Tag Archives: Arctic

Arctic Cruise: Baffin Island and West Greenland Part II

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We crossed the Davis Strait at night and woke the next morning to the dusky mountains of Disko Island emerging from the fog. Absolutely massive ice bergs sat serenely in the ocean water, deceptively static. Our first stop in Greenland was Qeqertarsuaq, a classic Greenlandic town with brightly painted houses clustered around winding roads and a sheltered harbor for the fishing fleet. Dog sleds sat idly in yards green with summer grass. The dogs themselves were chained up in their area of town – these are working dogs, not pets.

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Next on our itinerary was the town of Ilulissat, Greenland’s tourist hub and home of the famous Jakobshavn Glacier, the largest of all Greenland’s glaciers, and the unique ice fjord – a World Heritage Site. It was a slate grey day with a heavy drizzle falling. Rain or no the ice fjord was not to be missed! We hiked up along the short boardwalk to the overlook arriving just in time to see humpback whales playing amongst the ice bergs. The Jakobshavn Glacier itself, like most of the world’s glaciers, is retreating at a startling rate (covered in a great article by the Washington Post in 2017). However, due to a shallow moraine just beneath the water at the fjords mouth the giant ice bergs that have calved from the glacier are prevented from floating out to see. Every now and then one will slip over and eventually they melt enough to sail across, but for the most part the entrance to the fjord is choked with ice. It is a remarkable sight and so thick with ice it’s easy to forget that it’s not actually the glacier.

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Cold and damp, we walked back into town. Only inside a Greenlandic café is it normal to 20180809-IMG_6817smsee a huge piece of humpback whale baleen and seal fur cushions. These animals are hunted for their meat and fur and to preserve their disappearing cultural traditions. Whaling is a significant part of Greenlandic culture and has played a major role in their history. While it’s still legal today, it is far from a free-for-all; the whaling permits and licensing is tightly controlled and can be found here: https://iwc.int/catches. Seal populations are much more stable and it is common to see seal meat in markets and grocery stores. The fur is usually saved and treated for use in clothing.

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The Ilulissat Harbor

From Ilulissat we sailed out of Disko Bay, weaving around giant ice bergs, and south to Sisimiut. In the summer of 2017 I hiked from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut (on the Arctic Circle Trail) and it was nice to visit the town again. Sisimiut is a bustling town with a high school, a hospital, and large harbor. It is a rare community with an open harbor year-round, but still with enough ice to run dog sleds in the winter. We had an afternoon to visit the museum and walk around town. The sun broke through this day as well and we had a celebratory dinner on the back deck.

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The Akademik Sergey Vavilov in Sisimiut

That evening we sailed down to the mouth of the Kangerlussuaq fjord. At 120 miles long it is the longest fjord of Western Greenland. All night was spent working our way inland to Kangerlussuaq. The first part of the fjord is lined with remarkable and dramatic walls with glaciers peaking from behind. Further inland, the terrain has been smoothed by the ice cap and the awe inspiring cliffs give way to gently rolling rounded hills.

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Kangerlussuaq, our last stop of the trip, is notable for it’s proximity to the Greenland ice sheet. I have spent a fair bit of time in this town as it has the largest airport and is the primary logistics hub for science support in Greenland. Perhaps the most exciting activity in Kanger is visiting the ice edge – where you can walk onto the ice cap itself! It is a relatively short ride via truck or bus to the most accessible point of the ice know as Point 660. I have written about this here. On the way to the ice edge we saw musk oxen, caribou, and even an arctic hare!

Stepping onto the ice is a little surreal. The edge itself is hard to locate exactly as it blurs into the bordering muddy moraine – mud and gravel slowly slowly becoming frozen mud and frozen gravel and then gradually becoming more ice than rock. The scale is hard to describe and the significance of this place was not lost on our group – the ice we stood on is part of the Greenland ice sheet covering more than 656,000 square miles, or 3 times the size of Texas.

