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Out of Greenland, defrosting

Posted August 20th, 2009 by

As I sit at the window of my hotel room in Ilulisat, watching icebergs the size of city blocks drift across the shimmering path of the setting sun, it’s hard to believe I woke up in the middle of the ice sheet two days ago. With my feet on solid ground, far enough south for the sun to disappear for a few blessed hours every night, NEEM seems a distant memory. But it was only 48 hours ago that I huddled in my sleeping bag against the frigid breath of the -26 C night. Although our last evening in camp was bitterly cold, it also put on a spectacular show of color. At midnight, the sun burned a vibrant orange just a few degrees above the horizon. A wild cloud accompanied it, looking like an absent-minded stroke of a painter’s brush; a thick dark blot against the solar glow that trailed off in parallel streaks to the north. I tried to take photos, but my fingers went numb in my gloves before I got past the clutter of camp to the untouched snow beyond.


The next morning, we awoke early and threw our duffel bags on a pallet, and then finished packing up camp. Most things were already done. Drilling ceased on Wednesday (after setting a new world record at 1754.8 m) and we frantically processed all this core, finishing on Saturday. After the last section of core was sliced, diced, and sent off to its final destination, we celebrated in the science trench with spiced wine by candle light. Then the real work began. On Sunday and Monday, we built pallets of scientific equipment and took down the burly weather ports that served as sleeping quarters. We also said goodbye to the sauna, the dishwasher, and many other camp luxuries. When the temperature on the surface had dipped below that in the science trench on the night of our departure, we transferred more than thirty 50 kg (110 lb) boxes of ice to the surface and stacked them four high on pallets. This activity followed an extravagant dinner of steak and homemade ice cream and I think I was not alone in finding the heavy labor at odds with the wishes of my sated stomach.

Almost as interesting as what goes are the things that get to stay right where they are. For instance, since there are no insects or rodents, all the food can be left just as it is. In fact, Brandon and Luisa—the two cooks—made a deal that if one of them made our lunches for the flight back to Kanger, the other would make lunch for next April. Soon after we leave, the temperature in the dome will dip below freezing and stay there until we arrive next year and turn on a burner. This provides an opportunity to prepare a frozen dinner in a novel sense of the term. There was also a fair amount of ice cream left over from the final meal (it was frozen in plastic tubes to be about the size and shape of a section of ice core), and there was talk of putting it into the ice core buffer in the science trench with the unprocessed brittle ice. What a surprise for the first team of processors next year to pull strawberry ice cream out of a core tray!

On Tuesday morning, the weather was perfect for a flight: clear, calm, and uncomfortably cold. Skier 92, a new Hercules with 8 blades per propeller, landed at 12:30—right on time. We loaded it up with 2 pallets of precious ice cargo, 29 passengers, and all our personal junk. It felt strange to walk away from camp, a place I hadn’t ventured more than 2 km away from in the last 3 weeks. However, the takeoff was exceptionally fast and before I knew it, we were airborne. We left the snow less than a quarter of the way down the runway due to the enhanced power of the new aircraft. The flight seemed to go more quickly too and we arrived in Kangerlussuaq two hours later. As we descended from the plane into the balmy summer weather, I felt two things: the delightful sensation of warm air on my skin and the extreme discomfort of my feet in my -100 F polar boots.

We were shuttled back to the KISS (Kangerlussuaq International Science Support) building to await our luggage. On the rough approximation of the front porch, we lounged in long underwear and bare feet, drinking cold beer and feeling great. Not long after we arrived, a tourist bus pulled up uncommonly close to the front door and out jumped my mother. Although I knew she was meeting me in Kanger, this wasn’t one of the ways I had foreseen our meeting. When she rushed up the sidewalk and gave me a big hug, the sizeable crowd of onlookers gave her a loud round of applause.

Meeting my mother—although an anticipated event—jolted me out of the NEEM world and back into the non-frozen one. Over the next few days, everyone will go their separate ways, disappearing back into their individual around the world. However, I am confident that many of our paths will cross again in the small circles of ice core research and polar fieldwork. Although I am greatly looking forward to going home, I feel privileged to have met such wonderful people and participated in such an exciting project, and a little bit sad about leaving one of the most unique places I have ever been. In particular, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have met so many international colleagues in a setting where it was so easy to form good relationships: over beer at dinner, cards in the evening, carrying an ice core from the drill trench to the science trench. I learned so much about how drilling an ice core works, and about how people all around the world are thinking about what to do with this ice.

Relaxing in Ilulisat, I feel like time has paused. Here is a totally different Greenland, one bustling with Inuit people who have lived here for centuries and sledge dogs and brightly colored houses. But still, ice is the main attraction. Ilulisat sits on the shore of Disko Bay, one of the gems of the Arctic. The nearby Jakobshavn glacier produces copious amounts of massive icebergs that slowly migrate down its fjord and out to sea. Some are textbook tabular bergs, with sheer walls and a top flat enough to play soccer on. Others are made of mangled ice, which has been squeezed and fractured into rugged, gargoyled peaks. One that we saw today looked just like the Matterhorn, and was shrouded in mist all afternoon. Some are kilometers long and some are tiny, little tugboats of ice scooting along under unseen forces.

All of them, however, are made of ice that is thousands of years old. Many of them are made of ice that formed in places much like NEEM. They are pouring into the Atlantic at a rate unprecedented in recorded history. We hope, through studying the ice we recover at NEEM and other ice core sites around the world, that we can provide a context for modern climate change—whether it falls within the range of natural variability or not. We also seek to understand the factors that drove past climate changes to better understand the mechanisms at work today. With a better grasp of climate during the last interglacial, we will be better prepared to address the issues that confront us during the current interglacial. This is the goal of NEEM, and represents the aim of paleoclimatology at large: to unlock the questions of the present and future with the key of the past.

2 Responses to “Out of Greenland, defrosting”

  1. Garrett Tolman Says:

    Can you get thos big huge snow truck fast enouph to drift around?? like slipping and sliding lol that would be sweet!

  2. daniel rehrig Says:

    i was wondering what made you want to go to the coldest place in the world for reaserch. i came from south america and i can barily stand the 30 digree weather in oregon. and i was wondering what all can you lean from the ice core?


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