Being an Indian it's hard to explain but I will try...home is the tropics, and the North was always the Himalayas. The roof of the world was Tibet... What a tiny picture of the world, eh? One email and it is split wide open. An offer to travel to Greenland with the Arctic Sunrise, I will never see the world in the same way again. How can you?
How can anyone who has seen life above the Arctic Circle? Heavenly it is, white clouds blanket you and blue skies peek through, promising a boundless outer world even higher. Ice floating along, sometimes like meringues soft creamy and crunchy; or like high mountains jagged and steep idly floating by, or are they journeying?
I had heard of global warming and climate change. They sounded like a real threat, but never did I REALISE it. There is an unimaginable difference between being told and realising! Realisation comes from experience and the understanding that comes with it. It's been dawning on me, like the Arctic summer sun shines after a long dark winter gently lighting up the horizon and then sharply ascending the sky... the boundless sky of knowing. Looking out here is like looking into our past.
It feels like this is the mother of the oceans, the birthplace of currents. I see it now...ice is life...it gives life little by little...and no one understands it better than the people who have lived here for thousands of years. The awe I feel for people here and the landscape that shaped them is as enormous and endless as the ice I see around me. It's a hard life but it's also free. An arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen said that true wisdom can only be found far from the dwellings of man. Could this be a ray of wisdom dawning in me?
A wisdom than shows me how important it is for change to come, how we are all responsible for the choices we make, to keep old traditions close and try and make place for the new.
We must protect our home, it's the only one we have, without bombarding it with things we create... because honestly we might be mighty but not mightier than mother nature... here, nature humbles me... shows me how puny we are and it's beautiful to feel that way. It is the truth. The arctic is a birthplace of life pure and painful. I shall always revere it and respect it, as being here illuming my world, which gets brighter and bigger everyday.
We are sailing back down Sermilik fjord, passing hundreds of icebergs - some of them real giants. By all rights, we should be pretty jaded by now, having spent the past weeks staring at icebergs, glaciers and sea ice, but every now and then you still see something that knocks your socks off.
News of today's prize find spread rapidly through the ship. An iceberg made up of the kind of colors you only see in places like these; colors that are impossible to perfectly describe or reproduce. Even now, 9:30 at night and hours later, we're still arguing about what color you would call this iceberg. Personally, I'd say it was, "a very unusual shade of aquamarine".
Part of the reason icebergs are so fascinating is that each is unique, drifting, and ever changing as they melt. They calve off the glaciers that feed into this fjord, many of which are fed in turn by the Greenland ice sheet. So here you have ice, thousands of years old, making it's way out to sea. Some ice sheet fed glaciers in this part of Greenland are speeding up, and disintegrating, resulting in more ice being dumped into the fjords.
All of this (admittedly very pretty) floating glacier ice does not only add to sea level rise. It also dilutes the ocean, making it less salty - a difference you can taste in the fjord water here. Thermohaline (thermo = heat, haline = salt) ocean currents circulate water from the tropics up the coast of Europe - keeping its winters more mild than otherwise. The fear is that as more fresh water drains into the Arctic Ocean, it will weaken or shut down the "pump" powering this current.
So, in a seeming paradox, global warming could lead to a regional cooling of northern Europe, with major implications for everything from agriculture to summer swimming.
Parecia un domingo "normal", si se lo puede llamar asi a un domingo a bordo del rompehielos Arctic Sunrise, navegando por las costas de Groenlandia y empezando a ver hielo flotando por todas partes despues de un par de dias navegando a mar abierto. Se comenzaba a recortar la costa montagnosa en el horizonte, y desde la visual del barco, el hielo se cerraba bastante en la entrada al fiordo que era nuestro proximo destino.
Estamos recorriendo hace poco menos de un mes la costa este de Groenlandia, llevando a unos cientificos que miden la velocidad de desplazamiento de los glaciares. Instalan unas antenas satelitales, quedando registrado el desplazamiento en ese lapso.
Yo estaba, como decia, domingo a la tardecita tomando mate y mirando informacion tecnica del barco, en esta computadora sin "enies" y sin acentos, cuando se me acerca Phil el contramaestre y con su casi indescifrable acento neocelandes me anuncia: - Fraade, ngfngfrdfdging haauuunn jaalicaapta. -
Por un momento pense que lo que queria era ayuda para hacer algo en el helicoptero, "Tweety" como lo han bautizado hace agnos. Pero no, era mi dia de suerte y me iba a acompagnar a Hughie el piloto escoces, para ver desde arriba bien alto, por donde era mas facil pasar la barrera de hielo a la que nos aproximabamos.
