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!

Polar Bears!

A helicopter brought a rumor that somewhere between 10 and 100 miles away from my tent, a polar bear was seen and possibly shot (this last point was unclear). As if the wind and 24 hours of light didn’t make it hard enough to sleep.

Polar bears are extremely rare to this part of Greenland. The sea ice the bears hunt from doesn’t ever come this far south and East Greenland, where there are bears and ice, is a few hundred miles away across the ice sheet. But that doesn’t mean bears never come here.

Human encounters with polar bears are almost always deadly for the bear.

In 1997 a bear walked over the Greenland Ice Sheet from East Greenland (possibly through our current camp’s location) and ended up at a radio tower bunkhouse not three miles from my tent. Two men were working there when one sighted the polar bear. He ran into the bunkhouse and in a huge panic, started yelling about a bear. His buddy, probably used to pranks and jokes, laughed and refused to be duped into looking out the window. After a lot of hysterical yelling he did get up to look outside and made what I’m sure was a priceless facial expression. The polar bear was staring at him just outside through a thin pane of glass. The men called for help and the bear was promptly shot.

In 1957, a bear was seen outside of the town of Kangerlussuaq (about 10 miles as the crow flies from camp). Apparently very hungry, it approached a man working outside. The man didn’t have a gun and the bear charged. In some sort of heroic adrenaline packed moment, the man picked up a piece of rebar and smashed the bear over the head as it came at him. The big bear stumbled away, its skull was fractured and it was dying. The man ran home, got his rifle and put the bear out of its misery.

The skins of these bears are on display at the Kangerlussuaq museum along with the piece of rebar used to kill the 1957 bear.

While this daring seems extraordinary, for Greenland’s traditional hunters bravery is just another job requirement.

Here, men and women hunting from kayaks and (unbelievably) dogsleds throw harpoons by hand to kill seals, bears, walruses and whales. For thousands of years, Greenland’s dogsleds have been made twice as long as dogsleds in Alaska or Canada so that hunters can bridge gaps in broken sea ice. Without life jackets or any other sort of floatation device or safety precaution, dog sleds are driven onto the moving sea ice in the dark of winter. The hunters chase pods of narwhals, sometimes several thousand strong, and harpoon them as they breath through gaps in the ice. Men and women wearing polar bear pants pull whales out of the ocean with the help of their dogs.

The wild animals of Greenland are treated with great respect when killed and many Inuit traditions are still followed. Heads of animals are pointed towards the sea and given fresh water so that their spirits can find their way home and be reborn. From what I’ve read, overhunting has rarely if ever been a problem as communities do as they have always done—decide beforehand how many animals can be killed without hurting the population. Other Inuit practices such as not killing polar bears with cubs help ensure there will be enough animals to eat the next season. The fact that all the marine mammals surrounding Greenland have never been extirpated (except by commercial whaling by Europeans and Americans) is in itself a testament to the sustainability of the native hunters.

Incidentally, the main threat to the marine environment in Greenland and the traditional hunters comes from the rest of the world. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have convinced Europe and the U.S. to ban the trade of the skins or meat from sea mammals from Greenland. According to one of our books on Greenland, the price of furs is now so low that one can make more on government handouts being unemployed than by hunting. Adding insult to injury, the world’s air pollution rains out of the sky in the cold arctic air. Mercury, PCBs and DDT are found in alarming amounts in arctic marine mammals, and mercury has been found in horrifying quantities in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. These toxins build in concentration going up the food chain and as the Inuit are at the top of this chain, these people take in the worst of the pollution they are the least responsible for.

A great way to help is to simply use less electricity. Most of the mercury in the atmosphere comes from burring coal, which is how the vast majority of electricity is produced. So turning off the lights after leaving a room is actually something very real everyone can do to help kids in Greenland!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer arrives, new hobbies, and overnight sampling (Camp update: 7/7/2011)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The river crossing connecting camp to town has been destroyed and the only way in or out at the moment is by helicopter. As a result, Ben has been unable to update the blog for several weeks and only recently managed to send this and the next several posts out with Catie Butler.]

In the past few weeks, Greenland has been green and the weather has been pretty much perfect in the 60’s (Note: 20 degrees or so for any Brits reading), sunny, a slight breeze, and cool nights. The legendary mosquitoes of the Arctic never materialized and we’ve had only a few days where you might say the bugs were bad. The hills and mountains are covered in willow, cotton grass, and wildflowers, and with a guidebook we’ve learned the names of all of them. If Eric the Red first saw Greenland in the summer, he may well have named this place Greenland in all honesty instead of as a clever ploy to lure more Norse to the cold island.

The camp uniform: mosquito protection
As of tomorrow I’ll have only one month left in camp. Despite the slow changing of the seasons, the summer has flown by. We can’t really divide the weeks up as we might at home, as each day is the same and the weekend is now meaningless. Every day, we have to take the same measurements, eat the same food, and hike to the same sampling sites. Occasionally someone will take a morning or afternoon off, but that seems to be about the extent of taking a break from work in camp. When gas injections are finished up on the ice sheet, river samples are taken every hour for days at a time. The night shift from midnight to 8:00 a.m. is split between two people who each have to wake up every other hour to take a sample.

Louise, Stu, Ben and Catie with our awesome homemade hats.
Two Hoods learns the guitar, while Catie shows off
her finished hat and ludicrously large bobble (later removed
as we decided it was a danger to passing aircraft).
As I can’t do anything like a normal person, I decided to try to gamble away all of my night shifts in a series of high stakes rock-paper-scissors games. After much laughing and trash-talking, I was convinced I would be able to beat the opposition and get a good night’s sleep, and the game actually ended up producing a much better sampling schedule for the overnight shift! The gods of rock-paper-scissors swung the game so that each person ended up taking equal numbers of samples but each got a solid, 3-hour nap at some point during the night. Perfect.

All-told, life in camp has been good. Trail running over the tundra is keeping me mostly sane and we are trying to teach each other new skills to keep busy. I have been trying to give guitar lessons, with mixed results. Catie has finished teaching me how to knit so I now have a completed beanie hat, which made Stu and Louise so jealous they made themselves hats, too. Along with our mosquito nets, wellington boots and bad tan lines, camp fashion is at an all-time high.

I’m reading a book about an American woman in the 90’s who spent seven years living in northern Greenland. In the book she describes how three things happen to those who come to Greenland for the long term: Your animal instincts come out, you go crazy, and you get happy. I think this is probably the best way to sum our life in camp.

