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    Climate of Greenland

    Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General

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    EA-General. Greenland-Svalbard

    (William H. Hobbs)


            The climate of Greenland has been learned by the explorers, who

    have traveled over it. Its expanse of glacial ice and its inhospitable

    climatic conditions have, except during a single year, kept meteorologists

    from establishing their stations except at the heads of fjords along the


            The first important invasion of Greenland by an exploring party was

    that of Baron Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1883, who made his penetration

    from near Disko Bay on the west coast in latitude 68° N. Southeast winds

    of great force were faced for a distance estimated to be 100 km. (1).

            Complete transections of the island were first made by the great

    explorers, Nansen in South Greenland in 1888 and Peary in two double tran–

    sections of far Northern Greenland in 1892 and 1895, after he had already

    made deep penetrations from the west coast.

            Nansen's transection was made from the east coast, climbing in the

    face of fierce blizzards to an imperceptible divide at an elevation of

    9,000 feet and then, with a small sail raised on the sled, coasting down

    the west side. Of the winds encountered he wrote (2):

            "The prevailing winds were therefore land winds which blew from

    the interior toward both coasts. This points to a maximum air pressure in

    the interior and to air currents toward it which flow off on both sides

    over the slope toward the sea."

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

            This was the initial discovery of the glacial anticyclone of Greenland,

    which was, as we shall see, to be confirmed throughout the next half-century

    by all the great Greenland explorers, two of them, Alfred De Quervain and

    Alfred Wegener, meteorologists.

            Peary's summary statement on the climate of Greenland . Next after

    Nansen to describe the climate of Greenland was Robert E. Peary, greatest

    of polar explorers. After more than 3,000 miles of sledge travel over Green–

    land, Peary summed up the pattern of its wind system in the following sen–

    tences (3):

            " ... the direction of the wind of the "Great Ice" of Greenland

    is invariably radial from the center outward, normal to the nearest part

    of the coastland ribbon. So steady is this wind, and so closely does it

    adhere to this normal course, that I can liken it [ ?] only to the flow of

    a sheet of water descending the slopes from the central interior to the

    coast. The direction of the nearest land is always easily determinable

    in this way. The neighborhood of great fjords is always indicated by a

    change in the wind's direction; and the crossing of a divide, by an area

    of calm or variable winds, followed by wind in the opposite direction,

    independent of any indications of the barometer."

            This wind pattern above the inland ice of Greenland, which has the

    model of a gigantic cake of very thin batter, can be summed up by the single

    word katabatic, down-slope, except as the winds are deviated clockwise by as

    much as half a right angle, due to the earth's axial rotation.

            Like other explorers, Peary had observed the winds of Greenland where

    they are, and not from permanent stations in fixed positions outside. For

    this reason they have not been taken into account by professional meteorolo–

    gists. Moreover, the direction and force of the wind was, as a rule, not

    measured on precision instruments with data which can be expressed in numerical


            The direction of the wind and its force were learned by him because he

    had had to fact it while the sled dogs toiled strenuously, not against a

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    perceptible slope, but only against the wind; or, per contra , with sail

    raised for a tail wind, all his efforts given over to applying a brake

    to prevent the sled from overrunning the dogs. Wind force was registered

    also in the daily runs as plotted on the chart of the course. Those on

    the downslope had been two or three times as long as those on the ascent.

    In camp the tent always had to be set up with the opening on the lee side,

    or it would have been blown away.

            While in camp, wind force and direction had been noted by the bellying–

    in of tent walls, which pressed against the bodies of the men in their

    cramped quarters. Everywhere except within a cold interior area, the

    dominant wind direction is graven on the hard-packed snow in the furrows

    of its surface — the sastrugi . These are so constant in direction as to

    be used in laying the course.

