Saturday, April 30, 2011

Traveling to Greenland

Geology is a science that always reminds me of how small I am. On every time scale and in every location, the Earth is changing whether you can see it or not. Years ago on a geology field class in Wyoming, we hiked to the top of a mountain to see the Yellowstone Caldera, or the volcanoes’ vent. Despite our vantage point and the clear weather, none of us could see it. Then our professor started pointing it out. If you looked to a mountain range a hundred miles distant and followed it to the left or right, the mountains circled back to where we were standing. We were on the rim of the world’s largest volcano and Yellowstone National Park sat in its mouth. I suspect even for the volcanologist, it’s difficult to comprehend the force of the eruption that created that crater. Flying over Greenland is similarly impressive.
I’m seeing sea ice for the first time. The in-flight map shows the plane still several hundred miles from Greenland’s coast, and yet below us is a vast expanse of blinding white ice floating on the ocean like shattered glass. My thoughts are drawn to that cold stretch of the planet below, polar bears hunting seals and narwhals breaching between icebergs. Everything is fighting to survive. Up on the plane with my shoes off and computer out, the drink cart is on its way and I’m going to order another free beer.
Now, the sea ice is gone and the tops of tall rugged mountain jut out from what looks like snowdrifts. This is the beginning of the Greenland Ice Sheet. From the air, Greenland appears like pictures I’ve seen of the Himalayas or Antarctica and looks just as majestic and threatening. I’m not sure how high the peaks are but they are surprisingly close to my vantage point at 36,000 feet.
At its center, the Greenland Ice Sheet is almost two miles thick and covers most of the world’s largest island. Scientists believe that the weight of the ice has pushed much of Greenland’s crust below sea level. This is the Principle of Isostasy, which interestingly is an idea that grew from Darwin’s observations of volcanic barrier-reef islands that appeared to be at different stages of sinking into the ocean. He hypothesized that the crust was not static and that given enough time, whole islands could descend into the sea while the reefs ringing them continued to grow towards the light. Just as most of Canada is still slowly rising after losing its ice sheet after the Pleistocene, Greenland would take tens of thousands of years to rise to its former heights if it lost its ice.
As we come in for landing, we dip below the clouds and I can see the ice sheet transition into land. Out the window are rivers of blocky and broken ice that wind for tens of miles through mountain valleys. Everything is covered with snow. The approach into Kangerlussuaq seems tight, with mountains on either side and there is turbulence. I can’t help but think how crazy it is to want to go camping right here, right now. It makes me nervous. In fact, I think this is the first time I haven’t breathed a sigh of relief upon landing.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Email test

Just a test of the email notification system from Following the Ice.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Base Camp

Today we hiked into our future base camp. The glacier in the background is Leverett Glacier where our study will take place. The temperature is actually nearing the melting point though the river discharging the glacier is frozen to its bottom. I am absolutely amazed at how massive these glaciers are.

Leaving Home

“Do I need a gun?”
“No, polar bears are fairly rare in this part of Greenland.”
“Fairly rare?”
Dr. Jemma Wadham, one of our expedition leaders, laughed and told me not to worry. They hadn’t seen any bears in the past. Aside from the fairly rare massive carnivores, I’m told there will be other hazards- hurricane force winds, plagues of biting flies and mosquitoes, glacier traverses, and of course the daunting task of keeping equipment working in the Arctic for 100 days.
This trip is the result of a lot of planning and preparation. A few weeks ago, I sent five hundred pounds of equipment to Greenland, and I really hope it’ll be waiting for me when I arrive. Last week I called our contact in Greenland to whom I’ve shipped everything, and asked about Greenland Customs or anything else I should be concerned about. I’m not sure he understood the questions but he did respond (in a thick accent), “No, not necessary,” whatever that meant. The shipment includes everything from radon detectors and solar panels to pounds of Peanut Butter Cups and coffee. I also shipped what my advisor has termed our “Science Tent” which is really just a large heavy-duty hunting tent from Cabela’s, which for some reason comes equipped with no less than six cup holders. There I will set up my laboratory, an amalgamation of car batteries, computers, detectors, and tools. For sleeping, I brought a small four-season tent and a very warm sleeping bag.

There are a number of things I decided I couldn’t live without. Despite a friend’s insistence that I should do away with technology and adopt an aesthetic lifestyle, I bought a Kindle and filled it full of the classics I don’t have the attention span to read within 10 miles of the Internet. Also, in addition to my approximately 100 pounds of luggage, I’m dragging a guitar through all of my flights, a hostel in Copenhagen, and the helicopter ride to our field site. Basically, I hope to return to the states well read, less bad at the guitar, and very rich in data.
In the following months I will be camping in Greenland next to and possibly on the Greenland Ice Sheet (See “About the Expedition” page). I will be writing about our work, life on and around the ice and the people I meet. If you’re interested in this blog, enter your email into the “follow by email” option on this page. This way, you’ll be notified whenever a new post is made and you won’t have to incessantly check for new material. Despite the lack of Internet on the Greenland Ice Sheet, this blog will be updated many times this summer. As researchers come and go through our camp, every week or so, I’ll give them digital copies of pictures and writing to email to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for posting. I will also be taking a few trips to Kangerlussuaq, the nearest town, and would love to have non-work related emails to respond to.