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Getting to Greenland

Posted July 31st, 2009 by
The first view of greenland

The first view of Greenland

We arrived at the Stratton Air Force Base in Schenectady, NY, in the muggy predawn, accompanied by a few early rising mosquitoes and the humid summer breeze. At security, we presented our passports, and waited for clearance before heading to the loading area where our mammoth duffel bags of polar gear were crammed onto a cargo pallet. We then waited for several hours, while the plane was packed and fueled, and were given a safety briefing.

At 8:30, we drove to the jet way to board our flight to Greenland. The C-130 is an impressive piece of machinery to behold. It almost looks too fat to fly, with wings that sit on top of the plane’s round belly rather than in the middle, massive skis for landing on snow, and intimidating propellers. We trooped inside the dark hold and settled into netted seats made of webbing that fill the front third of the plane. With over 30 passengers, I was sitting knee to knee with the person across from me. I stuffed earplugs in my ears seconds before the sound of the engine drowned everything out in a deafening din. Although there were few windows to see outside, it was not long before I felt us taxi, accelerate, and take flight headed north to Greenland.

The flight was very smooth, and after we reached our cruising elevation, people got up to sprawl more comfortably atop mounds of cargo. Since I had only slept an hour the night before (due to complications with my connecting flight in Washington D.C. the day before and our 5 am departure), I don’t remember much from this portion of the flight. However, about 3 hours into the journey, we touched down in Goose Bay, Canada, which is in the middle of nowhere in the province of Labrador. Already, it was apparent how far north we had come: the forest that ringed the airfield was stunted and dense, like the embattled front lines of a conifer army trying to penetrate the tundra. There, the friendly receptionist offered us ice cream, which was a pleasant surprise, and we piled back in the plane full of chocolate and sugar. I got up to peer out the round portholes as we approached Greenland’s western coast. The sight was breath taking. At first, just a few traces of snow garnished the landscape. The surface was mostly brown and barren, and it was apparent that these fringes of earth had been overridden time and again by the advancing ice, slowly grinding it down to its scoured and subdued modern topography.

As we flew inland, past little clusters of islands floating in the deep blue Labrador Sea, I began to glimpse isolated ice caps. These were perched on top of the larger islands and peninsulas. Small mountain glaciers descended from them, some spilling down to the ocean and others resting in deep U-shaped valleys that once held even larger glaciers. Only at the last minute, before being forced to take my seat for landing, did I catch a far away glimpse of the vast polar ice sheet, which spreads for thousands of miles north and east of Kangerlussuaq, our first destination in Greenland.

Kangerlussuaq was established during World War II as a refueling station for planes flying across the Atlantic, and has remained an active Air Force Base since. It is a small settlement at the head of a large fjord. It consists primarily of an airport, a few hotels and curio shops, and warehouses for scientific and military operations. It is a difficult place to imagine living. At 67 degrees north, the sun never sets during the summer months. There is no ice plainly visible from town, but the rocky outcrops that surround it are made of 1.4 billion year old gneiss, a highly metamorphosed rock that—at least in the samples I found—contained handfuls of beautiful red and purple garnets.

Since there’s not much to do in town, we took a trip up to the margin of the ice sheet yesterday, which is only 10 miles away down a bumpy dirt road. It is possible to drive almost out onto the ice, although the carcasses of several snowmobiles suggest that this may not be the best idea. We spent the day hiking around the glacier, hopping over the roaring blue rivers that dissect the surface of the ice, and collecting some samples. It was a lovely day to enjoy the warm weather before we head out onto the ice sheet for good.

Today has been slightly less relaxing. It’s hard to fathom just how much work goes into organizing an operation like NEEM. There are 30 people, one giant drill, and scores of other pieces of scientific and survival equipment sitting on top of 2.5 km of ice, hundreds of miles from another human being. It’s simply not an option to forget something. So today we checked and rechecked the food resupply that came with us from New York, and palletized everything from milk, watermelons, and leg of lamb to toothpaste, nails, and drilling fluid. Later tonight, the Air National Guard will come by with forklifts and load all these necessities onto the plane for our departure at 5 am tomorrow.

Along with scientists and food, there are 17 people from various media crews who will accompany us to NEEM. They will only stay for the day, but will get to observe the scientific and logistical operations of camp. They have come at a good time, since we think the ice containing the glacial to interglacial transition should be arriving at any moment (although the reporters may not find this as exciting as the drillers!) As for me, I can’t wait to head up onto the ice. This will be my first time drilling an ice core and I’m very excited to see how it all works. I am also eager to meet and get to know the other scientists. There are only a few Americans here, most are from Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany, Japan, and beyond. So, I am greatly looking forward to the next few weeks of working, learning, and brushing up on my French!

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