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  • Geosciences Ph.D. student Thomas Bauska will spend the next three months at the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) research station, helping an international team collect a 3 kilometer core. This blog is not only a chronicle of his day-to-day life, but a means young people interested in science to communicate with a researcher who is working actively on one of the most important issues we face - climate change.

    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.

    Drilling and logging an ice core is dirty business

    Posted August 13th, 2009 by


    I just returned from my second night logging shift, where we cleaned and documented the 3.5 m piece of ice that pushed our drilling depth past 1700 meters (more than 1 mile) below the surface. This is an amazing feat, since just last week the drillers were celebrating the considerable success of reaching 1600 m during the first season. Even with the usual complications and hurdles, we have been recovering 28 m per day on average for the last few weeks, bringing back ice far older than anyone dared to hope for this year. In fact, there is talk of breaking the deep drilling record for a single season, currently held by the first year of drilling at North GRIP, an ice core from central Greenland.

    However, drilling and logging an ice core is dirty business. Because ice sheets are giant glaciers, and by definition, glaciers must flow, it is necessary to fill the borehole with a drill fluid of the same density as ice. This prevents the drill hole from being squeezed closed by the constantly deforming ice, and allows us to raise and lower the drill through a 10 cm hole without complication and to return the following year and more or less pick up where we left off.

    After the first futile minutes of trying to stay clean while logging the core, you resign yourself to the muck. Then, the process engenders a strange type of messy satisfaction, like finger painting or building sand castles. And as drill fluids go, the one we use is fairly benign. Even though its principal ingredient is just coconut oil, it still has some pernicious qualities. Mainly, it aggressively dissolves any plastic or rubber it meets. The poor computer that aids the drillers looks as though one of those psychedelic screen savers was permanently seared into its monitor, and it is necessary to have a working knowledge of the layout of a qwerty keyboard to input any information.

    Tonight, I solved a particular bothersome mystery involving drilling fluid. Since I arrived, I had been wondering how, when we live and work on snow, in a place with no soil or dust, everything was so dirty. The snow on the floor of the trenches is black, and little dark tracks mark the commonly trod paths on the plywood floors of the dome. I conceded that the wood might generate some dirt, and maybe the squished remains of food that fell on the floor, but I could not conceive of a source of filth significant enough to account for these ubiquitous stains.

    As I was waiting to log the core this evening, I was sliding around the coconut-slick floor of the driller’s shack in my giant Sorel boots. I looked down to see little black ribbons tracing the path of my feet, exactly in the shape of my boot treads. It occurred to me that all this grime was actually the disintegration of 34 pairs of rubber-soled boots, slowly eroding under the oily caress of estisol. I felt extremely satisfied at discovering the answer, a little embarrassed that it had not occurred to me before, and more than a little bit disturbed. If it can dissolve my boots, what is it doing to my hands, which invariably become drenched in drill fluid by my oily gloves?

    The ECM is getting a little more exciting these days as well. We just passed through the cold, relatively uneventful period of the Last Glacial Maximum, when conditions remained fairly constant for about 10 thousand years prior to deglaciation. Now, we are getting deeper into the last glacial period, a time marked by a series of abrupt Northern Hemisphere climate changes known as Dansgaard-Oeschger events. Temperature reconstructions from previously drilled Greenland ice cores show changes of over 10 degrees Celsius (nearly 20 F) occurring in a matter of decades. These are evident in the ECM as huge spikes in the conductivity of the ice, and the ice appears clearer in the line scanner. These events are still poorly understood, but their imprint is found in paleoclimate records around the world, suggesting that the global climate system reorganized itself drastically and rapidly numerous times during the last glacial period. One of the biggest questions about the Eemian was whether the same types of rapid Northern Hemisphere changes occurred during the last interglacial, when the background conditions were much more similar to today’s.

