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Niels Bohr Institute > Who, What, When > > Willi Dansgaard > New horizons

12 September 2014




New horizons

Up through the 1960s the activity level increases in Professor Willi Dansgaard’s department at the Biophysical Laboratory at the University of Copenhagen. The success from Camp Century from 1968 and onwards means that the group gets international attention and on October 1, 1971 the department is transformed into and is inaugurated as the Geophysical Isotope Laboratory and moved to Haraldsgade.

A bunch of tough guys

The environment surrounding the little group made up of five researchers, a civil engineer, two mechanics, three technicians and two students is both creative and demanding. Willi Dansgaard takes the lead – not with the whip but by example and high expectations. The coffee table is in the laboratory and when Dansgaard holds meetings over the phone with the American and Swiss collaborators, the rest of the group, both high and low, sits and listens in, explains Jørgen Peder Steffensen, who joined the team a few years later.

It is the fieldwork and the hardships that bind the group together and there is a kind of scouting spirit with a “one for all and all for one” attitude. The team is made up of very gifted people who from the outside might seem like a bunch of weathered and rather “odd” but exuberant beings, who in many ways could be seen as some rather tough guys.                                                                                                                     

To the right are Sigfus Johnsen’s two systems for the preparation of 228 water samples a day. Between these two is Niels Gundestrup’s small, automated mass spectrometer, which helped to give the group a decisive lead in the research field. To the left is the group’s faithful lab technician, Anita Boas.

The group puts in an incredible effort every day, but this also means that the family has to recede somewhat into the background and a kind of esprit et corps emerges among the wives, which is comparable to what sometimes occurs among the wives of sailors or soldiers.

Boss of it all

Willi Dansgaard is known as an authority of the old school. When he teachers physics to the medical students at the university he might give those who have not read their material properly a hard time – “you, the one-eyed among the blind,” he said, for example, recalls Jørgen Peder Steffensen. People call him “boss’ and democracy has not been invented in the group where “Willi’s word was law.” He hates sloppiness and is not afraid to speak his mind, but he is never malicious, even though he can be tough.

But at the same time, Willi Dansgaard is generous to those who do well and, even though he is the star of the group, he also makes room for others and includes the young students in the fieldwork.

"A contributing factor to the group's unity was probably that everyone regardless of "rank or class" who had made ​​a scientific contribution - theoretical, technical or experimental - to solve a scientific problem became a co-author on the publication of the results," says Dansgaard. To some this might seem to be trivializing the effort and responsibility, but on the other hand it gives everyone an incentive to contribute, explains Willi Dansgaard. "No one had any interest in storing data in the desk drawer for his own use at a later date."

It is Dansgaard who has connections abroad and thus it is he who can raise money that allows the others in the group to work in peace, explains Jørgen Peder Steffensen. 

A particularly fertile period

During the 1970s, Willi Dansgaard and his group invent various methods and instruments to support their future research. ”For me, this decade was a particularly fertile period,” says Dansgaard.                                       

The so-called “Rolls Royce drill”, weighing 250 kg and needed at least three people to run. It could drill and extract a 100-meter-long ice core in 16 hours.

They implement, for example, a full automation of a new mass spectrometer, which means that the machine can run around the clock and unattended all night. “All in all, this technology gave us a leading position in our field,” he explains and adds that “through the 1970s our machine measured more water samples than all of the other machines in the world combined.”

In addition, they build an entirely handmade, transportable lightweight drill, which they call the “Rolls Royce drill”, invent a new method to navigate in polar regions and develop methods to date volcanic eruptions in ice cores by measuring the acid in the precipitation. All these things make them the perfect collaborative partners for researchers and organizations around the world.

Looking towards Antarctica

During the same period, Dansgaard and his colleagues also turn their attention to the new drillings that the Americans are in the process of implementing in Antarctica. Dansgaard contacts the geochemist Sam Epstein, who heads the project and offers free and very detailed isotopic measurements of the new cores, resulting in 3,000 samples from the so-called Byrd core.

A climate curve comparing the information from the cores at Byrd Station in Antarctica and Camp Century in Greenland. The curve shows that the climate varied much more in Greenland than it did in Antarctica.

The result is an article in Nature in 1972, where the researchers conclude that the ice age climate was much calmer in Antarctica than in Greenland and the end of the last ice age happened gradually over a much longer period in Antarctica than in Greenland.

In 1973, the group is invited to participate in the Ross Ice Shelf Project (RISP) in Antarctica and in January 1975, Willi Dansgaard takes a trip to the southern hemisphere. During the trip he gets an idea for new measurements and as a result he continues on to the Soviet Vostok, where another ice core is being drilled.

Willi Dansgaard describes the work in Antarctica as promising, but he nevertheless concludes that Danish glaciology should stick to doing research in Greenland. “It was there that we had a fruitful collaboration with the Americans and it was there that we had the means, duties, tradition, experience and a future,” he writes.

The dream of a new deep drilling project

Back in the northern hemisphere the Americans had, along with the establishment of Camp Century in 1959, begun construction of the defensive structure (Distant Early Warning Line) across Greenland, Alaska and Iceland. The stations, which were named Dye 1, Dye 2, Dye 3 and so on, are then used for research.

”Over the years, Dye 3 was the starting point for several expeditions to the southern part of the ice sheet; it was a kind of testing ground for new techniques in glaciology,” explains Dansgaard.

 The American radar station Dye 3 in South Greenland, which was 10 stories high and was used as a drilling site several times during the 1970s – and again in 1979-1981,when they carried out a new deep drilling project. The four Dye stations in Greenland are the biggest buildings to ever stand on snow. Photo: Chester Langway.

In 1971, the group begins another collaboration here with the American military organisation CRREL (U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory), which was also behind the Camp Century drilling, to drill a new ice core.

The Danes get permission to drill a small core of 401 meters (a so-called “shallow core” that does not go all the way down to bedrock), which is cut into to equal halves and shared between CRREL and Dansgaard’s research team and it turns out to go back to the time of Valdemar the Victorious, i.e. almost 800 years back in time.


Sigfus Johnsen and Professor Chester Langway measuring the density of an ice core. The density increases as you move downwards from 350kg/m3 at the surface to 920kg/m3 at a depth of approximately 100 meter, where the snow is compressed into solid ice.

But Dansgaard is most interested in carrying out a recreation of the Camp Century project, so they could once again get back to the ice age, and thus a new deep drilling in Greenland – but this time in a more favourable place. To this end, he once again joins forces with the American CRREL and a team of researchers from Switzerland to form the consortium “Greenland Ice Sheet Program” or GISP.

Dye 3 does not meet the criteria as the bedrock under the ice is too mountainous, so they instead they turn they sights on central Greenland “from the EGIG line and north.”  

 It will still take a while for before the drilling is completed and it turns out the Dye 3 has not outlived its usefulness yet …

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