The ice on the surface of a glacier has a rough texture. This is because after the snow fell it was buried  by more snow and ultimately compressed to form essentially an unbroken block of ice the size of the glacier’s base. This can be seen in ice caves where looking into the walls can look almost like looking into water. As this ice nears the glacial terminus, and the layers above it melt, the great pressure is gradually released and fractures form along the ice crystal planes, resulting in roughly ice cube sized chunks. This fracturing also brings light into the surface making it appear white (like when you chip an ice cube and the cracks are white).

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At last our trip had come to an end and we returned to Ottawa by plane.

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The view from the plane looking down over the West Greenland coast

Baffin Island and West Greenland

Our Group on the Arctic Cruise – photo by One Ocean photographer Dave Sandford

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November Afternoons

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Station lights on a misty afternoon

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Aurora Borealis over the MSF

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Nacreous Clouds!

The sun is on its way back and while we still have 3 weeks until the first sunrise each day is a little brighter than the last. New Year’s Eve dawned bright and clear with crisp stars and a few very special clouds on the horizon. At first they were startling neon pink, orange, and red. The first real sign of the sun in weeks and a beautiful contrast to the greens and blues of the night sky and aurora. As the day progressed the clouds grew in size, becoming clearly iridescent. With no insulating clouds overhead it was a chilly -60F ambient. The cold temperature, otherwise clear sky, low sun, and wavy iridescent features all pointed towards these clouds being Polar Stratospheric Clouds (aka PSCs or Nacreous Clouds).

These rare clouds are both terrible and beautiful. Forming in the stratosphere at 49,000-82,000ft and at temperatures below -100F they are composed of water, nitric acid and/or sulfuric acid. While beautiful, they are implicated in the depletion of stratospheric ozone – an important protective layer against harmful UV rays. According to TheOzoneHole.com:
PSCs were long regarded as curiosities and of no real consequence. However, Type I clouds are now known as sites of harmful destruction of stratospheric ozone over the Antarctic and Arctic. Their surfaces act as catalysts which convert more benign forms of man-made chlorine into active free radicals (for example ClO, chlorine monoxide). During the return of Spring sunlight these radicals destroy many ozone molecules in a series of chain reactions. Cloud formation is doubly harmful because it also removes gaseous nitric acid from the stratosphere which would otherwise combine with ClO to form less reactive forms of chlorine.”

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Bright neon clouds

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Polar Stratospheric Clouds – note their brightness, iridescence, and feathery/wavy structure

Measuring the ozone layer above us and the seasonal Arctic ozone hole is one of the many projects we support here at Summit. Every week the science techs launch a large balloon with a carefully calibrated instrument to measure ozone concentrations, as well as normal meteorological data (wind speed and direction, pressure, temperature, and humidity). The data is sent back via radio signal to the computer here at Summit.

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Winter

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After 4 days of weather delays the final turnover flight made it to Summit on November first. We unloaded several hundred pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and various other resupply items then refueled the plane and loaded it up again with bags and passengers. The fall crew had finished their tour of duty and were heading home at last. The rest of the afternoon here on station was mostly spent settling into winter rooms and unpacking the fresh food and supplies.

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Freshies!

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The walk in refrigerator, aka “freshie shack,” stocked up for winter with fruits, vegetables, and dairy. It is cooled with outside air and warmed with heat reclaimed from the generators (a little electric heater on the far wall augments heating when temps get super cold)

Fresh food, aka “freshies”, is a big deal in the polar programs. A few stations (such as the South Pole) have green houses and are able to grow some fresh food, but most stations do not have such facilities. As with everything else, freshies must be shipped in from elsewhere. For McMurdo and field camps these come from New Zealand. Here in Greenland it depends on the season – in the summer (Apr-Aug) we get supplies via LC-130s with the NY Air National Guard out of New York state, so food and cargo can be shipped directly from the US. In the winter the hercs are deployed to Antarctica and so for the few crew turnover flights (Oct and Feb) we rely on chartered Twin Otters from Iceland.
Even a few minutes’ exposure to extremely cold temperatures will blacken banana skins and wilt lettuce so freshies from Iceland are sent up in styrofoam boxes to prevent freezing while being transported to and from the plane. We won’t get any flights until February so the freshies we get at the Oct turnover are it – We have to make them last as long as possible. Lettuce goes the fastest and there isn’t much we can do to preserve it so we try to eat that first. Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, beets, onions, and squash can last for months and can also be frozen. Even apples, bananas, and oranges will last weeks to months before we are forced to freeze them.

