Oceanographers in Thule, Greenland

Returning from Petermann Fjord and Gletscher, we left the Swedish icebreaker I/B Oden and its fine crew yesterday afternoon. Our military plane to southern Greenland is broken with spare parts needed to be shipped in from Air Force bases in the United States and Germany. Thule Air Force Base (AFB) at Pituffik is the northern-most US military installation that is maintained since the Cold War with lots of help from Danish authorities and workers. Thule AFB is a large airfield and supply center for much of northern Greenland and beyond. Air temperatures are in the 40ties and it feels very warm after sailing south for 3 days to get here.

As last year, the first thing I did after living for 5 weeks in tight quarters on a ship was head out into the wilderness. While almost everyone else was partying ashore after raiding the local supermarket for fresh fruit, vegetables, beer, and wine, Frederik and I headed out the to climb the mountain that I wanted to climb since I first set eyes on it in 2003. We did not set out until well past 6pm local time, but with lots of sunlight even past midnight, we set out. Who knows if and when we may get this opportunity again. There were also some geocaches.

Geocaching map of Thule AFB, North Mountain, and Dundas Mountain. Smiley faces show that I found and opened the hidden treasures.

Geocaching map of Thule AFB, North Mountain, and Dundas Mountain. Smiley faces indicate that I found and opened the hidden treasures.

Frederik is Swedish ecologist whose work around Petermann Fjord was mostly land-based. Leading a group of 3-4 researchers, he was taking an inventory of plant and wild life in a methodical way by setting out a grid 2 meters by 2 meters at random locations. His team then painstakingly counted and recorded every bit of plant, seed, or animal excrement (=shit) that they could find and count. They were living in tents for 5-10 days at a time, returned to the ship via helicopter for a shower, a meal, and to change study area. Within 8 hours his group was usually gone again not to be seen for another 5-10 days.

In contrast to these intense “working hikes,” our leisurely 4 hour stroll was relaxing as he had to record nothing and did not have to lead anyone. Nevertheless, I got blisters on my feet that were well worth this guided nature tour as Frederik patiently answered all my questions on all the trees (1 inch high), all the flowers (1/3 inch), and all the animals that we we saw (falcons, hares, foxes). He also told me that during our 4 hour hike he saw more wild and plant-life than he had seen the entire 4 weeks earlier up north in Hall and Washington Land of Greenland and Ellesmere Island of Canada. There are shades of gray and there are many shades of bare.

On our way out of town we followed the road to get to a bridge that crossed a big stream of run-off from the nearby Greenland ice sheet that was visible in the distance. Quickly, however, we noticed that the dusty roads are not really leading us to where we wanted to go, so we made our own path over the ridge to the north of town called creatively “North Mountain.” From there we hiked down to the beach of an isthmus that connects to the landmark Dundas Mountain with remains of the old village on this spit of sand and gravel. A group of Danes in trucks and on all-terrain vehicles greeted us at the bottom of Dundas Mountains. Frederik later told me that they were mostly trying to get information on women that may have arrived with us, but they also encouraged us to race up the 60 degree slope. The record apparently stands at 6 minutes and 45 seconds, but we were in no mood to race … quite the opposite: We wanted to take in the views and relax amidst stunning natural beauty in the rough:

Once atop I found the geocache I was looking for as well as a trackable treasure. When I recovered this trackable and posted the find online, I got an elated e-mail from Australia where the owner of the treasure lives. The treasure is now with me in Delaware where I will hide for other people to find and move along in a wonderful game of hide and seek and traveling.

Now that I am home again after 6 weeks away without real internet or e-mail access (imagine the horrors), I want to tell some of the many stories that involve a group of people doing science, making discoveries, and share what they find. Most of us are deeply grateful for the privilege to make these discoveries: It is people like you, my dear reader, because the funds for ships and planes and food and fuel and much more comes from organizations like the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as the US Department of Defence, but ultimately the funds all come from tax-paying citizens of a great country.

3 responses to “Oceanographers in Thule, Greenland

  1. By pure chance, recently, I purchased an old book, (I must add, in poor condition, but still fully readable, I collect old books for a hobby), titled: Lost in the Arctic by Capt. Ejnar Mikkelsen 1913, being the story of the “Alabama” expedition, 1909 – 1912, and was entranced by his story of how he and Iver P. Iversen sledged from Shannon Island to Independence Fjord and back again; particularly that the return journey was made along what is the East coast of Greenland.

    While I do understand that your research interest is on the other side of Greenland; I ask, is there a much more recent publication available that will allow me to compare the ecology of that Eastern coastline, so well described by Mikkelsen just over a century ago; with what is there to see today?

    Again, having read that book; and with the greatest of respects; the current expeditions have no comparison with the dreadful hardships endured by Mikkelsen and Iversen. If anyone reading my post herein has not yet, I recommend they do read it, it is an even better description of such hardships than that described within the likes of South with Scott by Mountevens.

    • Chris: I could not agree more. We also share the love of old books and early expedition reports, but I have not yet penetrated as far back in time as you have. My latest is Lauge Koch’s 1928 “Contributions to the Glaciology of North Greenland” just before explorations by air craft started.

      There is not much I can say about the ecology of Greenland’s coastlines that I rarely see from up close. An excellent book that you may like is by Peter Schmidt Mikkelsen who describes histories and locations of trapping and explorations of eastern Greenland. Links to book, person, and projects are found at http://www.xsirius.dk/en/node/191 that you may enjoy.

  2. Pingback: The Ice Shelf of Petermann Gletscher, North Greenland and its ocean below: Introductions | Icy Seas

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