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How big is Greenland?

Maps of Greenland were sketched with broken bones, frozen limbs, and starved bodies of men and dogs alike. On April 10, 1912 four men and 53 sled dogs crossed North Greenland from a small Inuit settlement on the West Coast where today the US Air Force maintains Thule Air Base. In 1912 Knud Rassmussen, Peter Freuchen, Uvidloriaq, and Inukitsoq searched for two explorers lost somewhere on Greenland’s East Coast 1200 km (760 miles) away. They returned 5 months later with 8 dogs without finding Einar Mikkelsen or Iver Iversen. These two arrived in North-East Greenland to find diaries, maps, and photos of three earlier explorers who had starved to death in the fall of 1908. Mikkelsen and Iverson found the records, but struggled to survive the winters of 1910/11 and 1911/12 alone stranded before a passing ship found them. I ordered their 1913 Expedition Report yesterday.

Dog sled teams drive across Greenland’s Inland ice in April 1912 from Clemens Markham’s Glacier in the west to Denmark Fjord in the east. All 4 explorers returned, but only 8 dogs did.
Map of Greenland as included in the Report of the First Thule Expedition 1912 by Knud Rasmussen.

I worked along these coasts in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 on German research vessels, Swedish icebreakers, Greenland Air helicopters, and American snowmobiles. We explored the oceans below ice and glaciers with digital sensors but without hunger, cold, or lack of comfort. I feel that I know these coasts well, read what others have written and suffered. I make my own maps, too, to reveal patterns of oceans, ice, and glaciers that change in space and time. And yet, I am often lost by distances and areas. I do not know how big Greenland is.

Clockwise from top left: Ocean observatory on sea ice off Thule Air Base (Apr.-2017); refuelling helicopter in transit to ocean observatory on Petermann Gletscher (Aug.-2016); Swedish icebreaker in Baffin Bay (Aug.-2015); and deployment of University of Delaware ocean moorings from Germany’s R/V Polarstern off North-East Greenland at 77 N latitude (Jun.-2014).

At home I know distances that I walk, bicycle, or drive as part of my daily routine. I know areas where I live from weather and google maps, weekend strolls, and where family and friends live. Once we travel in unfamiliar lands, however, we are lost. Americans rarely know how small most European countries are while Europeans rarely know how far the Americas stretch from Pacific to Atlantic Oceans. Nobody knows the size of Greenland or Africa. On World Atlases Greenland appears as large as Africa, but this is false. Just look at this map:

The size of Africa on the same scale as the USA (green), Greenland (orange), and Germany (blue). Germany is about the same size as Botswana while Greenland is a tad larger than Kongo and the USA is about as big as the Sahara.

Thus North Greenland’s explorers walked distances similar to walking across Texas, Mississippi, and Florida (and back) or distances similar to walking Germany from its North Sea to the Alps (and back) or distances similar to walking across Kenya (and back). Making these maps, I found the tool at These playful maps compare Greenland’s size by placing its shape onto North-America, Europe, and Asia:

Three explorers starved and froze to death November 1907 because they underestimated their walking area. Their shoes wore thin and they walked barefoot. Daylight disappeared and was replaced by polar night. Food vanished with no game to hunt. Jorgen Bronland, Niels Hoeg Hagen, and Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen were 29, 30, and 35 years young when they died mapping Greenland. I sailed the ice-covered coastal ocean. I was helped by maps they made walking.

A roller coaster ride in the Arctic

Posted by Pat Ryan, Graduate Student (Thursday, August 13, 2015)

It’s been a busy week.  The events that transpired during and since the initial installation of the weather station on Petermann Glacier gave us some ups and some downs (therein the roller coaster).  I’ve shared below (in italics) some of the emails that document the saga as it unfolded.