            Over the inland ice the wind direction and its force are also indicated

    by the motion of fine snow, which is contin au ua lly drifting outward over its

    surface toward all coasts. To cite Peary again (4):

            "There is one thing of special interest to the glacialist--the

    transportation of snow on the ice-cap by the wind. No one who has not

    been there can have any conception of its magnitude. The wind is always

    blowing, and blowing always on lines which would be gravity lines from

    the interior . . . I have walked for days in an incessant sibilant drift

    of flying snow, rising to the height of the knees, sometimes to the height

    of the head. If the wind becomes a gale, the air will be thick with the

    blinding drift to the height of 100 feet or more . . . When it is remembered

    that this flow of the atmosphere from the cold heights of the interior ice–

    cap to the lower land of the coast is going on throughout the year with

    greater or less intensity, . .. . it will be seen that the above assumption

    is not excessive."

            Observations made by the Greenland exploring expedition of 1906-08 .

    After Peary's North Greenland explorations, European expeditions, mainly

    from Denmark, followed during the early years of the 20th century. The

    first of these was a Danish one to northeast Greenland in the years 1906-08,

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    led by Mylius Erichsen. On his staff were three meteorologists: Alfred

    Wegener, W. Brand, and the then student, Peter Freuchen. Two meteorological

    stations were set up, one of them on the coast in latitude 77° N., where

    Wegener and Brand were located. Wegener at the base station had kite and

    captive-balloon equipment. With this he was able to establish the fact

    that the ground observations made in a station on the coast (where it was

    shielded by rock cliffs) gave no true picture of the local winds (5).

    These were by the aerological aids first encountered at an elevation of

    1,000 meters, the height of the rock walls. All strong winds were found

    to blow from the northwest, the down-slope direction of the inland ice,

    with the 45° clockwise deviation. Up to that time the prevailing easterly

    winds everywhere encountered off the northwest Greenland coast had been

    supposed to have come across the island from the East Greenland Sea. These

    observations of Wegener, the first ever to be made in northeast Greenland,

    thus were the first from a meteorologist to confirm Peary's law of out–

    blowing winds.

            Wegener's observations were also significant in showing that meteoro–

    logical ground observations made in a fjord bottom near the coast do not

    give reliable results with regard to the local winds. Minrich Rink, long

    a keen observer while an inspector in West Greenland, had learned this as a

    result of his long residence there. On many occasions the overriding of

    the bottom currents by strong outward-blowing winds would be made known

    by the roaring of the blizzard overhead, which sometimes continued for

    days, but with no ripple to be seen on the water of the fjord below (6).

    At other times the wind would get down into the fjord, but with a quite

    different direction, since it always blew parallel to the local fjord walls.

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    This vitally important knowledge the writer acquired the hard way when

    a Greenland tenderfoot a score of years ago. Alone in a small rowboat

    on a crooked fjord, the high waves threatened to upset his craft and pre–

    cipitate him into the icy water. He rowed madely to double a point which

    was in sight ahead. When around the bend, the situation was still quite


            The air pressure, then, is the only meteorological ground unit which

    can be reliably observed at a fjord-bottom station.

            Dating [ ?] from this, his first of several Greenland expeditions,

    Alfred Wegener became a strong supporter of the Greenland anticyclone and

    continued to be to his tragic death on the ice cap in 1930.

            Glacial anticyclones over both Greenland and the Antarctic. The only

    existing continental glaciers are those over Greenland and the Antarctic

    continent. The latter is of about the area of the entire United States;

    the former, of that part of it which is east of the Mississippi River. By

    assembling the wind observations made by all the sledging parties when

    traveling over the inland ice covering these great areas, the writer was

    in 1910 able to show that both areas were alike under a system of outblowing

    winds, and he gave to each of them the name glacial anticyclone (7).

            Observations made on the Greenland expeditions of 1912-13. The

    years 1912 and 1913 were to see no less than four Greenland exploring

    expeditions, three of them complete transections and one of them a double

    cross-section. Three were Danish and one Swiss. All were able to confirm

    the everywhere-prevailing outblowing winds of the glacial anticyclone.

