Arctic Adventures

Part II: Sisimiut and the Arctic Umiaq Line

The town of Sisimiut marks the western end of the Arctic Circle Trail. It’s an interesting place and the second largest in Greenland with a population of roughly 5,700. It’s a working town bustling with hunters and fishermen, young mothers pushing babies bundled up in strollers, and general workers. It is one of the only places where it gets cold enough in winter to run dog sleds, but stays warm enough to leave the harbor accessible year-round.

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Island dogs

I had a few days before the ferry arrived so I enjoyed Danish pastries from the bakery and poked around some of the trails near town. I was staying in the hostel in town which was full of hikers preparing to set out on the Arctic Circle Trail or those, like myself, who had just completed the trek from Kangerlussuaq. Most evenings were spent exchanging stories and experiences from along the trail.
One foggy morning I headed out to a little spit of land following trails over rocky outcrops and past several rough mounds of sod or piled stones. This particular site has a well protected natural harbor and has been inhabited for over 4,000 years! The Saqqaq culture is believed to be the first people to have settle in Greenland. They lived along the coast from ~2,500AD to ~800AD before disappearing. They were followed by the Dorset group which lived in the area from ~500BC-200AD. The next wave of settlers came from the Thule culture which were the ancestors of all modern Inuit. In the 1700s the Danish arrived and, monopolizing the lucrative whaling industry, colonized the island. To this day Danes make up a large portion of the population in Greenland.

While I was walking along the shore I noticed several dogs running around a tiny rocky island just offshore. After asking a woman in town I learned that dog sledders will sometimes put their dogs out on rocks to toughen them up and to give them some exercise during the summer months. Most dogs are kept on short chains during the off-season and require significant training and work to get back into sledge-pulling shape.

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Traditional whale jaw bones in the old colonial part of town

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On Monday the Umiaq Arctic Line ferry arrived. There is just one passenger ferry and it runs once a week from Qaqortoq in the far South all the way up to Ilulissat and then back the next week. On board I found my reserved bunk and went up top to watch the rest of the passengers board. It seemed that everyone had turned out to greet incoming friends and family or to bid farewell to those leaving. Greenlandic towns and settlements are so small and the land and elements so rough that no towns are connected via road – everything and everyone must travel via plane, helicopter, boat, or sled. While there was a handful of tourists most of the passengers were families traveling to other settlements or older students traveling to towns with high schools. There was a whole section on deck for baby strollers.

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And then we were off, heading Southward! It was a grey foggy morning and soon we lost sight of 170807_greenland_123.jpgland. A few hours later we turned back inland and I glanced out one of the windows to see a massive rock face emerging from its cloak of fog. Despite the chill several of us stood on the open top deck where we gaped at the massive mountains in the stunning light. Our first stop was at the settlement of Kangaamiut near the mouth of the Kangerlussuaq fjord. Clinging to a steep rock slope the houses seemed precarious at best. However, the waters here are deep and rich with sea life and humpback whales dove along-side fishing boats tending their nets as the ferry glided past. Later that evening we stopped at Maniitsoq to exchange passengers before continuing onward towards Nuuk.

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Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is the largest city by far with a population of over 17,000 people (almost a third of Greenland’s population). The ferry was scheduled to stop here for several hours and so we were allowed the whole morning to stretch our legs and explore. I walked around visiting the National Museum with the famous Qilakitsoq mummies, noticing the beautiful street art and murals on buildings, getting some lunch at one of the several grocery stores, and finding free wifi (very rare in Greenland) at the library.

Then it was back on the boat and out to sea. It began to rain that afternoon and we quickly lost sight of land amid the fog and swells. After a few hours of this the sound of retching filled the ship – and the chairs and bunks were filled with seasick passengers. On the top deck I enjoyed the cool clean air and watched Northern Fulmars swoop behind us almost like albatross.