On Monday morning, we heard from Andreas:

I just got back after 12 hours working on Petermann Gletscher where I was given a helicopter for the day to accomplish the following:

1. Deploy very fancy sub-centimeter GPS receivers we got from UNAVCO (Peter of UDel);
2. Find a suitable site to place the Udel weather station with their 5 ocean sensors attached (Keith Nicholls of BAS);
3. Deploy the Udel weather station prior to the ice shelf drilling (I did this).

Less glamorous, I spent most of the day in packing and moving boxes while two helicopters were buzzing overhead coming and going as the first drill site was moved to a second drill site. At the end of the day, however, our weather station went up. It was not a pretty job as we had only an hour left before we had to be back on the ship, but the weather station is now sited and returns data on a regular schedule. It does work. 

Helicopter transport of instruments via sling load.

Helicopter transport of instruments via sling load.

Here is a picture that shows the station’s current installation at site-3  which is temporary as Andreas will modify the mounting design after 5 ocean sensors are attached to it early next week. The shown design would not survive strong winter winds and excessive surface melting in the summer.

University of Delaware automated weather station on Petermann Gletscher (view to north-east).

University of Delaware automated weather station on Petermann Gletscher (view to north-east).

On Tuesday, our spirits were somewhat crushed when Andreas informed us that he had heard nothing from the station for 5 hours. As it was scheduled to automatically send data on an hourly basis, this was somewhat disappointing. Both Andreas (from the ship) and I (at home) attempted to manually connect to the station.  Neither of us was successful.  We all waited somewhat impatiently to hear from the station. Andreas was hopeful that he could get back to the site in order to diagnose and repair any problems that had arisen.

This morning (Thursday) I woke up to the following delightful email from Andreas. The subject line is Greeland Weather Station Working!!!

Hi all:

I am ecstatic to report that our weather station on Petermann Gletscher is alive collecting and reporting data. The earlier shut-down, 8-hours after deployment on Aug.-10, was caused by Iridium satellite transmissions, not the set-up of hardware or software of the weather station itself. I attach a plot of the data collected so far that is being used by the ship’s operators to prepare and plan for flight operations over the glacier. There will be a massive increase in helicopter flying, because on Saturday the CBS 60-Minute team will arrive via helicopter from Qaanaaq, Greenland about 250 miles to the south.

The five ocean sensors are NOT yet plugged into the UDel observing system, because ice-drilling operations at that site will not start until Monday or Tuesday. Our graduate student Peter Washam is on the glacier right now. The so-called Ice-Shelf team just completed a second drill hole near the grounding line of Petermann Gletscher where ice and water are expected to be as thick as the Empire State Building is tall. The picture shows Peter at that (second) drill site shortly after the camp there was established there Monday. The weather station was set-up about 13 km seaward  at what will become the third drill site. Hopefully he did not forget to re-program the ocean sensors to move bits and bytes along the 600 m long serial cable (4800 baud) at a slower rate than we used them in an calibration test lowering them from the ship to the 600 m deep bottom of the ocean near Petermann Fjord.


The 2 1/2 day long time series (link above) shows air temperature about 0.5 and 2.0 m above the ice as well as wind speed and direction as well as atmospheric pressure. A GPS unit shows that the station is drifting about 3 m per day towards the ocean as is expected for this fast moving glacier moving about 1.2 km per year.

My spirits are high after several days of anxious anticipation and waiting for a call from the weather station. Wish us luck.

Andreas (aboard I/B Oden at 81 32.28′ N 062 04.0′ W on 09:49 UTC)

Since the iridium system is designed to gather data until it can be successfully transmitted, short periods of communication black-outs are not expected to be a problem.  The data storage is limited, so we are hopeful that the communication failure was temporary and any future lapses will be equally short-lived.

We soon should have have ocean data of salinity and temperature conditions under the glacier when the additional instruments have been lowered through the ice next week.  That will be the story of our next post.

