Early Exploration of Axel Heiberg Island

Axel Heiberg Island, in Canada’s high Arctic, Nunavut, was discovered by Otto Sverdrup during his Norwegian Polar Expedition of 1898-1902. The island was named for Axel Heiberg, a Norwegian diplomat and financier who funded the expeditions of Sverdrup and Nansen, as well as the development of the brewery founded by the Ringnes brothers (see the names of the islands to the southwest of Axel Heiberg Island!)

Peary and Cook were brief visitors to the island. D.B. Macmillan made more extensive journeys around the coast in 1916-17, as did Stallworthy and Hamilton of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1932 and Haig-Thomas in 1938, but its interior was all but unknown until the first systematic aerial photography in the late 1940s.

No material of real glaciological value has been found in the published accounts of the early explorers, although their archives, such as Sverdrup’s at the National Archives of Canada and Macmillan’s at Bowdoin College, remain to be searched.

Early Aerial Surveys

The U.S. Army Air Force’s Operation Polaris yielded extensive, but not cloudless, coverage of Axel Heiberg Island by oblique air photos in 1947 and 1948. This oblique coverage was repeated and completed under better conditions by the Royal Canadian Air Force during 1950-1953.

This photograph is the first known image, from August 1948, of Thompson Glacier (right) and White Glacier (left centre) in the Expedition Fiord area of Axel Heiberg Island. The photography of 1947 to 1953 seems to be the dawn of recorded history as far as Axel Heiberg Island glaciers are concerned.

Geological Survey of Canada

The first scientific investigations were conducted in the 1950s. In 1955 two geologists of the Geological Survey of Canada, N.J. McMillan and Souther, traversed the interior as part of Operation Franklin. McMillan’s observations of Bunde Glacier, in northwest Axel Heiberg Island, are the earliest glaciological observations on the ground to have found their way into a scientific publication (McMillan, N.J., 1998, Observations of the terminus of Bunde Glacier, Axel Heiberg Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1955 and 1983, Arctic, 51, 55-57).

1959 Reconnaissance Year

In 1959 Fritz Müller, assisted by Peter Adams who was then beginning graduate studies at McGill University, conducted a reconnaissance of the Expedition Fiord (previously Sør Fjord or South Fiord) area of central Axel Heiberg Island. They installed the first stakes of the mass-balance measurement networks on White and Baby Glaciers, the former named for its colour and the latter for the birth of Müller’s daughter. The reconnaissance set the stage for the Jacobsen-McGill Arctic Research Expedition, a scientific venture having broad interests across the natural sciences with a concentration on glaciology. It was based at what became the McGill Arctic Research Station at Colour Lake, near the terminus of Thompson Glacier.

Jacobsen-McGill Arctic Research Expedition

The years of most intense Expedition activity were 1960 to 1962, although scientific work has continued at the Research Station until today. In each of 1960 and 1961 the personnel of the Expedition numbered more than 20. The work done during those early years led to publications in botany, cartography, geology, geomorphology, geophysics, limnology and meteorology in addition to the glaciological studies which were the focus of the expedition leader and principal investigator, Fritz Müller. Coordinated work in aerial photography and photogrammetry, ground survey and cartography had particularly durable results as far as later research was concerned. Maps of the terminuses of White Glacier, Thompson Glacier and Crusoe Glacier, and of Baby Glacier in its entirety, were published at a scale of 1:5,000. Other maps were published at scales of 1:10,000 (White Glacier; two sheets), 1:50,000 (Thompson Glacier region) and 1:100,000 (Expedition Fiord area).

The programme of glaciological measurement and investigation was maintained by the Centre for Northern Studies and Research, McGill University, Montreal, which published a series of “Axel Heiberg Island Research Reports” containing much of the scientific contribution made by the Expedition. Responsibility for the programme was later transferred to Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Zurich, to which institution Müller moved in 1970. Among glaciologists who were trained or who worked on Axel Heiberg Island during the 1960s and 1970s are Peter Adams, Keith Arnold, Heinz Blatter, Roger Braithwaite, Almut Iken, Atsumu Ohmura, Simon Ommanney, Koni Steffen and Gordon Young. For example Simon Ommanney’s glacier inventory of Axel Heiberg Island was one of the first to be completed for a region of substantial size; while Heinz Blatter drilled several holes to the bed of White Glacier, thus verifying geophysical estimates of its thickness and showing that it is a polythermal glacier; Atsumu Ohmura developed a pioneering model of microclimatic interactions between surfaces of glacier ice, tundra and sea ice; and Keith Arnold applied the methods of terrestrial photogrammetry to the study of the terminus fluctuations of White Glacier.

Fritz Müller died in 1980 while leading a field party on Rhône Glacier. The measurement series on White Glacier and Baby Glacier were terminated in consequence.

Trent Leadership

In 1983 Peter Adams was invited to return to Axel Heiberg Island, and under his direction and later that of Graham Cogley the measurement programme on White Glacier has been maintained by Trent University up until present. Measurements on Baby Glacier, however, were not resumed until 1989. Miles Ecclestone has been the leading field worker for Trent since 1984, and holds the record for scientific time spent at Expedition Fiord. Other Trent staff and students who have worked from the McGill Arctic Research Station include Jim Buttle, Greg Crocker, Peter Doran, Mike English, Frederik Jung-Rothenhäusler, Don Pierson, Candice Stuart and many others.

Today, the leadership of the mass balance programme is managed by Laura Thomson, Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University, with the continued support and mentorship of Graham Cogley and Miles Ecclestone at Trent University, and Luke Copland (University of Ottawa).

We’re working together to ensure we maintain the a high level of field techniques and monitoring methodologies in the years to come through collaboration with the World Glacier Monitoring Service.