            The Swiss expedition of 1912 was led by the distinguished explorer–

    meteorologist, Alfred De Quervain, who made a [ ?] transection of the inland

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    ice from Disko Bay on the west coast to Angmagssalik on the east coast,

    a south-central cross-section. He encountered the same pattern of winds

    that had been described by Peary, and since he passed through the central

    area of the island — something that peary had not done — he found there

    a cold area sharply set off from that over the inland ice outside. This

    was shown both by its much lower air temperature and by the three-times–

    greater daily range of temperature, though the common border was marked

    by no topographical break in the surface (8). This central area is quite

    naturally assumed to be the interior area of downdraft which feeds the

    outblowing winds.

            The second Danish northeast Greenland expedition was led by Capt. J.P.

    Koch. Its scientific reports were written jointly by him and his principal

    companion, Alfred Wegener (9). A winter was spent at station Borg, set up

    for meteorological and other scientific observations on the inland ice of

    northeast Greenland, and the following summer a great transection of the

    island was made to the west coast at Pröven (latitude 72° 30′N.). The

    pattern of the winds encountered illustrated the glacial anticyclone in

    great perfection, and they confirmed the central downdraft area, as

    Dr. De Quervain had already done.

            Knud Rasmussen, who with Peter Freuchen made a double crossing in

    north Greenland near, but farther south than, the southernmost of Peary's

    crossings, confirmed the pattern of outblowing winds (10).

            Ejnar Mikkelsen, in the years 1909-12, directed a Danish expedition

    in search of the remains of the lost Erichsen party and to find, if possible,

    their maps and diaries. He made an interior sledge journey from Danmarkshavn

    over the ice cap in a north-northwesterly direction to Independence Fjord.

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    The winds encountered throughout were all from the westerly quarter down

    the slope of the inland ice (11).

            Rasmussen's Second Thule Expedition of 1916-18, this time across the

    inland ice of northwest Greenland (12), and Lauge Koch's quite remarkable

    sledge journeys of 1920-23 on and about northeast Greenland (13), also

    revealed the some down-slope winds everywhere.

            In 1926 this writer brought together all the scattered meteorological

    data derived from both Greenland and the Antarctic up to that time and

    issued then under the title, The Glacial Anticyclones (14). The Antarctic

    data of most significance had been those observed over the inland ice by

    sledging parties, and these clearly revealed the Antarctic anticyclones.

    These winds had not, however, been taken account of by the professional

    meteorologists, who had occupied the coastal weather stations; and, since

    the theory of polar cyclones was at the time the dominant one, the reaction

    of the meteorological profession was that, if such an anticy c lone actually

    lay above the inland ica, it must be thin and overlaid by a cyclone.

            The University of Michigan Greenland expeditions, 1926-33. It thus

    became an important inquiry to measure, if possible, the thickness of the

    layer of outblowing winds and fix the altitude of its ceiling. To pursue

    this inquiry in Greenland, this writer [ ?] organized the Greenland expeditions

    of the University of Michigan and directed the four which were carried out

    between 1926 and 1931. The fifth was directed by his colleague, Dr. Ralph L.

    Belknap. During these years four aerological stations were set up close

    to the glacier front in West Greenland: at Ivigtut in latitude 61° N., at

    Mount Evans in latitude 67° 30′, at Camp Scott in latitude 73°, and at

    Peary Lodge in latitude 74° 15′. At each of these stations daily pilot

    baloons were sent up and their paths followed by theodolite to an average

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    height of 7,000 meters but with many to much higher levels. Each of the

    four stations was maintained for at least a year, the main station of

    Mount Evans for two years, and at this station 776 pilot balloon ascents

    were carried out. By these investigations the ceiling of the outblowing

    winds was found, near the west border of the inland ice, to be about

    3,000 meters or roughly 2 miles (15).

