Tag Archives: travel

North Greenland Sea Ice: Wolstenholme Fjord and Thule Air Base

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.

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):

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.

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.

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 and Guns and Politics

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]

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.

Thule-NSF2017

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]

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.

Remote Air Strips in North Greenland

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 Forum]

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.

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.

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

http://www.geus.dk/publications/maps/map1_p01-48.pdf

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.

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.

while

http://www.geus.dk/publications/review-greenland-99/gsb186p35-41.pdf

has this photo on how one of these landing strips looks like on a raised beach

dawes2000-fig3

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.

Petermann Gletscher Ocean Station Revisited

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.

Cabled ocean observatory linked to a University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher, Greenland on 28 August 2016. View is to the north.

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 north-eastern Inglefield Land on 27 August 2016. Air Greenland Bell-212 helicopter in the background, view is to the north.

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.

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:

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.

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

http://ows.udel.edu

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

Ocean & Ice – https://vimeo.com/178289799
Rocks & Shells – https://vimeo.com/178379027
Seafloor & Sediment – https://vimeo.com/169110567

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.

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.