Food, Drink, and Pranks (Camp update, 6/27/2011)

Two months have passed since we’ve arrived in Greenland and in another two months, I’ll be home. It’s been a few weeks since the sun has set and no one has seen darkness since we've been here. The constant light seems to affect everyone to varying degrees. Most of us sleep around five or six hours a night for a few days and then crash for twelve hours once a week. Going to bed here is like trying to sleep with all the lights on and I find it hard to feel tired when the sun is up. Midnight snacking on Raman noodles (well, the Danish alternative: Yum Yums) has become part of the camp routine, as everyone is usually still up and starving.
Taking a nap in the middle of the day--though we often work
at midnight. Our body clocks are really messed up.

On the solstice we had planned taking a midnight hike up to the ice sheet margin. Ironically, dense clouds and rain made the solstice an unusually dark night and so instead of a party we all went to bed early feeling exhausted.

Food is the most popular topic of conversation. After dinner there’s usually about an hour of reminiscing about the cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and fresh meats we miss. It is seemingly impossible to not talk about food; we’ve tried banning the subject, but after a few minutes of silence we give up and start at it again. Our meals are predictable. Porridge (oatmeal) for breakfast; bread and canned fish for lunch; and then instant mash potatoes, pasta, or rice with a can of corn and a can of bland meat for dinner. I put so much Tabasco sauce on everything that it’s become what I’ll probably associate with Greenland for the rest of my life. Dessert is hot chocolate, a chocolate bar, and sometimes a tin of peaches.
A typical, well-balanced meal of Noddecreme (chocolate spread),
hazelnut chocolate, and Yum Yum noodles.

The long awaited chocolate crate arrived in camp last week. It was packed to the brim with sweets, dried fruit and what the Brits call pudding and biscuits (I’ve tried to explain to them that biscuits are what you smother with gravy for breakfast and pudding is what Bill Cosby used to sell but no one listens). Anyways, the chocolate crate has been a big morale booster but is diminishing rapidly.

We drink unfiltered water directly from the lake next to our camp. There are MANY interesting little bugs that swim around in our water bottles like some sort of small portable aquarium. Little worms and fish-like larva are the biggest things but there are also little red beetles and water skimmers. The water tastes delicious, though, and combined with fresh bread from our bread maker are my two favorite things to eat and drink in camp.

Merciless teasing and prank plotting is the next most common topic of conversation. “You’re getting as big as an iceberg,” is a frequently used insult, with Catie’s Indian name officially now changed from Sleeps-Like-A-Tortoise to just Iceberg! The team is like a bunch of siblings and some days it seems like we laugh all day.

Musk ox or rock?
Catie and I spotted a herd of musk ox near camp one afternoon and crept to within a hundred yards of them before we were spotted and they ran away. After the musk ox ran off, we heard a deep growl coming from behind us. We turned and looked at each other in horror: “What was that!?” Spinning round, we saw Dave Chandler laughing behind a rock: he’d been stalking us while we stalked the musk ox.
Proof that a sleeping musk ox looks like a hairy rock.
Harold the musk ox wakes up, annoyed that we are
invading his personal space.

I now have to carefully check my towel for rhodamine powder before taking a wash. We use the powder to measure river discharge and even a small amount can temporarily turn the river bright pink. The pale gold powder, as it turns out, is really hard to see on a white towel and stains skin bright pink for days if you get any on you. At the moment, dying Stu’s light blonde hair pink has only been spoken about, but as we go slowly insane as the weeks progress we may stop being able to resist the temptation.

Helicopter Ride

Our entire field camp area: the science tents by the river,
our base camp next to the lake, and the waterfall on the far right.
The helicopter was so late that ice camp ran out of food and Dave Chandler and Alex Beaton had to hike off the ice sheet back to base camp. Their hike back went without incident but they had to wait a week before they could catch a ride back up to the ice, this time 40 km in from the margin. Once Dave and Alex were safely deposited back on the ice, the helicopter returned to base camp, where we needed it to fly a large load of equipment from our stash on one side of the river back to camp in a sling-load. The pilot needed passengers to tell him where we had left the gear with the caveat being that we’d have to walk back to camp, as the pilot couldn’t take passengers in addition to our heavy gear. Three of us jumped at the opportunity for a free helicopter ride.

If there is one thing about helicopters in Greenland it is that they are always late but when they come everything needs to happen very fast. Three hours after we expected our lift, the helicopter swooped into camp and all of a sudden, everything was in motion. Without turning off the rotors, the pilot motioned us to come, and so we ducked down and ran to the cockpit. We jumped in and hardly had time to put on our seatbelts before taking off. We were informed the helicopter was, “Almost out of fuel,” and so we should probably hurry up.

Riding in a helicopter was an experience I’d been hoping for since the day I found out I might be able to go to Greenland over a year ago and so I was extremely excited, and I’d called shotgun on the front seat! Even though the ride was only a few minutes long, it was a completely surreal experience.  Take off felt like we just floated up off the ground and sitting in the front seat of a helicopter is the closest I think one can get to feeling like you are flying. With my camera out, I started shooting constantly for the duration of the flight. Once we attached the sling load and the helicopter headed back to camp, Louise, Catie and I hiked back buzzing from the experience.

Leverett Glacier and moraine ridges
After dropping the sling in camp our pilot landed, turned off the helicopter and asked for some duct tape because the helicopter was broken. I’ve heard of beat up bush planes in Alaska that are seemingly about to fall apart but I never thought a helicopter could be fixed by hitting it with a hammer or by duct taping it back together.


The Arctic is a terrible place for equipment. Sand and cold destroy seem to destroy everything from zippers to computers. Two of the three Kindles in camp have been destroyed (NB: as of June 12, all three Kindles are now dead but one of the new arrivals to camp has bravely brought his out despite warnings). Electronics seem to have a short half-life. Inverters, converters, battery chargers, cameras and computers have all either needed fixing or have been destroyed.

The waterfall near camp in full flow. Doing the Polar Bear Challenge now would be inadvisable.
Filtering water from our sediment-laden river takes up the better part of the day for Catie and Louise’s work. Because getting replacements is impossible, we attempt to fix everything that breaks. We use the term “Frankenstiened” to describe building new versions of broken equipment using parts of other equipment. The Frankenstining I’m most proud of was building a new flurometer (an instrument that measures light absorption in water) using a boat battery, an inverter, a cell phone charger, and a voltmeter. And yes, it worked!