            Alfred Wegener's German expedition of 1929-31 to take measurements

    of the Greenland anticyclone
    . A preliminary expedition to fix the position

    of the stations for the main expedition was carried out in the summer of

    1929. On this, Dr. Wegener was accompanied by three well-known meteorologists:

    Johannes Georgi, Fritz Löwe, and Ernst Sorge. All were destined to play

    important roles on the main expedition. This preliminary expedition made

    two deep penetrations over the inland ice to distances of 100 and 130 miles,

    respectively. They were made in the face of strong head winds during the

    inward journey, but with tail winds on the return (16).

            The plan of the larger expedition, for the purpose of [ ?] deriving measure–

    ments of the glacial anticyclone, was outlined by Alfred Wegner in an

    avant propos issued in 1928 (17). To cite:

            On the wind relationships in greater elevations we have up to

    the present those only from West Greenland (De Quervain, Hobbs).

    If one is to understand in toto the kinematics of the glacial anti–

    cyclone one must study the distribution of the wind and likewise the

    temperature distribution along a complete west-east cross-section,

    and, if possible, as far up as the stratosphere. It is still an

    open question whether the so astoundingly regular air distribution

    of the glacial anticyclone extends upward to the border of the

    stratosphere, or is earlier replaced by winds flowing in above . . . .

            . . . The stations must be along a west-east cross-section of

    Greenland, thus, two in western and eastern coast regions, and one

    in the central n e é v e é region within the realm of the cold core of the


            The main "Alfred Wegener Expedition" was carried out as planned, except

    that Dr. Georgi, who was in charge of the important central station of

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    Eismitte, was, even as late as October, not yet supplied with his prefabri–

    cated winter house, adequate food or fuel supplies for the winter months,

    or all of his qerological equipment. At great risk to his life, Wegener

    set out with a great sledging caravan to take in these needed supplies,

    but he encountered such fierce head winds that most of the sleds had to be

    sent back. With Dr. Löwe and one heroic Eskimo, Rasmus Willem, the leader

    pushed on with three sleds, but met with such violent surges of the out–

    blowing winds that he was compelled to jettison most of his cargo and

    arrived at the station with Dr. Löwe's feet so badly frozen that he had to

    be left there and have his toes amputated. On November 1, his 50th birthday,

    Wegener and the faithful Rasmus left Eismitte for the coast, but both

    perished on the way out.

            With the extra mouth to feed, Georgi and his staff at Eismitte dug a

    cave snowhouse, husbanded to the limit the scanty food and fuel, survived

    the winter, and performed the planned research - a really great accomplishment.

            The cyclones which arrive at Greenland's west coast are switched north .

    While Wegener's expedition was in occupation of its three "profile" aerological

    stations, the British Arctic Air Route Expedition, led by the youthful Gino

    Watkins, was maintaining for a period of 7 winter months an "Ice Cap station"

    in the Greenland interior near latitude 68° N. For the full year it main–

    tained also a base station on the east coast, near Angmagssalik, in latitude

    66° N. Neither station had aerological equipment (18). At the same time,

    also, the University of Michigan Greenland expeditions were maintaining

    two aerological stations, one at Ivigtut in extreme south Greenland

    (Latitude 61° 30′N.), the other on the west coast in latitude 73° N.

            This unique situation, with 7 expedition stations operating, 2 in the

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    interior and 5 carrying out upper-air studies, suggested to this writer

    that (by combining in a post-mortem operation after the reports from the

    Danish coastal stations without radio had become available) it would be

    possible to trace the tracks of the cyclones which had arrived at the west

    coast during the year, for the pressures recorded at the coast stations

    could be relied upon. The suggestion was made to Dr. Georgi, who had been

    director of the Eismitte station. He gladly consented, the British, German,

    American, and Danish observation data were brought together, and the inquiry

    was carried out. This study revealed that those cyclones which had reached

    the west coast from a westerly quarter had been turned from their courses

    and diverted north up Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. Cyclones on tracks

    farther south which had passed Cape Farewell over the Atlantic had moved up

    the East Greenland Sea (19).