Preparations and Installations

Guest Blogger:  Pat Ryan, graduate student

Field research can be described as exciting, challenging and demanding. The work, especially when undertaken in the Arctic, has proven to be all of these to me. Planning ahead is an important part of the task. Since we are so far removed from things like high speed internet connections and hardware stores, we try to be as prepared as possible with redundant equipment, any computer data file and programs we  anticipate that we might need, a set of backup plans for foreseeable contingencies and a toolbox full of gizmos and gadgets which might come in handy to solve the inevitable complications that will arise. It seems to me that the most important skills for an Arctic researcher are perseverance, an inclination to be very creative and a good sense of humor.  The scenery, however, can be breathtaking.

Belgrave Glacier

Belgrave Glacier

This summer, I’m the stay-at-home scientist. Whilst my advisor Andreas and my fellow graduate student Peter are working in Petermann Fjord, I’m home and am attempting to help as much as I can from here. This assistance has included installing a satellite communication system here and testing these systems that we’ll be using to transmit data about ocean conditions under a glacier and atmospheric conditions above it to us in Delaware for as long as we can.

In accomplishing this project, the phrase, “it takes a village” comes to mind. Weeks ago, David Huntley of the Delaware Environmental Observing System (DEOS) at the University of Delaware configured the meteorologic station that will be the communications hub for all our data. He also trained us on installation.  This hardware was packed up and transported to a ship, the Oden, in Sweden to be carried aboard for this summer’s research cruise to Petermann Fjord.   Last week, on the Oden in the Arctic, Andreas configured the data gathering and transmission equipment, utilizing creative wiring techniques to allow regular transmission of data via satellite communications systems.  Unfortunately there are no cell towers here either so satellite phones are being used to send the data.  At home, I installed hardware to receive the data.  Throughout this process,  Kevin Brinson, Director of DEOS, used his experience to provide consultation and guidance on all of this, including acting as a liaison with high-tech equipment manufacturers. After several days of work to implement this near-real-time monitoring system to measure conditions and transmit those measurements within hours of their capture, we have a working system!

The exhilaration we all felt upon the first successful connection and seeing information like the ambient temperature and barometric pressure at Petermann Fjord (measured less than an hour before I got it) made all that work worthwhile. Upon installation of the monitoring station on the surface of the glacier and drilling through the ice to place ocean measurement instruments, we should have a system that can give us this and much more information for an extended deployment – perhaps several years – and return that data every day.  The last time we installed this kind of ocean monitoring instruments, they measured for 3 years and required us to to return via ship to recover the instruments before we got any data.

How long these instruments will collect data is dependent on a number of factors. Conditions in the Arctic can be rather rough on electronics. Temperatures dip below -40 degrees (either Celsius or Fahrenheit) and polar bears are very inquisitive creatures – wires seem to attract their curiosity.   The ice upon which our equipment will rest has been melting. Eventually, this glacier will calve and the location of our monitoring station is likely to be impacted by melting and/or calving (or breaking off) of the glacier.   Our equipment is battery powered with solar charging supplements when there is sunlight. We hope that our batteries will be able to give us data throughout the long Arctic night that will last for months until sunrise (when solar charging begins again) in the spring.

Meterologic station aboard the Oden.

Meterologic station aboard the Oden.

Meterologic station aboard the ship.  The ice of Greenland in the background.

Meterologic station aboard the ship. The ice of Greenland in the background.

Tomorrow, Andreas and Peter will be venturing out to the ice in the first steps of installing all this hardware. We are very excited about the prospect of seeing the results of many months worth of planning and work.  As the project continues Andreas and Peter will keep us up to date on their progress.

East Greenland Current Instabilities

The coast off north-east Greenland is a grey, cloudy, and icy place. I spent 4 weeks on a ship earlier this summer to place sensors on the ocean floor to measure water currents, salinity, and temperature. The data shall uncover the mystery of how ocean heat 300 m below the surface gets to glaciers to melt them from below year round. My contribution is a small part of a larger effort by German, Norwegian, Danish, American, and British scientists to reveal how oceans change glaciers and how oceans impact Greenland’s ice sheet, climate, and weather.

