Category Archives: Polar Exploration

Below Petermann Glacier: The First 100 Days

I am still stunned to see data coming to me hourly from below a glacier in northern Greenland while I sip my breakfast coffee. Each and every day for the last 100 days I got my data fix from the Ocean Weather Station that was born 100 days ago. Every morning at 8:15 the station sends me data from 5 ocean sensors below the glacier. A year ago I did not even know that I would be going to northern Greenland with the Swedish icebreaker I/B Oden in the summer of 2015, never mind that we would be able to pull off the engineering challenge to set up the first and only ocean observing system of Greenland. Today, I am over-joyed to report, we got 100 days of data.


University of Delaware PhD student Peter Washam at the Ocean-Weather station on Petermann Gletscher after final installation 2015-Aug.-20, 17:00 UTC at 80 39.9697 N and 60 29.7135 W.

It all started when a French PhD student approached me at a scientific meeting in San Francisco last December. Céline is a now a doctor of oceanography, but at the time she was not. At the meeting Dr. Céline Heuzé of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden asked me for data and insights on how the ocean circulation in Nares Strait worked, so that she could connect results from planned field work in northern Greenland to her science interests in the Labrador Sea more than 1000 miles to the south. She also introduced me to Dr. Anna Wåhlin and the three of us got very excited about Petermann Fjord, Sweden, and polar oceanography. Here we are in Sweden preparing and off Greenland working:

A few weeks prior the US government and Sweden had just agreed to work together on a joint expedition to Petermann Fjord in northern Greenland. Friends at Oregon State University needed a ship to collect data with which to reconstruct and understand changes of the land- sea-, and ice-scape of North Greenland during the last 10,000 to 50,000 years. They wanted to uncover where past glaciers were located and where sea level was at that time. For this, they needed many sediment cores from the adjacent ocean, fjord, and below the floating glacier. Today this glacier is as thick as the Empire State Building in Manhattan is high. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) agreed to drill the holes, collect the sediment samples, and take a profile of ocean properties from below the glacier ice to the bottom of the ocean. They estimated it would take about 5 days to drill each hole. Our idea was to use these holes to keep sensors, computers, and satellite phones in place to collect hourly data into the future as long as possible … 100 days so far.

After the Dec.-2014 San Francisco meeting we decided to use these holes to measure ocean temperature, salinity, and pressure for as long as the batteries would last, about 3-4 years, but I had neither money, cables, data logging computers, nor satellite phones to do any of this, only the ocean sensors. When I told Keith Nicholls of BAS about the idea and my predicament, he said that he could find some computers and satellite phones from experiments he had done in Antarctica. I then said that I would organize cables, a weather station, and some funds to pay for it.

A crowd-funding experiment in February failed to generate funds, but NASA came to the rescue by opening a way to compete for the needed $60,000 to cover the cost of hardware, travel, and satellite phone charges. The funds allowed us to ship about 1200 pounds of gear from Delaware to Sweden where it had to be loaded onto the ship in May of 2015. We did not have much time to built the system and had no time left to test it. Two drums of cable arrived with only 5 hours to spare before the ship left Sweden in June for Greenland. We met the ship in Thule, Greenland in July.

Fast-forward to the 20th of August 2015 when our ocean observing system went into the salty ocean waters below Petermann Gletscher. The surface weather station with satellite connections was deployed 10 days earlier to test satellite communications and collect weather data for Oden’s extensive helicopter flight operations on and around the glacier. It included a rushed visit by a large team from CBS News 60 Minutes who were flown and shown all over the place. We last saw the station during 24 hours of day light on 27th August when we calibrated the wind sensors, but to me the daily satellite phone call of the station with new data is a sign of life from an ocean outpost that survived another day in the total darkness of the polar night. It draws energy from two car batteries that run even at the -36 degree Centigrade (-33 F).


First 100 days of ocean and weather observations from the University of Delaware Ocean Weather Station on Petermann Gletscher, Greenland. Panels show (from bottom to top) time series of 1. battery voltage, 2. ocean (red) and air (black) temperatures, 3. wind speed, 4. wind direction, 5. glacier movement, and 6. atmospheric pressure. Time is given in year-day, Nov.-28 is Day-332. The sun set on Day-290 or Oct.-17.