Creo que tarde 3 segundos y medio en subirme al bicharraco, lleno de expectativas por ver y sentir como seria eso. A los pocos minutos despegamos de cubierta lentamente hacia arriba, luego de cola un poquito hacia atras....y todo a adelanteee !!!...tan inclinados que me parecia inexorablemente destinado a masticar el parabrisas. Pero no.
Desde el punto mas alto del barco, la distancia al horizonte visible es de unas 9,4 millas nauticas (unos 16 km), pero es muy dificil descifrar en donde el hielo esta mas concentrado por la perspectiva, que es muy al ras del mar. Nuestra tarea era encontrar desde unos 700 metros de altura, cual era el lugar mas despejado de hielo, tomar las coordenadas en el gps y pasarselas al puente para que ponga rumbo hacia ahi.... y asi se hizo.
Llegamos a la boca del fiordo en unos 20 minutos, y desde esa altura el hielo y los tempanos flotando parecian fideos flotando en una sopa, habia partes de la sopa sin fideos y esas fueron las coordenadas que anotamos. Pero cuando bajamos a unos 10 metros del agua el panorama cambio, y habia tempanos de unos 30 metros de altura y 50 de largo. Hughie amago a aterrizar (seria "hielizar"?) en uno y me dijo que se termino el viaje porque nos quedamos sin motor...por suerte fue su sentido del humor escoces.
Hicimos el trecho de vuelta al ras del mar y esquivando hielos, inolvidable.
Es inexplicable la belleza de estos lugares, montagnas rocosas aisladas unas de otras por glaci ares, y esas lenguas de hielo extendiendose hasta lamer el mar. Y el mar, otro espectaculo, sembrado de trozos de hielo de todas formas y tamagnos, a veces caprichosos.
Y tambien hay vida !...hemos visto ballenas, focas, osos polares...estos ultimos dependen mucho de los campos de hielo macizo que se extienden por el mar, es su habitat, el lugar donde consiguen su alimento. Desafortunadamente ese habitat del que dependen para sobrevivir corre peligro debido al cambio climatico provocado por las emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero. Por quemar petroleo, hablando en criollo. El hielo, segun varios estudios cientificos, se derrite y mas rapido de lo que parecia hasta ahora.
Desde hace mas de un siglo, todo el progreso economico y absolutamente todos los bienes que consumimos a diario -inclusive la comida- dependen casi exclusivamente de la quema de hidrocarburos, ya sea carbon, petroleo o en ultima instancia gas natural. Los gobiernos de los paises industrializados y especialmente el de los Estados Unidos de Norteamerica -primer productor mundial de gases de efecto invernadero con el 30% mundial- se niegan a hacer un corte en las emisiones y a poner un rumbo nuevo en la forma de obtener la energia para la sociedad entera.
Algunos numeros para pensar que encontre en el libro de Jeremy Rifkin, "La economia del hidrogeno":
Estados Unidos acoge a un 5% de la poblacion mundial, pero consume el 25% de la energia, y emite el 30% del total de gases de efecto invernadero del planeta.
En la actualidad hay 520 millones de automoviles en el mundo, de ellos, 132 millones se hallan en los Estados Unidos, cuyo parque movil incluye 1,9 millones de camiones, 715000 autobuses y 21000 locomotoras.
Cada ciudadano estadounidense emite alrededor de 6 toneladas de gases de efecto invernadero por agno (unos 6800 kilos de carbono)
Una persona trabajando 24 horas produce 160 kilocalorias de energia. Si traducimos a eso la cantidad de energia que usa el norteamericano promedio, resulta ser que cada ciudadano precisaria 58 esclavos energeticos trabajando 24 horas al dia los 365 dias del agno. Y para que esto se pudiera llevar a cabo, harian falta 3 veces mas personas que las que hay actualmente en el mundo
We have many pieces of highly sophisticated technological equipment at our disposal here on the Arctic Sunrise. One of the newest is our Lake-o-meter (patent pending). While it may look suspiciously like a length of rope with a shackle on the end, the Lake-o-meter (patent pending) is in fact a depth measuring system with a high degree of operational reliability.
The Lake-o-meter (patent pending) was invented to get a rough idea of how deep the melt lakes on Helheim glacier are. To deploy the Lake-o-meter (patent pending), the helicopter hovers over the melt lake, while the "rope" is lowered through an open door (obviously, seatbelts must be worn at all times). Naturally, the distance from the helicopter to the water's surface must be adjusted for. This can be done by using the helicopter's radalt (radar altimeter), visual observation, or (more accurately) checking where the wet bit starts as the Lake-o-meter (patent pending) is retrieved. If the last method is used, the Lake-o-meter (patent pending) must be "reset" between measurements (by letting it dry).