Monday, July 11, 2011


This year’s cold spring and late start to the summer has delayed the melt season by a month compared to last year’s record-breaking melt season. In 2010, rivers discharging the glaciers of West Greenland were higher than in anyone’s memory and the glaciers themselves accelerated towards the ocean. Multiple outburst events happened at our field site at Leverett Glacier when hundreds of lakes on top of the Greenland Ice Sheet drained through cracks in the ice. This sent surge after surge of meltwater to the base of the ice sheet and to the river the team was sampling.
The river the day before the outburst event with 2 meters of ice still covering it.

Recently, scientists have hypothesized that these drainage events alter the subsurface hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Inefficient, small meltwater channels are widened and straightened by the sudden influx of water when lakes drain. This process is thought to create highly efficient pathways for meltwater to reach the front of glaciers and acts to lubricate and melt the ice sheet’s base.

This year, we’ve had only one major drainage event. This happened at the beginning of June when it appears that every supraglacial lake between the ice sheet margin and 24 miles up the ice sheet drained at once. We think what happened was one large lake drained and sent cracks in many directions, draining other lakes, making more cracks, and so on. When this happened, our sensors indicated the river rose over six feet in thirteen hours and another two feet the following day. This shattered the river’s five-foot-thick ice in an afternoon. In a day, the river changed from a highway of ice to a raging torrent of class IV rapids full of icebergs. There were seven-foot-tall wave trains, deep holes, and icebergs and boulders slamming through the 32ºF water. The day before we had walked up river ice to the glacier’s portal.

For about a week the river ran wild. It became turbid and opaque, obscuring massive boulders we could hear thundering downriver. The riverbank disintegrated rapidly and became a high steep slope of loose boulders and dust. Falling in could have been deadly so we set up a harness and climbing rope to collect samples. As our luck would have it, the day before two people were flown out of camp to the ice sheet, one person was sent into town to fix an instrument, and two potential team members were unable to make their flights to Greenland. So for several days there were only two people in camp and later that week, only three or four.

Louise not letting a little stream stop her from hiking on the moraines.
For three nights in a row, I sampled the river every hour all night for our gas tracing experiments. I spent my days moving equipment up the eroding bank, taking samples for my research, and helping make discharge measurements. Sleep happened in short bursts and exhaustion took hold. I’m proud to say that through the entire outburst event, our probes remained in the water and our computerized data loggers stayed dry. We succeeded in capturing the chemical nature of the massive supraglacial lake drainage event from its start to its finish in the middle of a gas tracer experiment.

But after a week of running ourselves into the ground, our luck ran out. The rising river and icebergs were relentlessly ripping the riverbank down. Eventually the tubing for my radon detector and probe were only just long enough to reach the river while the detector was perched on the bank’s edge. In my sleep-deprived state, I didn’t think to try to lengthen the tubing and as we were checking (and moving, when necessary) the equipment many times a day, this seemed like the best we could do. Knowing the bank was unstable, we drilled rock bolts into a cliff and tied everything to these bolts but even this was not enough. One morning, after checking the equipment at the river, a few people and myself decided to hike over the glacier to sample at the portal. While we were gone, a large section of riverbank slid into the rapids, taking my radon detector with it. When we got back from our hike, all the probes were dangling from their rock bolts bouncing against the cliff in a set of new rapids where the bank had been only hours before. With a bit of rock climbing over the water, we managed to salvage everything except my lost detector. We pulled everything out and set it all up again 500 yards downstream on a large rock outcrop where it still is today.

When you’ve been completely defeated after a long battle, there is pretty much nothing left to do but laugh. The night after I lost the detector, I sat in the mess tent with the rest of the team feeling completely lost. Then over the course of dinner and the night’s conversation, we started joking about the week’s stress, making light of everything, and laughing hard to release the pressure. The following week, I scavenged together enough tubing from around camp to set up another radon detector that is still currently deployed.

Today we are still waiting for the next outburst event. The more days that go by without a supraglacial lake drainage event, the higher the chances are of one happening and the larger we expect it to be. The lakes on the ice sheet will not last the summer and will only get bigger until they drain. With our new respect and mistrust of the river, we hope to be better prepared.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A musk ox herd next to camp.
A large musk ox bull near camp.
More to come soon!  There's a helicopter stopping by our camp on Friday which should be able to take a new post back. So check back then!

Friday, June 17, 2011


Dave Chandler taking a sample near the portal.

Me trying to make a rock seem exciting to Dave Chandler and Catie Butler.

Dave Chandler and Tom Cowton in our mess tent at dinner.