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Earth’s shadow to the North

Now that turnover is complete the station is relatively calm and quiet. We are stocked up with food and fuel and are looking good for the months ahead. Winter is a drawn out marathon compared to the frenetic summer season – there’s less overall to do, but everything takes longer. We won’t get another plane until late February 2017 so it’s just a matter of keeping ourselves alive, the station functioning, and our year-round scientific instruments, such as NOAA’s observatory and ICECAPS, in working order.

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An almost noon sun behind the Big House

It is now officially winter and it’s starting to feel like it. Today the sun rose at 9:13am and will set at 1:20pm, tomorrow it will be 9:22am and 1:12pm…the last sunrise will be on November 14th (www.timeanddate.com/summit). Temperatures are variable, but they are dropping lower and lower. Current conditions here are publicly available at: summitcamp.org/weather. On Thurs evening we reached a new low this season of -52F and with the cold and the dark come auroras!

Welcome to Winter!

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Hints of Hurricane at Summit Station

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Over the last 2 weeks we’ve had back to back wind storms with lots of drifting and blowing snow. On Wednesday, however, we got hit by the tail end of hurricane Nicole, by that time classified as a “post-tropical cyclone.” In a matter of hours our winds went from 20kn to over 60kn.

We follow similar weather criteria as the USAP: Condition 3 is visibility greater than 2000ft and wind-chill above -90F. Condition 2 is visibility between 2000ft and 200ft and/or wind-chill below -90F. And Condition 1 is the worst with visibility less than 200ft and/or wind-chill below -100F. When wind speeds exceed roughly 20knots snow is picked up reducing visibility and creating a white out. We’ve had a few cases of Con 2 recently with visibility under 2000ft, but I had yet to call on Con 1. Flag lines run between all the main buildings on station and during a storm all travel is monitored with radio calls including route and destination and check-in upon arrival. It can seem cumbersome at times, but it is also important to know where everyone is and that no one gets lost.

The day had started warm and a little windy with 20kn winds, but after midday they increased rapidly to 30kn then 40kn…finally hitting a peak sustained wind speed of 61kn gusting to 63kn! Unfortunately 53kn was the highest I saw on the station screen displaying current conditions.

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Current Conditions: -4F and 53kn winds

That was by far the highest wind speeds I’ve seen up here, though I doubt it broke any records. Winter and early spring storms can be vicious on the ice sheet. The Big House, up on stilts, rocked as each gust buffeted the structure. At around 35kn we went into Con 1 and I made the call over the radio. I could no long see the Green House from the Big House. Travel was restricted to emergency or well-coordinated necessary activity with no solo travel permitted. Two people were in the Green House and went down to the SOB together to get the mechanic and bring him back. Visibility was down to just tens of feet and we ran a rope line along the flags between the Big House and Green House. Even in those high winds it was not hard to follow the flag line, but if something were to happen, if someone were to be blown over and injured or become disoriented, the consequences would be disastrous. So we are cautious and careful.

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The storm was brief, however and winds died back down to 35kn pretty quickly. Overall the station fared well. A few large empty propane cylinders that are stored on the deck were blown over and there was significant drift growth around station. The buildings are far from perfectly sealed and we found several small drifts inside where ice and snow had been blown through a tiny crack. Walks around the berms revealed completely buried pallets in places and a few lighter items that had blown over, but not too much damage. We are prepared for potentially bigger storms through the winter.

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Wind speeds off the chart!

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Aurora Borealis

It’s a chilly evening in the heart of the ice sheet with temps hovering around -40F. We are outside, however, to witness a fantastic display of auroras! Tripods frost up, breath freezes on gaiters and hats, plastic becomes brittle, and above us the sky is alive.