So, for months now I am watching rather closely how this ocean looks from space. Usually it is cloudy with little exciting to see, but for 4 days this week the clouds broke and displayed a violently turbulent ocean worthy of a Van Gogh painting:

Satellite image ocean current instabilities on Aug.-19, 2014 as traced by ice along the shelf break, red lines show 500, 750, and 1000 meter water depth. Small blue triangles top left are ocean moorings.

Satellite image of ocean current instabilities on Aug.-19, 2014 as traced by ice along the the shelf break, red lines show 500, 750, and 1000 meter water depth. Small blue triangles top left are ocean moorings.

A wavy band of white near the red lines indicates the East Greenland Current. The red lines show where the water is 500, 750, and 1000 m deep. All waters to the left (west) of the red lines are shallow continental shelf while all waters to the right (east) are deep basin. Some islands and headlands of Greenland appear on the left of the image as solid grey. The image covers a distance about the same as from Boston to Washington, DC or London to Aberdeen, Scotland. Black areas are ocean that is clear of ice while the many shades of white and gray are millions of ice floes that act as particles moved about by the surface flow. Using a different satellite with much higher resolution shows these particles. The detail is from a tiny area to the north-west of the red circle near 77.5 North latitude:

Individual ice particles as seen on the north-east Greenland shelf from LandSat 15-m resolution from Aug.-21, 2014 near 77.5N and 10 W.

Individual ice particles as seen on the north-east Greenland shelf from LandSat 15-m resolution from Aug.-21, 2014 near 77.5N and 10 W.

Strongly white areas indicate convergent ocean surface currents that concentrate the loose ice while divergent ocean currents spread the ice particles out in filaments and swirls and eddies.

This is how many real fluids look like if one takes a snapshot as satellites do. Stringing such snapshots together, I show the fluid motion as comes to life for about 3 days:


Notice how the large crests seaward of the red line between 74 and 75 North latitude grow and appear to break backward. This is an instability of the underlying East Greenland Current. It starts out as a small horizontal “wave,” but unlike the waves we watch at the beach, the amplitude of this “wave” is horizontal (east-west) and not vertical (up-down). The mathematics are identical, however, and this is the reason that I call this a wave. As the wave grows, it become steeper, and as it becomes too steep, it breaks and as it breaks, it forms eddies. These eddies then persist in the ocean for many weeks or months as rotating, swirling features that carry the Arctic waters of the East Greenland Current far afield towards the east. The East Greenland Current, however, continues southward towards the southern tip of Greenland. The wave and eddy processes observed here, however, weaken the current as some of its energy is carried away with the eddies.

I could not find any imagery like this in the scientific literature for this region, but similar features have been observed in similar ocean current systems that transport icy cold waters along a shelf break. The Labrador Current off eastern Canada shows similar instabilities as does the East Kamchatka Current off Russia in its Pacific Far East. And that’s the beauty of physics … they organize nature for us in ways that are both simple and elegant, yet all this beauty and elegance gives us complex patterns that are impossible to predict in detail.

Beszczynska-Möller, A., Woodgate, R., Lee, C., Melling, H., & Karcher, M. (2011). A Synthesis of Exchanges Through the Main Oceanic Gateways to the Arctic Ocean Oceanography, 24 (3), 82-99 DOI: 10.5670/oceanog.2011.59

LeBlond, P. (1982). Satellite observations of labrador current undulations Atmosphere-Ocean, 20 (2), 129-142 DOI: 10.1080/07055900.1982.9649135

Solomon, H., & Ahlnäs, K. (1978). Eddies in the Kamchatka Current Deep Sea Research, 25 (4), 403-410 DOI: 10.1016/0146-6291(78)90566-0

Men and Women on Edge 2

Bruce Chatwin came up during a late-night party aboard FS Polarstern this morning after all work and packing was completed this last day of a 4 week expedition to Fram Strait, a deep connection Continue reading