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Jan Mayen: Geography: Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Jan Mayen: Geography

AUTHOR: R. N. Rudmose Brown
1,400 words.

Jan Mayen Island

JAN MAYEN is an isolated island lying in the southern part of the Greenland Sea,
north of the Faroe-Icelandic ridge. This "lonely uncommemorated isle aloof in its
world of mists" (Nansen) has an area of only 144 sq. miles but in the dormant
volcano of Beerenberg in lat. 71° 5′N., long. 8° 06′W. has the highest summit,
7,680 feet, northof the Arctic Circle. The island, which is entirely volcanic,
consists of three distincti c v e parts (i) a southern mountainous area forbidding
in its barren lava surface, with many peaks, craters and crumbling cliffs. The
greatest heights are under 3,000 feet, Franz Josef Spitze being 2,753 feet; (ii)
a lowlying central part as narrow as two miles across, an area of barren lava
flows with the extensive and shallow South Lagoon which dries in some years,
the deep r e r and smaller North Lagoon and the solitary neck of an old volcano known
as the Saule or Pillar; (iii) the great volcano of Beerenberg, 7,680 feet in
height as determined by the Imperial College Expedition in 1938, which is a
reduction of several hundred feet from the figure previously acc e pted. The crater
of Beerenberg is a mile in diameter and is filled with ice which pours out on the
northern side by the great Weyprecht glacier that flows by a blown out gap in the
crater rim and eventually reaches sea level. The rim of [: ] crater is marked
by four peaks of which the highest is Haakon. The others are [: ] Hakluyt, Mercanton
and Wordie. The glaciers of Jan Mayen are confined to Beerenberg. Several reach
the sea and most give evidence of being in retreat. It is improbable that the
southern part of the island was ever glaciated. Coasts are rugged and often
fringed with crumbling cliffs. There are no harbors but anchora g e and landing
are possible in Driftwood Bay ( L Great Wood Bay), Jameson Bay or Mary Muss Bay
depending on wind and sea.
There has been no major volcanic activity during [: ] the 300 years that the
island has been known but waning manifestations such as ash eruptions from Vogt

Jan [: ] Mayen Island

or Esk crat e r, near James on Bay, steam emission and minor earthquake shocks have
occurred, the last in 1935. The volcanic history dates back to Tertiary times and
probably shifted northward in Quaternary time to Beerenberg.
The climac is cold and wet and there is much fog. From June to September
the average temperature is a few degrees above freezing point but frost may occur
in any month. January with a mean of 21° F. is the coldest month. Precipita t ion
is only some sixteen inches a year, mostly falling as snow except in July and
August. Humidity is 80 to 90 per cent and cloud is generally prevalent. Summer
is largely free from gales; in winter they are easterly and less usually north–
westerly. Weather conditions are said to be local. Vegetation is open and
scattered. There are 58 species of vascular plants, most of which are stunted.
Some beaches are heaped with driftwood and scattered glass and copper fishing
floats that have drifted north to Spitsbergen, then west and south again with
the Greenland current. There is also a great quantity of Siberian driftwood.
Foxes used to be numerous and occasionally a bear landed from drifting pack ice.
For some years trappers have wintered to get fox skins. This industry is [: ] now
carefully limited and the number of foxes is said to be increasing. Fulmars,
guillemots, puff i ns, various gulls and little auks nest in summer. The Spits–
bergen char occurs in the North Lagoon.
The discovery of Jan Mayen is uncertain. It is unlikely that it was the
Svalbard of early Norse seamen, which was more probably Spitsbergen (q.v.). The
story by T. Edge, recounted in Purchas His Pilgrimes , that Hudson discovered
the island in 1608 and called it Hudson's Tutches is not substantiated on close
examination. The discovery seems to have been made in 1614 by the Dutchmen Jan
Jacobsz May and Joris Carolus while in the same year another Dutchman Jan Kerckhoff
visited the island. Joris Carolus' original map was recently found in [: ] Paris in
[: ] the Depot des Cartes de la Marine: T t he island is called Mr Joris Eylandt.
The name was changed to that of May by Blaeu in 1623. In 1615 R. [: ] Fetherby