We stopped again at the little settlements of Qeqertarsuatsiaat and Paamiut and had a chance to walk around Arsuk. There was a tourist guide on board who lectured on the history and current issues facing Greenland. He was very knowledgeable, answering questions about in English, Danish, Greenlandic, and French. As I mentioned above, it was an interesting mix of working commuter ferry and cruise ship. Most tourists take the ferry from Illilisat to Nuuk, but there were a few of us heading all the way South. Southern Greenland is laced with a plethora of narrow ice-filled fjords, passages, inlets, and islands. As we neared Narsaq we began to see icebergs from calving glaciers farther inland. Seals splashed in the water as the vessel plowed along it’s course, smashing right through small pieces of ice and passing very close to several larger icebergs. I was enthralled by the beautify of the ice in the sea; the white of snow and ice contrasting against the deep, brilliant blue emanating from these massive pieces of frozen water. Pieces that had recently flipped over seemed to glow with a saturated blue. Seal hunters skimmed along the surface between the bergs, rifles at the ready.

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We reached the town of Narsaq just as dusk fell. In the dusk I could see a sprinkling of lights across a low area surrounded on three sides by icy sea and butted up against a looming mountain. This is where my voyage ended and I disembarked the ferry to find a place to camp for the night.

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Disembarking the ferry

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Narsaq, Greenland

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Arctic Adventure

Part 1: Arctic Circle Trail

I have been working on the Greenland ice sheet since 2010, but have only ever been to Summit, Kangerlussuaq, and Constable Pynt. This summer I finally had the opportunity to explore more of Greenland – to experience the wild arctic tundra, sail down the SW coast aboard a ferry visiting numerous small towns and settlements, and visit a few of the towns in South Greenland.

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Russell Glacier

Greenland is the largest island in the world and 81% of its landmass is covered with ice. With a population of just over 57,000 people it is the least densely populated country on earth. It is also one of the most expensive places to travel. Everything has to be shipped in, everything is a limited resource, and there’s just not much infrastructure to support tourism in general. There are no two towns connected by road so one must take a boat or plane to get from one place to another. Outside of the few largest towns there are so few visitors that there might not be any hotel or hostel. I spoke to several travelers who found families to host them, at a cost. Wild meat and fish is cheap, but finding vegetarian meals can be a challenge to say the least. Hiking and camping are free, but maps can be hard to find and there may or may not be any official or marked trails. Guided tours are the best way to see Greenland, but they come at exorbitant cost. There is an official Greenland tourism bureau: https://visitgreenland.com and it has a lot of great information and is a solid start.

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The KISS Building

I had several friends who had traveled around Greenland in past years so I had quite a bit of advice and recommendations. Traveling solo and on a budget limited my options and made my choices pretty easy: hike the Arctic Circle Trail from Kanger to Sisimiut, take the ferry South, and poke around South Greenland. Due to ferry schedules and budgets I decided to skip the famous UNESCO Ilulissat icefjord and Disko Bay area – something to come back for!

I spent my first day off the ice repacking and organizing my gear in Kanger. I did not have a satellite phone to bring with me, so I made several calls home with instructions of who to call if I did not get in touch by a set date. People have gotten lost along this route.
In the afternoon I tagged along with a few researchers to the ice edge. I had been here several years ago, but in early spring. It was beautiful in the summer. At Point 660 the ice is moving very slowly and it forms a nice safe edge to walk on. Standing on the ice I looked inland – Summit is just over 450mi NE!


Russell Glacier is a little closer to town and a short hike from the road. The terminus here however, is an imposing wall of ice, awe-inspiring in it’s scale.

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Russell Glacier terminus. See the person in red?

That evening I got a ride from a friend with a truck out to Kellyville (or as one Dane called it: “Killy Villy”). Kellyville is just 20km from Kanger and home to the Sondrestrom Upper Atmosphere Research Facility. It is also one place to start the Arctic Circle Trail. Alternate start points include Point 660 or Russell Glacier if you want to hike from the ice to the sea, or you can walk the ~25km along the road from the Kanger international airport. I had read that it could take 7-10 days to hike the roughly 100mi and I had a ferry to catch 10 days later so I decided to skip the road walk.

