I left my native Germany in 1985 to study oceanography in North Wales. I returned in 2018 as an American Professor of polar oceanography.
Dragonfly and Christa after watching the World Cup Final in bar within walking distance of our new appartment in July 2018.
The river Geeste at low tide that runs through Bremerhaven before discharging into the Wester Estuary.
Small shop in Bremerhaven on my way to work.
Muesli offerings in a supermarket in Bremerhaven.
Recycling plastic bottles in Bremerhaven.
Berries at the farmer’s market during our first weekend in Bremerhaven on July-7, 2018.
Farmer’s market in Bremerhaven in July 2018.
Dragonfly during our first German meal in our new apartment in Bremerhaven in July 2018.
Much has changed in 33 years. For one, the divided country that I left is no more. The largely peaceful unification of Germany and Europe removed barbed wires, concrete walls, and shoot-to-kill orders along a violent border. The Cold War was over, I saw the scenes of joy on TV in a bar in Newark, Delaware more than 4100 miles (5600 km) away:
Today is a national holiday that celebrates the “Tag der Deutschen Einheit” or “Day of German Unity.” It is very much work in progress as Germany is becoming more diverse with its over 10 Million people born in countries other than Germany. Turkey (1.5 Mil), Poland (0.9 Mil), and Syria (0.7 Mil) field the most foreign-born people as of 2017. From my American perspective Germany has become a more normal country with its recent politics, troubles, inconveniences, and strengths that these diverse backgrounds entail.
Dragonfly and I arrived in Bremerhaven three months ago to live and work here for at least a year. It took us two days to get bicycles and another two days to find a well-furnished apartment. My parents visited the second weekend and we became Bremerhaven tourists for two days. We purchased the required catastrophic health insurance from a credible company for about €550/year each, but after 3 months we are still waiting for the installation of an internet connection at our home, but we are hopeful that this may change soon.
Author aboard German research vessel F/S Maria S. Merian in port of Longyearbyen, Svalbard in the fall of 2018. [Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum.]
Greenland hunters, seals, and polar bears all need sea ice atop a frozen ocean to eat, breath, or live. The sea ice around northern Greenland changes rapidly by becoming thinner, more mobile, and less predictable as a result of warming ocean and air temperatures. I will need to be on the sea ice to the north and west of Thule Air Base in March and April about 6 weeks from to conduct several connected science experiments. The ice should be “land fast,” that is, it should be a solid, not moving plate of ice. The work is funded by the National Science Foundation who asked me to prepare a sea ice safety plan to keep the risk to people working with me to a minimum. In a science plan I included this satellite image of what the ice and land looked like in march of 2016:
Optical satellite image of Wolstenholme Fjord, Greenland on March-21, 2016 with Thule Air Base in bottom right. Darker areas show thin ice.
This LandSat image captures the reflection of sun light during a cloud-free day at ~15 m pixel size. No such imagery exists for 2017 yet, because the sun does not set until late February with this US satellite overhead. The European Space Agency (ESA), however, flies a radar on its Sentinel satellite. This radar sends out its own radio waves that are then reflected back to its antenna. The radar sees not only during the polar night, it can also see through clouds. And ESA provides these data almost instantaneous to anyone who wants it and knows how to deal with large data files. If you think your 8 mega pixels are sharp, these images are closer to 800 mega pixels. Here are three such images from January 3, 24, and 28 (yesterday):
Wolstenholme Fjord, Greenland Jan.-03, 2017 from Sentinel-1 radar.
Wolstenholme Fjord, Greenland Jan.-24, 2017 from Sentinel-1 radar.
Wolstenholme Fjord, Greenland Jan.-28, 2017 from Sentinel-1 radar.
The lighter white tones indicate that lots of radar signals return to the satellite. The many tiny white specks to the south of the Manson Islands are grounded icebergs. The different shades of gray indicate different types of ice and snow. The Jan.-24 and Jan.-28 images show a clear boundary near longitude of -70 degrees to the north of the island (Saunders Island) that separates land-fast ice to the east from thinner and mobile ice in Baffin Bay to the west.
Wolstenholme Fjord on Aug.-27, 2016. The view to the west with Mount Dundas on the left (south) and southern part of Saunders Island on the right (north).
Wolstenholme Fjord on Aug.-27, 2016. The view to the west with the northern part of Saunders Island on the left (south) and smaller Manson Islands on the right (north) next to then northern shore of the fjord.