            A somewhat similar inquiry, and with similar results, was conducted

    by R. L. Belknap for 1932-33 (Second International Polar Year), another

    favorable year for such study (20). The Wegener expedition at its West

    Station also conducted such an inquiry, with the result that no cyclone was

    found to have made the transit of Greenland (21). Of the wind constancy

    Kurt Wegener says: "Along the route of the expedition from West Station

    to Eismitte, it blows from southeast to east southeast" (22).

            At West Station, located between the Michigan stations, a closely

    agreeing value was obtained for the thickness of the layer of outblowing

    winds. From a locality 1,000 meters higher and over the edge of the

    inland ice the ceiling was found at 4,000 m. to compare with 3,000 m.

    measured at the four Michigan border stations (23, p. 31).

            The downdraft area of central Greenland . At Eismitte, within the

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    downdraft core of the anticyclone, Georgi found the thickness of this

    bottom layer of "heavy air" to be only 400 m., not 3,000 m. as at the

    margin of the inland ice in West Greenland. All his attempts to get kites

    above this ceiling were futile. Further evidence of the downdraft appears

    on his daily weather chart for the entire period of occupation. On this

    chart air pressure and temperature can generally be seen to vary together,

    not in reciprocal relation, as is common where air currents move laterally

    (24). With increased vigor of downdraft — higher air pressure — the

    adiabatic elevation of the temperature of the sinking air should increase

    and be registered in the near-surface layers.

            Quite unexpectedly, a remarkable proof of the strong downdraft within

    the core of the anticyclone was furnished by a flight across Greenland in

    an effort to find the lost Wegener. The German Flight Captain Wolfgang

    von Gronau, in April 1931, flew direct from Scoresby Sound, on the East

    Greenland coast in latitude 70° N., southwestward to Sukkertoppen, on the

    west coast in latitude 66°. This took him through the core of the anti–

    cyclone a little to the south of the Eismitte station. His plane, despite all

    his efforts to prevent it, was forced down by the downdraft, but when near

    the glacier surface he was able to level off and continue his flight so

    near to the surface that his radio antenna dragged begind the surface snow.

    He had entered the 400-meter-thick layer of the "heavy air" which flows

    outward along the surface (New York Times, August 19, 1931, p.3, col.8).

    One of the early plane crossings during World War II was less fortunate

    and crashed within the core area.

            The core or "n e é v e é region" of the anticyclone was further proved to

    be an area of very heavy snow precipitation. Fine dry snow was separated

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    out from the near-surface "heavy air" layer. On 213 days out of 265 (58%)

    snow was precipitated, and on 191 of these it was observed to be drifting

    out. At the other interior weather station within the core area, the

    British "Ice Cap station," snow was precipitated on 57 days of the 181

    that it was occupied — some without observations — and on 23 of these it

    was observed to be drifting (25). Such heavy precipitation within the core

    of the anticyclone explains the origin of the stupendous quantities of snow

    which have been observed by all sledging parties to be almost constantly

    drifting outward over the flanks of the inland ice. Its only source is

    obviously the ice spicules of the cirrus and other closely related cloud forms,

    the dominant types observed above Eismitte. These would be adiabatically

    vaporized in the downdraft and be reprecipitated as they approached the

    glacier surface. At the end of the long winter season much of this snow

    is found piled up outside. That drifted during the summer months is largely

    melted within an intramarginal zone, where it produces the superglacial lakes

    and rivers always found there late in the season.

            The observations made at all three profile stations of the Wegener

    expedition confirmed the presence of the glacial anticyclone. To cite

    Kurt Wegener's final conclusions (26):

            The observations of the wind at the profile stations show that

    the "heavy wind" already known for a long time is the charachteristic

    wind of the inland ice which everywhere flows off the inland ice (p. 4).

    This phenomenon Hobbs has called the glacial anticyclone. As type

    examples of the "glacial anticyclone," which holds good for all seasons

    of the year, are the South Polar region and Greenland...... The statis–

    tical data show us that we have to do with a high pressure area at

    the level of the sea, from which on all sides air is streaming out .....

