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Following the Ice: In the Beginning


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The river crossing in May last year before the annual melt made it unpassable.

The river crossing in May last year before the annual melt made it unpassable.

Over the past few months I lost sleep almost every night thinking about Greenland. Polar bears and river crossings were always at the edge of my mind while lying in bed in Massachusetts. These thoughts sometimes kept me up till dawn. But the first night in my tent, I fell asleep instantly and slept well.

The morning I left, I loaded my car and took my dog on one last walk. When we got back she laid down next to the car and wouldn’t move, anxious about the large amount of gear in the car. The two of us set off for the airport—she took a flight to Minnesota where she’ll spend the summer with my parents and I left for Greenland.

After a night in Copenhagen and an amazing flight to Greenland (I was glued to the window watching the Greenland Ice Sheet), we landed in West Greenland in the town of Kangerlussuaq. While other towns in Greenland are composed of picturesque colorful houses clinging to the sides of fjords, Kangerlussuaq is more like an old army base. The town is, in fact, a former U.S. Air Force base, and life seems to revolve around the airport. That being said the town is exceptionally friendly, there are some good tourist shops, and if you like eating musk ox, this is the place for you. The animals are hunted and butchered locally and served at every restaurant. You can get musk ox burgers, musk ox pizza, and musk ox curry—my standard breakfast, lunch and dinner in town. It’s the kind of place where drivers wave at each other on the few roads, and it’s not uncommon to find employees at shops playing a game or goofing off when there are no customers.

At the airport I met my team, a scrappy group of young British graduate students and researchers. Everyone was carrying huge backpacks and wearing down jackets. All of us were excited to finally be at the start of the field season. Nice weather greeted us, the sun was shining, it wasn’t too cold, and the wind wasn’t blowing. After a compulsory musk ox burger at the airport, we began our many errands in hopes of heading to camp that day. We asked our contact at the Kangerlussuaq Science Support Center whether it’d been an especially warm spring and he looked at us slightly annoyed and said, no it’d been very cold, like usual. That afternoon as if to prove his point, it snowed for hours.

Our camp is about 15 miles as the crow flies from Kangerlussuaq. To get there we drive down a dirt road for about an hour and then turn onto a smaller road that ends at a river. Just before our turn-off we pass an old plane crash that’s spread over either side of the road. We’re told the plane crashed years ago when a fighter pilot couldn’t land because of bad weather, but that he ejected safely. At the end of the road is a river, and if it weren’t for this river, our camp would be much less isolated. As the melt season progresses, the river will swell with glacial meltwater and the ferry we’ve built—which consists of a small dingy, a static climbing rope and some pulleys—could become unusable. Last summer, icebergs the size of compact cars and a set of rapids kept us from crossing for over a month during peak melt. When we ran out of fuel for our generator and food for us, someone in town came out to our crossing, and using a rope we’d strung out above the river, transferred some essentials. If this happens again this summer, we’ll become even more dependent on our satellite phones and our wits.

After the river crossing, camp is an hour hike, over a riverbed and then up a long, steep hill covered in sand dunes. It’s never an easy hike and we typically have too much gear on our backs. Helicopters in Greenland are expensive and can be very hard to schedule, so much of our equipment, food and fuel, is hiked in.

Camp in May 2011

Camp in May 2011

Having spent almost four months living in our camp last year, I took my time hiking in this year. Very little had changed. I passed the caribou antlers I’d placed on a boulder, the musk ox mummy that marks the start of the hill climb, and looking across the valley I saw the large white rock I routinely mistook for a polar bear (which I did again this year). It felt like I’d never left and in fact I’ve only been gone nine months. I set my “science tent” up in the exact same place and used the same rocks to secure it from the wind.

My science tent (which is currently keeping me sheltered from some freezing rain) is a hefty green dome tent where I live and work. I’ve tried to make it as comfortable as possible. My feeling is that the more comfortable my living situation is the more I’ll want to stay and work. To that end, I’ve hiked in a small worktable, a chair, and best of all, a little cot to sleep on. The tent’s dark green color even helps dim the arctic summer night. After a windstorm, dust and sand covers everything so I keep a small broom for sweeping (no shoes inside!). For electricity I’ve hiked in several car batteries that can be charged on solar panels or during the few hours a day we run the generator.

Like last season, I’ve taken my running shoes and clothes. Running over musk ox trails on the tundra next to the Greenland Ice Sheet is a memorable experience. The ground is soft, the peaks steep, and the views are spectacular. I usually run to the top of a small peak that overlooks the Greenland Ice Sheet where I’ve started a pile of rocks (one for each run). At the top, I stretch, shadow box and soak up the surroundings. It’s a much-needed respite from camp, a chance to be alone, and it makes me appreciate the immensity of the place. Back in camp after a run there are a few minutes I’m warm enough to take an ice-cold bucket shower. After about a week without a shower, I think most people start to miss being clean (and want to go home), so I suck it up, hold my breath, and convince myself to pour the burning cold water on my head.

