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!