My Best Wildlife Sighting
One morning at 6AM I awoke from the sounds of animals splashing through our lake. I looked out of my tent and saw a herd of musk ox walking into our camp. The herd was very close; the lead bull was less than 30 feet away. I searched my tent for a camera, and not finding it, decided to step outside to watch them. I was so close I could see that their long hair was smooth, untangled and actually looked clean. There were about thirty of them, an assortment of little light brown newborn calves, cows (the females), and one large bull. As soon as I stood up, the herd’s mood changed. They all stopped, looked at me and then turned to their lead cow who was walking on the far side of the herd. They were all noticeably nervous but there was no sign of panic and every animal including the bull waited for their leader to make a sign. After several seconds, she turned and trotted away from me and stopped on a slope about 200 feet away. All the cows and calves quickly followed her while the big bull in front sauntered closer to place himself between his herd and myself. The cows and calves ran directly into a half circle formation and turned to face me. In their half circle, the small calves squeezed between larger cows while the biggest cows stood on the ends. The big bull in front took a few steps towards me and then looked back again. Then, suddenly and in a coordinated movement, the cows sheltering the calves ran ten steps forward in a perfect line while the little calves stayed behind with the lead cow. Completing this maneuver, the lead cow began the official retreat, leading the calves away in a line away from camp and out of sight. Once the calves were safe, the line of cows paused and then ran after the calves. When the entire herd was out of view the big bull again took a few steps towards me, and then paused for a minute to watch me. Finally he turned and slowly walked after his herd, stopping several times to ensure that I wasn’t moving.
Their movements were highly organized and disciplined. Everyone from the smallest calf to the big bull knew exactly what their job was and when to do it. Considering how many times musk ox appears on menus in Greenland’s restaurants, I was impressed at how brave the herd was. The big bull in particular seemed determined to stand me down until he was absolutely sure his herd was safe and only then did he leave.
Later that same day, I went on a run to the ice sheet’s margin and while running up a large hill now covered in wildflowers, I saw a satellite musk ox bull, probably the same one I’d seen on a previous run. Again, he was massive and looked at first like a giant boulder on the hillside. When I got close, he immediately ran from me wanting nothing except to be left alone. I watched him bound over the tundra.
I think I’m realizing just how intelligent and dynamic an animal the musk ox is. It’s always this way, the more time one spends outdoors, the more one appreciates and respects the world we live in and its creatures.
I think it’s too bad that not everyone can experience wilderness like this. It’s also too bad there are so few wild places left. Today it seems like only the most inhospitable places on Earth are left untouched. Even Greenland and the north slope of Alaska are being scoured for oil and minerals.
When I was a geology undergraduate student at Boise State University, I once had to listen to a seminar given by an oil geologist. Recently retired, he came to our department to enlighten us with stories of working for the oil industry and to recruit a new generation of geologists who could find more minerals and oil for society. Seemingly uncomfortable with himself and his message, the man began his diatribe by asking if anyone had been to the north slope of Alaska. We were asked to raise our hands if we’d been there. Predictably, no one had and so he used this as justification to exploit that wilderness. If no one was going to use it or even go there, what was the use of a wild place? His reasoning was that every place should be exploited for our benefit. If humans found a place to be beautiful, we should preserve it for a park. If not, then we should see what other benefit we can gain from its existence. I would argue strongly against this logic and think there is much to be gained by leaving parts of the planet alone. I think we’d do well to act as if we don’t own the land we walk on.
Of course like a person who eats meat but doesn’t approve of hunting, even in our camp in Greenland everything we’ve brought and use came from mining. I guess like many environmentalists, it’s hard to balance a distain for the destruction of the Earth with a love of things like espresso makers. I suppose as scientists, our job is to learn about the natural world and communicate our findings to the public to let them decide.

Café Radon
In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the end of the story comes when the characters are starving and only have a tiny amount of money. With this money, they buy only the absolute bare necessities, which includes a little coffee. They probably could’ve had a little more fried dough but it was more important to maintain some level of normalcy. In the Johnny Cash song, Folsom Prison Blues, the man stuck in prison complains about hearing a train in the distance where he imagines rich people drinking coffee and smoking cigars. The line works because everyone can sympathize.
It’s the simple little pieces of normalcy that make being in the wilderness turn from a hardship into something really fun. When I was a kid I met an arctic explorer on dog sledding trip in northern Minnesota on a Boy Scout trip. The explorer told us how his team had taken snow baths everyday while skiing across both Greenland and Antarctica in an attempt to simulate a shower. When I asked how he could possibly do this he told me, “Whenever you’re in the wilderness, you should keep doing everything you’d normally do at home. All the best explorers do this.”
Here in Greenland, I make coffee everyday for the coffee drinkers with my stovetop espresso maker and good American coffee. It’s usually when I’m running my radon detectors and so my science tent has been named Café Radon. The idea is actually my advisor’s, Matt Charette, who is likely having an espresso with our lab group at 10AM today.
Almost every culture around the world drinks a hot caffeinated beverage either for a break in the workday or as a morning ritual. One of the funniest things about hanging out with British people is seeing their tea drinking habits. We’ll be in a huge rush to go somewhere and then just as we’re ready to go they’ll say, “Quick, lets sit down for a cup of tea.” So we stop everything, put the kettle on, and spend 20 minutes ‘having a brew.’
Other news:
-This week we’ve been joined by three promising undergraduate students: Lizzy Fane, Louise Phillips and Katy Hargreaves. Louise has been busy learning about filtering and hiking on glaciers while Katy and Lizzy have been helping out and preparing for their projects.
 -The mosquitoes are out in force but due to our camp’s location on a saddle between two peaks, we get plenty of wind and have so far only had one day of heavy mosquitoes. While in town I’m instructed to pick up as much antihistamine as possible to help stop swelling from with bug bites.
-Foxy Prince has only been seen a couple times this week and hasn’t been up to his normal antics though we did watch his girlfriend (Foxy Princess) stalk a pair of huge arctic hares. I think when he gets comfortable with the new folks, he’ll come back around.
A ptarmigan in front of Leverett Glacier. I don't have any pictures of musk ox yet but this bird's song sounds like what you'd imagine a musk ox should sound like.

Catie Butler and Louise Phillips hiking accross the glacier.

Me eating a delicious musk ox burger today at the Kangerlussuaq Airport Cafe.

Take a Right after the Plane Crash
            “After you land in Kangerlussuaq, go to the information desk and ask for a four wheel drive taxi...  Yeah, that’s right... Tell them you want to go to Russell Glacier… After driving a long time, you’ll see a plane crash… What?... Yes, a plane crash… Look you’re going to be just fine now get on your plane and come out here! Anyways, just after the plane crash, it should be obvious, take a right down the next four-wheel drive trail and have them drop you at the river’s edge. We’ll meet you there.” Catie’s instructions to Alex on the satellite phone were said with a pleasant British accent as if she were inviting someone over for tea.
            This was Alex’s first view of the team. He stood with his taxi driver on one side of the river while Catie, Stuart and myself put on baggy green chest waders on the other. Catie and Stuart were ready before me and walked downriver to the place we normally cross. Feeling a little lazy and eager to show off how clever I was, I started walking out into the river from where I was, which was a little narrower and required less walking.
            The river was still half frozen and its opaque silt laden water was just barely moving. It was still impossible to tell how deep the river was or how much ice was on it, or indeed if the sand banks in the middle were on ice or if they were part of the riverbed. The day before Stuart had crossed barefoot without incident.
            Taking small little careful steps, I started walking out into the water. The water was immediately up to my knees. I took a few more steps. Then I started sliding, waving my arms wildly as I went. Suddenly the ground gave way under me and I was swimming in water over my head, my chest waders and backpack completely filling with water. My first thought was, “wow, this is really embarrassing,” then, “oh no, I don’t have a change of clothes,” and finally, “umm… I hope I don’t drown” I started doing the breaststroke back to the edge of the drop off and found that the ground I’d been standing on was actually an ice ledge over deep water. So I kicked and paddled my way back to shore, stood up and looked around. Alex and the taxi driver were looking at me in shock while Catie and Stuart were working their way across a short way downriver. I yelled to them and said that I’d just fallen in. They looked over, saw me standing there soaking wet and began laughing hysterically. Like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
            As I was emptying the freezing water from my waders and getting ready to try crossing again, I heard Catie burst out laughing again. Stuart had fallen through a hole in the ice and had gone completely underwater, pack, chest waders and all. The water was so deep his feet didn’t even touch the bottom. He reached up and grabbed the edge of the ice and, adrenaline pumping, hauled himself out in an instant only to find Catie in tears from laughing so hard. Still laughing, she took a step back, slid into a hole and went up to her waist. Seeing Catie fall in, Stuart broke out laughing too. The horror stricken taxi driver threw them a long pole that they successfully used to tap their way across the remaining section of river. As it turns out, the opaque water we were wading through was covering a patchwork of ice that was apparently over really deep water.
            Then it was my turn to cross. Following their footsteps, I made it halfway before I decided that I needed some directions and so I asked Catie to come over and tell me where to go. Midway through giving directions, she stepped into a hole. Her fall happened in slow motion because she kept trying to save herself from going under. One leg through, then the other and finally up to her shoulders going under just enough to completely fill her chest waders, which of course Stuart and I found hilarious.
            Now, all three of us were completely soaked with freezing water on a cold windy day. We went up the riverbank to meet Alex. “Welcome to Greenland!” We all shook hands. Alex was handed a pair of wet waders.
Sam Doyle and Tom Cowton on a glacier traverse.

