Albatross Expedition 1947-48

Today I’ll write about science. Notably about one expedition that, curiously, touches upon the two perhaps hottest contested scientific debates in the 20th century: continental drift (plate tectonics), and global warming (greenhouse effect, climate change).

S/S Albatross
S/S Albatross. Archive photo from Göteborgs Universitet.

Albatross was a four-masted school ship of a Swedish shipping line, Boström. Using piston corers, developed by Kullenberg, they took up to 20 m long sediment cores, ten times longer than what had previously been achieved. When analyzed, the cores gave insight into the history of the oceans, and thus the planet, over millions of years. The most notable discovery was the somewhat regular periodic variations during the last million years, corresponding to recurring ice ages. The Albatross expedition laid the foundation of paleo-oceanography.

Among the results were a number of perplexing observations, that eventually all were explained in the framework of continental drift. After the continental drift-hypothesis was introduced in 1912 it was first the subject of lively debate, then largely rejected, and then, decades later, accepted in a revised form, i.e., plate tectonics. (Actually, Alfred Wegener only re-introduced it in 1912, since it had first been proposed by Abraham Ortelius in 1570.)

After having heard for decades how these strange observations on the Albatross expedition had contributed to the eventual acceptance of the revised hypothesis for continental drift, I decided to try to verify how it really happened. So I asked one of the participants in the expedition, prof em Gustaf Arrhenius. This is his e-mail reply, dated 2010-12-05 (“SIO” means Scripps Institute of Oceanography, at La Jolla, UCSD):

In 1947 – 48, the time of the Albatross Expedition, Wegener’s theory was talked about mostly as an eccentric idea, failing on the basis of the forbidding flow properties of mantle rocks but there were influential proponents such as Umbgrove.

Albatross, introduced, through Waloddi Weibull, the revolutionary technique of sound reflection for measurement of the thickness of the sediment but it was applied mainly to the Atlantic – Weibull was on board only on the first section there. No particular attention was paid to the different thickness on the ridges – the only observational evidence was from core 48 on the East Pacific Rise where under I think about six meters of sediment we hit gas loaded basaltic glass attesting to the enhanced volcanic activity. The subsequent work by Kurt Boström demonstrated by geochemical means the regional importance of volcanism on the midocean ridges

Another puzzling piece of information came from Hans Petterson’ only successful single heat flow measurement, suggesting an abnormally low value on a station away from the Pacific Ridge. It was later realized as the first indication that most of the heat from the Earth’s inferior flows out through the midocean ridges.

Weibull’s technique was later taken up by Russel Raitt at SIO who made numerous thickness measurements in the Pacific, noting low values but nobody understood them and none of all these observations were placed in the context of sea floor spreading and continental drift.

The finding by Vacquier of the magnetic striping of the East Pacfic ocean floor was to become the trigger of the eventual discovery. Initially nobody understood this remarkable phenomenon. An early near-hit was made by Ronald Mason who found indications of magnetic reversals in cores from the SIO Capricorn expedition but as a British socialist gadfly he was not encouraged to continue at Scripps – thus the intellectual initiative was transferred to England where the breakthrough discovery was made by Matthews and Vine.

So, although many seemingly anomalous observations were made during the Swedish Deep Sea Expedition and elsewhere in the 1950’s that would later prove to be pieces of the puzzle, no conceptual new thinking about continental drift arose from the Albatross work. Instead its major new contribution came to be the discovery of the detailed sedimentary record of the Pleistocene – Recent climatic changes in the equatoral ocean.

You are absolutely right that the unique, pace setting and world encompassing Swedish Deep Sea Expedition has been largely and amazingly forgotten, more so in Sweden than abroad where its techniques were voraciously adopted and further developed and its results used as a basis for a whole new fertile branch of science, culminating in the international deep sea drilling program.

Some of the background for this sad loss of memory of the last and greatest heroic Swedish effort in global exploration has been discussed in an article, unfortunately in Swedish, that I published some time ago;

Arrhenius, Gustaf 1990. Svenska djuphavsexpeditionen med Albatross – ett retrospectiv. Ymer 8-34.

The Albatross Deep Sea Expedition provided the first data for Quaternary climate, the periodic fluctuations between cold Ice Age conditions, and luke warm interglacial periods as the one we have enjoyed the last 10,000 years or so. Roughly speaking, with a period of 100,000 years the climate shifts between cold and luke warm, with the cold phase taking up 90% of that time.

The existence of a previous Ice Age had been accepted since 1867, if my memory does not fail me, and already by the end of the 19th century scientists understood that it might come back. In fact, the cold spell known as the Little Ice Age ended less than 100 years ago, having started in Medieval times.

When Svante Arrhenius, grandfather of Gustaf, introduced the greenhouse gas theory around 1897, he allegedly hypothesized that the CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels could help warm the planet and stave off or at least delay the onset of the next ice age.

It is pretty much accepted by now that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) does occur, although it is not yet settled among scientists to what extent this is relevant for the future climate. The ongoing debate on climate change has been said to be the modern equivalent in intensity and fixed positions to the 20th century debate on continental drift. In the middle of this we find the Albatross Expedition, as a testimony to the value of field science, and of letting the facts speak.

The incipient seismic profiling used on Albatross has since been developed into a tool that allows petroleum geologists to make three-dimensional models of kilometer-thick sediment beds with sub-meter resolution. Also other field methods were pioneered on the Albatross. As Arrhenius writes, the ground-breaking nature of the expedition was phenomenal. It deserves a place in the textbook history chapter, no doubt about it.