Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hi everyone! I just finished my second field season in Greenland. In case you didn't know- my blog posts this year were posted in Scientific American.  You can view all from the link below!  Also, I uploaded a bunch of photos from this year to the Following the Ice Facebook page (listed on the right).
Enjoy and thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

And onto the next field season

One night last summer, I rose from my bed, left my tent and walked to the river. It was well past midnight, a full moon had risen over the glacier and in the twilight of the arctic summer night, I could make out a herd of musk ox grazing nearby. My hair had gotten long, my beard now changed the shape of my face, and my clothes were soaked in dirt, sewn and patched. A few steps from the riverbank, I slung a climbing rope around my waist and checked the knot at other end secured to a boulder. Then with one hand on the rope and sampling bottles in the other, I eased my way down the steep riverbank to the water’s edge. As I approached the temperature dropped and I could see bear size icebergs bumping through a train of rapids. So powerful was the river, I could feel the thunder of boulders bumping over the river bottom through my boots. I had long ago given up wearing waterproof gloves to sample the freezing water so I plunged my hands in and waited for the first bottle to fill. Now the sun was coming up, the brief arctic night was over. Back in my tent I tied a bandanna around my eyes and went back to sleep. It was my 100th day in camp.
This year’s field season will bring new adventures, challenges, and scientific perspectives about the dynamic and ever-changing Greenland Ice Sheet. It will be my second time to Greenland, second year blogging about it, and despite the hardships inherent to camping in the Arctic for three months, I’m looking forward to it. Broadly, our goal is to determine how the Greenland Ice Sheet is responding to climate change. Specifically our job is to study the profound impact glacial meltwater has on glacial acceleration.
The Greenland Ice Sheet is massive. At its thickest point it’s almost 10,000 feet thick and it covers close to 80% of Greenland, the world’s largest island. It is 1500 miles from north to south and at its widest point, it is roughly 700 miles across.
Everyday last summer airliners traveling from Europe to the USA drew a line of clouds over our camp. High above us, they made no sound but their contrails were a constant part of our horizon. Approaching Greenland from the east, passengers on these flights could look out their windows and see an ocean choked with icebergs and in the winter, a great expanse of sea ice. All along this coastline giant glaciers spill into the North Atlantic between tall rocky peaks. Once over the Greenland Ice Sheet, a barren plain of blinding white ice punctuated by occasional mountaintops greets airline passengers. On the west side of Greenland, glaciers once again cascade off the ice sheet but instead of emptying into the ocean, these glaciers slide through green hills and rocky mountains almost a hundred miles from the coast. Narrow, deep fjords crack through this western coast, some reaching all the way to the ice sheet’s edge. It is here, along these fjords that humans have lived in Greenland for thousands of years.
On a small spit of land jutting out into the western edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet, our small team of scientists will be living in tents, cooking over a propane stove and collecting data. Without Internet or cell phones, our contact with other people will consist of a satellite phone, infrequent helicopter pilots, and through a few visits to a nearby village where we will receive email, regular mail, and appreciate my favorite local delicacy– musk ox burgers. Though our team will consist of only a handful of individuals, two members of our team will take a helicopter 50 miles from land onto the ice sheet. There they will set up two small tents and for almost three uninterrupted months, they will live and work on ice. For them, a nightly satellite phone call or text to our camp at the ice sheet’s edge will be their only link to other people.
Ice melts when things warm up. Over the last century, burring fossils fuels has rapidly increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations to levels the Earth has not seen for millions of years. Since the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has risen to levels about 40% higher than the highest CO2 concentrations ever experienced by the Greenland Ice Sheet. Because CO2 absorbs heat from the sun, the Earth’s climate system has been disturbed and the world’s average temperature has gone up. In Greenland glaciers are sliding faster, moving massive quantities of ice from the cold high altitudes of the ice sheet’s interior to the warm subtropical ocean currents that brush up against east Greenland, and to the gentler climate in the west and south. The increase in glacial meltwater is raising the global sea level, fertilizing the North Atlantic, and may even be changing ocean currents.
This blog will be about our team’s work, life in the arctic, climate change, and our inevitable adventures. Like last year, blog posts will be flown out of camp on stick drives whenever helicopters transport gear and people to and from our camp, and on every occasion someone is able to hike out to town (an all day event that involves a river crossing). Because of bad weather, mechanical problems with helicopters, and a temperamental river crossing, I can’t promise posts will make it out of camp every week, so occasionally several posts will be entered at once after a break. However, I will try to update this blog about once a week for the twelve weeks I will be in camp (May 10th-August 1st).
If you’re interested in Following the Ice, sign up for updates through Scientific American! To see pictures from last year’s field season check out and “like” my Facebook Page ( and follow though Twitter (!/FollowingTheIce) ! 