Wolstenholme Fjord on Aug.-27, 2016. The view to the south-west with Manson Islands in the foreground and Saunders Island in the background
I plan to work from Thule Air Base (red dot bottom right) out along points C, B, towards A. The color of line near these points is a section where I have very accurate bottom depth from a 2003 US Coast Guard Icebreaker that was dropping off scientists at Thule on August 15, 2003. I was then one of the scientist dropped off after a 3 week excursion into Nares Strait and Petermann Fjord. Along this section I hope to test and deploy and under-water acoustic network that can send data via whispers from C to A via B. First, however, we will need to know how sound moves along this track and before that, for my ice safety plan, I will need to know how thick or thin the ice is. The imagery does not tell me ice thickness.
Flying to Thule Greenland with US Air force Air Mobility Command delivering cargo and people.
Arriving in Thule on Mar.-8, we will first need to measure ice thickness along this A-B-C section with a sharp ice-cutting Kovacs drill and a tape measure. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) distributes a “Handbook for community-based sea ice monitoring” that we will follow closely. This first ice survey will also give us a feel and visual on how the radar satellite imagery displays a range of ice and snow surfaces. One of my PhD students, Pat Ryan, will process and send us the ESA Sentinel-1 radar data while a small University of Delaware and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution group will work on the ice in early April.
The mental preparation for this scientific travel to Thule and the sea ice beyond gives me the freedom and pleasure to explore new data such as Sentinel-1 imagery and perspectives on tremendous local traditional knowledge of the Inugguit who have lived with the sea ice for perhaps 4000 years. The town of Qaanaaq is 45 minutes by helicopter to the north of Thule Air Base (TAB) at Pituffik. The town was established in 1953 when local populations living in the TAB area were forcibly removed. Despite these challenges the displaced people have prospered throughout the Cold War, but a less predictable and rapidly changing sea ice poses a severe threat to the community whose culture, health, and livelihood still depends on hunting and traveling on sea ice. Stephen Leonard is an anthropological linguist at the University of Cambridge who lived in Qaanaaq for a year in 2010/11 when he made this video:
P.S.: If possible, I would very much like to work with a local person who knows sea ice and wild life that we would need protection from. Danish contacts are reaching out on my behalf to people they know in Siorapaluk, Qaanaaq, and Savissivik.
Polar bears are endangered and need protection. They hunt and eat meat to survive. Seals are such meat as are scientists walking and working on the sea ice. I am planing an experiment in polar bear habitat. Do I need a gun to protect myself and my students working with me? About 10 people told me “YES” last week, all with experience working in polar bear habitat. Who am I to say no? Encounters between bears and people happen, but only rarely. None of the 10 people advising me to carry a shotgun or rifle ever discharged their weapon or had a bear encounter.
Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]
In 3 month’s time I hope to do ~20 day trips from Thule Air Base near Pituffik, Greenland to explore the oceanography and acoustics of the local fjord covered by sea ice. The US National Science Foundation supports this work, maintains a dormitory where we sleep, and provides us with two snowmobiles. We will use these motorcycles on skies to reach science stations on the ice covering Wolstenholme Fjord. We will drill 10” holes through 3-5 feet of sea ice, set-up an electric winch connected to a small generator, and probe the ocean’s temperature, salinity, bottom depth, and ice thickness to prepare for a quiet acoustic communication system to move data under water from the outer fjord to the pier at Thule and the internet.
Leading this science effort, I will have to estimate and manage potential risks which include encounters with polar bears. I will have to decide how much money to allocate to each risk that then may not be available for other activities such as to support students, buy better sensors, or return in the summer. The first and almost always best response is to hire a local hunter who knows the area along with its bears, ice, and weather. There are about 600 people living in Qaanaaq about 100 miles to the north. Most of them are children and grand-children who were forcibly removed from Pituffik in 1952 when more than 13,000 Americans built a large air field during the height of the Cold War. The local llanguage spoken in remote Qaanaaq is the Inuktitut dialect of north-west Greenland, the first foreign language learnt in school is Danish, and English is not widely spoken, however, Qaanaaq has two non-Inuit villagers who originate from Denmark and Japan.
Relations between Qaanaaq and Thule Air Base are complex and sensitive with regard to politics and finances. One of many perspective is that of Kim Petersen who writes in Dissident Voice about “The Struggle against Colonialism and Imperialism in Kalaallit Nunaat.” Kalaallit Nunaat refers to Greenland in the local language. While the forced removal of native populations from Pituffik to Qaanaaq in 1952 and the crash of a nuclear armed B-52 bomber into Wolstenholme Fjord in 1968 are not in dispute, the political arguments presented seem to me rather narrow, one-dimensional, and rooted in a tired ideological Left-Wing mode of conspiracy-thinking. Does this perspective represent the community of Qaanaaq? Perhaps I need to ask someone who may know:
Working on the sea ice off northern Greenland [Photo credit, Steffen Olsen]
It is not straight-forward to bring a gun to Greenland as it requires a large amount of paper work. Another layer of regulations relates to bringing a gun to an US military installation. Shooting a polar bear is a burocratic and political nightmare, because strict quotas exist for the “taking” of polar bears. International complications include Canada, because the quotas are assigned to Canadian and Greenlandic hunters from the same bear population. It is a sensitive topic in many dimensions, a riddle for which I have no solution.