Tom Cowton's hero shot.

Enjoying science with a cigar.

Slinging Helicopters
“The hammer tapping worked!”
Our pilot had just finished banging on his helicopter with a wrench and was now speaking to a half-asleep mechanic in Norway where it was 2AM. After landing in camp and turning off the engine, the helicopter wouldn’t start, making a sort of popping noise every time the ignition was tried. Our pilot took his headset off, stepped out, and began taking off various panels and digging around. He asked to borrow some tools and spent about an hour messing around while Stuart, Catie and I stood back in mild disbelief.
Once banging on the helicopter with a wrench did the trick, the plan was to take off, hover five feet off the ground and wait for Catie to attach a sling to the helicopter’s belly (she had called dibs on this job). Stuart and I were supposed to make sure the sling wrapped around the gear correctly as it was picked up. In the sling was around 500 pounds of gear that the pilot was taking to Dave Chandler and Dave Ashmore on the Greenland Ice Sheet where they were setting up their ice camp.
After what seemed like awfully brief instructions, our pilot started the engine. As the blades started moving faster Stuart crouched down like someone in an action film. This looked like what you’re supposed to do when a helicopter is taking off 15 feet away and so Catie and I ducked down too. As the rotors picked up, sand started blasting us and soon there was no way to see anything.
I took a moment to look between my fingers covering my eyes, and saw that the helicopter had taken off and was swaying back and forth a few feet in front of us. Catie sprang forward, ran under the giant machine and tried to attach the sling to the underside. Not having any luck, she motioned me to come help and I ran forward too. It was like working under a floating truck in a hurricane but after half a minute we managed to attach the sling. Then we sprinted out from under the helicopter, our hands over our faces, and stumbled our way to safety. With a thumbs-up, the pilot lifted the sling while Stuart stood underneath making sure the sling picked up correctly. It did and the helicopter flew out over our little lake drunkenly swaying as the sling swung from side to side. A few seconds later, the helicopter steadied, and flew off to ice camp.
Catie Butler with the river we've turned pink after a dye trace experiment.

The helicopter before it was fixed with some "hammer tapping."

The Next Day
The pilot can’t find Dave and Sam. They are somewhere on the Greenland Ice Sheet probably around 10 km from its margin. It’s about 35ºF and falling, it’s raining, the clouds are hugging the ground and its almost 9:30PM. Despite the 24 hours of light in the Arctic summer, the low clouds and rain are making it unusually dark. Their satellite phone isn’t working and they can’t make any calls. They do manage to send a short text message to base camp telling us their GPS coordinates. We get a second text telling us they are going to wait until midnight and then attempt to walk to land. The ice sheet at its margin is a maze of steep slopes and crevasses and is nearly impassable. Even if they were well fed, rested, and the weather was good, hiking to land would be very challenging if not impossible. At base camp, we begin phoning the pilot every five minutes. On the fourth try, we get through and slowly repeat Dave and Sam’s location three times to the pilot before hanging up. An hour later we call and they’re back in ice camp happily eating mash potatoes and goulash.
The pilot had dropped them off at one of their GPS stations on the ice sheet, left and then somehow forgot where he had put them. He had flown back to where they’d set up ice camp and where Dave Ashmore was waiting. The pilot was hoping someone would call him and tell him what to do.
Accidents are rarely caused by a single event, usually there are multiple things that lead up to them- a broken phone, a forgetful pilot, bad weather, no food, fatigue, all leading to a dangerous walk in an attempt to reach safety. Fortunately, we received a text message and were able to respond. Fortunately, the pilot was able to fly in the bad weather.
Tundra Running
Yesterday I went on a run up to the ice sheet’s margin. Following musk ox trails, I ran up a series of small peaks near camp while weaving my way through the hills and valleys on my way to the ice. After some miles, I reached the top of a large peak at the edge of Greenland Ice Sheet. Behind me was wilderness as far as I could see. No sign of people whatsoever only snow covered mountains, deep valleys and little ponds- nothing but the Arctic. In front of me was the Greenland Ice Sheet, a maze of deep crevasses and plains of ice stretching out into oblivion; its bleak contrast to the tundra (and me in my running shorts), made it look almost out of place. From my vantage point, I could see several massive glaciers spilling off the ice sheet and into adjacent valleys.
My run back was mostly downhill and so I was going fairly fast, hoping over permafrost hummocks, boulders and well grazed meadows. Toping a small hill, I almost ran strait into a huge musk ox. He wasn’t 20 feet from me when he jumped up apparently having just woke up from a nap. I have a bad habit of running away from wildlife when I should stand my ground and so I started running away from him. I also tend to do embarrassing things when I’m scared so I started talking to him, “Oh wow you’re a huge musk ox. Oh my gosh you’re a really really big musk ox!” I kept repeating that sort of pathetic mantra while looking over my shoulder at the big animal staring me down. Musk ox are not usually very dangerous but they will charge if they feel threatened or scared which was what I was afraid of. I stopped about 100 feet from him and looked back. As soon as I did this he started running away from me, his shaggy coat nearly dragging on the ground as he went.