    Answering these big questions, however, requires us to drill, log, process, and ship 2500 m of ice, and that is a big job. Luckily, the NEEM sauna was completed a few days ago, and is perfect for relaxing sore muscles, unclogging estisol-plugged pores, and being really, truly warm for a few short minutes a day. Its existence is another mind-boggling aspect of life on top of the Greenland ice sheet. Inside one of the red garage tents, there is an inconspicuous plywood room. When you open the door, the cloud of 80 C (176 F) air that spills out is the first indication that something very weird is going on. There are two rows of benches made of sanded cedar and a gas-powered furnace that heats a heaping pile of black rocks. By pouring snow (which quickly melts into water) onto the rocks, it is possible to increase the humidity to almost 40%. Although this is an arid day by Oregon standards, it is a significant improvement over the skin-cracking dryness of the conditions here.

    Unfortunately, the sauna will only operate for a few more days until it is time to start packing up camp. This is a momentous task that will require everyone’s help for the days leading up to the next flight period on Tuesday. Everything that is going must be packed and palletized, and everything that stays has to be packed and stored in a safe over-wintering location. Although it will be strenuous, it is all part of what is necessary to facilitate this extraordinary effort and is more than compensated for by the luxurious living conditions here and the state of the art laboratory we work in every day on top of a few miles of polar ice.

    Percussion in Greenland

    Posted August 12th, 2009 by
    Julia working on a core

    Julia working on a core

    For the first time since we arrived, there is a steady bank of clouds advancing from the southeast. The low fog creates the intriguing illusion of topography on the horizon, as if we were out at sea but approaching land or on the salty plains of a wide basin and range playa. It is still clear and sunny here, with just a few high clouds drifting here and there, but we shall see what the weather has in store!

    Even if conditions do go south, it won’t affect our daily operations much. The geodesic dome in which we spend most of our leisure time is built of steel and wood, with ample insulation and heat. The science trench is so deep in the snow—which is an excellent insulator—that its temperature remains relatively constant. Despite daily surface temperature swings of over 30 degrees, the trench is only about 3 degrees cooler when we arrive in the morning than it was the afternoon before. The worst part about bad weather would indisputably be the walk to the toilets, which are plywood seats set in small white tents on the outskirts of camp. Although visiting the bathrooms is unavoidable, it is often difficult to muster up the motivation to make the trek in the heart of the 0 degree night, or in the howling arctic wind.

    In addition, we have recently discovered a popular new indoor activity. Last night, we held the first meeting of the NEEM Jug (and-other-creative-noise-making-apparatus) Band. I brought my banjo to the ice, assuming among my 33 colleagues, there would be other musicians. I was right, however none of them brought their instruments. Nevertheless, when I started picking, some were overcome by the urge to join in. Soon, we had an unlikely ensemble of percussion instruments, including but not limited to: a typewriter, a fennel seed shaker, a coffee can and wooden spoon washboard, and a triangle meets jazz brush imitation formed by the interaction of a metal spatula and a sieve. Inspired by our first “practice”, several of the drillers started working on a bucket bass made of an old drill fluid barrel this morning. We will make our debut at the Sunday brunch, an up-north down-home version of the jazz brunch.

    In the good weather we’ve had so far, there has been a good deal of outdoor recreation as well. Until a few days ago, this mainly consisted of running, skiing, or walking up and down the groomed runway. Although this provided an ideal, packed surface for these kinds of activities, the scenery was a bit dull. In particular, I was not a fan of the black and red flags that tick off every 100 m of the 9 km lap. Sharing my sentiment, Tim, our intrepid handyman, forged a new “mountain track.” It weaves though the valleys of the NEEM Mountains—heaps of snow upon which overwintering camp materials are stacked to avoid being buried during the following accumulation season. Although there is no relief in the trail to speak of, it is quite scenic. From the far point, if you squat down, it is possible to almost not see camp! And in the golden-hued hour of the solar minimum (it is still far too bright to be called a sunset), the mountain track turns into the NEEM Riviera. Out for a stroll
    this evening, I ran into runners, skiers, and a couple gazing out onto the ice sheet from the plywood “couch” that has been placed out in the hills.