New data are posted at

which over the next few weeks we will develop into a web-site to distribute the daily observations to everyone. I am most thankful to many of scientists, engineers, technicians, sailors, and women in England, Sweden, and the United States of America, but this Thanks-Giving weekend I am grateful to the men and women of a great nation that gave me a place to study, work, and live doing while exploring ocean and now glacier physics as well.

EDIT: I just discovered this 7 minute video on our expedition, credits go to Saskia Madlener at 77th Parallel Productions:

Tribal Interactions and Arctic Research

Arctic field work connects people of different backgrounds, disciplines, and tribes. Last week I spent 3 days in Maine where I met with Arctic archeologists, anthropologists, and students of all ages. Susan Kaplan and Genevieve LeMoine run the Arctic Peary-McMillan Museum and do extensive field work in Labrador, Cape Sheridan atop Ellesmere Island (Canada), and northern Greenland. A class of smart sophomore asked more questions than I could answer in the morning and a diverse group of citizen did the same in the evening. I represented the “physics tribe.”

We learnt of each other after I posted an illustrated essay “Ruins of Fort Conger” that contained this image taken near Petermann Fjord in 2012

Fort Conger rebuilt 1900 by Peary

Carl Rose on the left was a seaman on our last 2012 expedition while Jonathan Poole is a marine field technician with whom I work often. They stand before a hut built by Admiral Robert Peary in 1900 on one of his early excursions to reach the North Pole. The 2012 photo bears remarkable similarity to one taken in 1909 that Genevieve LeMoine describes on her blog with title “Tides of the Arctic.”

Donald MacMillan and Jack Barnes at Fort Conger, spring 1909 [From LeMoine, 2013]

Donald MacMillan and Jack Barnes at Fort Conger, spring 1909 [From LeMoine, 2013]

It shows Donald McMillan and Jack Barnes in 1909 during a later Peary expedition. The pictures and histories are displayed at the “Glimmer of the Polar Sea” exhibition at the Bowdoin’s Peary-McMillan Arctic Museum. These huts are the closest “shelter” to Petermann Fjord about 50 miles to the east. The men visiting Fort Conger in 1909 and 2012 look towards the ocean which in 2012 looked like this

Discovery Harbor off Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island as seen from helicopter in 2012.

Discovery Harbor off Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island in 2012.

We visited the site in 2012 to recover an ocean sensor that, so we hoped, had measured tides and temperatures for 9 years earlier. For 9 long years we had no way to tell, if either sensor or data existed. Only after recovery in 2012 did we jubilantly find sensors and data. At the time we deployed this sensor in 2003 technology did not exist to get data out from the ice-covered ocean. We are trying to develop technology to change this. The non-trivial goal is to get such data out as it is collected without waiting for 9 years. That’s what my crowd-funding project is about: Develop new technologies and share all data, results, and excitement.

If funded, this project will produce results immediately as ocean temperatures (and salinities) will be transmitted to the word wide web for anyone to use as she or he sees fit. Please help and be part of the cutting edge of Arctic Oceanography: Tell your friends, tell your family, and tell your colleagues about the science, about the Arctic, about the beauty, about the climate, and about the physics of the ocean.

Men and Women on the Edge 1

EDIT: Original post was too long and rambling. One advice by wise female council, I decided to turn this into two separate posts. This is the first. July 5, 2014.

The “Quiet American” is not a popular book in the United States of America, but to me it described the dilemma and dangers of being American very well. Continue reading

Of Moorings, Elephants, Norwegians, and Codswallop

The oceans are cruel, unforgiving, and destructive. Microbes, algae, plankton, fish, and whales all evolved slowly to make the seas their home. We men and women of science and technology race to catch-up Continue reading

Deep Sea Biology and Chemistry: Muddy Business

Mud, mud, and more muddy mud was hauled from the bottom of the ocean for
the last five days from depths of one, two, and even three miles below the
icy surface. The biologists aboard are having a Continue reading