Musk ox remain my favorite animal. Here are a few cool facts about them:
-They are more closely related to sheep and goats than anything else.
-They walked the arctic with wooly mammoths during the Pleistocene.
-Their wool is worth more by weight than gold.
-They form protective circles around their young whenever threatened (just like Triceratops).
-They are made into delicious burgers at the Kangerlussuaq Airport Cafe.

In other news
-Foxy Prince is trying to domesticate himself. The other day, I was sitting outside playing guitar enjoying some much needed nice weather when he stopped by. After wandering around a few feet from me he got sleepy, laid down and took a little nap while I played. Latter that day he waltzed right into our dinning tent while we were all chatting. Not expecting him, we jumped which made him jump and run out. He is pretty spry and I’ve been seeing him run around for the past six weeks so just to reassure the folks at home, I don’t think I’m making the mistake of befriending a rabid fox.
-At the moment, we’re in the middle of our first gas and dye tracer test from the ice sheet to the glacier’s portal. This means that at the moment I’m writing this, I’m hunkered down in a little tent a few feet from the river with the task of taking one sample per hour all night long (we’re a little short staffed at the moment). This is my second night in a row but don’t worry, I’ve got a French press, three huge chocolate bars and loads of ramen noodles. I got this.

Dave Ashmore (Two Hoods) enjoying a cigar (I'm a bad influence).

The Foxy Prince himself taking a nap next to me.

The winner of the caption competition! From my brother in-law Guillaume Jimenez.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hopefully the end of winter

“Hot, still, mosquitoes! Millions of the bastards!”
-From last year’s logbook.
East Greenland and the UK have been pleasantly warm while west Greenland and northeast Canada have been very cold. Here in camp, winter seems to still be in full force. There is more snow forecast for this weekend and it’s snowing right now. My hands have been constantly cold. Some people in camp have developed blisters on the tops of their hands, and from what I gather from my wilderness medicine book, it’s the result of rapidly cooling and heating skin. I’m guessing that submerging our hands in freezing water to take samples and then shoving them in our armpits might be doing this.
We had a good laugh when we read the wilderness medicine book’s section on hypothermia. “Symptoms of the onset of hypothermia include: sensations of cold; shivering; incoordination in hand movements… muscular incoordination, stumbling gait, and maladaptive behavior.” We immediately diagnosed each other with hypothermia citing numerous instances of maladaptive behavior and incoordiation.
Our supervisors have left and the joke is that it’s going to turn into an Arctic version of Lord of the Flies. I think an important first step was taken in this direction when we gave each other nicknames. There is Two Hoods, Sleeps like a Tortoise, Can’t Go Home, Dyes Things Pink, Gas Dancer, Knits Like the Wind, Captain Lyndsey, and Hewhosnicknameisinappropriateforthisblog. Can you guess who anyone is?
End of May in camp.
   On the work side of things, the Gas Chromatograph (GC) continues to give us trouble. Like our hands, we suspect it wasn’t made to operate in freezing conditions. According to Stuart Vinen, possible problems include “bad cold traps, bad nitrogen gas, a possible leak, and the less than ideal operating temperatures.” We’re working on fixing the first three problems and hopefully when it warms, the instrument will stabilize. The GC is a critical piece of equipment for us. When Dave Chandler and Dave Ashmore head to ice camp on the Greenland Ice Sheet they will send a tracer gas down crevasses where it will travel through the innards of the ice sheet and Leverett Glacier. The GC will be used to detect when this gas is discharged from the glacier at the portal. During these tests those of us in camp will be taking samples and testing the tracer gas concentration on our GC. This will be repeated as many times as possible.
This gas tracing through the glacier will help us learn about the glacier’s hydrology, or how meltwater travels from the top of the glacier to its front. By injecting a gas tracer instead of a chemical one, we will not only learn how long it takes the melt water to go from the top of the ice sheet to its front, we’ll also learn something about the nature of the tunnels the meltwater travels through. Imagine the meltwater is traveling through a tunnel and then suddenly enters a large cavern within the glacier. A portion of our injected gas will enter the air in this cavern while the rest of the gas travels quickly through in the water. In time the gas in the cavern’s airspace will slowly dissolve back into the meltwater where it will continue towards the glacier’s portal. When we measure the concentration of gas at the glacier’s portal, we’ll initially see a high concentration peak that will slowly tail off. A slower, longer tail of gas will indicate that the gas was slowed down in caverns within the glacier while a large peak followed by a small concentration tail will indicate fewer caverns within the glacier. All of this information will help us understand the inner workings of the ice sheet and by repeating this through the melt season, we’ll learn how the hydrology of the Greeenland Ice Sheet’s changes through the season.
Unfortunately, getting a helicopter also continues to be a problem. We’ve moved the location of the first ice camp from 10km to 2km up glacier so we can hike all the equipment necessary for gas injections. Dave Chandler, our post-doc in charge, deserves considerable praise for his determination to get all the equipment up the glacier. He’s enlisted a few of us to help carrying loads though he’s done most of the work himself. Because the things we have to carry are awkward, bulky, and heavy, these trips have been some of the toughest hikes I've ever been on.
Me carrying a large load up to the first ice camp.

My work has actually been going really well. In field science, there is always a day or two of what my master’s degree advisor called, “mandatory floundering” but then usually things smooth out. Fortunately, for me there has only been mild to moderate floundering.
My job is to measure three radioactive isotopes, radon, beryllium, and radium. Isotopes are to elements what different flavors are to ice cream. If you start with vanilla ice cream, and add chocolate chips to some of it, you have two different flavors based on the same ice cream. Similarly, isotopes are like different flavors of elements. Carbon-14, the famous isotope of carbon used to “date” organic matter, has two more neutrons than regular carbon-12. Just like a different ice cream flavor, carbon-14 has different properties, notably it is radioactive and decays away over time. Unlike chocolate chip vanilla ice cream, I don’t want a large carbon-14 milkshake right now.
Anyways, the radon I’m looking for is the same as the radon you may have worried was building up in your basement. Radon enters the base of the glacier the same way it enters a basement, that is through the radioactive decay of the uranium naturally found in rocks. Radon coming out of the glacier’s portal can tell us the proportion of meltwater that has traveled along the glacier’s base. As mentioned in the “About the Expedition” section of this blog, this basal water is important as it may lubricate the base of the glacier and help it move faster. So I’m using radon to trace water moving along the glacier’s base. I’m also looking at radium. Similar to radon, radium should track basal water and is produced through the radioactive decay of uranium found in the rocks under the glacier.
My radon detector at the glacier's portal.