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That first evening I passed a hut and several brackish lakes as I got my pack settled and found my pace. I had spoken to several people who had hiked this route years ago and was told that there might not be a visible trail, to expect cold wet days, and possibly to not see anyone at all. I had brought with me the small guidebook by Paddy Dillon and the three topo maps…in the end however, there was definitely a trail, and I saw other people most days. Still, there are some areas with more than one trail and the guide was definitely helpful. This area is one of the largest ice-free regions in Greenland and hosts herds of muskox and caribou. It is a very popular hunting, dog sledding, and snowmobiling area.

Over the next seven days I hiked along brilliantly cold, clear lakes, through scrubby northern willow and dwarf birch, along ridges and down valleys. Late summer is blueberry season and the ground was blanketed in low blueberry and crowberry bushes. In rocky areas succulents, lichens, and rock cranberry found footholds. In a few sheltered spots between boulders along the lakes I found small ferns and moss, though conditions elsewhere are too harsh. I saw perhaps 15 people along the trail, most heading East to West. While there are huts along the way they were of varying quality and cleanliness and swarming with mosquitos and flies, so I opted to camp most nights. The weather was phenomenal and my biggest concern was the lack of shade!

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As for wildlife I saw tons of birds – little Northern Wheatears running down the trail ahead of me, Common Redpolls trilling from the brush, molting Canadian Geese, Red-throated Loons, and a few hawks and eagles. I also saw several Arctic Hares and a handful of caribou. Caribou hunting season began halfway through my hike (on Aug 1) 170730_Greenland_40so they were pretty scarce however, their bones, pelts, and antlers littered the entire trail. Wolves aren’t found this far south, so I didn’t need to worry about them and while it’s not out of the realm of possibility for a Polar Bear to show up, it is so rare that I didn’t lose too much sleep over that either. I was a little worried about mice or other rodents – not having any secure place to store my food, but I never saw a trace. Mosquitoes and midges caused the most annoyance, but even they were far less numerous or troublesome than I imagined.

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Near the end of Amitsorsuaq Lake I encountered a wildfire. I had smelled smoke for several days prior, but when I rounded a curve in the lake and could see the fire I noted that it was mostly just smoldering tundra – more smoke than flames. I stopped for a snack and to watch it for a while, letting a few hikers behind me catch up. We hiked toward it together stepping off trail to give it wide berth. It looked like it had started right along the trail near a canoe rack on the East edge of the lake, most likely caused by someone’s discarded cigarette or burning trash. Unfortunately these type of fires can burn for months underground and Greenland simply does not have the resources to attempt putting it out.

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Hiking around the wildfire.

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Scars from a fire in 2016.

While I did see a few people there were whole afternoons or morning that I saw no one. There are no trees to block the view and most of the hills are gently rounded by ice. You can see for miles. In the evening I tried to find a depression or a rock for shelter and often didn’t even bother with the fly as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. So immensely quiet. In the afternoon calm I walked past perfectly still lakes mirroring the mountains. At night eerie loon calls echoed around the hills and it was perfectly peaceful until a startled duck or goose tried to take flight clumsily from the center of the lake splashing and screaming. I was close to the Arctic Circle, paralleling it. The nights were short, the sun setting around 11pm and rising again at 4am (times for all Aug. can be seen here).

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The trail is marked by rock cairns painted with a red half-circle. Often these are adorned with antlers. The trail wound up glacially carved rolling hills, down long wide valleys, and along numerous lakes. There are a few highlands, which the trails climbs straight up and over, but these only reach about 1,500ft. There is water everywhere and many people drank it unfiltered, but given the number of people using this route, the ubiquitous toilet paper on the trail and in the bushes, and the animal population I chose to filter all my water. There was only one real stream crossing and with the dry weather it was no problem.

