Tag Archives: travel

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 …

Preparing for Petermann One Day At a Time

Glaciers, Greenland, Adventure, Expedition, Ice, Polar Bears, Narwhales, oh the fun to go to Greenland.

Swedish icebreaker I/B Oden 22 July 2015 on its way to Thule. [Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/SjoV_isbrytning]

Swedish icebreaker I/B Oden 22 July 2015 on its way to Thule. [Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/SjoV_isbrytning%5D


This romantic notion is false and pretty pictures always lie. To prove my point, I just list what one scientist does 4 days before shipping out to Greenland for 5 weeks. [My wife left last week to visit our grown son in California. She knows the drill, focus, and strain that does not make good company. We have gone through such 4-8 weeks of separation many times during our 20+ years of marriage; her leaving a week before I do works rather well for us]:

04:45 Wake up
05:00 Check e-mail on iPhone in bed
05:05 Read Twitter feed: Canadian research ship diverted to break ice in Hudson Bay
05:10 Check references to outreach-related news
05:15 Read Wilson Quarterly article “The Race to the Arctic” on Arctic developments with global policy impacts
05:30 Shower and Dress
05:45 Check Iridium data collection to Oden, fix minor problem
06:00 Check Hans Island weather, winds still from the north at 10 kts
06:15 Clean up mess cat made, make coffee
06:30 Check latest satellite imagery on Nares Strait, beautiful Arctic lead (upwelling) and sediment plumes from streams and glaciers
07:00 Bicycling to work
07:15 Brief hallway meeting with new grant specialist
07:30 Checking news on Arctic Sea Ice Forums
07:35 Downloading and reading peer-reviewed papers for proposal writing
08:00 Distracted by Tamino’s post about Five signs of denial regarding climate change
08:00 NSF Proposal writing
08:30 Distracted, responding to international e-mails
09:00 Passing links and photos for future press release

My littered office with 2 (of 10) drums of cable to connect ocean sensors through 300 m thick ice to Iridium satellite phone at the surface.

My littered office with 2 (of 10) drums of cable to connect ocean sensors through 300 m thick ice to Iridium satellite phone at the surface.

I am falling behind and feel the tension to get this NSF proposal finished by saturday. NSF stands for National Science Foundation, the proposal is asking for $500,000 to conduct a 3-year experiment with German and Norwegian scientists in the summers of 2016 and 2017. If successful, it will support two graduate students full time for two (MS) and three (PhD) years as well as two technicians for five months total. Peer-review of these proposals is brutal with perhaps a 1:7 success rate on average.

09:15 NSF proposal writing
09:40 Respond to former collaborator on an underwater acoustic communication project
09:45 Back to NSF proposal writing
10:00 Studying Sutherland and Cenedese (2009) on dynamics of the East Greenland Current interacting with canyons as explored by laboratory study
10:30 Converting Latex files to .pdf for uploads to NSF server
11:00 Read and edit UDel Press Release
11:15 Giving university administrators full access to current version of NSF proposal after uploading files to NSF servers
11:20 Heading to coffee shop for short bicycle break
12:00 UNAVCO gear arrived at office
12:05 Re-design the mechanics of the surface mount of the automated weather station to be deployed on Petermann Glacier

UNAVCO GPS systems for deployment on Petermann Gletscher.

12:45 Checking ice and weather in Nares Strait, Arctic Forecast
13:00 Back to proposal, writing/thinking about buoyant coastal currents interacting with canyons
16:00 Meet with PhD student on physics of GPS
16:15 Back to proposal writing
17:30 Graphical layout of proposal
18:15 Bicycle to Main Street for steak + margarita dinner
19:30 Home; set-up overdue MODIS processing
19:45 Edit this list, add links, and photos
19:55 Check Nares Strait weather and DMI Greenland ice
20:15 Daily Iridium data download from Oden works (equipment testing)


20:30 Posting this post
20:45 Editing and updating this post
21:00 Finished processing and posting on my web serverNares Strait MODIS imagery for the week