I’ve written about auroras in a few previous posts here and here so I won’t go into too much detail, but a brief summary is that auroras are caused by energized particles from our sun striking gas molecules in the atmosphere (much like neon displays). The colors are due to which molecules are excited – green is caused by oxygen around 60 miles up while nitrogen causes the red-purple auroras. Solar storms and flares release waves of charged particles which can be predicted and tracked. To see the aurora forecasts and where they might be visible check out NOAA’s Space Weather page here: www.swpc.noaa.gov. NASA also has a fantastic page on Aurorae with photographs of aurorae on other planets!

Auroras dancing over the Big House

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The green line coming out of the far building in the last image is the CAPABL LiDAR I discussed in my previous post. The red light is the 50m tower.

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Lidar

It was lightly snowing last night, ice crystals falling from high, thin clouds as I walked from the Big House to the Green House. Looking towards the MSF there was just enough ice in the air to illuminate the ICECAPS LiDAR – a laser measuring cloud matter, phase, and crystal orientation. ICECAPS is a relatively large, long-term project researching cloud characteristics and their impact on climate. This knowledge is crucial in developing climate models as well as understanding our changing climate. More information can be found here: www.esrl.noaa.gov/arctic/observatories/summit.

Most of the time the laser is invisible, however with just the right conditions enough light can be reflected back to show the brilliant green beam. If you look carefully you can also see the vertical laser, however this is weaker and thus less visible. Beautiful science!

*If you are familiar with LiDARs you may have seen this spelled LIDAR, lidar, LiDAR, or LADAR – according to NOAA’s Digital Coast Blog all spellings are correct though LiDAR is gaining in popularity. 

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The ICECAPS LiDAR here at Summit

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The LiDAR at NOAA’s ARO facility at the South Pole Station

 

An example of the LiDAR data:

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Halos

Auroras may grace the polar skies at night, but the day sometimes brings phenomenal halos and sundogs. It’s hard to describe the intangible beauty of these phenomena – vibrant spots of rainbow on either side of the sun, glowing pillars of light from the sun, a brilliant stream of light encircling the sky parallel to the horizon…a good display is simply awe-inspiring.

In general atmospheric optical phenomenon (sundogs, halos, rainbows) are not uncommon. Frequent halos and sundogs can be seen around the world when ice crystals in the atmosphere reflect and refract light. Infrequent halos are more often seen in polar regions or at high elevations with colder temperatures and more ice in the atmosphere. A common occurrence with halos is “Diamond Dust” which is essentially a ground level ice cloud filling the air with glittering ice crystals.

All photos below were taken by me, click on any of the images to open the full photo with caption.


The different crystal shapes generate different optics, however ice crystals form in hexagonal symmetry, thus while the crystal might be long or short (columnar or plate-like) the internal angles are always the same. Here at Summit the ICECAPS project, housed primarily in the MSF, is researching these crystals and cloud formations to better understand the complex processes involved in these systems.

The following website is a brilliant source of information regarding atmospheric optics and identifying features: www.atoptics.co.uk. An impressive full list of optical phenomenon can be found here: https://wikipedia.org/Atmospheric_optical_phenomena. For more Summit specific photos and information check out the Polar Field Services blog, Field Notes.

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Photograph of a good halo display – 22° halo, upper tangent arc, 46° halo, and parhelic circle at Summit Station, Greenland

 

Below are some of my favorite photos of optics that I have witnessed in the Arctic and Antarctic. If only I’d had my wide angle lens in past seasons! Click on images to bring up caption and full picture.

 

According to atoptics.co.uk, 120° parhelia are infrequent, but not super rare. They are often faint and short lived however, I have only ever seen them twice. Below is a panorama at Summit showing bright 120° parhelia.

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Bright sundogs, 22° halo, and definite rare 120° parhelia! (Summit)

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Looking opposite the previous photo – the 120° parhelia can be seen along the parhelic circle (Summit)

Moon halos are not uncommon either, but require a nearly full moon and darkness as well as halo forming conditions.