Check out the video below. It shows a time lapse of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet as observed by a NASA satellite. The video is cool because it clearly shows ice growing in the winter and decreasing in the summer. Every year since NASA began monitoring ice loss in Greenland, there has been a net loss of ice. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

NASA video and link to BoingBoing

The link in case you can't see the details of this video:

Also check out:
 Follow the Ice featured in

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Final Post

I guess four months is a long time to spend in a tent in the Arctic. When I got here in April, the sun went down for a few hours at night and everything was still frozen. In June the ice melted and everything turned green. The midnight sun came up for the solstice and then slowly went back down in late July. Now every night is getting a little darker and colder.

The science was more of a marathon than a sprint, although there were weeks in May and June when we were working constantly. July was fairly quiet. By then everything that was going to break had broken and most of the instrument quirks had been worked out, not to mention camp was set up and organized by then.

To measure the chemical and physical evolution of the Greenland Ice Sheet through the melt season, we had to consistently take the same measurements for months. Every day for most of the season we’d check the same instruments, download the same data, and hike to the same places.

Already, I can see evidence in my data of the changing glacial hydrology through the season. Just by looking at radon isotopes, I can tell that meltwater flowed very slowly in the beginning of the melt season traveling through tortured conduits in the ice. Then as the season progressed, flow channels opened up and melt increased making it easier for meltwater to move more efficiently to the ice sheet’s base and to its edges. We’ve also seen the chemical signature of several supraglacial lake drainage events. These events are important because they transport heat stored in surface meltwater to the ice sheet’s base resulting in more melt and faster glacial movement.

Overall, the fieldwork this summer was very physical. Often it felt like my PhD was in carrying heavy equipment around instead of chemical oceanography. My hands seemed to be always burning or numb with cold. I cut up and sewed a pair of socks into a pair of fingerless gloves that I wore most of July. Towards the end of June, there were occasional evenings when it was warm with just enough wind to keep the mosquitoes away but not so windy as to drive you crazy. On these nights, we’d bring our chairs out of the mess tent to eat, talk and read in the late-night sun. In July the mosquitoes were gone but cooler weather and heavy wind and rain kept us in tents for most meals though work was still outside.

When equipment was working properly we had downtime in camp. Without Internet, TV, phones, places to go or people to see, there were few distractions. Like it or not, life was simple. I spent my free time playing guitar and reading. Camp became a sort of book club. Everyone brought one or two books and so we read our books and then each other’s and talked about them over meals.

I’ll probably miss all this and I’ll definitely miss the people I met. Being immersed in nature and subjected to the elements reminds you that you’ve always got a choice. You can accept what’s going on or get upset wishing things were different. No matter how much you curse the cold and wind it’s going to stay cold and windy until it stops. Living outdoors reminds us where we came from and how tough we are. More importantly, I think living outside reminds us how important a sense of humor is. Everything is more fun and makes more sense when you laugh at yourself, everyone and everything.

That’s it folks. I pulled out of camp yesterday and today I’m sorting out my ‘kit’ in Kangerlussuaq. Tomorrow I catch a flight to Sisimiut, a coastal town 100 miles west of here. I'll camp and hike around there for six days and then catch a ferry to Nuke, Greenland’s capital city. I’ll spend a couple days hiking around there before flying to Iceland where I hope to (you guessed it) camp a few nights before finally flying back to the States on August 20, having spent 118 days away. Today I’m shipping my computer home and don’t plan to check email until I’m back in the States. If I see narwhals or walruses or have some sort of adventure worth sharing here, I’ll write it in my journal and post it here when I get home. But for now this is it!

Thank you to everyone who read my haphazard writing and thanks to everyone who wrote to me while I was away. It meant a lot to me to know that people were thinking of us. I’m looking forward to going home but for now I think I need just one more adventure.