As silly as the Lake-o-meter (patent pending) might sound, it has a serious side. An average sized lake we measured was 14 meters (46 feet) deep, and only one of hundreds. These glacial lakes indicate surface melting, and absorb more sun than bare ice (thus increasing the surface melting further). The melt water also has a lubricating effect when it drains into the base of the glacier, causing it to speed up.
Faster glaciers lead to more sea level rise when, like Helheim, they drain the Greenland ice sheet. And the faster these glaciers flow the faster the ice sheet gets transported out into the ocean.
We're anchored here until late Wednesday, and it's peaceful and quiet on the ship with the engine off. Well, peaceful and quiet except when deck work is in full swing.
Grinding and chipping and banging and painting... yes, even the painting is noisy. Not so much the painting itself, but all the swearing at the clouds of mosquitoes that have found the ship. Considering the scarcity of warm-blooded life in this area, we must look like a floating all you can eat buffet.
The spot we're in is a good compromise location with easy access by helicopter to both the Helheim glacier and Kulusuk international airport.
As scheduled, Steve Morgan, who has taken most of the photos so far, departed yesterday. He's replaced by Nick Cobbing, another UK photographer (who I worked with on the Rainbow Warrior a couple years ago).
Gordon and Leigh, the University of Maine glaciologists, left this morning. Sad to see them go, but glad that they got as much done as they did. In fact, they seemed very happy with the amount of research they were able to accomplish, and the dramatic discoveries of these past days. Best wishes to you both, and many thanks for answering my myriad questions.
And last but not least, we saw off Millie, our Greenlandic translator, and Thomas - a volunteer deckhand from Norway. Both will also be missed. In addition, to translating, Millie was invaluable for her advice as a Greenlander.
Thomas we picked up in Iceland. He had been sent by the Greenpeace Nordic office to help with work there, but put in so much hard labor that he was asked to stay for part of the Greenland tour as well. So on basically no notice whatsoever, he put the rest of his life on hold just to make a little bit of difference. It was great having you on board, Thomas, and Phil says to say that you'll be missed on deck.
If you don't have a month or more to spare to volunteer full time on environmental issues there are still plenty of other ways you can pitch in. Here's one - just turn off your TVs, computers, DVD players and the like when you aren't using them, rather that leaving them on standby. This alone can save hundreds of kilowatt-hours per year.
If you live in the U.S. you should also sign up for our Thin Ice Contest. Take action, win prizes, and help the U.S. go from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.
It's a beautiful Sunday. Warm enough that the hammock is out on deck for the first time this trip, but nobody's using it. Pretty much everyone who has the day off is hiking on shore. For some though, their duties are keeping them busy.
Hughie is working with a helicopter mechanic who's flown in for the weekend. Nearby Kulusuk is a major airport for East Greenland, so it's a rare chance to get some operational maintenance done.
Martina and Melanie (campaigners) somehow seem to be in meetings all day. Funny how you can take the campaigner out of the office, but...
Anyway, I sat down with Martina to talk about how this weblog is going. We're half way through the Greenland leg of the tour, so it's a good time to reflect on what has worked so far and what we could do better in the second half. If you have any suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments.
And if you've been following our tour, but haven't taken action yet on global warming now is also a good time to start. Weatherize your house, buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, ask your power company if there is the option to buy electricity from renewable sources. There are plenty of things regular people can do to help. If you're in the U.S., your action is especially needed. The changes we are seeing, and hearing about from Greenlanders, make it very obvious that we should all really be doing more.
Speaking of changes, Gordon and Leigh have finished their second set of measurements on Helheim glacier. They'll do two more sets, finishing up at around four next morning. Stay tuned and I'll let you know what the results are when we get them.
[Photo: Hughie sets the helicopter down on an iceberg next to the Arctic Sunrise during a test flight.]
It's a tense morning on board. People have been working around the clock. Hughie (heli pilot) woke up at three this morning when the light coming through his porthole changed. The fog was lifting. Gordon and Leigh, the University of Maine glaciologists on board, hadn't been to sleep at all - waiting to see if they could get out to the Helheim glacier. By 05:30 in the morning that the fog had lifted enough for Hughie and Gordon to go scout it.
This is something of a bonus glacier. Gordon and Leigh were scheduled to fly out from nearby Kulusuk on Sunday. But Gordon wanted to at least take a look at the Helheim glacier since the most recent satellite image of it is from 2001.
What he saw was dramatic enough to make them change their flight. Helheim glacier is visibly rotten, and giant pieces of it are calving off and floating away as it retreats. One crescent shaped iceberg, over a hundred meters wide and roughly a kilometer long, had recently broken away from the face. With the glacier crumbling this badly, Gordon wasn't sure at first if they could even conduct their research on it, but made a decision to at least try.
