Tag Archives: exploration

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. The book by Graham Greene can be read as a simple love triangle between an old and corrupt French colonial officer of Indochina. His mistress is a young Vietnamese girl. She is delicate and beautiful, but also full of youth and potential who is eager to please her masters whom she shapes subconsciously. This relation becomes a volatile triangle when a young and innocent American enters full of good intentions. He falls in love with Indochina, sets out to free it from all the shackles of a corrupt past, but being ignorant and well-educated, his actions destroy all corners of the triangle in an unintended violent crescendo of people who follow their emotions that nobody can control once the equilibrium is disturbed.

The_Quiet_American

About 10 years after Graham Greene wrote his book, a friend of mine, Ron, served as a 20-year old as the door machine gunner with the First US cavalry. He does not talk much about his time with this Army helicopter unit that was fighting hard in Vietnam along many honorable Vietnamese most of whom, he says, vanished. Ron credits the war in Vietnam to have saved his life as it provided him a way out of the gang-infested poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles that he grew up in. The Army also provided him with an education and element of temporary stability that gave him one basic element for a somewhat crazy but happy life. He did not go to Vietnam with intentions to change the world, and he did not, but he came back with an education more profound and deeply human than any arm-chair writer or sailor could ever wish for.

Ron’s education is not as formal as that of almost everyone aboard FS Polarstern a German research icebreaker where I spent my last 5 weeks working off Greenland, but Ron’s mechanical skill, common sense, and independent spirit matches several people aboard who have not had the privilege or luck to go to university, graduate school, and all that follows. Nevertheless, Ron, Jo, and many like them do know and care deeply about nature and people and how to make things work that are difficult to penetrate for most academics. Great new things happen, however, when the formal and the informal, the male and the female, the pacifist and the warrior come together with respect and humility to listen to each other without blowing screens of smoke into each other’s faces.

Sunset over the North Sea heading to north-east Greenland.

Sunset over the North Sea heading to north-east Greenland.

And a happy 238th Birthday to my adopted country on this 4th of July.

Boarding an Ice Breaker by Bicycle and Immigration

I walked from the train station in Bremerhaven-Lehe to the FS Polarstern at the Kaiserdock almost 2 miles due west. This research icebreaker is still repaired in dry dock and we see her entire steely keel. Just like icebergs, most of her steel is usually invisible below the water. A German naval ship is in a floating dry dock next to us on one side while a massive contraption of ship to deploy offshore wind power plants floats on the other side. This is an industrial area where people with hard-hats and blue overalls work, mostly men: sparks fly from welding jobs, water gushes intermittently, horns blare when cranes move overhead. Cranes, water, ships, steel everywhere.

This is where I live after moving in last night. This morning I picked up my Canadian colleague Jonathan Poole with whom I share a cabin. His arrival was late, nasty, and expensive, because he was denied an US transit visa for the flimsiest of reasons to reach this ship in Germany from Canada. The way that some of my adopted country’s representatives use their powers arbitrarily makes me mad. Nevertheless, we did arrive together, on bicycles rented for 7 Euros or about $10 per day. I met the ship’s doctor bicycling from ship to town while I did the reverse. Bicycling is the fastest and most convenient way to get around.

Bremerhaven breathes the sea as it lies along the tidal Weser Estuary. It is a town that throughout its history has been dominated by people working steel, ships, shipyards, and fish. My favorite dish, pickled herrings, are a daily dish that in the US is only available in the rare food isle in upscale supermarkets or tiny, urban Jewish neighborhoods such as Highland Park, NJ. Such dependence on ships and fish has come at the cost of boom and bust cycles as steel-working and ship-building has changed globally the last 5 decades with more and more of these activities moving to Asia. Nevertheless, Bremerhaven appears ahead of the curve as old-technology ship-building is replaced by specialized construction, shipping, and deployment of massive offshore wind power plants. Most of the bizarre-looking structures around us in port directly relate to these new technologies that are designed to harvest natural and renewable energies on a massive industrial scale to partly power an advanced economy.

Bremerhaven also served as the main port through which German immigrants left by ship. I learnt this today at the “Deutsches Auswanderer Museum” (German Immigrant’s Museum) after a long bicycle ride all over the port. These immigrants left in sailing ships, steamers, and ocean liners for the Americas both north and south, but most left for New York’s Ellis Island to escape hunger, unemployment, the industrial revolution, political and religious persecutions. A few also left for a sense of crazy adventure to see what’s out there. Personal stories are told and I could identify with more than a few of them even though I emigrated via graduate school arriving at JFK Airport after an 8 hour plane ride from London Heathrow the fall of 1986.