    In between all this recreation, we have been making good progress drilling and processing the ice core. The drillers have passed the 1600 m mark, far in excess of the goal for the season. In the science trench, we have mostly kept pace with the drillers. During the last week, we moved from the Younger Dryas, the cold period immediately preceding the Holocene, through the Bolling-Allerod (the warm period before that), and into the Last Glacial Maximum. The result is that, at the moment, my job is a bit boring. The electrical conductivity of glacial ice is essentially zilch, meaning that my scans produce nearly flat profiles for every core, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, small annual fluctuations are visible, and the compiled ECM record for all the NEEM ice processed so far compares well with the profile from North GRIP, the previous deep ice core drilled in Greenland.

    This is encouraging, because it suggests, at least to first order, that these different locations experienced similar atmospheric conditions throughout the last deglaciation. In the next year, as we analyze the ice we have recovered, we will see how climatically similar the NEEM record is to NGRIP. Based on the strong similarities between previously drilled Greenland ice cores, we expect NEEM to show the same patterns of climate during the last glacial period. This is why we take Greenland ice cores to represent the regional climate of the North Atlantic. The most exciting part about NEEM will be the record we obtain from the last interglacial period, 125 thousand years ago. As of now, we have no northern hemisphere ice core record from this period, which may have been more similar to the present than any time during the glacial. Drilling that ice, and then measuring it, is a long way off, but it is exciting to think that the mysterious Eemian ice is sitting at the bottom of our ever-deepening drill hole, containing geochemical signlas that have never been measured.

    Parties. On an ice sheet. And, of course, core processing.

    Posted August 7th, 2009 by

    We had a lovely weekend here at NEEM. The concept of the weekend is a bit abbreviated—Saturday at 4 pm until Sunday at 1 pm—but what it lacks in duration is made up for in enthusiasm! The first few hours of leisure involved card games, running or skiing on the groomed runway, and general lounging around in the pleasant weather. At 7, dinner was served. Saturday evenings are the only meals the cooks are not responsible for, so it is made by volunteers each week. This past Saturday was Swiss National Day, and the Swiss folks here made a traditional meal of dishes whose names I couldn’t even being to pronounce and decorated the dining room with tiny red and white flags taped to toothpicks and an apple shot through by an arrow (apparently emblematic of the Swiss national Hero, William Tell). They did a fine job of serving up 3 courses for a group of 37 hungry scientists, and people lingered long after dinner, drinking and chatting.

    Around 9 the dancing began and didn’t stop until clear after 3 am. This is evidently early to call it quits on a Saturday night in these parts (in fact, the list of required field equipment for NEEM includes a fancy dress or a shirt and tie and your favorite music!). The soundtrack ranged from Elvis to Abba to Black Eyed Peas, and there were representatives from every generation boogey-ing down until well after midnight. There was even a miniature disco ball for ambiance. With the shades pulled down, it actually felt like night for the first time since I arrived in Greenland.

    Imagine my surprise when I stepped outside to find the bathroom tent, and realized it was still sunny and bright out, and that we were in the middle of an ice sheet, in the middle of nowhere. It was beautifully peaceful, with a quiet wind pushing small streams of snow crystals across the white surface. Also, as the season has progressed, the sun has started to dip ever so slightly in the sky, bathing the western horizon in a yellow-orange glow. I wandered around for a bit, took some photos, and made my way back to the dome to warm up when the Arctic wind had turned my bare knees numb. The feeling of walking up to the door and being greeted by the drum and bass thump of a European disco was by far the oddest sensation I have experienced yet.

    Sleeping in on Sunday was a delightful luxury, the joy of which was only surpassed by entering the dome to find a hearty brunch of pancakes, eggs, and bacon waiting. After everyone attempted to buy back the previous night’s lost sleep with copious amounts of coffee and tea, we went back to work. Everyone was exhausted, but ready to focus again after a night of letting loose!

    Following my regular work of core processing, I discovered it was my turn to log the core as it came out of the drill. This is done during the day by designated core loggers, but is accomplished during the night drilling shift by a rotating staff of processors. Although it is a relatively simple task—measuring the core and dividing it up into 165 cm subsections—it is extremely important. Precisely measuring and documenting the depth of each piece of ice contributes significantly to the accuracy of the ice core chronology, the depth-age relationship upon which all climatic interpretations rest. For this reason, there are many checks and rechecks built into the protocol to make sure that inaccuracies of even a few millimeters do not slip through.