After setting up the usual base camp - with emergency supplies and a static GPS receiver on solid ground (to act as a reference point) - Gordon and Hughie returned to the ship for refueling and to pick up Leigh. Meanwhile, we had been sailing up the fjord through what Martina is calling an "iceberg graveyard". Pete (chief mate) carefully weaving through hundreds of them - some bigger than anything we've seen before on this trip.
The glaciologists didn't wait for us though. They are under pressure to return the precision GPS receivers because another research team is counting on using them. They soon headed off to the glacier.
Finding safe places to land the helicopter and deploy the receivers proved as challenging as feared. Even a kilometer and a half back from the front, this glacier was easily the most difficult to work on yet. As usual, Hughie never shut the helicopter down, always ready for a quick evacuation, and most of the receivers had to be attached to ice anchors to keep them from slipping off into a crevasse while unattended.
Now, the team is back on board, having completed their first round of measurements. They'll return to the glacier some hours later and redeploy the equipment in the same locations (marked with the antenna poles and pink flagging tape). By comparing the two data sets, they'll be able to see how fast the glacier ice is flowing - a critical question for the fate of the Greenland ice sheet, which feeds these glaciers.
It's important to learn more about how global warming is changing our world, but it's also important to act. If we don't rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by switching to renewable energy sources, global warming is only going to get worse. If you're in the U.S., the world's worst global warming polluter per capita, your help is especially needed.
You ever commute to work, and find your office building missing when you get there? That's probably what it felt like this Monday morning for University of Maine glaciologist Dr. Gordon Hamilton.
He was commuting to his place of work (a glacier of course) with Hughie, flying the helicopter, and Melanie, one of our campaigners in the back seat. Gordon, along with his PhD student Leigh Stearns, had already plotted exactly where they wanted to place their precision GPS receivers, a kilometer from the front of the glacier. But arriving at the research coordinates, Gordon discovered something was missing. "Yeah, it was quite a surprise when we came up here this morning," he explained later, "and found that as we flew over the way points marked for the survey grid, we were still over water and the calving front of the glacier was quite a bit further up the fjord."
Here's a satellite image of the Kangerdlugssuaq glacier. The older colored lines represent where the glacier ended based on aerial and satellite surveys. The dotted orange line is an estimate of where the glacier ends today, based what we've seen. As you can see the change is pretty dramatic. (Image courtesy of ASTER Science Team / University of Maine)
The Kangerdlugssuaq glacier has been surveyed using aerial and satellite images since 1962. In all that time (and very likely for quite some time before) its front has remained remarkably stable.
Now, over just a few years, it's retreated roughly three miles (5km). Previous research, done by NASA, had shown the glacier thinning at a rapid rate - about 33 feet (10m) per year. It had been a little puzzling to Gordon how the glacier could thin so fast without retreating. As he says, "Of course, when we flew over Monday morning, once we saw the quite large retreat, it started to make sense."
A fast flowing ice river
Plotting a new research grid, Gordon and Leigh went about the work of measuring how fast the ice that makes up this glacier is flowing downhill.
Work that was complicated by 20 knot winds, and a more chaotic glacial surface than any they'd ever been on before. Towering pinnacles ready to collapse, tiny landing zones, and crevasses hidden under the weathered surface by ice debris all hampered their efforts. Nonetheless, the science team spent far longer out on this glacier than any other on this trip - taking additional measurements to try and figure out what's going on here.
Their extra work paid off, though, and brought them another surprise. When this glacier was last measured, in 1995, it was flowing at a fairly speedy (for a glacier) 3.72 miles (6km) per year. Yet, preliminary results from Gordon and Leigh's survey suggest that since then it's speed has more than doubled, to almost nine miles (14km) per year - making it one of the word's fastest. As Gordon put it, "that's pretty staggering."
All this ice has to come from somewhere. In this case, as with many other Greenland glaciers, it's flowing from the Greenland ice sheet. Not that the ice sheet itself will disappear completely anytime soon. That would take hundreds and hundreds of years.
But if the Kangerdlugssuaq glacier is an example of what's to come, then it could go much faster than current models predict. In fact, we could be looking at several feet of sea level rise over the next hundred years - enough to wreck massive damage. More than 70 percent of the world's population lives on coastal plains, and 11 of the world's 15 largest cities are on the coast or estuaries. Weather patterns would also change as the ice sheet shrinks. And the millions of gallons of melted ice water would alter regional seawater salinity and global ocean currents. In short, if the Greenland ice sheet is in fact draining rapidly it will be a disaster of global proportions.