So, here I am, a German immigrant returning to Germany as an American working on an international science project off Greenland. Fun, and yet, there were goose bumps walking the gang-plank boarding the steam ship “Lahn” at the Immigrant’s Museum.

P.S.: Frank Schneider of the Senior-Internet-Cafe generously allowed me access to his wireless network that I used to post this report.

North Greenland Glacier Ice-Ocean Interactions 2014

I will travel to Spitsbergen in six weeks to board the German research icebreaker Polarstern. She will sail west across the Fram Strait towards northern Greenland where some of the last remaining glaciers exist that still discharge their ice via extensive floating ice-shelves. If all goes well, we will deploy instruments on the bottom of the ocean across a 30 km wide submarine canyon (Norske Ore Trough). The instruments profile ocean velocities from the bottom to the surface of the canyon that connects the deep (warm) ocean to the shallow continental shelf areas which then connect to two large outlet glaciers, Zachariae and 79N Glaciers. These are two of three glacier that terminate the North-East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS) which contains about 15 per cent of Greenland’s ice sheet:

Speed of Greenland's ice sheet movements. NE indicates the fast-moving (red) North-East Greenland Ice Stream with 3 branches connecting it to the ocean. [From Mauri Pelto's blog]

Speed of Greenland’s ice sheet movements. NE indicates the fast moving (red) North-East Greenland Ice Stream with 3 branches connecting it to the ocean. [From Mauri Pelto's blog]

The most southern is Storstrommen Glacier, a tidewater glacier with an almost vertical glacial front attached to the bedrock. The next one up north is Zachariae Glacier which lost its extensive ice-shelf during the last 3 years in a dramatic collapse reported on Mari Pelto’s blog. Presumably, there is little floating ice-shelf left that is attached to the lacier. And only 30 km to the north, we have 79N Glacier whose real name is the Danish Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden. It rivals Petermann Gletscher in ice discharge, areal coverage, thickness, and more with one exception: Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden’s ice-shelf appears remarkabe stable, nobody knows why exactly, but it may provide clues on how Greenland’s ice sheet interacts with and responds to forcing by the oceans. I show a recent Landsat image taken from Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice Forum; the floating glacier is on the left (east) of the image with a set of 5-7 out-cropping islands towards the right (west) providing some pinning support for the ~30 km wide front of the glacier:

Landsat image of Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden on Mar.-22, 2014.

Landsat image of Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden on Mar.-22, 2014.

Our 2014 study area is actually to the east, just outside the frame of the above image. The reason is lack of ship time, as this year’s deployment is just a small pilot study to better prepare and understand a larger German-led experiment that will take place both on the glacier and its adjacent ocean and land in 2016 and, I hope, beyond. Furthermore, we are scheduled to be there in June, a tad early for all the sea ice to clear out of the area (79N Glacier MODIS summer imagery) which also explains my intense interest in how the ice develops. And a first fairly clear MODIS image came about yesterday morning:

Ice-covered coastal waters off northeast Greenland April 14, 2014. Red contour indicates 100-m water depth. The "horseshoe" shaped red island is Belgica Bank with Norske Oer Trough to its south-west.

Ice-covered coastal waters off northeast Greenland April 14, 2014. Red contour indicates 100-m water depth. The “horseshoe-shaped red island is Belgica Bank with Norske Oer Trough to its south-west.

Belgica Bank is about as big as the Georges Bank in the Gulf of Maine. In past decades rafted multi-year ice and tabular icebergs often grounded over shallow Belgica Bank and thus provided an anchor to maintain stability for a year-round land-fast ice cover called the Norske Oer Ice Barrier. This year-round land-fast ice area, however, disintegrated in 2003 and has become an intermittent and not a regular feature for unknown reasons.

Before I can get onto the German icebreaker in Spitsbergen, my 3500 kg of equipment had to be repaired, rebuilt, re-powered, and shipped from British Columbia to Germany via rail, ocean freighter, and truck. It all arrived in 86 pieces only last friday, two weeks behind schedule, because of ice and confused shipping schedules in the Canadian Gulf of St. Lawrence. Lots of great people in Canada, the USA, and Germany made it happen. Wish us luck for the next step in this exciting scientific exploration to reveal one of many of Greenland’s glacier and ocean mysteries.