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me,
Leading wherever I choose.
     From “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Update 7/23/2011

Summer seems to have ended. The wind has been blowing for two weeks straight and it’s cold enough to need long underwear and down jackets. Rain, wind and clouds are the new normal.

We’re learning all about katabatic winds. There is an almost constant high pressure system over the Greenland Ice sheet and when low pressure storms move up the coast, katabatic winds blow relentlessly from the high to low pressure systems. The sound of tents flapping is the new soundtrack of camp. We have to yell in the mess tent to be heard. Whoever is unfortunate enough to sit on the windward side has to put up with the tent collapsing down on them while eating dinner. It’s like someone is kicking the back of your chair and yelling while your trying to have a conversation.

Gone are the days when I’d play guitar in the mess tent after dinner. The wind makes it almost too stressful to read a book. Anything that isn’t in a latched container or held down by a rock has the potential to take flight and whiz through camp at approximately two thousand miles per hour. I have a newfound distain for plastic bags, blue plastic tarps and anything made of Styrofoam. Gusts of wind set these things to flight, rip them apart and take forever to track down and pick up the pieces. As we practice leave no trace camping, we’ve spent a lot of time hiking after wayward trash. Of course there’s the dust too. After a heavy day of wind, everything is covered in sand and grit. It flosses our teeth, coats our hair, and our clothes are hopelessly dirty.

I’m still taking cold bucket showers every other day but now I put on a parka the second I dry off. It seems that on any given day, the maximum wind speed and minimum temperature correlates perfectly to the moment I’m blindly reaching for a second bucket of water to rinse the shampoo from my eyes.

When there is a break in the wind, the world becomes tranquil and peaceful. Two days ago between back-to-back rain and wind storms, the world became completely still for an hour. The air smelled of fresh rain, the pond was so still it reflected the mountain above it, and the clouds and wet ground turned the lighting to a soft green. I spent the hour working outside feeling immensely at ease.

Update 7/13/2011

Our camp is on a peninsula of land sticking out into the Greenland Ice Sheet. Russell and Leverett glaciers are to the north and south of camp and the two rivers discharging these glaciers come together in the west. In short, ice and rivers surround us. As the melt season has progressed, the rivers have grown massive and our simple boat ferry made of climbing ropes and pulleys is no longer safe. Camp has suddenly become much more remote as access has been restricted to the weather dependent chartered helicopters.

Will Rosser, Alex Beaton, Liz Bagshaw set up
a newly designed nitrate probe on the ice.
We have a new crew in camp. Liz Bagshaw is a post doc in Jemma Wadham’s lab. A veteran of fieldwork in Antarctica, her stories include sleeping in a tent in Antarctica for months on end and having an infected wisdom tooth pulled by a Navy dentist who didn’t use anesthetic. She also met John McCain in Antartica and talked to him about what she was doing- filtering water. Ben Lishman is another post doc from the Wadham lab and is also new to our group. He’s an engineer with a quick sense of humor. While discussing on the best way to make the river crossing (a hovercraft is the group’s favorite), he claimed only two rules in life—never play cards with a man named after a city and never fly in a home-built helicopter.

Alex Beaton, after pulling a probe off 
the ice at midnight.
Will Rosser, our new undergraduate spent his first 24 hours in camp sampling the river every two hours and has already broken in his new alpine boots by jumping at every chance to hike on glacier. Alex Beaton, who got here in June, has extended his stay by two weeks in an attempt to fix a broken sensor. He’s working around the clock in a race to collect the data he’s spent a year preparing for. All and all, everyone is happy to do fieldwork and almost every night at dinner something is said which sends us into tear inducing fits of laughter. From the early season, Stuart Vinen and I are the only remnants from May and April.

Probably because of how long I’ve been here I’m suddenly somehow living in luxury. I’ve struck my small sleeping tent and moved into my large science tent. I’ve got a stove, a table, a chair, my guitar, and thanks to a care package from Dad, a cot with not one but two Therma Rests. I can make coffee before getting out of my extremely comfy bed and play guitar late into the night. If the wind didn’t regularly blow 50 mph all night and if it ever got dark, I’d probably be sleeping great!