We'll keep doing our part by bringing you news from the frontlines of climate change, but we need you to join us in action. Everyone needs to pitch in, but if you're in the U.S. (the world's biggest global warming polluter per capita) your help is especially needed.
Unable to find a good anchorage further down, we traveled all the way to the head of the fjord. Pete (chief mate) is driving now. On the bridge with him are Hettie (second mate), Hughie (pilot), Gordon (glaciologist) and Dave (chief engineer).
You ever had a car full of people telling you where to park? It's a little like that. Hettie is being a good second mate - mainly keeping track of the distance from shore and water depth. Hughie has scouted this area more than anyone. Gordon is giving some advice about the nearby glacier, and guesses about the geology of the fjord bottom. Dave is simply taking an interest.
We end up parking in a tiny inlet around the corner from the Kangerlussuaq glacier, which means shorter heli flights and a larger margin of safety for the glaciologists. Judging from the landscape, our anchorage used to be under an offshoot of a different glacier - something the detailed area map seems to confirm. Melting glaciers are a clear sign of global warming, although we can't be sure about the one next to us since it's never been properly studied like Kangerlussuaq. Nonetheless, not many ships come here, and Arne (captain) guesses that we are likely the first ever to anchor at this spot.
I hitched a ride to shore on our jet boat - a handy thing for traversing ice choked fjords since it doesn't have a propeller to be wrecked by the ice - and walked out to a point at the edge of our inlet to shoot this panorama. The Arctic Sunrise is in the direction of the closer glacier, but blocked from view by some of the bigger chunks of floating glacier ice.
We are back in iceberg country and that means every six hours, either Martina or I need to count icebergs, estimate their size, and record the ship's location, sea and air temperatures. Martina did the 11 p.m. count last night so that meant the 5 a.m. count was assigned to yours truly.
Even though I'm a morning person, my first thought at 5 a.m. wasn't, "golly gee, I'm so glad it's time to wake up to count icebergs." My thoughts were more along the lines of not wanting to get out from under the warm duvet, rolling over and going back to sleep for another two two hours.
But get up I did. I figured that if I worked fast, I'd be able to complete the iceberg survey by 5:15, be back in bed by 5:20, and back in dreamland by 5:30. I went up to the bridge with that goal in mind and started in with my work. I grumbled to myself about being outside in freezing temperatures rather than in my bed, like a sane person.
As the survey work continued, I started to open my eyes to take in the view. The sun rose above the mountain tops at 5:20 a.m. and lit up the ice floes, icebergs and glaciers. The idea of going back to bed became less possible and more ridiculous, so I made myself a cup of coffee and spent the next two hours in the bridge, taking in the landscape.
Soon after, Texas (yes, that's his given name) spotted a ringed seal on an ice flow from his perch in the crow's nest. The seal looked up, took a gander around, wiped its eyes a few times with a flipper and then put its head back down on the ice to go back to sleep. Guess it's used to seeing this kind of view in the morning. It wasn't phased at all.
We've had remarkable luck with the weather. All of the crap weather has been confined to transit times while clear blue skies have opened up whenever we've had to fly the helicopter, undertake scientific measurements or document a story. It's been almost uncanny. Martina and I jokingly "ask" Arne for sunshine on the days we need it for our work. So far, every time we "ask," our request is filled, so she and I have started calling him "Captain Sunshine."
Despite the remarkable morning, it got better. Gordon wanted to do a reconnaissance flight of the Kangerdlussuaq Glacier and see how far up the fjord the ship could get to the spot he wanted to undertake measurements. I was able to go along for the ride and I must say, it knocked my socks off. First, the views from 200 to 1000 feet in the air were spectacular. I could go on and on about that. But what really blew me away was a gobsmacked Gordon who ranted on about how the glacier has disappeared, how it's collapsed, how the waypoints he'd chosen for setting up a base camp are now underwater, and how surprised he is in the changes compared with measurements taken two years ago.
We were back at the ship by 8:30am. Definitely the best morning I've had in a while.
It's 11:30 at night. The sun is just dipping below the fjord walls, and Arne doesn't like the drift of things.
We're anchored in a small inlet, and the fjord is chock a block with floating glacier ice. On the chart, I counted seven named glaciers surrounding this fjord, and I imagine they're all dumping ice into it. Everything from big mountainous blocks to tiny ice cube sized bits is in here with us, and all of it's moving.
One big floe in particular is against our bow, pushing us towards the rocky shore. No big deal as long as our anchor holds, but better not to find out if it will. So Arne has the main engines started, and off we head looking for someplace less crowded to spend the night.