 

Other interesting optical phenomena include the green flash and fogbows. The green flash lasted a few hours at the South Pole Station in 2013 (check out my post from that sunset with more green flash photos here). This photo was taken through a telescope. It’s a bit blurry due to heat waves and light distortion near the horizon, the same process which causes the green flash to be visible. Fog and fogbows are a frequent occurrence at Summit, Greenland.

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 Happy belated equinox and sunrise at Pole!

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Summer’s End

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The summer season is coming to a close and Summit Station is as busy as ever wrapping up projects and preparing for winter.

The last Herc for the year is scheduled for Aug. 17th. We’ll be left with 5 souls on station and a lot to do before the storms hit. Autumn comes fast on the ice sheet with high winds, monster drifts, and reduced visibility. As winter approaches daylight dwindles and temperatures drop as well, though most of our preparations are for the storms.

To winterize station we move the handful of summer buildings (carp shop, summer berthing, storage units, short term science space etc) away from the main station. We park equipment out in the flat white and put all implements and drags on small berms raised above grade. All cargo on station is consolidated onto pallets or crates and placed on one long berm above grade as well. With nearly a meter of accumulation each year and an infinite amount of drifting possible things get buried. It’s just one of the difficulties of life here. So we mark edges and corners with colorful flags atop long pieces of bamboo. A lot of effort is put into marking, mapping, photographing, and documenting where things are put.

We are in the midst of turnover here – as the station manager this means I am in the office long hours reviewing SOPs and where documents are stored, as well as emergency plans, schedules, and tasking to be done before winter comes. The rest of my crew has been here since June and are mostly settled into their roles. I held this position last year so most of it is review, but there are some changes here and there and it’s good to go over everything before we’re on our own. The next flights won’t be until mid-October when a Twin Otter will fly from Iceland to Summit to change out part of the crew.

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Summit Deployment

Welcome Back! After a few months off to enjoy the world of trees, mountains, swimming in lakes, and not wearing 40lbs of extreme cold weather gear the time has come to deploy again. I’m on my way back to Summit Station in Greenland. I’ll be returning as the Station Manager, the same position I held last year. This time however, I’ll be running the station through the cold, dark, arctic winter from August to  February.

In the short summer season from April-August Summit Station is a busy and exciting hub of activity. Construction projects are completed, cargo is moved with the Air National Guard, it’s home to lots of people (up to around 35), the GrIT traverse comes and goes, and multiple groups conduct their research. The sun is up 24/7 and temperatures range from -20F to 30F. Current weather graphs for Summit can be found here.

The summer is brief however, and the Hercs are needed elsewhere to support science with the US Antarctic Program (USAP) on the other end of the world. In mid-late August Summit Station shuts down for the winter (see my post here from last year: https://antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/summers-end/). From August to April a skeleton crew of just 5 maintains the station and several year-round science projects. There are no LC-130 Hercs or flight periods (https://antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/flight-period-4/) to deliver fresh food or new faces, just a few Twin Otter flights in October and February for crew change-outs.

At 72°North, Summit is not at the Pole, but it is above the Arctic Circle and thus has very long days in the summer and very long nights in the winter. This year the sun has been up since May 5th, but on August 6th it will set at 11:59pm to rise again just 22 minutes later at 1:21am. Gradually the “night” will lengthen until November 14th when it will become dark 24 hours a day 7 days a week. For the next few months we’ll have beautiful sunsets.

Check this link out for August sunrise/sunset times at Summit: http://www.timeanddate.com/sun/greenland/summit-camp?month=08&year=2016

It’s not as intense as winter at the South Pole, but temperatures have fallen as low as -89F and the Aurora Borealis is stunning. Check out this post on Polar Field Services Blog Field Notes about the winter at Summit in 2009: polarfield.com/blog/greenlands-summit-camp-in-the-winter.

We’ve arrived in Schenectady, NY and from here we’ll fly up to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland via the New York Air National Guard aboard Lc-130 Hercules planes. A day or two in ‘Kanger‘ and then it will be onward to Summit. It will be a busy next few weeks as we close up the station and prepare for winter.

For photos of the hercs and Kanger check out my deployment post from last year: https://antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/welcome-to-summit/

 

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