Monday, April 2, 2012

Crystals forming on the snow

We headed back to Qaanaaq late morning as another glorious day broke out with cold (-20C) temperatures but bright sunshine. You know it is really cold when the snow starts to grow crystals. Basically any moisture that in the air is drawn onto the snow and crystallizes on it.

We had redistributed the weights so that the dog sled teams would be more balanced and set out together as a four sled convoy. Perhaps because we knew what to expect, the going was much easier than on the way in although the conditions were the same.

Doing pushups to stay warm
We stopped for a CTD station and were joined for a few minutes by the two skidoos that are used to ferry the freshly caught halibut in Qetortaq to the airport in Qaanaaq. These were the only skidoos we ever saw in the area and I was later to learn that skidoos in general were banned in the area in order to protect the traditional dog sled way of life.

While we were stopped for the CTD we also lunched on more than our standard chocolate bars and hot water. Avigaq beckoned us over to the lunch that all the hunters were eating and we ate with them - hacking out pieces from a whole frozen fish, eating strips of dried fish - think smoked, savory, fatty, fish ice cream. Unlike some of the esoteric food I have eaten this tasted great.

Lunch with Avigaq
To break the monotony of the trip and to stay warm we would often jump off the sled and run alongside. Other times when the sleds were taking a break - to rest the dogs, to untangle the leashes - we would walk ahead and then jump on when the sleds crossed us.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Waking up in qetortaq - we needed to be out before nine so that school could go into session - we broke up into two teams. Jeremy and Stefan went off to the Tracy Glacier to do more CTD work while the rest of us went out just around the corner from the village to deploy an Ice Mass Balance and GPS buoys. 

Drilling for the Ice Mass Balance Buoy Deployment
The Ice Mass Balance Buoy measures the growth and melt of sea ice over a period of time. This helps us understand the processes that control the melt of sea ice. On this expedition we are using these buoys to monitor the melt processes near the glacier. It seems somewhat counterintuitive but the sea ice actually grows in thickness just before it melts. What happens is that the sea water which is at -1.5 C interacts with the melt water from the glacier which is at 0 C. As fresh water is more buoyant it floats onto the underside of the ice where it might freeze. So, just before the melt cycle the ice might grow thicker. 

Using these buoys we are also getting a temperature profile through the ice which tells us how the heat is being transferred from the atmosphere to the ocean. 

The plane, the runway and the people 
The GPS buoys are specialized GPS receivers capable of measuring the latitude, longitude and height to a few centimeters. They allow us to look at the effects of tidal changes on the sea ice. They are also used to monitor the small scale movements of the ice that are not visible to the naked eye that could influence the breakup of the pack when the ice melts. 

After deploying the buoys we dropped Susanne and Shane back at the village and continued on to a small set of grounded icebergs right outside the village. Given all our previous experiences we went to some lengths to protect our computers from the cold. Peter had slipped his laptop inside his overall so that it would remain warm courtesy his body heat. I had all the batteries to run the plan inside my overalls. In getting to the site we had shovel a small runway for the plane.  Lars and Christian, the two hunters who were with us, took turns with me in shoveling off the four inches of snow that covered the area. They are both near sixty years of age but went to it with such gusto that they made short work of it. 

Peter flew a nice mission over the icebergs although the cameras failed to take any pictures. 
He wound up landing the plane in the snow where it did a single cartwheel but was not damaged. 
Carrying water home

When we got back to the village, Shane and Peter took off on a walk and wound up being invited to 
a party at a house where they feasted on walrus, seal, fish and chocolate cake. In the evening six of us and two of the hunters shared a house. Lars and Christian had both carried back large lumps of ice from the grounded icebergs which they broke up and dumped into our water containers. We were all somewhat dreading the long trek back and suggested that we get an early start but the hunters insisted on a mellow ten o'clock start and just urged us to hydrate for the return. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Wednesday was the day that we had to set out for Qetortoq which is a small fishing village inside the fjord next to the Tracy Glacier. We set out with all our gear packed on four sleds with four hunters and their dog teams. On starting out we broke up into two groups. Stefan, Peter and I went with two of the hunters while the others formed a separate group. We planned to race ahead to the halfway point and spend a few hours doing a CTD cast while the others took a more circuitous route. The other sleds were out to get ground truth data to validate an NASA airplane borne sensor overflight, but they would catch up with us as we did our station on the ice. 

Doing a 800m CTD cast from a hole in the ice
Our two hunters, Avigaq and Rasmus, are among the mellowest people I have met. Rasmus' sled which held the heavy CTD gear is far larger than the others and uses 16 dogs. Setting out on the sleds at 10ish in the morning we quickly left the town as we headed east into the fjord. The frozen fjord is like a vast level plain covered with a inch or so of snow and surrounded by sheer cliffs on either side. The sense one got was we were pulled along on the dog sleds was similar to sailing. The pace was not overly fast (depending on the ice the dogs can go 20km/hr but they were much slower going 7-8 km/hr on our trip) and the surroundings were beautiful. 