Today on the glacier
The science team took their first round of measurements today on Kangerlussuaq glacier, located at the head of the fjord of the same name. This glacier is an exciting one for Gordon and Leigh (University of Main glaciologists) because NASA research in the mid and late nineties found that it was thinning at about 10 meters per year. According to Gordon, the melting of it is visible, and it has a messier look then the previous ones. Lots of crumbly bits. While scouting with the helicopter, Gordon and Hughie also saw a giant melt hole in the glacier, about 12 meters wide, and lots of little melt-water rivers.
This time, the science team is taking extra sets of measurements - deploying their GPS receivers in three staggered rows to get an idea of how the ice in this glacier is flowing. Although visually stunning, Kangerlussuaq glacier is proving the most challenging so far to work on. The team had a hard time today finding places to land and set up their equipment. Nonetheless, Gordon and Leigh want to spend longer here than originally scheduled because something interesting is evidently happening with this one. Gordon even took the unusual step of leaving one of the GPS receivers out on the glacier overnight. A little risky, considering the thing's approximately $30,000 (US) price tag. However, the spot he left it in looked stable enough, and it will give them some data about how the glacier's rate of flow changes over the course of a day.
Time to drag myself away from the scenery passing by, and get some sleep. It could be a long night for the bridge crew though. Sometimes good parking is hard to find.
A little note on the spelling of place names. As best I can, I am going to try and stick with proper Greenlandic spelling for place names from now on, but they won't always match what's in your home atlas. This is possibly down to the simple fact that they don't print a lot of atlases here. Based on the different books and charts we do have on board there are often a few different accepted ways of spelling Greenland place names. Usually though, they will all be pretty close. For example, the most common spelling I've seen for Kangerlussuaq is Kangerdlugsuaq. I've also seen Kangerdlussuaq. Simple, right? Feel free to post a comment if you have a question, or (God forbid) a spelling correction.
By the way, the word, Kangerlussuaq actually means, "big fjord" - a description I certainly can't argue with.
Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the real Arctic Sunrise. The most famously rolling of the Greenpeace ships. Picture a giant half egg floating in the ocean - that's basically us.
Our ship's hull was built without a keel so it won't be crushed if trapped the ice, but that doesn't improve the crew's comfort level in rough sea.
Not to throw numbers at you, but on the wind/sea scales, here's how it's gone so far today: 7/7, 8/6, 7-8/6, 7/6. The Beaufort wind scale goes up to 12. Eight is classified as a "fresh gale", which sounds pleasant enough, but means up to 40-knot winds. The sea state scale only goes up to nine, and at seven the seas are officially "high", meaning 12-20 foot waves. In reality it wasn't too rough for most of today, but when we turned and started taking the swell on the beam (from the side) it certainly woke me up.
Fortunately, the deckhands were busy yesterday, and last night, making sure things are properly tied down. In a way, a little rough weather like this can be a good thing as it makes you appreciate calm seas all the more when you have them.
Ice is nice
That said, we are all happy to have reached the ice edge again since a blanket of ice calms the waves. We're now about 50 miles from the mouth of Kangerlussuaq fjord, and just starting to wind our way in through the sea ice along the coast.
The water here is lovely calm, and in the distance I can see Gunnbjø Feld, Greenland's tallest mountain. With the sea ice you also find more seals and the like. I'm up on the bridge with my laptop. Arne and Cath (both on watch) have spotted two seals just while I've been writing this. Time, I think, to turn off my computer, and spend some a while this Sunday evening seal spotting myself.
[I snapped the photo above from the bridge. That's spray coming over the bow, and up the anchor pipe.]
I refer, of course, to that distinctive arctic plant eater, the musk ox (Ovibos mochatus) with its famously warm longhaired coat.
There are 103 of these shaggy beasts in this valley, or at least there were yesterday when Toke Thomas Hoye counted them. He's a PhD candidate with the University of Copenhagen, working at the station this summer, and musk ox counting is part of the job.
"I start on that small hill," he explains pointing at a hill some ways off. "From there I can see where the herds are and plan my walk." The walk covers a roughly 19-mile (30km) circuit through the valley, and at times there are almost 200 musk oxen in the valley - a healthy population level.
Today, Toke grabs his gear and we walk a short way past the airstrip to where a couple of older males are grazing. Toke uses binoculars and a tripod mounted spotting scope to count the musk oxen and classify them by age and sex. He can tell these are older males from the shape and size of their horns. When they're calves both genders look the same, but by the time they're a year old, males have small pointy horns coming straight out the sides of their heads and a lot of white wool in the middle of their forehead.
Global warming and musk ox
For Toke, the challenge of looking at the ecosystem as a whole is much more interesting than focusing on one species.
He stresses that because so many of the variables are interlinked the overall effect of global warming is difficult to predict.