Hughes, N., Wilkinson, J., & Wadhams, P. (2011). Multi-satellite sensor analysis of fast-ice development in the Norske Øer Ice Barrier, northeast Greenland Annals of Glaciology, 52 (57), 151-160 DOI: 10.3189/172756411795931633

Wadhams, P., Wilkinson, J., & McPhail, S. (2006). A new view of the underside of Arctic sea ice Geophysical Research Letters, 33 (4) DOI: 10.1029/2005GL025131

Fram Strait Ice, Oil, and Glaciers

Tomorrow I fly to Germany to prepare for an ocean experiment in the shallow waters off northern Greenland. Together with oceanographers from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Germany, I hope to deploy 5 ocean current measuring devices on the bottom of the ocean for 2-3 years in Norske Oer Trough to the west of Belgica Bank inside the little black box to measure the ocean heat moving deep below the surface towards 79N Glacier, one of the last remaining glaciers of Greenland with an attached ice shelf floating atop the ocean:

Map of North Greenland with shallow (red/yellow) and deep (blue) oceans. Future study area are black boxes on the continental shelf of north-east Greenland.

Map of North Greenland with shallow (red/yellow) and deep (blue) oceans. Future study area are black boxes on the continental shelf of north-east Greenland. Small box is the area shown via MODIS imagery below.

Anotated MODIS images of 79N Glacier and Zachariae Icestream in September 2009 (left) and 2013 (right). Thick red line is 100-m depth with icebergs grounded on Belgica Bank often supporting extensive land-fast ice such as in 2009 but not 2013.

Anotated MODIS images of 79N Glacier and Zachariae Icestream in September 2009 (left) and 2013 (right). Thick red line is 100-m depth, thin red lines 200 and 300-m depth. Icebergs often ground on Belgica Bank (<100- deep) supporting extensive land-fast ice such as in 2009 but not 2013.

To do this, I need about 7000 pounds of equipment to get from western Canada to northern Greenland. All this stuff sits in the Port of Montreal (Canada) waiting for the freighter “Montreal Express” to ship it all to Hamburg and Bremerhaven to be loaded onto the R/V Polarstern, AWI’s research icebreaker. All ships are tracked via https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ in real time and, I just checked, she just left Hamburg for Montreal this morning.

The Arctic research community is tiny and I try my darnest to share data, news, and developments without breaking confidences. A good friend and colleague of mine, Prof. Preben Gudmandsen, lives and works in Denmark. He is as excited as am I about all things related to Greenland which includes the upcoming experiment(s) in Fram Strait. By training Preben is an electrical engineer and helped developed some of the first radars with which to probe Greenland’s ice-sheet. We visit and e-mail each other as often as our professional and private lives allow, but he just sent me these images of western Fram Strait off Greenland:

And on related matters, I discovered earlier this week that Norway’s StatOil has a license to explore this very shelf area for oil and gas exploration as explained in this official StatOil press release that also includes this map

Norway's StatOil lease area on the continental shelf off north-east Greenland from their Dec.-20, 2013 press release.

Norways StatOil lease area on the continental shelf off north-east Greenland just to the south-east of Belgica Bank, taken from their Dec.-20, 2013 press release.

I also learnt that they sponsored mooring deployments in 2012/13 and 2013/14 with the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. A 5-minute video of the cruise is posted at

There is much more to explore and think about here, but this will have to await a future blog when my mind is less cluttered by ship and travel schedules, paper and proposal writing, data and computer chasing, or just keeping a crazy life of working across 9 time zones together. Scientific life is good and fun, but exhausting and nerve-wrecking at times.

Budéus, G., & Schneider, W. (1995). On the hydrography of the Northeast Water Polynya Journal of Geophysical Research, 100 (C3) DOI: 10.1029/94JC02024

Hughes, N., Wilkinson, J., & Wadhams, P. (2011). Multi-satellite sensor analysis of fast-ice development in the Norske Øer Ice Barrier, northeast Greenland Annals of Glaciology, 52 (57), 151-160 DOI: 10.3189/172756411795931633

Wadhams, P., Wilkinson, J., & McPhail, S. (2006). A new view of the underside of Arctic sea ice Geophysical Research Letters, 33 (4) DOI: 10.1029/2005GL025131

Ruins of Fort Conger in the High Arctic

Retreating from Fort Conger, the U.S. Army lost 68% of its men to death by starvation and drowning. They were delivered to the northern shores of Ellesmere Island within sight of northern Greenland by the SS Proteus on August 12, 1881 and were left with ample food and fuel to survive and explore comfortably for a years or so. Continue reading