Jan Mayen Island

thinking that he had made a new discovery called it Sir Thomas Smith Island and
its lofty peak Mount Hackluyt, a name now revived and applied to the sec u o nd in
height of the peaks of Beerenberg. The Hull whalers often called it Trinity Island
and the Dutch for long called it Mauritius, the name given it by Kerckhoff.
French whalers had their own name, calling it Richelieu. The Dutch, represented
by the Noordsche Co., [: ] finding that contention with the English meant much loss
of [: ] time and catch in the Spitsbergen whale fishery made Jan Mayen one of
their most important stations perhaps as early as 1611, certainly by 1616. It
remained profitable until 1633 or later, but there was trouble with English
rivals. In 1616 English ships arrived ahead of the Dutch and appropriated the
Dutch ovens, vats, coppers and boats. The Dutch then took steps to prevent
a recurrence of this action. They made settlement; but only for the summer, at
various points, mostly in the northwest of the island with the chief one at
English (North) Bay. The year 1632 was a fateful one; Basque q c halers, chased
away by the Dutch from Danes Island, Spitsbergen, destroyed or looted much of
the Dutch property on Jan Mayen. A certain measure of colonization was the
only sure protection against such attacks. Eight English sailors accidently left
behind in Spitsbergen in 1630 had successfully wintered in Bell Sound. [: ] Du r t ch
could do likewise at Jan Mayen and seven winterers were left in 1633. They all
died during the winter, presumably from scurvy, due to failure to eat fresh
food. Their diary had been published both in Dutch and English.
Soon afterwards Jan Mayen fades away; before the middle of the seventeenth
century it ceased to be a whaling base and its history becomes less colored
and eventful. In 1732 Jacob Lamb recorded a volcanic outburst "at the foot of the
mountain" evidently at Vogt or Esk crater. W. Scor c e sby was ashore in 1817 and
in the following year saw a minor eruption. Among other visits [: ] was that in 1856

Jan Mayen Island

of Lord Dufferin, but the most important was that of the Austrian Polar Year
party of fourteen under E. von [: ] Wohlgemuth who wintered there in 1882-3 with
a fully equipped meteorological station on Mary Muss Bay. The Austrians made
the first detailed map of the island which has needed little later modification
except at the south end. The expedition was fruitful in all directions, making
a thorough explorati o n of most aspects of the island. Then for some years
casual callers spent a day or two from time to time. Among such visitors were
A. G. Nathorst in 1899, and J. Charcot in 1902 and 1912 and the Dukeof Orleans
in 1909, but the next [: ] expedition of importance was that led by J. M. Wordie
in 1921 who had with him P. L. Mercanton, J. L. C. Musters, [: ] W. S. Bristowe and
T. C. Lethbridge. Wordie, Mercanton and Lethbridge made the first ascent of
Beerenberg and the expedition examined the whole island, especially its geology.
A small Austrian party under H. Tollner took magnetic observations during 1932-33.
In 1933 N. E. Odell and W. Wood climbed Beerenberg and in 1934 E. G. Bird, C. G.
Bird and R. B. Connell spent several weeks on the island, did some collecting and
made several corrections to the Austrian map. Examination of old skeletons
[: ] showed that it was the Greenland not the Biscay whale which early
Dutch whalers hunted around Jan Mayen. This expedition also made several new
reocrds of birds. A King, R. Scot Russell and others of the Imperial College
expedition of 1938 again made the ascent of Beerenberg and among other useful work
further revised the map. In 1921 Norwegians under Hagbard Ekerold set up a
weather and radio station on Jameson Bay; the annual relief expedition is the only regular
sailing to the island. Norwegian sovereignty was proclaimed in May 1929. The
chief of the weather station has the powers of a magistrate. Jan Mayen did not
escape the war of 1939-45. In 1940, after German aircraft has prospected the
observatory, the Norwegians destroyed it and got away [: ] by sea. In 1941 Norway
re-established the station in spite of German aerial attacks.

Jan Mayen Island

References - Jan Mayen: "En Oversikt over öens Natur, Historie og Betydning"
Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift II, 7, Oslo, 1929 and Norges Svalbard Meddelelse
No. 7; "Jan Mayen Island" J. M. Wordie, Geographical Journal , March 1922 and
"The Geology of Jan Mayen" Trans. Royal Soc. Edinburgh , LIV, iii, No. 18,
Edinburgh 1926; A. King "The Imperial College Expedition to Jan Mayen Island"
Geographical Journal , August 1939. For the diary of the first winterers see
J. Churchill A Collection of Voyages and Travels , Vol. II, 1744. For more modern
history see S. Richter "Jan Mayen I Krigsårene." Norsk Geografisk Tidskrift ,
XI, 2, Oslo, 1946.
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