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I spent one night in the Innajuattoq hut, aka the “Luxury Hut.” Most huts had a logbook where hikers noted their progress, plans, and stories. I had been reading about this particular hut in the logbooks from people before me and it did not disappoint: Newly constructed, clean, with beautiful views of the surrounding unnamed mountains and right next to a large lake. I arrived just after noon and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon swimming, reading, and conversing with two Danish couples that I had seen several times along the trail. We all realized we were ahead of schedule and cooked up a feast for dinner to lighten our food bags.

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From here the trail climbs over a pass and then follows a gentle valley all the way to the sea. The last night on the trail I camped along the edge of the Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord. Not the flattest campsite, but one of the best views of the hike! Small fishing boats skimmed the water below and the shores were dotted with tiny spots of bright color, little hunting and fishing huts.

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The last day climbed up and over one last highland area, Qerrortusup Majoriaa, down past the Sisimiut ski hill, and right into the town of Sisimiut. It was a bit of a jolt coming back into society – walking along the main road past stores and trucks, young mothers pushing bundled strollers and elders waiting for the bus. Caribou carcasses lay in front of houses, fishing boats crowded into the little harbor. I found the hostel and paid for a bunk noting the mountain of hiking boots near the front door. Almost everyone here had just finished or were about to start the Arctic Circle Trail.

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Looking back from the final pass

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Sisimiut!

If you’d like to read more about the Arctic Circle Trail check out these other blogs:

http://www.northernadventures.co/arctic-circle-trail – This group of guys hiked the trail in late August 2014. Beautiful layout and phenomenal photographs!

https://expertvagabond.com/arctic-circle-trail-greenland – A solo hiker who completed the trail in 2015.

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Autumn break

 

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After a short, but busy stint at Summit I am now off to travel and rest before returning for the winter phase from mid-October thru February 2018.

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Summit Station as seen from atop the 50m tower back in 2011.

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July 26, 2017 · 11:39

Robot Boyz

Above all else Summit Station is a polar scientific research station. We are here for Science!
Much of the research done up here is in the vein of long term monitoring; an instrument is deployed to take measurements for months or years without needing specific personnel here on site aside from the Science Technicians. We have several suites of instruments from many different groups. Some measure black carbon in the atmosphere, others measure cloud height, type, and precipitation, there’s a lot of atmospheric monitoring in general, a seismometer, and several solar radiation sensors.
The other type of research involves bringing the researchers themselves up here – either to install instruments, drill cores, collect samples, or test new technologies. The flight periods are the busiest times on station with many groups coming up for just a few days or a week, but some groups stay between flight periods. This past month, between flight periods 4 and 5, we are supporting two PhD students from Dartmouth who are here working with a robot. The Cool Robot.
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Their main objectives are to field test a new version of this robot, to prove that robotic surveys are feasible and practical. If they can be proven reliable robots could be used to track snow topography and elevation, ablation, accumulation, and all sorts of other parameters with significantly higher precision than the satellites we now rely on.
This particular robot is designed to follow a designated path while towing a ground penetrating radar (GPR) unit to measure compaction rates and densities. It is also carrying an infrared camera, which the researchers hope to measure exact surface area of the snow that can then be used to determine gas-air transfer rates. Finally, it includes a radiometer to measure the albedo of the surface – and thus how much solar energy it’s reflecting vs absorbing.

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Solar panel patterns

Some of the issues they’ve had to deal with is the robot filling with snow in high winds, the tires sinking in soft snow, losing traction on hard snow, hitting steep drifts and getting pushed off course…it’s a sometimes slow process, but overall I believe they’ve had great success and have their issues to delve into this winter when they return home.
It’s a boxy little thing, covered in solar panels. It doesn’t move very fast, maybe a 5mph at most, and we’ve grown used to seeing it putter around camp from one site to another. Check out their webpage and field blog: http://sites.dartmouth.edu/polarregionsrobotics/field-blogs/greenland-2017

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The “Robot Boyz” discuss annual layers in a back lit snow pit dug near station

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Summer Ice

After a much-needed break and some good adventures abroad I’m back in the Arctic on the Greenland ice sheet at Summit Station. This time I’m here for just over a month filling the gap between two other managers.