What's more, there are still a lot of questions about musk ox behavior, and other variables, in the winter. The science station operates only in the summer, and research here in the winter would be a major logistical challenge, requiring funding they simply don't have.
What happens in the winter is an especially important part of the puzzle when it comes to musk ox because, as Toke described it, winter is the "survival bottleneck" for the animals. It's known that musk ox numbers in northeast Greenland can vary greatly from year to year. These changes in population seem to coincide with changes in winter temperatures, and oddly enough, warmer isn't necessarily better.
As Toke explained, "We have graphs in our mess room where the temperature declined nicely over winter, and then suddenly there was this blip of positive temperatures over a day or so and then it dropped back again." In fact, temperatures of 11 degrees Centigrade (52Â° F) were recorded for several hours in February this year. In general, this sort of thing is not a new phenomenon, but this year was the first time temperatures above freezing have ever been recorded in February.
You'd think in a place where the temperature gets down to -40 degrees Centigrade (-40Â° F), a few days of warmer weather would be a welcome development for the musk oxen. But the snow melted by the brief thaw soon refroze into a thick layer of ice - covering the ground vegetation that the musk ox depend on for food.
Winter is already the hardest time of the year for these animals, and many calves don't live through their first. If these ice crust episodes become more frequent it could spell disaster for the musk oxen here.
Going, going, gone
Almost half a mile away, two musk oxen see us and bolt - heading off at a good pace. We follow parallel to their course, but more slowly.
At the top of the next rise, they stop and face each other. "Have a look now, they might have a fight," says Toke. Sure enough, they run at each other and clack heads. After a brief shoving match, they walk on. This behavior was puzzling because there are no females around to impress. Toke thought it might have been a sort of stress relief response to being spooked. Soon we give up following. "Once they start to move, they move for a while," he explains.
Watching the musk ox jog off into the distance, I realize that what we have here is an allegory. Once you provoke a response, you sometimes can't control what happens next. And, small actions can have big consequences. All we did was cross an imaginary line, almost half a mile from the musk oxen. The difference between them ignoring us, and them running, was only a matter of a few steps across that line, but there was no way to know exactly where that line was until we crossed it.
The same could be said for global warming. If we keep adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, at some point we might cross a line where feedback effects take over - continuing to heat up our planet no matter what we do from there on.
Of course, this is just an allegory. Reality is more complex. In reality, global warming is already happening - it's only a question of how far it will go, how much damage it will do and how much we can slow it down. In reality, there are also ways to move forward (renewable energy and energy efficiency) without changing the climate.
But the reality is also that business continues as usual, unless we make a real effort to change it.
Five of us from the ship were dropped off by the old hunting station. We were eager to see a little of the countryside.
The scenery reminded Melanie of back home, but that's only because she lives in Alaska. For me, this trip is the farthest I've ever been north, and it brings new sights almost daily.
Line Anker Kyhn, a Master's student in biology with the National Environmental Research Institute (Denmark) and our temporary guide, was waiting on the shore. She told us about her work, lemmings, polar bears, and how it was a little surprising to see a ship in the fjord at this time of year. She was right, it was unusual.
We had bet there would be less sea ice than the historical average - and we'd been right. Possibly just luck on our part, but we think more likely another example of global warming at work.
At the river, Line turned us over to Henrik Philipsen, Logistics Manager/Base Commander (aka Philip 'the campground manager' as he his jokingly called), and returned to her work.
The river, fed by melting snow and ice, was fast moving and dangerously cold. The crossing procedure involved a tiny grey dingy, a steel cable, a blue rope, some carabineers, a pulley, a harness and a life jacket. Fortunately, it wasn't nearly as complicated as it looked, and we all made it to the other side without incident.
There I met another member of the logistics team, Marc Overgaard Hansen. Last year Marc was the station's cook. This year he is an all purpose handyman and rescuer (if ever needed). In between seasons, Marc is a Master's student in Physical Geography, and in his spare time here he tries to work out a way to sample snow density over the winter.
They've got good data for snow coverage, and a bit on snow depth - but the density of the stuff (which can vary with temperature, etc.) is a missing piece of the puzzle.
After our successful river crossing, Philip gave us the grand tour. There are six main buildings (all painted "musk ox blue"), which house the store room, some accommodation, laboratories, showers (two), kitchen, mess and radio room. For safety, everyone leaving the base takes a VHF radio, and the radio sign-out sheet doubles as a log of who's in the field. With the base antenna, and a repeater that was placed by helicopter on a nearby mountain, the whole valley is covered. It's like having a cell phone, except that everyone in range hears your conversation.