    At the moment, it takes about 2 hours to send the drill down the borehole, drill 3.5 m of new ice, and bring it back to the surface, meaning that we had to go down into the drilling trench every few hours to log. The turnaround time will increase as we get deeper and deeper, and the distance to and from the next piece of ice to be collected gets longer and longer. With drilling only possible a few months of the year, it is easy to see why it takes years to recover a 2500 m ice core!

    Since Monday, life has started to assemble itself around a strange kind of routine. The pace in the scientific trench is rapidly accelerating as people become proficient at their jobs. As of yesterday, we were completely caught up with the drillers, so we stopped an hour early due to lack of ice to process. Other aspects of camp life have become more constant as well: delicious food at every meal, good company in the dome, beautiful walks to the end of the runway which seems miles away from camp, and snuggling in my sleeping bag as the chill wind blows through the tent and freezes my water bottle during the bright night. All in all, life is not so bad here in the middle of nowhere, adrift on a sea of ice that often strikes me as being visibly indistinguishable from the ocean

    Arriving at NEEM

    Posted August 3rd, 2009 by
    Ice sampling at NEEM.

    Ice sampling outside Kangerlussuaq.

    After a hectic day of preparation on Wednesday, we called it an early night to prepare for our 4:45 am wakeup the following day. The one easy thing about rising early here is that it’s always light, no matter what time you have to get up. We met the Air Force crew at the airfield and I boarded a C-130 for the second time this week. This time, though, we were much more tightly packed. First, there were 37 of us in the small area of the plane designated for passengers and second, we were all wearing or carrying our polar survivor gear—giant moon boots, ski pants, down parkas, heavy gloves and hats—which increased our collective size by at least 25%.

    Even though it was packed, the flight north was spectacular. From the windows of the plane, we got sweeping views of the rugged mountains and glaciers of Greenland’s northwest coast. Jagged peaks rose out of the ocean, carrying massive burdens of ice. Small mountain glaciers cascaded down the rocky flanks of peaks, while wide rivers of ice wound and curved through the valleys below, collecting mass with each tributary. Eventually, the ice finally plunged into the sea, and met its watery foe. The casualties of their battle drifted through the fjords and out into the open ocean, white specks on a bright blue background. After two hours, we turned inland toward NEEM and all we could see was white.

    We began our descent and soon I experienced the very unique sensation of a plane landing on snow. Next, we were blinded by a white light emanating from the back of the plane; the crew had opened the rear door, which formed a ramp down to the snow. Still moving at 20 or 30 mph, the cargo was “drifted” onto the runway. I don’t know how drifting has anything to do with what actually happened. The towering pallets swiftly accelerated out of the back of the plane, and bumping and skipping, quickly shrank into black dots from our perspective in the plane. Luckily, we too were not forced to “drift”, but deplaned after the aircraft stopped.

    The site that greeted our eyes was quite unique. Thirty or more people stood out in the snowy oblivion, waving and shouting cheerfully. Behind them, a neat row of 23 flags marched south, representing all the countries participating in the project. This is NEEM camp’s main street. On either side were the rows of red domes and Jane’s ways that comprise the sleeping quarters. At the far end of camp rose the giant black geodesic dome, which is the center of camp life, complete with a fully equipped kitchen, indoor bathroom and shower, foosball table, movie projector, computers, printers, and a kegerator. Conspicuously missing was the place where all the science takes place. Soon I learned that just a small white tent marked its surface expression, and that the drilling, logging, and processing all took place in a labyrinth of underground tunnels and chambers, dug into the very snow we’d come to study.