Glaciers, Geocaching, and Greenland Goals

I thought it silly when my wife suggested to go geocaching with her. She told me it was to hunt for treasures and as a professor of physical ocean science and engineering this was not for me. But my wife is persistent, I am curious, and when she explained that a GPS, hiking, and computer mapping was involved, I gave it a try and have been hooked ever since. My first geocaching hiking trip took place on Anacortes Island, Washington in 2013 where our youngest son then lived. Here we are walking past rock carved 10,000 years ago by a tiny glacier at N 48° 29.498 W 122° 41.799 N that discharged ice into Puget Sound:

Glacier carved outcrop in Washington Park, Anacortes Island, WA.

Glacier carved outcrop in Washington Park, Anacortes Island, WA.

Since this first geocaching trip, I have found more than 200 geocaches in places small and remote and places large and urban. The treasure is in the walking and trying to find a path towards a destination, but the destination is secondary as many discoveries are made along the way.

This often happens in science also. One needs to know a destination, have a goal, formulate a hypothesis, but much science, learning, and discovering happens along the path towards that goal. With a GPS the destination is easy, it is a fixed point on earth, but it is harder in science. It can be useful to roam widely, but a set of intermediate goals can help to stay focused. For example, I want to understand how Greenland will change as we warm the earth. That’s a big question with impacts on floods in Europe, storms in the Americas, and rising sea level everywhere. This is a 100-year problem that many people work on; so my personal goal is to focus on how the oceans melt glaciers from below. This is a 10-year problem. It is a step towards the larger goal, but 10 years is still long even though I work with people in Germany, Canada, Denmark, England, Sweden, and Norway:

View to the south on the climb down from Tromsdalstinen.

View to the south on the decent from Tromsdalstinen on a geocaching trip in 2014 out of Tromso, Norway.

The photo above was made during one of my geocaching trip in northern Norway. Three physical oceanographers had gotten off the ship after they deployed ocean current measuring devices off eastern Greenland near a larger ice sheet. The experiment was designed to measure the ocean heat and its movement towards two large outlet glaciers. One has a wide and stable floating ice shelf, Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden (79N Glacier) while Zachariae Isstrom a few miles south lost its wide, long, and apparently unstable ice shelf that still shows in this 2002 image:

North-east Greenland: 79N Glacier and Zachariae Isstrom in 2002.

North-East Greenland in 2002 when both 79N Glacier (near 79 30′) and Zachariae Isstrom (near 79 00′) had extensive ice shelves (black areas are open ocean).

It puzzles me how two adjacent glaciers can and do behave so differently. If we understand how Greenland is melting, then we should explain the difference convincingly, but I am still looking for people who can. Lots of theories, lots of ideas, and lots of modeling, but there are not many observations to make the skimpy and often contradictory evidence convincing. And this finally leads me to my last point and the goal that I set for myself for the next 5-10 years:

I like to measure the ocean, the ice, and the air above and below floating glaciers via a small network of sensors. Now that two large ice islands spawned at Petermann Gletscher in 2010 and 2012, I believe that the remaining ice shelf will stay largely put for the next few years, that is, move at 1 km per year towards Nares Strait:

Petermann Gletscher through calving events. White lines show ICESat tracks; red (ambient ice shelf) and blue (central channel) show repeat-track airborne surveys.

Petermann Gletscher through calving events. White lines show ICESat tracks; red (ambient ice shelf) and blue (central channel) show repeat-track airborne surveys.

The hardest part in reaching this goal is to get measurements from under the 200-600 meter thick ice. This requires holes drilled through the glacier, it requires ocean sensors to be lowered into the water below the glacier, and it requires connections to relay data back to the surface at all hours for many year. I  perhaps have a first chance towards this goal when the Swedish icebreaker Oden will work for a month in Petermann Fjord this year. People from the British Antarctic Survey will be aboard and they plan to drill holes for other scientific purposes. When they are done, the holes freeze over, unless someone (me, me, me, please, pretty, pretty please) has instruments to put in there. I just word that I will be aboard the ship as well and I am feverishly working towards this goal with much help from others. More on this in later posts. All science is a group effort.