Last year, the month of May was marked by frequent visits by very curious arctic foxes. We named an especially friendly one Foxy Prince (see previous post) and his “girlfriend,” Foxy Princes. At one point Foxy Prince sauntered into our mess tent in the middle of dinner. When there is no one else for miles around it’s very unnerving to see someone else wander in. He looked at us as if surprised we weren’t expecting him, and then bolted back out the door. My favorite memory of Foxy Prince is the time he took a nap a few feet from me while I was playing guitar. My own dog hates my guitar playing and though she’ll lie down next to me, she whines incessantly (I swear I’m not that bad!). During the early part of last season Foxy Prince came by my tent every morning and woke me up. I think he’d figured out the location of the largest secret candy stash in camp.

I’ve yet to see any foxes yet, though we’ve heard their laughing bark and seen their tracks. It seems they’ve been replaced in camp by ravens—one woke me up this morning. He called a few times and then landed on top of my tent where he said something else, his odd call sounding like pebbles being dropped into a still pond. Ravens have managed to carry away tins of food and have even opened them up.

Also missing so far are musk ox—I’ve yet to see or smell any (sometimes you can smell them before you see them). Last year, hardly a day went by without seeing “our herd” or “Harold.” Harold being a satellite bull I often saw, usually while out on runs. Animal populations in the Arctic typically go through boom and bust cycles, so perhaps the past winter was a rough one or the heard has moved. I’d been looking forward to seeing Foxy Prince and the other animals again, in a way like seeing old friends, so I’m bit sad they’re not around yet.

Glaciers 101

A typical large load coming to camp last year and the way we typically brought it in.

A typical large load coming to camp last year and the way we typically brought it in.

In view from our camp and an hour hike away, is Leverett Glacier, a mid-sized, land-terminated glacier that spills off the Greenland Ice Sheet. Through there are other more accessible glaciers in Greenland (Russell Glacier for example), through years of work, we’ve learned that Leverett has a massive and definable catchment area, a single meltwater discharge point, and because it is moderately accessible in a fairly inaccessible country, we’ve chosen to study it extensively.

How glaciers melt and move is complex. Forced downhill by gravity, glaciers compress, deform, and slide while moving and crushing the rocks beneath them. Lakes of meltwater form on the ice surface and when the weight of the water becomes too great, the ice splits open, and can drain them in a matter of hours. During the early season before efficient meltwater channels develop under the ice, meltwater at the bottom of glaciers can physically lift the entire mass of ice and move it downhill. As this basal water (water at the glacier’s base) rushes beneath a glacier, it slowly breaks down and dissolves rocks and even supports a diverse community of microbial life that lives beneath the ice.

My work will focus on the chemistry of meltwater discharging from Leverett Glacier and my goal is to determine where the meltwater comes from and where it’s been. Some of the questions I’m interested in are:

·       How long has the meltwater spent under the ice sheet?

·       What percentage of the meltwater is derived from ice melted at the glacier’s base, how much is melted surface ice, and how much is snowmelt?

·       Does friction cause more ice to melt at the glacier’s base when the glacier is accelerating?

·       Do the types of subglacial meltwater flowpaths have an effect on the physical acceleration of glaciers?

·       Will a warmer climate cause these glaciers to slide faster or slower?

·       What are the weathering rates of the rocks beneath the glacier and can I estimate the amount of CO2 consumption via rock weathering occurring under the glacier?

·       And finally, are subglacial environments conducive to methylating mercury, and if so is glacial meltwater is a source for methylmercury in the Arctic marine food web?

To answer these questions, I’m taking samples of the glacial meltwater river next to our camp at all hours of the day and night. The team is also taking many kinds of samples and each type is collected in a bottle specifically prepared for a particular analysis. We’ve also deployed a hefty arsenal of detectors, probes, and instruments into the river to monitor things like pH and electrical conductivity 24 hours a day. Extremely accurate GPS stations have been installed across the glacier and the Greenland Ice Sheet to monitor when and how Leverett Glacier moves. Data from the GPS stations will be compared with our chemical and physical observations at the river discharging from beneath the glacier. Hopefully we can synthesize all of this data and through lots of collaboration, put it all together.

Stay tuned for the next update! We’re only 10 days into the season and I’ve got over 70 more to go!

Previously in this series:

Following the Ice: Greenland

Ben Linhoff About the Author: Ben Linhoff studies glaciers and chemical oceanography in the MIT/WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Joint Program in Oceanography where he is a second year PhD student. He writes about glaciers, the arctic, climate change, and adventures. Follow on Twitter @FollowingTheIce.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Carlyle 5:33 pm 05/24/2012

    Wishing you & your fellow researchers an enjoyable & scientifically productive season. I look forward to your next post.

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  2. 2. CatieB 11:54 am 05/28/2012

    Hey Ben, hope Foxy Prince has appeared by now, but he wasn’t there in 2010 so I guess you might just have to make do with the ravens this year! Looking forward to hearing more about camp.

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  3. 3. jessica1995 8:13 pm 05/30/2012

    Wow Ben! I just saw your blog, it’s so cool! I think you are so brave for doing research in Greenland and figuring out what’s happening to our planet. You must have to be very strong and tough to work there. Do you ever get lonely? Please keep posting! Do you have any pictures of yourself at work?

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