How much time do I spent to prepare for an unlikely event such as a fatal polar bear encounter? Could I not argue with ethics that were instilled into me when hiking in the back-country of Denali National Park (no guns there). Park rangers then told me that I enter bear habitat and should do so respectfully with minimal impact. They gave me useful pointers on how to lower contact and I saw no bears hiking for 4 days alone without a gun, but grizzlies eat berries while polar bears do not.
So, should I carry a gun, if I am not ready to kill a bear while working in bear country? I can accept the consequences of injury and death for myself, however, I cannot do so for those who are with me. Perhaps this then is a path to a solution: Discuss this with all who will be with me on the ice.
Where to land a plane in North Greenland? This remote wilderness has the last floating ice shelves in the northern hemisphere such as Petermann Gletscher. Two weeks ago Dr. Keith Nicholls of the British Antarctic Service (BAS) and I visited this glacier to fix both ice penetrating radars and ocean moorings that we had deployed in 2015 after drilling through more than 100 meters of glacier ice. The BAS radars measure how the ice thins and thickens during the year while my moorings measure ocean properties that may cause some of the melting. Keith and I are thinking how we can design an experiment that will reveal the physics of ocean-glacier interactions by applying what we have learnt the last 12 months. First, however, we need to figure out where to land a plane to build a base camp and fuel station in the wilderness.
I searched scientific, military, and industry sources to find places where planes have landed near Petermann Gletscher. The first landing, it seems, was a crash landing of an US B-29 bomber on 21 February 1947 at the so-called Kee Bird site. All 11 crew survived, the plane is still there even though it burnt after a 1994/95 restoration effort that got to the site in a 1962 Caribou plane landing on soft ground with a bulldozer aboard that is still there also. A Kee Bird forum contains 2014 photos and, most importantly for my purpose, a map.
Location of Kee Bird and other landing sites in North Greenland near Petermann Gletscher. [From Michael Hjorth]
Michael Hjorth posted the map after visiting the region as the Head of Operation of Avannaa Resources. This small mineral exploration company was searching for zinc deposits and was working out of a camp a few miles to the north of the Kee Bird site and a few miles to the west of Petermann Gletscher. The Avannaa Camp was on the north-western side of an unnamed snaking lake in a valley to the south of Cecil Gletscher, e.g.,
Names of glaciers, capes, islands in Petermann Region over MODIS of Aug.-21, 2012.
Here are videos that show Twin Otter, helicopter, and camp operations all at the Avannaa site in 2013 and 2014:
The Avannaa camp of 2013 and 2014 was supplied from a more southern base camp at Cass Fjord that Avannaa Logistics and/or another mineral company, Ironbark.gl apparently reached via a chartered ship.
Cass Fjord Base Camp on southern Washington Land and Kane Basin. Credit: IronBark Inc.
A summary of all 2013-14 Washington Land activities both at the Avannaa Camp next to Petermann Gletscher and the Cass Fjord Base Camp adjacent to Kane Basin is contained within this longer video of Michael Hjorth
The mining explorations are based on geological maps that Dr. Peter Dawes of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland provided about 10-20 years ago. These publications contain excellent maps and local descriptions both of the geology and geography of the region as well as logistics. The perhaps most comprehensive of these is
from which I extract this map that shows both the Cass Fjord and Hiawatha Camps:
Dawes (2004): “Simplified geological map of the Nares Strait region …” from Thule Air Force Base in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north with Petermann Gletscher in the center of the top half.
has this photo on how one of these landing strips looks like on a raised beach
If we do plan future activities at Petermann Gletscher and/or Washington Land and/or areas to the north, then I feel that the Avannaa site may serve as a good semi-permanent base of operation for several years. It is here that Ken Borek Twin Otter landed several times. It is reachable with single-engine AS-350 helicopters that could be stationed there during the summer with a fuel depot to support field work on the ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher and the land that surrounds it. The established Cass Fjord Base Camp to the south would serve as the staging area for this Petermann Camp which has both a short landing strip suitable for Twin Otter and potential access from the ocean via a ship. Access by sea may vary from year to year, though, because navigation depends on the time that a regular ice arch between Ellesmere Island and Greenland near 79 N latitude breaks apart. There are years such as 2015, that sea ice denies access to Kane Basin to all ships except exceptionally strong icebreakers such as the Swedish I/B Oden or the Canadian CCGS Henry Larsen. In lighter ice years such as 2009, 2010, and 2012 access with regular or ice-strengthened ships is possible as demonstrated by the Arctic Sunrise and Danish Naval Patrol boats. International collaboration is key to leverage multiple activities and expensive logistics by land, air, or sea in this remote area of Greenland.