To get at the component of meltwater derived from melting snow on top the ice sheet, I’m analyzing beryllium-7. Beryllium-7 is formed in the upper atmosphere by cosmogenic rays coming from the sun. This isotope of beryllium undergoes radioactive decay and due to its short half-life, we can assume any beryllium measured is derived from last year’s snowmelt. Finally,isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen will be used to quantify the component of meltwater derived from melted ice. So, in short my job is to use isotopes to determine what percentage of the meltwater is derived from snow or ice melt and then how much of it is moving along the base of the ice sheet before it comes out at the portal.
In other news:
-The recent volcano in Iceland has prevented one of our field techs from making it here (sorry you couldn’t make it Amy!).
-The Arctic fox has been dutifully visiting my tent every morning though he is being more considerate about the time he wakes me up. This morning at 7:30 he came right up to my head and yelped. This got me sitting up, heart pounding, and very confused until I saw his little silhouette on the side of my tent. Someone has named him Foxy Prince.
-After a lot of noisy fighting, the three geese on the pond next to our camp are now just two geese. They enjoy honking to each other all night long and going nuts when we fill our water bottles. I keep saying we should eat them now before it’s too late and they reproduce. This mere suggestion is met with the same stalwart resistance as my proposition to eat just one of the arctic hares.
-According to an old man in Kangerlussuaq the mosquitoes are going to be here in ten days.
Caption competition! Who can come up with the best caption for this photo!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Life in Camp

So there I was. Barefoot on a rock in only my running shorts, a bottle of shampoo in my hand. There’s a gentle breeze and a few flakes of snow are falling from the cloudy sky. I’m on a mission to win our camp’s Polar Bear Challenge.
The waterfall comes out from directly under the river ice and half of it is still frozen. Our temperature probe says the water is exactly 31.7F. I guess when water is moving it can get a little below its freezing point.
I step off the rock onto sharp icy snow and walk to a large pool of ankle deep water. It’s about 100 feet to the waterfall and I start to jog over the ice and water. My feet start to burn and then burn more. I slow to a halt and almost chicken out. Then, regaining composure I tip toe forward wincing every time my feet go in the water. I stop just before the falls and then edge closer. When the water hits me, I have an out of body of experience and see myself hyperventilating while frantically washing my hair. Thirty seconds later, I run back to my towel. 
Our swimming hole.
In the end I’m the only one who comes out with clean hair netting me 70 Greenland Points (GP) which has given me a solid lead over the rest of the team. Other ways to rack up points include cleaning the toilet (50 GP); one full week in camp (10 GP); one full week camping on the ice sheet (20 GP); going to town and not taking a shower (10 GP). Finally, you lose 10 GP for every shower taken in town.
It’s been a cold few weeks here in Greenland. I thought for sure by May 21st our river would be melted and raging but instead the ice has been getting thicker. This has been a bit of a concern as we have scientific probes stuck under the ice between the river rocks on the shore and the river ice. Every other day this week it has snowed. The snow on top of Leverett Glacier is still there, and it seems that after a month of waiting, we’re still at the very beginning of the melt season. Even as I write this, several more inches of snow are piling up on my tent.
In camp we’ve been taking daily samples of the river, fixing and testing equipment, hiking heavy packs around, and drinking lots of tea. We’ve been eating a lot. Living outside in the cold and hiking all the time makes everyone very hungry. There have been a number of people sent to town to buy parts for equipment and so we’ve had delicacies like apples and tiny slices of cheese that are eaten as slowly as possible.
Looking out of the Portal of Leverett Glacier.
There are some advantages to the cold weather. As mentioned in the previous post, we’ve had better access to the glacier’s mouth, the portal. We can just walk up the river instead of an hour hike up and over a large hill and then with crampons and ice axes, down the steep slope of the glacier while hunting for crevasses hidden by snow. This afternoon, Lyndsey Mackay, Tom Cowton and myself hiked to the portal to collect samples. This was the first time I’ve been there and not seen any melt water. Last week while sampling, streams of water were cascading off the glacier’s edge accompanied by small rocks. When a rock twice the size of my head slammed down a few feet from me, we stopped sampling and immediately left. Today’s visit was much more subdued. We took a lot of pictures, explored the portal, and then hiked back over the river.
Our science tents.
Everyone has been in good spirits and we’ve been keeping each other happy. After dinner we sit around reading while Lyndsey or myself play guitar until it gets too cold. Dave, Lyndsey and I have written a few songs about Greenland, mostly the kind that would make any twelve-year-old laugh. We’ve also spent a few evenings watching musk ox graze nearby while the sun gets low and the colors change.
This morning at an unspeakably early hour, an Arctic Fox decided it really needed to get into my tent. I’ve been leaving my tent door open all the time because I want to save my zippers from the dust and sand which will destroy them long before the mosquitoes come. Also my sleeping bag is ridiculously warm. Anyways, I woke to the sound of little feet padding around my head. When I opened my eyes I jumped and made that kind of feeble yelping sound that happens when you're really startled, which is always embarrassing. An adorable little arctic fox was inches from my face sniffing and staring at me without any sign of fear. When I jumped he ran out of my tent’s vestibule only to sit down right outside and watch me. I didn’t have my camera and as I mentioned, it was unspeakably early so I tried to shoo him away. I’d pretend to throw something at him and yell which made him back up a few feet but then he'd come right back. After about 15 minutes of this, I got out of my tent to chase him away. He ran away, I went back to bed and 10 minutes later he woke me up trying to squeeze under my now zipped vestibule. He dutifully spent the next few hours making sure I didn’t sleep. Finally, he left me alone when he discovered the geese on our pond but by then it was time to get up. He was only about half their size but seemed to have fun chasing them around the pond ice.
I guess foxes love the smell of Peanut Butter Cups as much as I do.
Me forgetting my crampons and everyone else crossing the glacier.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Water Chemist

Leverett Glacier comes off of the Greenland Ice Sheet from the east. The main portal, which funnels meltwater from most of the glacier’s catchment area, discharges a river on the north side of the glacier. Our camp is just north of this river sitting on top of a saddle between two small peaks. Before yesterday, only a few people from our camp had ever ventured to the south side of the river or explored the rest of the glacier’s terminus. In the early season, we’ve assumed the river ice was too dangerous to cross and in the summer high flows make crossing impossible. However, this year has been unseasonably cold and in places, the river ice is still almost two feet thick. Yesterday, Jemma Wadham, Matt Charette and I walked across the frozen river to search for new field sites. We carried packs full of equipment to assist in our assessments and interpretations.
Home away from home.

