Arctic Adventures

Part III: Southern Greenland

After three days and two nights aboard the ferry we arrived at Narsaq in Southern Greenland. I disembarked, waded through the throng of people gathered to meet the ferry and headed for the edge of town. It was late and getting dark already. In Greenland one may own a house, but there are no personal claims to the land itself. Some of the larger or more touristy towns such as Nuuk, Sisimiut, Illulisat, and Narsarsuaq have designated camping areas. Obviously, it’s not polite or wise to set up a tent right next to a house, but just outside of town is perfectly acceptable.

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Glaciers in the fog

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Greenlandic horse

I spent a few days in Narsaq, joining up with two Danish girls to hike up towards the glacier, but it rained all day and soon we were in the clouds. The rest of my time was spent exploring the quiet shore, admiring the wildflowers, and walking around town. August is blueberry season and there were lots of them all around. Birds chirped and seals swam in the ocean. I spent hours watching the immense icebergs that filled the bay – catching one just as a large chunk broke off under water! It splashed and bobbed to the surface, sending waves radiating around the inlet.
Once a boat came careening around a point, skipping along the water. It slowed just in time to ride it’s wake to the shore. A man jumped out followed by another, they crouched next to some rocks and started firing their rifles at the water – as far as I could tell they were trying to shoot each other’s splashes, or maybe small pieces of ice…firing as many rounds as possible in about 5min. Then they jumped back into the boat and sped back to town. Target practice? Using up old bullets? Testing hunting equipment?

 

After a few days in Narsaq I continued South to Qaqortoq. Boarding the small ferry I noticed I was the only tourists – just myself, a young very pregnant woman with her partner headed to the regional hospital to give birth, and a teenage boy.

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Qaqortoq is a much bigger town than Narsaq. There are several grocery stores, a cafe, and well defined trails around the hills. Homes and apartment buildings spread across a low area between and two hills, the sea, and back to a lake. There are few good spots to camp. Standing by the closed Tourist Information center I noticed another traveler I had met in Narsaq walking along the road towards me. He stopped to say hello and mentioned that he was doing a tour to the Hvalsey Church ruins in a few minutes. With no other plans and the information center and museums closed for Sunday I decided to tag along. Luckily there was space aboard the little boat and the captain tossed my big pack in the back. There were several Danish folks as well.170812_Greenland_214.jpg

The ruins were amazing. Most of the Norse ruins I had seen until this point were simply mounds of dirt or piles of stones. Hvalsey Church however, stands 56ft long and 26ft wide with four standing stone walls. The masonry is remarkable with open window and door frames. The church is one of the best preserved Norse ruins in Greenland and is also the site of the last written record of the Greenland Norse – a wedding in September 1408. It was built on the farm and ruins of other buildings dot the surrounding area.

After exploring Hvalsey Church we stopped at a Danish experimental farm along the Eastern shore of the fjord. Vegetables grew in rows outside with greenhouses sheltering tomato plants and other less hardy species. Beyond the vegetables evergreen tress grew in clumps fenced off from the sheep that wandered the hills.

Back in Qaqortoq I hiked around the surrounding hills. In town I visited the Great Greenland Fur House which prepares seal skin products, as well as caribou skin, arctic fox, arctic hare, and the odd Polar Bear skin. Interesting.

At last it was time to continue on to my final stop: Narsarsuaq. The main hub in Southern Greenland, with an international airport offering flights to Iceland and Denmark. Narsarsuaq is also served by Disko Line ferries who run several trips each day between Narsarsuaq and Qaqortoq via small boat and helicopter. Obviously I chose the helicopter option ☺
When I arrived at the Qaqortoq heliport early on the morning of my flight it was cold and damp with thick fog reducing visibility to nearly zero. Our 7am flight was cancelled. The woman working at the desk informed the handful of passengers booked for the morning helo that we would be moved to a boat leaving in about an hour. I waited until the rest of the passengers had left before asked if there was any room on the noon helicopter. She assured me that the boat was very fast and safe and seemed confused when I said I really just wanted to fly on a helicopter…it’s a very common way of transportation in Southern Greenland. She smiled though and made a few calls, securing a seat on the next flight!

A few hours later I returned to the heliport and this time the helicopter arrived, refueled, and we were led out to board. No ID checks, no safety briefings, no security, just pick a seat. Moments later we were airborne! The other 5 passengers were Greenlanders or Danes heading back to catch their flights home. It was routine, a commute for them. I had two side-facing seats to myself and spent the 25min flight snapping photographs out the window, admiring the views of mountains, icebergs, and crystal clear waters. It was awesome. After landing in Narsarsuaq however, I discovered that my backpack had been forgotten at the heliport in Qaqortoq and was never put on the helo. This seemed to be a somewhat common occurrence and the Disko Line representative made some calls and arranged for a bunk for me at the hostel as my pack held my tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. The next chance to get my pack would be the following day when a small boat was scheduled to make a run from Qaqortoq to Narsarsuaq. With nothing else to do, I hiked up to the glacier near Narsarsuaq. It was a beautiful walk, not terribly difficult except for a long scramble up a sheer rock wall – there were ropes installed in places. The glacier was huge and beautiful and wildflowers bloomed along the valleys leading to it.

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Narsarsuaq Glacier

I was originally planning on just one day in Narsarsuaq, but the next day our Air Greenland flight to Nuuk was delayed 11 hours due to weather in Nuuk. So I bought a ticket across the channel to visit the ruins of Bratthild and the statue of Leif Erikson. It was a lovely day and I hiked around a bit then settled along the shore of the fjord to eat lunch before boarding the boat back to Narsarsuaq.

At long last the Air Greenland Dash 8 arrived at the terminal and we boarded the plane. Taking off out of Narsarsuaq we headed Northwest towards Nuuk flying over some of the most phenomenal terrain; Monstrous glaciers flowed from the icecap pulling medial moraines towards the fjords. Jagged ridges of rock stood above the ice casting long shadows. Even the Greenlanders and Danes leaned towards the windows remarking on the beauty and taking photographs.

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Air Greenland Dash 8

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Glaciers of Southern Greenland

Soon clouds closed over the land below. As we descended into Nuuk the small plane was buffeted by heavy gusts and rain skidded across the tarmac. Pulling hoods tight against the wind we raced from the plane to the terminal. Inside we discovered our flight to Kangerlussuaq had been delayed due to the weather until the following day. Air Greenland had booked us at the Seaman’s Home and instructed me to share a taxi with a young Greenlandic woman. At the hotel we discovered they were overbooked and so the young Greenlandic woman and I were put in the same room as well. After nearly a month camping and staying in cheap hostels the hot shower, soft bed, and breakfast buffet were welcome!

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Nuuk, capital of Greenland!

The next day we waited at the airport as flights were again delayed one after the other. Finally we were a go and we pushed against the rain and wind as we walked from the terminal. Aboard the small plane the stewardess smiled as the plane shifted and rocked abruptly with the forceful wind. Thankfully the air calmed as soon as we were off deck and above the clouds. And I was on my way back to Kangerlussuaq.

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Arktisk Kommando

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A dramatic Kangerlussuaq Fjord

 

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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

Science

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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Filed under Arctic, Flights, Greenland, Summit Station, Winter

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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Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Summit Station, Winter