Three hours after starting out we stopped to do our CTD cast. Having done a number of CTDs on oceanographic expeditions it was interesting to see the setup here. FIrst we drilled a hole in the ice and setup the winch next to it. The CTD itself was kept in a special box with a generator on the side supplying power for a hair dryer to keep the CTD cell from freezing. The data from the CTD casts has been interesting on this expedition. 

We could document the warm Atlantic waters creeping all the way upto the glaciers on the far side of the fjord again although the nature of the interactions this year versus last are far different.  
Last year the temperature at this time of the year was much warmer compared to this year and the difference in the CTD casts seems to represent two completely different regimes in the sea-ice glacier interactions.  

As we were doing the CTD cast the mist rolled in and it got noticeably cooler. You might think a couple of degrees does not matter when you are at -25C but the change in comfort level is not linear. 

We pressed on after doing the CTD but were a little puzzled that the other two sleds had not caught up with us as yet. It was about this time that I started really feeling the cold. Hunched up on the back of the sled I went from stopping to care about taking any more pictures, to going over in my head whether the symptoms of intense cold in my hands and feet matched up with what I knew about hypothermia (they didn't but it was hard to think clearly at that point). 

The Cold Ride to Qetortoq
The saving grace really was our hunters. Avigaq who noticed all of us hunched up asked me how I was doing and when I told him I was feeling cold he ordered me to start walking and to run along the sled to keep my circulation going. While running, all bundled and while wearing big boots was hard, walking every hour while the dogs rested made a huge difference to how warm I felt. My feet unfroze. While I was still cold, it was just a mind numbing cold. And to make matters worse the snow was unexpectedly thick further up the fjord which made for far slower sledding and a trip that should have taken eight to ten hours stretched out into twelve. 

It was a relief to get into the small hamlet of Qetortoq and to walk into a very well heated church/school where we were supposed to spend the night.  I have come to the conclusion that the smaller a place, the more open and welcoming are the people. And nowhere was this more in evidence than in qetortoq. The church was quickly opened to us, a generator was fired up so that we could have electricity, and graciously they shared their water as opposed to us having to melt ice for ourselves. 

Peter relaxes on a polar bear skin in the community church cum school
where we spent the night
We still had no contact with the other two sleds despite our repeated efforts to contact them over the satellite phone and we were getting a little worried but laid out our sleeping bags on skins that the hunters shared with us and went to bed. At 2 o'clock in the morning the others walked in, really cold and tired. They had been behind us all the time dealing with the thicker snow and their trip wound up taking 15 hours in total. But we were all happy to be together again and freeze dried chicken curry in hot water never tasted so good. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Looking up at the Airplane

Sunday and Monday were happy exhausting days. Jeremy and Stefan went out on sunday to do some local surveys for temperature and currents. Shane and Susanne continue to build up and test the instruments we will be deploying near the glaciers while we had our first test flights with our two planes. 

Peter set up the electric plane first and it was wonderful to see the plane take off, fly with its auto pilot and then have Peter bring it in for perfect landing. We were worried about whether we would need skis (instead of wheels) to take off from the snow but we found that the tracks people had made on the ice worked well for takeoff and landing. 

Stefan and Jeremy came back tired, cold and happy from there first foray on the ice. The temperatures this year have been much colder and so they had problems with getting their generator to start up and work. It turns out that laptops also refuse to turn on in the very cold as they 
have a little temperature sensor which shuts down the hard drive when it detects temperatures below -25C.

When we worked on the gasoline powered plane however, it did not go as well. The gasoline engine did not want to start! After much coaxing with a hair dryer, it did finally start but when we went to fly one of the servos also decided that it was too cold. So we went back to concentrating on getting the electric plane ready. We got a few more test flights much to the delight of all the children in the village. Even the dump truck driver that hauls ice from the icebergs back into town to be melted for drinking water stopped to watch us fly. 
Dump Truck headed to Iceberg to harvest ice to be melted
for drinking water

We are now packing up to head out to the glacier where we will be spending the next three days.

There is no internet on the glacier so this blog might not get updated until we get back thursday evening. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Polar Bear Trousers
Someone just sent me a question regarding how we deal with the cold...

So, I thought it would be instructive to compare the clothes we wear with those of the Greenlandic people. 

Here's what we wear

Fleece Pants, Thermal Top, followed by a Carhart Overall, on top of which we top on an expedition strength Parka filled with thick down. These clothes are actually quite heavy and bulky to put on and walk around in. On our face we have a balaclava and ski goggles. 