I close with a photo to show how the ice-covered ocean of Petermann Gletscher looks during the polar day. Would it not be great to know the temperature of the water below and the air above this more than 200 meter thick glacier ice at all times posted for everyone to use with an internet connection?

March-24, 2010 view of Petermann Glacier from NASA's DC-8 aircraft. Photo credit goes to Michael Studinger of NASA's IceBridge program.

March-24, 2010 view of Petermann Glacier from NASA’s DC-8 aircraft. Photo credit goes to Michael Studinger of NASA’s IceBridge program.

American Adventures Abroad: The Four Germanies

I am American and damn proud of it. I was born in Germany, left almost 30 years ago, and, like a plant from another ecosystem, I am exposed to the new Germany for the first time. I know the difficult histories of both West and East Germany that since 1989 are one united country. The 100 people aboard the research icebreaker R/V Polarstern perhaps represent this new country well. Most crew and scientists were born and raised in either East or West Germany, extinct countries which each had a range of characters to form a distinct and diverse German fabric:

The first person I met when boarding the ship in dry dock was X. After introducing myself as an American scientist to sail the FS Polarstern in stilted if decent German, he revealed to me that he volunteered in the NVA, the soviet-style Nationale Volks-Armee for more than 10 years. Like many low-level Nazis a generation or two before him, he argues that not all was bad in the regime that he served. While this may be true, it strikes me odd, that this is the first things one reveals of oneself and a regime that created walls and killing zones to prevent its own citizens from leaving. Suspecting an uneasy history of guilt, I did not argue despite strong feelings to present different perspectives. Hence his next move is to state that American activities in Europe, Asia, South-America, Middle East, and Africa are the root source of all the problems in these regions. Again, not taking the bait, I listen, ask gentle probing questions to expose more detail, however, not much follows after the first rant that, perhaps, reflects a general feeling more than fact. I heart variations of this theme often in Germany both at sea and on land.

Our nurse and stewardess Kerstin also hails from the former East-Germany where she grew up the same time that I did in West-Germany, but unlike X., she embraces life as it presents itself without resentment, regret, or judgment. She signed on for a year working aboard Polarstern for a sense of adventure and to see the world in a different way. She is naturally curious on all things that relate to people, science, and life. She has little interest in politics, ideologies, and theories on how the world works, but she uses her own mind, experiences, and stories to make everyone around her laugh often. People like her should run the world.

The second Mate, Felix, was in charge when I boarded the ship. He is probably in his early 30ies and gave me the first tour of the ship in dry dock, a task that revealed a deep pride in the ship, its capabilities, and all it represents in a forward-looking modern Germany. He has clearly sailed to many ports and dealt successfully with people of different countries, cultures, and educations. Despite cursing and cussing of an ol’ salt, he is a hard-working, no-nonsense guy who gets things done efficiently. He also smokes like a chimney and likes to drive the ship while breaking sea ice. He did this often and smartly throughout the expedition.

A wonderful surprise to me aboard this ship is the large number of foreigners. There are three Danes aboard one of whom hails from New Zealand; two Canadians, two Belgians, and two Englishmen are aboard; while Brazil, China, Netherlands, Poland and the USA are each represented by one scientist. The two Canadians may as well come from two different countries, as one hails from English-speaking British Columbia and the other from French-speaking Montreal. Catherine’s Quebecoise language and perspectives are the most beautiful of all on this diverse ship. I could listen to her for hours …

Then there is a fourth group aboard who are perhaps the largest: They are the very young Germans who were born after the collapse of the communist empires in the East and they will become the new Germany. It is a foreign country to me, one I like from the distance, and it is a very young country with much potential to make a positive impact in the world.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 2014.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 2014.