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!