Field Work on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Part 1

Part 1: Living in an Unlivable Place

Megan here-

The tent glows orange as the sun shines in, waking me up to a cold, crisp morning. Only, it’s not really morning yet. It’s 3:00 AM and far from breakfast time. The wind rattles the thin flaps of my tent, reminding me of the powerful cold outside of my warm haven. This is the Greenland Ice Sheet. This is the icy expanse where the summer sun barely sets, the temperatures are well below freezing, and the wind can numb your face. This is also where I work.

I recently returned from three weeks of field work on the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) where I helped collect data for the University of Wyoming and the University of Montana’s glaciology group. Our collaborative group consists of two lead professors (one at each university) and a handful of graduate students, postdocs, and associates. This year, six of us flew to Greenland to collect data for our ongoing study of ice sheet dynamics. This was my first field season on the GrIS, and it was like no other experience I have ever had.

Where did we go?

Nestled between the Arctic and the Atlantic Oceans lies an icy mecca for glaciologists: Greenland. Greenland is an island almost entirely covered by an ice sheet, which is a body of glacier ice that covers a very large area (greater than 50,000 square kilometers). Today, ice sheets blanket both Antarctica and Greenland (Figure 1; at left). If the GrIS were to melt it could raise sea level by an astounding 7.2 meters (Church and Gregory, 2001). With such potential for catastrophe in a warming climate, the GrIS has become the center of many studies investigating glaciology, climatology, oceanography, and much more.

Our group set off for the GrIS with the goal of better understanding meltwater flow in the accumulation zone. This is a region of the ice sheet where there is net accumulation of snow. We set up our field site on a snowy spot called Crawford Point (Figure 1, in black square). Aside from a weather station on the horizon, the views were the same in every direction: a flat white ground and a clear blue sky. Of course, that was on a “good weather day.” We had our fair share of days when ground blizzards prevented us from seeing more than a few feet ahead, or when clouds rolled in and the world around us became an empty whiteness.

Figure 1 (on the left) is of the sites of interest in Greenland. Kangerlussuaq (indicated by the yellow circle) is a small municipality of about 500 people. Located next to the ice sheet, Kanger (for short) occupies a flat region at the eastern end of a deep fjord. In fact, Kangerlussuaq translates to “big fjord” in Greenlandic. During WWII, it was founded by the U.S. and used as a U.S. airbase. Though no longer an active military base, Kanger is the site of Greenland’s largest airport and is almost entirely dependent on tourism. Our field site (Crawford Point) sits within the square on the ice sheet.

How did we get there?

Figure 2. (A) An Air National Guard C-130 plane flew us from Schenectady, New York to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. (B) A Twin Otter plane flew us from Kangerlussuaq to our field site, Crawford Point. Both this plane and the C-130 have skis so they can land on snow. (C) The view from the C-130 as we flew into Greenland showed a dynamic coastline with many mountains and glaciers. (D) Many outlet glaciers of the ice sheet could be seen as we flew from Kangerlussuaq to Crawford Point.

From the United States, the journey to the GrIS is rich with excitement and with boredom. Most of us flew into Albany, New York and then took a military flight to Greenland. The Stratton Air National Guard Base runs periodic flights from Schenectady, New York to Greenland with their C-130 planes (Figure 2). These are training flights, which means that the pilot and the on-board mechanics are practicing ensuring that these planes run perfectly. Because of that, successfully leaving the base took two days and a few attempts. At one point, we departed on the plane and flew for about an hour before turning around and landing. Finally, we arrived in Kangerlussuaq, which is a small town on the southwest coast of Greenland (Figure 1).

In Kangerlussuaq, we worked for a few days as we prepared our gear and instrumentation for a successful field season. A massive amount of planning and work goes into field preparation, because once we’re out on the ice sheet, there’s little chance of deliveries or spare parts. When our day to fly out to the site finally came, we were ready. A Twin Otter plane (Figure 2) flew us an hour and a half from Kangerlussuaq to Crawford Point. We needed four flights to bring ourselves and all of our gear to the field site, and three flights to leave.

What’s it like to live and work on an ice sheet?

Figure 3. Our camp consisted of one cook tent (orange dome), six personal tents (extending linearly from the cook tent to the right), and a work tent (not pictured). This photo was taken before the wind piled up many feet of snow around our tents.

Life on the ice sheet is thoroughly unusual. At Crawford Point, we set up six personal tents, a cook tent, and a work tent (Figure 3). We also dug out a latrine in the snow, which we covered with a tarp to keep out of the wind. The latrine experience was…interesting, to say the least. We actually used our core barrel, which is designed to extract cores of snow and ice, to create a toilet (Figure 4).

Figure 4. We used a core barrel to create the toilet in our dug-out latrine. After the toilet was complete, we covered the latrine with a tarp to block the wind and snow.

Each day we’d eat a modest breakfast and lunch together, and then we would take turns cooking dinner on our Coleman camp stove. The meals became somewhat repetitive, but I appreciated having a warm and filling dinner after a day’s work. However, by the ended of the trip I detested beef jerky, I couldn’t eat another bite of cheese (which is saying a lot, because I love cheese), and all I could think about was a fresh, green salad. Still, I was grateful to have sufficient food while living in a wildly unlivable place.

Aside from the hundreds to thousands of meters of ice and snow that cover Greenland, what really makes the ice sheet uninhabitable is the weather. The cold air and blistering wind demanded rather intense clothing and gear. Every day I wore gigantic triple-layer Baffin boots, wool socks, a thermal base layer, fleece-lined pants, snow pants, a pullover fleece, a heavy jacket, a neck warmer, a hat, thick gloves, and either polarized sunglasses or ski goggles. Getting ready in the morning was quite the feat. One of the many challenges was actually completing work while wearing so many clothes. I would often have to pull off a glove to tighten a small screw, or shed a few layers after I warmed up from shoveling.

Figure 5. Here I stand in front of the Russell Glacier, an outlet of the GrIS. Calving (a process by which glaciers shed icebergs) leaves behind clean faces of blue glacier ice. The river running along the glacier appears thick and milky due to the large quantity of sediment that it carries.

Luckily, after our three weeks on the ice sheet, our remaining time in Kangerlussuaq was warm and sunny. We took a day and drove out to the ice sheet margin (yes, you can do that), where we hiked to the Russell Glacier (Figure 5). Standing at the edge of the ice sheet was a humbling and breathtaking moment. The ice glowed blue, the milky river roared as it flowed next to the glacier, and an occasional crash could be heard as the glacier calved into the flowing river. This one moment shifted my perspective of so many things. Those three weeks of field work, the months of lab work, and these couple of years of my master’s finally fit in a bigger picture that I could see right before me. And in that moment, the struggling graduate student in me found the motivation and confidence I needed to keep working, learning, and progressing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I discuss the scientific work we completed!

References

Church, J.A., Gregory, J.M., 2001. Changes in Sea Level, in: Houghton, J.T., Ding, Y., Griggs, D.J., Noguer, M., van der Linden, P.J., Dai, X., Maskell, K., Johnson, C.A. (Eds.), Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, pp. 639–694.

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