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!


  1. "So there Ben, whatcha think that there radons' tellin' ya bout the glacier?"

  2. Hey Dances-with-foxes. Did you get your rabies shot? Those foxes commonly have rabies, especially the ones that get close to humans. Maybe check in town to see if the foxes are dangerous these days. In the mid-nineties, any fox that got close to humans was shot on site. Actually, if you got rabies then you'd get a free ride to Sisimiut in a helicopter. Finally a helicopter for you!

  3. Caption competition entry: "in absence of melt season, Catie exploits colleagues to make 'genuine Greenlandic handicrafts' to sell at airport shop"

  4. Enjoying following the blog. I was meant to be out with you 22nd of May til 11th of June but was hospitalised for 3 and a half weeks. Seems like I'm missing out on a much colder experience than I'd anticipated, but I think I'd prefer that to the mosquitos! Wow @ the Arctic Fox - I didn't see one at all last year.