Standing on floating Petermann Gletscher last sunday, I called my PhD student Peter Washam out of bed at 5 am via our emergency Iridium phone to check the machine that Keith Nicholls and I had just repaired. We had prepared for this 4 months and quickly established that a computer in Delaware could “talk” to a computer in Greenland to receive data from the ocean 800 m below my feet on a slippery glacier. For comparison the Empire State Building is 480 m high. The closest bar was 5 hours away by helicopter at Thule Air Force Base from where Keith and I had come.
Refurbished ocean observatory linked via cables to a University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher, Greenland on 28 August 2016. View is to the north.
Remote Petermann Gletscher can be reached by helicopter only of one prepares at least two refueling stations along the way. Anticipating a potential future need, we had placed 1300 and 1600 liters of A1 jet fuel at two points from aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden in 2015. The fuel was given to Greenland Air with an informal agreement that we could use the fuel for a 2016 or 2017 helicopter charter. Our first pit stop looked like this on the southern shores of Kane Basin
Refueling stop on southern Washington Land on 27 August 2016. Air Greenland Bell-212 helicopter in the background, view is to the south towards Kane Basin.
Helicopter flight path on 27/28 August 2016 to reach Petermann Gletscher (PG) via southern (Fuel-S) and northern (Fuel-N) fuel stops in northern Inglefield and southern Washington Land, respectively. Background color is ocean bottom depth in meters.
Upon arrival at the first (northern-most) Peterman Gletscher (PG) station we quickly confirmed our earlier suspicion that vertical motion within the 100 m thick glacier ice had ruptured the cables connecting two ocean sensors below the ice to data loggers above. We quickly disassembled the station and moved on to our central station that failed to communicate with us since 11 February 2016. Keith predicted that here, too, internal glacier motions would have stretched the cables inside the ice to their breaking point, however, this was not to be the case.
My first impression of this station was one of driftwood strewn on the beach of an ocean of ice:
University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher on 27 August 2016. View is to the north-east towards the Greenland ice Sheet, that is, the glacier flows from right to left.
Top section of the University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher on 27 August 2016. View is to the north-east.
Bottom section of the University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher on 27 August 2016. View is to the north-west towards Nares Strait. The palette designed to stabilize the station as the glacier melts under it is turned and rests on the 80 lbs yellow battery box that was strapped to the surface of the palette.
Looks can be deceiving, however, and we found no damage to any electrical components from the yellow-painted wooden battery box housing two 12 Volt fancy “car batteries” at the bottom to the wind sensor on the top. Backed-up data on a memory card from one of two data loggers (stripped down computers that control power distribution and data collections) indicated that everything was working. The ocean recording from more than 800 meters below our feet was taken only a few minutes prior. In disbelief Keith and I were looking over a full year-long record of ocean temperature, salinity, and pressure as well as glacier motions from a GPS. This made our choices on what to do next very simple: Repair the straggly looking ocean-glacier-weather station, support it with a metal pole drilled 3.5 m into the glacier ice, and refurbish the adjacent radar station. We went to work for a long day and longer night without sleep.
Selfie on Petermann Gletscher on sunday 28 August 2016 after 33 hours without sleep. Weather station and northern wall of Petermann in the clouds. It was raining, too.
When all was done, University of Delaware graduate student Peter Washam did the last check at 5:30 am sunday morning. Since then our Greenland station accepts Iridium phone calls every three hours, sends its data home where I post it daily at
The data from this station will become the center piece of Peter’s dissertation on glacier-ocean interactions. Peter was part of the British hot water drilling team who camped on the ice in 2015 for 3 weeks while I was on I/B Oden responsible for the work on the physical oceanography of the fjord and adjacent Nares Strait. Alan Mix of Oregon State University prepared and led the 2015 expedition giving us ship and helicopter time generously to support our work on the ice shelf of Petermann. Saskia Madlener documented the scope of the 2015 work in a wonderful set of three videos
A first peer-reviewed publication on this station and its data until 11 February 2016 will appear in the December 2016 issue of the open-access journal Oceanography with the title The Ice Shelf of Petermann Gletscher, North Greenland and its Connection to the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.