Monday, October 17, 2022

The long-dated legacy of Dr Wilhelm Jost

On 18 July 1912, the “western party” of the Swiss expedition to Greenland had a close call. Seeking a way back over the wildly crevassed Eqip Sermia glacier, the young physicist lost his footing in a meltwater channel and slithered towards a lurking sinkhole. Moments before vanishing into oblivion, he was able to jam his spiked footgear into the water-slicked ice. Wearing crampons, still thought of as new-fangled, had saved his life.

Wilhelm Jost (seated, right) with other members of the
"western party", Quervainshavn, June 1912

All kinds of innovation intrigued Wilhelm Jost (1882-1964). We’ve already met him as a pioneer of colour photography in the polar regions. He was a trail-breaker in his mountaineering too, having climbed with the Academic Alpine Club of Bern, which promoted the controversial practice of mountaineering without professional guides. In Greenland, by fusing these talents, he made a solid contribution to the Swiss expedition’s rich and varied photographic legacy.

Most importantly, Jost served as the guide for his two companions, who relied on him to find a safe path through the ice-fields they were surveying. “Jost never loses his guiding instinct; carefully but decisively he hacks steps, detours or jumps over crevasses. What an alpinist!” applauded Paul-Louis Mercanton, the team’s leader, in his memoir of that summer.

Crevasses on the Eqip Sermia glacier, Greenland 1912

In other ways, though, Jost was a traditionalist. Born on a farm in the Wynigerberge hills near the Swiss capital city of Bern, he stayed in close touch with his home village throughout his life. And he kept the bluff, direct manner of rural Switzerland too, even if– his obituarist hastens to add – his speech was “never crude”. When it came to his work, he liked to say – in his rugged Bernese dialect – “Es wird nüt halb gmacht, aber o nid gschlärpelet” – it won’t be done by halves, let alone shirked.

Nobody shirked their duties in that “western party”of the Swiss expedition. In June 1912, they helped their leader Alfred de Quervain and his companions port their sledges and gear from the beach up onto the ice cap, a sweaty and mosquito-plagued task. Then, while the so-called eastern party went on to make the first west-to-east traverse of Greenland’s ice cap, the western party returned to the coast and started their own research programme.

Ice front of the Eqip Sermia glacier, summer 1912
Photo by Wilhelm Jost

Encamped in a leaky tent and ceaselessly harassed by the voracious midges, the trio of scientists spent the rest of the summer surveying the enormous Eqip Sermia glacier, which de Quervain had chosen as his access ramp to the ice cap. Here the party supplemented traditional surveying techniques with another new discipline – that of stereo-photogrammetry. For this purpose, Jost lugged a heavy 13 x 8 format camera across the fractured ice sheet and its rugged foreland.

After Professor Mercanton went home in the autumn, Jost removed to Disko Bay, together with August Stolberg, a meteorologist. Based at a permanent research station, they launched weather balloons and instrumented kites through the arctic winter. Most of the balloons were tracked by theodolite to a few kilometres or so before bursting or fading into the cirrus clouds, but one soared to the staggering height of 39,000 metres before the meteorologists lost sight of it.

Launching a weather balloon at Godhavn, spring 1913 (?)

At Christmas, the scientists caroused with the local Greenlanders. While they toasted each other with many a small glass of ‘snapsemik’ (caraway-flavoured schnapps), Jost entertained the company in his “beautiful baritone voice”. In his spare hours, he joined the Greenlanders in fishing for sharks through holes cut in the sea-ice – the livers were prized for their oil. Unsurprisingly, the Swiss duo left a lasting impression on their hosts, as Stolberg recounts in his essay on their winter sojourn:

As an expression of astonishment – as we might say ‘holy smoke’ – it became the fashion in Godhavn to simply say ‘Stolberg’ and later ‘Jost’. A man like Jost, who could stash a 75-kilogram hydrogen cylinder under each arm was something else altogether. I wonder whether ‘Jost’ was incorporated in a later edition of the Greenlandic dictionary, in the same way as the favourite expression of the Hutterite missionaries “Ach, ja so” (= oh, really!) is preserved in the verb ‘ajasopok’ meaning ‘to be astonished’.

Back then, the greatest astonishment in scientific circles was probably reserved for the western party’s weather data. Their balloon observations showed that Greenland’s winds blew in a variety of directions during the winter – hence exploding a popular theory that called for a stable circulation of air around the polar regions in that season.

Today, by contrast, it is the trio’s glacier survey that still draws attention. In 2018, two Swiss glaciologists, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, resurveyed the Eqip Sermia to see how the glacier has fared since 1912. Their findings “support the view that the Greenland ice sheet was roughly in balance for a century or more before the onset of today’s rapid mass loss”. This suggests that Greenland’s ice started to melt at the current catastrophic rate only in the last few decades, a finding that should redouble our concerns about the pace of climate change.

Back in Switzerland, Dr Jost resumed his career as an educator. From 1917 to the end of his career, he taught physics at the Realschule of the Städtisches Gymnasium, in Bern, an elite high school. But he kept in touch with the ice too. After joining the Glacier Commission of the Schweizerische Naturforschenden Gesellschaft – the scientific association that had endorsed the de Quervain expedition – he succeeded in making the first seismic ice depth measurement on the Rhone glacier, with Max Oechslin and other geophysicists. This was in 1931.

Four years later, he brought the same technique to the Unteraargletscher – the very same ice-stream that Louis Agassiz had started to investigate a century before, thus founding the discipline of glaciology. These investigations continued for a further six seasons, helping the researchers to profile the glacier’s ice mass and its rocky bed. Jost wrote up his findings in a series of papers which, one day, he meant to feed into a magnum opus on glacial research.

The Unteraargletscher c.2010
(Image by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure)

Work on the great monograph advanced, if at all, at a glacial pace. For Jost was always a busy man: during the second world war, while continuing to teach, he served as the president of the Schweizerische Naturforschenden Gesellschaft for two years and, at the same time, commanded a battalion of the Swiss Army.

Retiring from the Realschule in 1952, he spent his last years at home, keeping in touch with colleagues and taking pride in his son, daughter and grandchildren. These sunny last years were overshadowed only by the early loss of his beloved wife.

The Rhone Glacier in 1912
Courtesy of the State Archives of Canton Bern

As for the magnum opus, it never did appear. In its place, though, Jost had already dispatched a longer-dated message to the future. In 1928, working with Max Oechslin and Professor Mercanton, his colleague from the Greenland expedition, he sealed “contemporary documents” into empty shell or grenade casings and dropped them into crevasses on the upper reaches of the Rhone Glacier.

At the time, these impromptu time capsules were expected to reach the glacier’s foot at some point in the twenty-second century. But this, of course, was to reckon without the accelerated melting that has recently transmogrified the glacier’s front into a large lake. One way or another, the ice may deliver Dr Jost’s last testament rather sooner than anticipated.


Alfred de Quervain, Across Greenland's Ice Cap: The Remarkable Swiss Scientific Expedition of 1912, with an introduction by Martin Hood, Andreas Vieli and Martin Lüthi, McGill-Queen's University Press, May 2022. The reminiscences about Wilhelm Jost in Greenland come from the two additional chapters, by his western party companions, Paul-Louis Mercanton and August Stolberg.

H. Adrian, obituary for Wilhelm Jost 1882–1964, Mitteilungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Bern, vol 22, 1964 (German language).

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