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Welcome to Summit Station! Roughly 10,550ft above sea level.

It’s summer here and compared to winter it is literally night and day. On May 6, after a short “night” of just 30min the sun rose above the horizon for the last time. It won’t set until August 7th when it will dip below the horizon at 12:04am and rise again at 1:16am. For now it just appears to circle around us in the sky. We’re at 72° North so the sun is higher at noon than at midnight (40° vs 5°), but still above the horizon. The 24/7 sun reflects off the white snow so sunburn and snow blindness are serious concerns. We have large bottles of sunscreen around station, but there are some impressive “goggle tans.” (More sunrise/sunset data for Summit Station can be found at this site: www.timeanddate.com/summit)

The light can affect sleep too and people often suffer from insomnia – you wake up at 2am and see the sun high in the sky…it’s hard to go back to sleep. Sleeping inside a building is a bit easier with window shades, but even these are sometimes augmented with cardboard and tape to block out as much light as possible. In tents it’s harder, sometimes just a hat pulled low is enough, or a neck gaiter pulled over the eyes…everyone has their own system.

The sun warms things up too. Summer temperatures typically range between -10F and 10F. Compared to the -40F to -70F in winter this is nearly t-shirt weather! On calm sunny days it’s not uncommon to see piles of jackets near crews shoveling. It’s tempting to play games outside on a nice evening, but it’s still cold enough for bocce or whiffle balls to crack upon impact…

Aside from the sunlight the biggest difference between summer and winter is station population. In the winter we have a skeleton crew of just four or five to keep the year-round science projects running: the station manager, two or three science technicians, and a mechanic.

In contrast, this summer we’ll peak at 54 people! In addition to researchers and students we have the station crew of the manager, two or three science technicians, a mechanic, a heavy equipment operator, a cargo person, a cook, a medic, and a field coordinator. Then there are temporary carpenter (carp) crews who come up to do maintenance, repairs, and replacements of buildings and general infrastructure.

To accommodate numerous science groups with short field campaigns as well as general station resupply and retro we coordinate with the NY Air National Guard. Flights in the winter months are limited by temperature and necessity to a few small Twin Otter propeller planes in October and February. Between April and August on the other hand, we have 6 scheduled flight periods with multiple LC-130 Hercules flights. These big military cargo planes bring in fuel (AN8), cargo, and passengers (pax). We might get 30-40 flights in a summer season. Between flight periods it’s relatively calm around station. We build up retro cargo for the next flight period, support whatever researchers are here for longer periods of time, and dig into some of the more involved projects around station. During flight periods things can get a bit hectic. Somehow flight days just make all this seem more real – I wrote about flight periods and what goes into supporting a “herc on deck” here: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/flight-period-4

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The view from the cockpit of an LC-130 flying over the ice sheet

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Summit fuel pits

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End of Winter

So I’m a bit late on this one – It’s been a bit hectic since I’ve been back! 🙂 The spring crew arrived as scheduled on Feb 16, 2017 and our population jumped from 5 to 13. We were pretty toasty and were pretty excited to see new faces. There were a number of returning staff members and turnover training went smoothly and well.

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Team Science!

Unfortunately, just as we were wrapping up and getting prepped for our flight out the weather closed in. A significant storm locked us down for 4 days, delaying our flight back to Iceland. We all kept busy digging out the new drifting, trying to keep our windows open (as they’re our escape hatches), and training up the new crew.

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Window wells capped with thin snow blocks glow from indoor lights

Eventually the weather broke and the two Twin Otters arrived. We loaded up the planes and headed Southeast towards Iceland. I’d been at Summit from August – February, nearly 7 months overall, in roughly 1 square mile. At the end of a deployment, especially a long one, it’s strange to climb into an aircraft and take off…to see the station that has been our whole world shrink to just a speck on the ice. It’s humbling and a little disquieting, though the rest of the world awaits.