    That first day was devoted to rest and relaxation—and staying out of the way of the reporters who were scrambling to conduct interviews, get the perfect shot, and stay warm during the 5 hours they had before the C-130 returned from Thule to take them home. With a lot of luck and just a bit of rearranging, the reporters came just in time to see the piece of ice that contained the transition from the last glacial period to the present interglacial. This is easy to spot in the ice for several reasons. First, cloudy bands visible to the naked eye begin to appear for the first time. These are dusty layers deposited on the surface of the ice sheet 11,000 years ago or more. During the last glacial period, many parts of the world were dryer and sea level was lower, increasing the supply of particles small enough to be transported by wind. Another way to identify this point is through the ECM, or Electrical Conductivity Measurement, which is the machine I am operating during my time h

    The process basically consists of dragging a pair of electrodes down a clean surface of ice. The strength of the current generated between the two electrodes depends on the amount of impurities in the ice. Counterintuitively, although the glacial period was dustier, there was also a much higher supply of calcium ions. These neutralize the negatively charged ions in the ice and cause the ECM signal to decrease dramatically. Therefore, the shift from glacial to interglacial is evident in the ECM record as a drop in voltage by a factor of 100!

    Yesterday was our first full day of work, and it was slow going as everyone learned their new tasks. Today was faster and I am sure we will be a well-oiled machine in no time. The basic sequence of events is this: the ice is drilled, retrieved, and logged in the drilline trench, then stored for a few days to relax. After that, it is brought into the science trench where the processing takes place. The core is now in 165 cm sections. First, the core is cut long ways into three pieces, a thin top section, another slightly thicker section, and the bottom half. The top piece then gets divided lengthwise in two. One gets further subsampled and stored for detailed oxygen isotope analysis which will happen later. The other is used for physical properties, which is done at the other end of the science trench. This consists of looking a thin section of ice under cross polarizing lenses, and measuring the size, orientation, and character of the ice crystals.

    The middle piece goes to the line scanner, which is the most interesting machine at the moment, as we get into glacial ice for the first time. This piece is flat on both the top and the bottom, and these surfaces are shaved clean until all the saw marks are gone and the ice is perfectly clear. Then it is placed in a machine that drags a camera and a light along the length of the core and takes pictures of the reflected light. Using this apparatus, it is especially easy to see the cloudy bands unique to the glacial climate. After it is finished, it goes back to a saw, where it is divided in half. One half goes to the Continuous Flow Analysis, or CFA, and the other is reserved for the scientific steering committee, who can decide how best to use it in the future. The CFA is an extremely complicated set of instruments that, as the name implies, melt a the ice continuously and measure all sorts of things from ion and trace element concentrations to methane at very high resolution
    The bottom half goes to the ECM. First, I polish the top of the core in the same manner as the line scanner, and then pull the electrodes down the ice measuring the current. With the exception of the transition from cold to warm climates, the ECM is fairly uneventful. However, yesterday we found evidence for 3 possible volcanic eruptions recorded in the ice. These are huge peaks in the conductivity, caused by the volcanic material trapped in the snow. Most of these peaks were accompanied by visible bands of cloudy or dirty ice, and require additional subsampling for tephra analysis. If we can identify the eruption responsible for each band, and if these eruptions are well dated elsewhere (such as where the eruption occurred), tephra layers provide important time markers for us to use when we assign dates to each layer of ice.

    After the ECM, the bottom chunk of ice is divided into two sections, the gas piece and the main archive. As implied by the name, the archive is saved. The gas piece is divided up according to a complex plan worked out by all the collaborating scientists who will analyze the air trapped in bubbles in the ice. Then, at the “post office”, we log and package each piece of ice and put it in the appropriate box. There are more than 10 laboratories participating in the gas component of the NEEM ice core, including OSU, so this task can be a little overwhelming!

    However, it is four in the afternoon on a Saturday, which means it’s the weekend. We stop work early today, eat a big dinner cooked by volunteers, and then have a raging party. I have heard rumors that they often last until 4 or 5 in the morning, which makes sense since it never gets dark and we don’t have to work until 1 in the afternoon, after brunch, on Sunday. I’ll leave the description of the big event to another night. Skol!

    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!