Huge piles of rocks and dirt sit in front of Leverett Glacier as if a massive bulldozer had pushed them there and then left. In front of these piles, the landscape might as well be the Moon’s surface. No trees, grasses or even weeds take root here, and so there is nothing but mud, sand, rocks and ice. The only sign of life we saw was the occasional fox and geese tracks. As we hiked, we discovered several small ponds and a stream feeding back to the main river. There were also several springs of groundwater coming up through the rocks. One was obviously different. It was trickling out of the top of a 30-foot mound of ice and was blood red. To figure out what it was, we deployed our arsenal of water chemistry tools.

The first thing we checked was the electrical conductivity of the water. We do this to measure the amount of ions in the water. Ions are dissolved free elements or small combinations of elements floating freely through the water. Ions are either negatively or positively charged. For example, if you add table salt to a glass of water, you are adding sodium chloride salt (NaCl) that dissolves to Na+ and Cl-. Sodium has a +1 charge while chloride has a -1 charge and so no matter how much table salt you add to water, the total charge remains neutral but the conductivity of the water will increase. In fact, one of the most important laws of water chemistry is that all waters have an equal amount of negative and positive ions. Basically, our electrical conductivity meter measures the amount of salt dissolved in the water. For our purposes, a low conductivity measurement likely indicates recent snowmelt, whereas a high reading means the water is likely older and has traveled a long distance. Older water has spent more time weathering rocks and so contains more dissolved ions. We are most interested in water that has spent time under the glacier as it might tell us about the glacier itself. We assume that this "basal water" (water from the glacier's base)  will have a significantly higher conductivity than recent snowmelt. The blood red ice spring had exceptionally high conductivity so we knew its water source was distant.

Chemistry with a view.
Next, we checked the pH. pH is the “master” variable for water chemistry and is the most important parameter for most chemical studies. Using only a simple hand held pH probe, a decent chemist can map out the extent of an oil spill, determine the source of groundwater, or even make guesses as to what rocks the water has been in contact with. Are plants photosynthesizing in the water? Check the pH. Can your drinking water carry dissolved uranium? Check the pH. In our case, we use pH for the same reason we use conductivity. That is to try to differentiate between recent snowmelt and water from the bottom of the glacier. Snowfall should be in equilibrium with carbon dioxide, an acid, and so should have a lower pH than water coming from under the glacier. Our blood red springs has a pH of 8, meaning the water is more alkaline and is certainly not recent snowmelt.

After taking a pH reading, we collected water to analyze back at our university labs. We fill multiple bottles of various sizes, each for a specific purpose. Some of these samples are filtered before they are collected while others are taken raw. How each bottle is filled is also important. For dissolved gas samples we fill and cap the bottle underwater to ensure there are no bubbles to lose gas through. In contrast, a head space is left at the top of each dissolved metal bottle as those bottles will be frozen and we don’t want them to burst. The things we can’t measure in the field include oxygen and deuterium isotopes, dissolved organic carbon, fatty lipids, anions, cations, metals, and alkalinity. Each of these parameters requires special equipment, trained technicians, and each analysis needs to be completed within a specified amount of time. The data will be used to build models, fuel interpretations, give talks, and publish papers.

At each site, I take as many notes as time allows. Each entry is dated and the time is recorded, and each stop is given a unique name (something like GRE-11-009). I also use a hand held global positioning unit (GPS) to record each location. In addition to recording all the parameters measured on site, I make sketches of the glacier and possible water flow paths. I also write down any interpretations made at each site. Phil Bennet, my master’s degree advisor would always tell me, “Interpret as you go!” and so I do. In the old days scientists would spend a great deal of time crafting their field notes, making detailed drawings and writing extensive interpretations. Today, I think some of this art is lost though most college level field courses grade heavily on a student’s field notes.

Finally, we take pictures of each field site and use notebooks, pencils and each other for scale. These pictures will wind up being projected on large screens at meetings when we present our findings and ideally, the pictures won’t show us with dumb looks on our faces.

Red water. Why? Photo by Matt Charette
Last year, some German geologists stopped by camp and described the blood red spring to the team. To explain the color, they invoked a plane crash to account for the amount of iron that was obviously staining everything. In science, this is what is know as “arm waving,” which is basically coming up with far fetched ideas to explain something while likely waving your arms for emphasis. When I first saw the springs, I noticed the deep black clay we were walking through near the spring and the dark black metamorphic rocks surrounding it. Without really knowing what I was talking about, I suggested an iron ore body below us. Again, more arm waving. Matt and Jemma came to a more logical conclusion.

Long ago, before Leverett Glacier existed, this area of Greenland was covered in trees and grasses. Then, over a long period of time, Leverett Glacier formed off of the Greenland Ice Sheet and bulldozed over all the vegetation covering it under layers and layers of ice. This ancient forest is still here except that now it is in the form of simple dissolved organic carbon. Today this carbon is food for an array of bacteria that have been slowly munching away on it ever since it was buried by the glacier. When these bugs eat carbon they need to dispose of the carbon’s electrons and so they give the electrons to oxygen. This is exactly what we do every time we take a breath. Under the glacier with no new source of oxygen, these oxygen-breathing bugs quickly used all the oxygen and died out. This made way for a new breed of bugs. These new bugs were breathing iron, pulling it out of the rocks to dispose of the electrons taken from carbon. When bacteria do this, the iron no longer wants to form minerals and becomes dissolved in the water. Today, the water flowing under Leverett Glacier is full of the used iron bugs have breathed, and when this iron reaches the surface at our blood red springs, it meets again with oxygen and forms a microcrystalline red mineral, rust, over everything the water touches. If there is one truth about life on Earth it is that if life can exist, it will. Even if it is under a glacier without any oxygen.

Jemma Wadham, the principle investigator of our team, is a professor of physical geography in the Bristol Glaciology Center at the University of Bristol, and Matt Charette, my advisor, is a scientist in the Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.