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The East coast of Greenland is absolutely amazing. It is some of the most rugged, isolated, and beautiful terrain I’ve ever seen. Shear walls drop from high peaks to deep valleys while glaciers push over mountain passes and to the sea. There is little human habitation here – just a few settlements on the coast. This is polar bear country.

The sun sank below the mountains just as we left Greenland heading out over the ocean. As darkness fell we noticed auroras in the sky around us. A farewell treat as we headed back to civilization and lower latitudes.

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Sunset over Eastern Greenland

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Auroras, Venus, and the Moon

 

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Farewell Reykjavik, Iceland

 

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February Drifting

The sun has returned and it’s glorious…sun dogs, halos, soft pastel light, and crisp shadows! It’s powerful and beautiful and I catch myself staring at the blinding light. We’re gaining almost 15 min of daylight every day now and it makes our jobs so much easier.

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We are down to the last few weeks here – the spring crew is due to arrive at the end of this week! Things were looking good until we got slammed by a few big wind storms this week. We’re nearing springtime and the worst weather of the year. On Thursday we had sustained 35 knot winds and on Saturday they rose to 40-50kn sustained winds with gusts close to 60 knots…it’s hard to walk in that kind of weather and so much snow gets lifted into the air that it’s impossible to see more than a few feet. Temperatures also rise with the wind speed. Yesterday when it was 50 knots out it was -5F. Nice not to have as much frostbite concerns, but it’s sticky and relatively wet. I would take clear, calm, and -80F any day.

 

With so much snow being blown around monster snow drifts form. We had just cleaned up after the last good blow when we were hit again. There’s a giant moat around the shop and the Green House is buried to the roof on all but the south side. There’s still a bit of a moat there. The snow grains are tumbled by the wind, breaking into tiny shards and ground down to rounded grains. The wind pushes it through the tiniest hole – around door frames and through invisible cracks in window caulking and gaps around the walls. The building entrances and exits often comprise of two sets of doors – vestibules help to retain heat and also offer some protection against the persistent snow. Caulking and weather seals help, but in the extreme dry and cold they invariably crack and fail. With a little moisture they freeze to the door and rip off the frame. Constant chipping of ice and shoveling of snow wears down the material too – no matter what you do it’s a losing battle.

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Thankfully the cold means there is very low water content in the snow and the super dry air evaporates any snow that gets into the buildings quite quickly. We don’t need to worry about mildew or mold here.

Even with the storms, this is my favorite time of the year; gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, a few hours of daylight, but still enough darkness at night to see the stars and auroras. We’ve had a few spectacular nights since sunrise…

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A half moon and Venus below aurora

Spring time on the ice cap:

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Looking North. Photo: Sam via kite

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Sunrise!

On January 28th the sun returned at last! We’ve had periods of twilight each day, but the sun has not breached the horizon since November 13th. Unfortunately, it was cloudy on Saturday…but it is getting noticeably brighter each day and we will have plenty more sunrises and sunsets before we leave at the end of February! Today is cloudy again, but technically the sun rose at 10:52am and set at 12:44pm. Unlike the South Pole, where there is only one sunset each year (see my post on that here), Summit Station gets many sunrises until May 6 when it will rise and remain above the horizon until setting again briefly on August 7th. 170127_summit_900
On the 27th the sun was very close to the horizon; a brilliant golden glow and colorful clouds hinting at its presence. On clear days this past week we have been admiring the defined earth shadow (another nice explanation of the phenomenon can be found here from Sky and Telescope) and beautiful pastel skies.

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The Earth’s shadow defined to the North as we walk back to the Green House

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The pink layer above the darker earth shadow is called the “belt of Venus”

The new moon on the 27th meant it was a very dark night and we had a stunning view of the stars and Milky Way as well as a few curtains of aurora. Standing beneath this spread of stars with the infinite depth of the universe spread out around us is awe-inspiring.

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The Big House under the northern sky – Orion is just to the right of the dome

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Standing beneath the Milky Way!