    Back in New Zealand

    Posted February 12th, 2009 by

    Date: Feb 1, 2009
    Location: Devon Hotel in Christchurch, NZ
    Time: 11:30am
    Latitude: 43°31′43.04″S
    Longitude: 172°37′58.15″E
    Elevation: 75 m (246’)
    Temperature: 25°C
    Wind speed:  4 km/hour
    Clouds: Partly cloudy
    Relative Humidity: 44%
    Precipitation: None so far
    Animals: Lots of birds

    Sunset on the tarmac, New Zealand

    Sunset on the tarmac, New Zealand

    I made it back to New Zealand!  The flight was on a much larger C-17 this time.  The C-17 is different from the LC-130 in that the inside was easily twice as large, it had jet engines instead of 4 propellers, the seats were much more comfortable, it was quieter, and it had fully retractable wheels for landing gear.  This plane is a lot faster than the LC-130 and the trip from McMurdo to New Zealand was only 4 hours instead of the 8 hours it took to get down there!

    Throughout the flight I was thinking about what it was going to be like when I got off the plane.  We took off at about 5pm and were scheduled to land at about 9pm, and the thing I was most curious about was the sun.  Since we were flying north, and it was getting later in the day, I was wondering if I was going to be able to see the sun set while I was on the plane, or if it was going to be dark when we landed.  The sun has not set, or gotten even remotely close to the horizon in the past 64 days, and I was extremely curious about how I (or my body) would respond to it.

    The other thing I was thinking about was the temperature.  When we left McMurdo it was just below freezing.  As a rule, anytime you fly in Antarctica you have to wear all of your ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear which includes your Big Red down jacket, ski pants, huge bunny boots, hat, glacier glasses, and gloves in case the plane were to crash and you had to survive on your own.  A well known trick is to wear your regular clothes underneath your ECW gear, and in the middle of the flight, everyone stripped off their ECW gear in preparation for getting out of the plane in the summertime heat and humidity of New Zealand.

    The one disadvantage to a C-17 is that it has very few windows and I had to get out of my seat if I wanted to look outside.  Every time I did this, the sun was still high in the sky.  Finally we started our landing approach and I couldn’t get up any more, so I tried my best to not think about it, telling myself that I’d know soon enough when they opened the door.  We touched down and then taxied for what seemed like an eternity.  I could already feel the humidity increasing in the plane, even though the doors were still closed.  We finally stopped and began filing out, and when I got to the door and began walking down the steps I was hit with the answers to both my questions in quick succession.  At the door there seemed to be an invisible thermal and humidity barrier, and crossing it was like getting off the plane in Dallas in summertime after vacationing in the mountains of Colorado.  As soon as I got off of the steps, I looked up at the sky which was glowing orange with what seemed to me at the time to be the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen.  I was enthralled and the people behind me had to nudge me forward towards the shuttle buses that were waiting for us.  I got on the bus, and sat down, still trying to soak in as much of the sunset as I could.  It was at least a full minute later, after the shuttle had started driving that I was again struck by something that I hadn’t seen in a long time.  My gaze had drifted to what was right below the sunset and quietly I gasped: “Look at all those trees!!!”  They were everywhere, huge and majestic…I felt like I had left the moon and was once again surrounded by Life!

    The shuttle bus ride was as short as the plane taxi was long, and in no time at all we were dropped off at the terminal, and we had to go inside.  By the time we collected our bags and got through customs, the sun had set and it was dark outside.  The darkness felt remarkably normal to me…this is the way its supposed to be, the way its been for my whole life, and I felt very comfortable with it.

    Back in my hotel that evening Spruce and I recollected on our time in Antarctica and what a fitting, almost storybook ending we had.  WAIS Divide already seemed like a faint memory, even though we were drilling ice core on 24 hour shifts only 8 days ago.  Now I’m looking ahead to a couple of weeks of vacation time in New Zealand.  I’m going to meet up with an old Kiwi friend and go mountaineering near Mt. Cook for a few days, meet up with some other friends on the north island, and just be a tourist for awhile.  Beyond that, I’m looking forward to when I return home on February 18th, to when I’ll get to see my family and friends again whom I’ve sorely missed.  These next couple of weeks, they are
    going to be good.

    Panorama of the ice sheet beyond WAIS

    Posted February 3rd, 2009 by


    Logan with the final ice core

    Posted February 3rd, 2009 by


    Logan balancing on the slackline

    Posted February 3rd, 2009 by