Tag Archives: geocaching

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.

GPS, Geocaching, and Greenland Glaciers

Navigating ice, ocean, and land, brave women and men have always used the stars for guidance. Just think of the three kings who followed a star to witness the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem 2015 years ago. They were 6 days late. Keeping track of time track was always difficult for navigating, especially at sea and the British Navy lost many ships as a result of poor time keeping. There are books written on the history of determining longitude, the best of which is called, well, “Longitude.” Now why would I ponder these questions and histories two hours before I am boarding the Swedish icebreaker Oden to travel by sea and ice to Petermann Glacier?

The Global Position System (GPS) that many of us have in our smart phones or tiny hand-held devices makes navigating easy. Both measure time as our civilization has put “stars” into space that guide hikers out in the back-country, urban dwellers to the next bar or restaurant, and missiles into a target the size of the dot over the letter “i” on a license plate of a car. Few know that the GPS satellites only sent time from an atomic clock to our GPS receivers and smart phones. Time is of the essence, there is something almost spiritual about time and how to define it. And time is linked to space not just because of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but also the way we measure space by measuring the time that waves travel through space.

Waiting for the plane to get 58 scientists to Thule to board the I/B Oden, I went for a geocaching trip an hour or two from the town of Kangerlussuaq. My wife got me into this 2 years ago as a way to explore areas via hiking without much planning. All we do is enter some GPS position of places where other people have placed “treasures” and we head out to find them. These geocaches are everywhere: within 100 feet of my home, in every city I went to in Poland, Sweden, or Germany, and now Greenland, too. My favorite GPS unit is a little hand-held $99 Garmin eTrex 10. It does a marvelous job to get me anywhere within about 3-6 feet (1-2 meters).

As part of our Petermann research, we also got four “fancy” GPS systems which we want to place on the ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher to measure tidal motions. The water under the glacier is connected to ocean that moves the Empire-State-Building thick ice up and down every 12 hours or so. We do not know by how much, though, and when it moves up and when it moves down. There should also be daily cycles and longer periods caused by winds and waves. Now these fancy $25,000 GPS are able to track over 400 satellites (not just the 9 that my Garmin does) and they receive the time information in a very raw and accurate format at more than one radio frequency in more than one way. If one has several of these, we got four, then it is possible to built a network that reduces common errors in position to a few millimeters in the horizontal, and 1-2 centimeter in the vertical after some smart processing. So these “fancy GPS” can sense the difference of the top of your smart phone from the bottom, and I do not mean its length or width, but its thin height. And this is blowing my mind. We need this accuracy to measure tides, and tides we will measure for the 20-30 days that we are working in and around Petermann Gletscher.

Wish us luck as we are heading from the green part of Greenland in the south to its white (ice), black (ocean), and gray (land) parts. There are few colors where we will be the next 4 weeks. Our internet will be gone, but I will try to send text files and small photos until we return on 4 September or so, but time will be hard to find. Wish all of us luck …