Inside our buildings we maintain our routine. We have all but finished our fresh food and rely now on frozen, dried, or canned provisions. Everyone is growing tired and looking forward to returning to the ‘real world’ soon. Part of the issue is that we are at 10,550ft above sea level here at Summit and the physiological altitude is often much higher (we’ve seen atmospheric pressure equivalent to 12,500ft this winter). Even after initial acclimatization to the altitude it’s physically exhausting. People generally don’t sleep well up here – whether due to lack of oxygen or too much/too little day light, and after a few months it’s hard to ever feel well-rested. There’s also the mind numbing routine and isolation: We’ve been cooped up in a handful of buildings with no where else to go for months now. We all knew what we were signing up for and everyone is doing quite well, but the last 2 or 3 weeks are the hardest of any season and we’re all showing signs of Toast. There is some debate as to whether this is a “real” phenomenon – whether there is actually a medical cause (lack of T3 or vitamin D or something), but regardless it affects almost everyone in winter-over crews. Some of it is comical: short term memory degrades and you walk into a room forgetting what you were doing, then do it again 2 more times. People start a sentence or a story and forget what they’re talking about half-way through. Words become hard to remember: “Do we have any more of…umm, that thing that water goes through to make coffee?” or “Have you seen my book?…and by that I mean, my hat?” And simple math becomes especially difficult. On the flip side, frustration levels run high, tempers shorten, sleep becomes difficult, and physical energy runs low. It’s a time to remember to think before you speak, and to have extra patience for everyone who is likely feeling just as burnt out as you.

It’s also a time to be aware that we are not running on “all cylinders,” and to add to that folks are excited about post-ice plans and may not be fully present and focused on the tasks at hand. We will talk about staying present and being aware of our surroundings a lot, but we have made it through the darkest times and are down to the last month of our season now!

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TAWO looking very small against a clear horizon

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Plastic Balloons

The ozone layer is a vital part of our atmosphere, filtering out harmful solar radiation. One of the projects we support here at Summit is measuring the atmospheric ozone over the Greenland ice cap. For most of the year the techs use simple rubber balloons that reach heights of 20-30km. During very cold periods in the winter the rubber becomes brittle resulting in a burst at lower altitudes. These times however, are often when the ozone is the thinnest and most interesting. So the techs use much larger plastic balloons which can reach heights of 30-40km even in the coldest temperatures. These plastic balloons are not elastic like the rubber ones so they appear quite empty at launch. As the balloon rises through the atmosphere the helium expands filling it out completely.

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A normal rubber balloon

Plastic balloon launches generally only happen once or twice a year so it’s kind of exciting. They are huge and fragile and require all hands. First we laid out canvas tarps to protect the balloon from the potentially sharp ice and snow on the ground. Then we placed the balloon on the tarps ensuring it was free of kinks and tight folds. A carefully calculated weight was hung from the balloon to ensure we added the proper amount of helium. Too much helium and it would rise too fast for the calibrated instruments to measure properly. Too little and it might not rise fast enough or get high enough. Helium bottles were moved closer to the door and a long hose run out to the filling tube on the balloon. Filling took quite a while.

Once the balloon was filled with a sufficient amount of helium we connected the instrument box and carefully walked the whole thing to an open area away from the building and major drifts. One person held the inflated part of the balloon, careful not to let it pull too strongly or touch anything in the wind, two more held the middle section of the balloon off the ground, and a fourth held the instrument box. At a count of three everyone let go in sequence allowing the balloon to lift smoothly away from our arms and rise into the sky…

Back in the Green House we listened to the data being received; a Morse code like series of beeps and boops. When the signal grew weak or distorted one of the techs climbed onto the roof to adjust the antenna. The latest ozone data from Summit can be found here: www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/graph.php

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Ozone levels above the Arctic

img_1717Last week we hit a low of -73F according to the Green House thermometers. This week however,  has been dark and stormy with temps around -30F and winds around 30kn. Lots of shoveling to be done!

{Also, some of my halo photos from this fall have their own page at Atmospheric Optics check it out!}

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The horizon is growing brighter every day!

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A full moon shines over the Big House

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