylovich, who performed magnetic measurements. Responsible for the meteorological operations was Ludwig Weickmann, director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Leipzig.

The expedition’s chronicler was Arthur Koestler, a young journalist who would later become famous for his anti-communist novel “Darkness at Noon”, which depicts totalitarianism turning against its own party loyalists.

Built in 1928 and longer than two football pitches, the Graf Zeppelin was normally used for ultra-luxurious commercial passenger transport. Funding for the scientific mission came in part from the sale of postcards with stamps specially issued by the postal authorities of Germany and the Soviet Union.

The five-day trip took them north across the Barents Sea as far as 82 degrees north latitude, then east for hundreds of kilometers before returning to the southwest.

Koestler provided daily reports via shortwave radio that appeared in newspapers around the world.

“The experience of this rapid, silent and effortless ascent, or rather falling into the sky, is beautiful and intoxicating,” Koestler wrote in his 1952 autobiography. “… it gives the complete illusion of having escaped the earth’s gravity.

“We floated in the arctic air for several days, moving at a steady average of 60 miles an hour, stopping frequently in the air to conduct a photographic survey or release small weather balloons. It all had a charm and a quiet excitement that can comparable to a voyage on the last sailing ship in an era of speedboats.”

‘The disadvantage of not existing’

The high latitudes the Polarfahrt passed over were incredibly remote. At the end of the 19th century, Austrian explorer Julius von Payer reported the discovery of Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of nearly 200 islands in the Barents Sea, but initially there had been doubts about the existence of Franz Josef Land.

A map showing Franz Josef Land in relation to Greenland and Russia.

Oona Räisänen via Wikimedia

Polarfahrt confirmed the existence of Franz Josef Land, but it would reveal that the maps produced by the early explorers of the high Arctic had surprising flaws.

For the expedition, the Graf Zeppelin had been fitted with wide-angle cameras that allowed detailed photography of the surface below. The slow-moving Zeppelin was ideal for this purpose and could make quiet surveys not possible from overflights with fixed-wing aircraft.

“We used the rest of [July 27] make a geographical survey of Franz Josef Land, wrote Koestler.

“Our first target was an island called Albert Edward Land. But that was easier said than done, because Albert Edward Land had the disadvantage that he didn’t exist. It could be found on every map of the Arctic, but not in the Arctic itself…

“Next target: Harmsworth Land. As funny as it sounds, Harmsworth Land didn’t exist either. Where it should have been, there was nothing but the black polar sea and the reflection of the white Zeppelin.

“Heaven knows whether the explorer who put these islands on the map (I believe it was Payer) had been the victim of a mirage, mistaking some icebergs for land … At any rate, on July 27 1931, they have been officially erased.”

The expedition would also discover six islands and redraw the coastal contours of many others.

A revolutionary way to measure the atmosphere

The expedition was also notable for the instruments Molchanov tested aboard the Graf Zeppelin – including his newly invented “radiosondes”. His technology would revolutionize meteorological observations and lead to instruments that atmospheric scientists like me rely on today.

Until 1930, measuring the high temperature of the atmosphere was extremely challenging for meteorologists.

Pavel Molchanov and Ludwig Weickmann prepare to launch a weather balloon.
Radiosonde Museum of North America

They used so-called registration of probes who recorded temperature and pressure with a weather balloon. A stylus would make a continuous track on paper or other media, but to read it, scientists would have to find the probe package after it fell, typically drifting many kilometers from the launch site. This was especially impractical in remote areas such as the Arctic.

Molchanov’s device could send back temperature and pressure at frequent intervals during the balloon flight. Today, balloon-borne radiosondes are launched daily on hundreds of stations worldwide.

Polarfahrt was Molchanov’s chance for a spectacular demonstration. The Graf Zeppelin generally flew in the lowest few thousand feet of the atmosphere, but could serve as a platform to release weather balloons that could rise much higher, acting as remote reporting “robots” in the upper atmosphere.

A balloon is launched from under the airship
To launch radiosondes from the zeppelin, weather balloons were weighted to sink initially. The weight was designed to fall off so the balloon could later rise through the atmosphere.
Radiosonde Museum of North America.

Molchanov’s hydrogen-filled weather balloons provided the first observations of stratospheric temperatures near the pole. Remarkably, he found that the air at the pole was actually at altitudes of 10 miles much warmer than at the equator.

The fate of the main characters

Polarfahrt was a final flourish of international scientific cooperation in the early 1930s, a period that saw a catastrophic rise in authoritarian politics and international conflict. By 1941, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany would all be at war.

Molchanov and Samoylovich became victims of Stalin’s secret police. As a Hungarian Jew Bones would have his life and career in the shadow of the politics of the time. He eventually found refuge in England, where he built a career as a novelist, essayist and historian of science.

The giant airship in a hangar with people standing next to it looks very small
The Graf Zeppelin is designed for luxury air travel.

The Graf Zeppelin continued in commercial passenger service, mainly on transatlantic flights. But one of history’s most iconic tragedies soon the era of zeppelin travel ended. In May 1937, the Graf Zeppelin’s younger sister airship, the Hindenburg, caught fire while attempting to land in New Jersey. The Graf Zeppelin was dismantled in 1940 to provide scrap metal for the German war effort.

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This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read original article. Photo: Martin Nissen

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