In comparison the Greenlandic people wear polar bear trousers, a coat made of polar bear fur as well, but turned inside out, and fur lined sealskin gloves. They wear a hat but in wandering around town they do not cover their faces like I do. 

The dogs do not wear anything. In fact they sleep outside in the cold.

Even at -25C, you can feel surprisingly warm. When we were wandering around as tourists in Kangerlussiaq we often felt hot and took off our thick parkas or unzipped them. However, if you are standing around outside (waiting to do science) it gets cold. When you are on the dog sled (more on that
when we get out) it is really cold. 

p.s. I just got a chance to read over some of my previous postings. Looking them over I noticed there  were a lot of errors. For all the students in the Wiley-Buscher class, if you spot any of the errors you can ask for a Buscher buck :-)!

We finally got to see all our equipment. The damage was minor - two of the boxes were broken but they did serve to protect everything inside. We drove down into Qaanaaq, which is a village of about 500 people situated on a hill overlooking a fjord. Our hotel has a nice view of the fjord, the island across it and the icebergs that are across it. 

We went quickly into checking out our scientific gear and getting ready for measurements on the ice. 
Susanne and Jeremy went to talk to the hunters whose dog sleds we will be using over the next two weeks. Stefan was busy setting up his two primary instruments, the CTD (for measuring Conducivity, Temperature, Depth and for obtaining water samples) and an ADCP for making measurements of currents in the fjord. Shane was busy putting together Ice Mass Balance instruments that were to be deployed through the ice. Over the next week I will talk about what each of these instruments do and what they tell us about the environment but for those who want a sneak peek I would encourage you 
to check out the websites of some my colleagues in Woods Hole - Sarah Das, Fiamma Straneo also work in Greenland and they both are also experts in glaciology and the complex interactions of glaciers with the oceans and climate. 

Peter Kimball working on the airplane in confined quarters
Peter Kimball and myself were busy working on getting the airplanes put together. We did notice a broken tail section but Peter made short work of fixing it. All the batteries that we use had to be  charged. 

We all went to bed tired but happy to be working. The plan for tomorrow calls for us to 
make our first test flight. Stefan and Jeremy will go out on a sled to do some of the oceanography nearby while Susanne and Shane will continue to work on getting the instrumentation together. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

I know you are wondering about the state of our cargo boxes (last seen toppling of a fork lift while being loaded into a cargo bay). Well so are we. Unfortunately we will not know until we get into
Qaanaaq. Instead on Friday, the 23rd we took the plane to Ilulissat and spent the afternoon there. 

Ilulissat is one of the two biggest towns in Greenland. We were just transiting through so I thought I would simply give you all a few impressions of what we saw and heard. 
Fisherman Coming Home

Looking out from the hotel we saw an amazing view of the fjord with icebergs grounded in the middle. There was a somewhat open channel leading out into the fjord and to our surprise we saw a bunch of small fishing boats vending their way back after what had to be a hard and cold day's work. 

Walking out to downtown I was astounded to the large amount of people walking up and down the main street. School had  just let out and all the teenagers were slowly making their way home, a couple in really thin jackets (one guy in just a thick flannel shirt!) in -15C. 
The little kids making their way through the streets had made every little snow pile into a sledding hill. 

Some of the signs on the street were interesting as well. 
Santa's Sleigh

A restaurant was advertising hval gholash (Whale Goulash) although we ate thai at the Inuit cafe.

The Disko Whale Zafari for a mere $699 offered, and I quote:
"Discover: Giant Icebers ath the outer scenery of the Ilulissat Icefjord - UNESCO-site,
the Spectacular Vulcanic Disko coastline, and the Unique experience of the Majesty of the Sea - 
the Whale"

with a note on the bottom
"Note: We have no contract with the Whales so - no guarantee."

And then there were the dogs. In the evening there was a constant low volume howling of the huskies that live outside a number of the homes. In a town of 4500 people there are roughly 3500 dogs. Perhaps nowhere are the cultural effects of global warming being felt as they are here in Greenland. The dog sledge has for centuries provided an efficient and reliable means of transport here. But with warming temperatures rising at twice the rate in the Arctic as compared to most parts of the world, climate changes in the area have led to rising temperatures, more wind and less snow. The areas of sea ice have decreased and the ice has become thinner. As opposed to some far off possible risk the dangers of climate change wreaking havoc in a culture are very real for the Greenlandic people. 

Saturday morning we were up early for the flight to Uppernavik and then to Qaanaaq. Right outside Uppernavik is the spot where Santa parks his sleigh in the off-season. 

We are psyched to be in Qaanaaq and to get moving on our science.