    The physical explanation of the glacial high pressure area ..... is ob–

    viously due to the outgoing heat irradiation of the ice surface ( Boden ).

    This has for a consequence that far up in the stratosphere the air–

    masses over Greenland sink down, stream out below, and from high

    outside a new instreaming develops.

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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard


    1. Nordenskiöld, Adolf Erik. " Nordenskiöld's Greenland Expedition,"

    Na ut tu re
    , vol.29, 1883-84, pp.10-14, 39-42, 79-81.

    2. Mohn, H., and Nansen, F. "Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse von Dr. F.

    Nansen's Durchquerung von Grönland 1888," Pet.Mit.,Ergänzungs–

    , No.105, 1892, p.46.

    3. Peary, Robert E. "Journeys in North Greenland," Geog.Jour ., vol.11,

    pp.233-234, 1898.

    4. ----. Ibid ., p.234.

    5. Wegener, Alfred. "Meteorologische Terminbeobachtungen am Denmark-shavn,"

    Med. om Grönl ., vol.42, pp.129-355, 1911.

    6. Rink, Hinrich. Danish Greenland, its people and its products , London,

    H.S. King, 1877, p.468.

    7. Hobbs, W.H. Proc . Amer. Philos. Soc., vol.49, pp.57-129, 1910;

    Z. Gletscherk ., vol.5, pp.87-122, 1910; Characteristics of

    Existing Glaciers
    , New York, Macmillan, 1911.

    8. De Quervain, Alfred. Quer durchs Grönlandseis, Schweizersche Grönland

    Expedition 1912-13, München, Reinhardt, 1914.

    9. Koch, J.P., and Wegener, Alfred. Z. Ges. Erdkunde ., Berlin, 1914,

    pp.34-50, 51-54; Med. om Grönl ., vol.75, 1930, 676 p.

    10. Rasmussen, Knud. Ibid. , vol.51, pp.283-340, 1914.

    11. Mikkelsen, Ejnar. Ibid. , [ ?] vol. 52, 1922.

    12. Rasmussen, Knud. Ibid. , vol.57, 1927.

    13. Koch, Lauge. Ibid ., vols. 70, 1927 and 130, 1940.

    14. Hobbs, W.H., The glacial anticyclones, the poles of the atmospheric

    New York, Macmillan, 1926, ill.

    15. Reports of the Greenland Expeditions of the University of Michigan,

    Pts. I and II, Ann Arbor and London, 1931 and 1941.

    16. Wegener, Alfred. Z. Ges Erkunde , Berlin, 1930, No.3-4, pp.81-129.

    17. ----. "Denkschrift über Inland Eis - Expedition nach Grönland,"

    Deutsche Forschung, Arbeit Notgemeinschaft Deutsch.

    Wissenschaft, vol.2, 1928, pp.196-197.

    18. Mirrless, S.T.A. Meteorol. Office, Geophysical Memoirs , No.61, pp.36-61,


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    EA-General. Hobbs: Greenland-Svalbard

    19. Georgi, Johannes. "Greenland as a switch for cyclones," Geog.Jour .,

    vol.81, pp.344-352, 1933.

    20. Belknap, Ralph L. Reports of the Greenland Expedition of the University

    of Michigan, pt. II, Ann Arbor-London, 1941, pp.184-197.

    21. Holzapfel, Rupert, and Kopp, Walter. Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse

    der Deutschen Grönland-Expedition Alfred Wegener 1929

    u. 1930-31, vol.4, no.2, pp.246-314, 1939.

    22. Wegener, Kurt. Ibid. , vol.5, p.30.

    23. ----. Ibid. , p.31.

    24. Georgi, J. Ibid ., vol.4, no.1, chart at end.

    25. Mirrlees, S.T.A. Meteor. Office, Geophysical Memoirs , No.61, pp.36-61,


    26. Wegener, Kurt. Wiss. Ergeb. d. Deutsch. Grönland-Expedition Alfred

    Wegener, vol.7, p.28.


    William H. Hobbs

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