There are also six tents, used for storage, workspace and living quarters (two bunks per tent). The best part of the tour was the unscheduled appearance of an arctic fox (while we were being shown the toilets). It was probably trying to sneak into camp to look for food, but would have been out of luck anyway. All the food and garbage is kept well secured. They don't want to change the diet of these opportunistic animals, or have them grow accustomed to finding food here. The curious foxes even nibble at pipe insulation and wiring to see if it's edible.
The only ground transportation (aside from a mountain bike) is a little amphibious eight wheeler. It's powered by an 18hp engine, and can cross land, snow, ice and water. Smiling, Philip told us how when the Danish queen visited, he was her "royal chauffeur". They keep the driving to a minimum though, and stick to the established track, because it's hard on the vegetation.
Fortuitously enough, our tour ended back at building one, which houses the mess and kitchen, just in time for lunch.
Food is an important aspect of life in an isolated place like this. The researchers sometimes work together, but spend much of their time alone out in the field. Meals and even the clean up afterwards are an important social event. Today, eight people - almost everyone - joined us for lunch.
Toke Thomas HÃ¸ye, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen, is out counting musk ox. He won't be back until 3:00 the next morning. This is not uncommon since the staff here often work long hours under the never setting sun. Each one has a research program to follow, and sometimes their own side projects on top of that.
They know what a rare opportunity it is to be in a place like this, and take maximum advantage of it. For entertainment there is movie night twice weekly, a volleyball net strung between the flagpoles and a BBQ behind the mess building.
But, the general consensus is that on the rare occasion they get free time, the preferred way of using it is to, "walk to the top of something." Generally though, their only days off are when weather conditions keep them from doing their work.
How to get here
Everyone has their own story about how they ended up working here, but my favorite is Ulrik Nielsen's - he found his logistics job through the unemployment office. Not too bad. But don't be fooled. Zackenberg Research Station is an understandably popular place to work, with very few vacancies.
If you're a researcher, the biggest barrier to working here will likely be funding. On top of transporting yourself and your gear, just staying at the station costs 800 Danish Kronar (about $120 USD) per day due to the remoteness of the place. Plus, you'll need to convince the Danish Polar Center of your qualifications, and the merit of your research.
There's also heavy competition for the non-researcher jobs. This year they had only two open positions - logistics and cook. Ulrik (an Able Bodied sailor) and Malene (who has a Bachelor of Nutrition and Home Economics) had to compete for these jobs with about 200 other applicants. To get here, you need to really want to be here. So, it's no surprise that despite the long hours, mosquitoes, shared rooms, and isolation - nobody seems in a hurry for the summer work-season to end.
Standing a short walk from the base, I have a good view of why this place is unique.
I'm not looking at the snow topped mountains, arctic flowers, musk ox in the distance or blue water of the fjord - impressive as all those things are, you can find them in other Greenland valleys. Instead, I'm looking at the weather station monitoring temperature, wind speed and direction, precipitation (intensity and amount), snow depth and other variables.
Dr. Charlotte SigsgÃ¥rd, a physical geographer with the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), is removing a black memory module where all of this data is automatically stored. This is her seventh summer at Zackenberg, where an on-going climate observations and research program - taking place around the valley, up the mountain sides and down the fjord - is in it's tenth year.
It's this long-term program that makes Zackenberg Research Station such a special place, but it is also particularly well sited for studying environmental variations.
Being in the Arctic, which is heating up almost twice as fast as the global average, the long term effects of global warming will likely show up here earlier than most places. The research area is also is amazingly pristine because so few people have ever been here. This is a remote location in the middle of the world's largest national park, and a special permit is needed to even visit.
The only human presence is the station personnel, and visitors with the small dog sled patrol. Great care is taken by station occupants not to disturb the area. All waste is carefully disposed of, or shipped out. Glass and metal are separated for recycling. Organic waste is shredded.
This specific location was also chosen thanks to its combination of geophysical variables. It is near the interface of the 'mid-Arctic' and the High Arctic regions, which means there are plants unique to both in the research area. There are two lakes, one with and one without predatory fish. The research area is snow rich in some parts, borderline desert in terms of precipitation, and still boggy in spots due to poor drainage and summer melted permafrost. The area of research also goes from sea level out in the fjord, to the top of surrounding mountains.
Physically, it's strange terrain to walk over - going from dry cracked earth with practically no vegetation, to boot sucking muck in just a few hundred steps. We're too far north for trees or even bushes. The ground cover is all very low. Lots of moss in the wet areas. There are also lots of, "Arctic poppies, purple saxifrage, Arctic willow and cassiope (a type of heather with tiny, needle-like leaves and lovely white, bell-shaped flowers)," to quote Melanie. Steve, our photographer, is obsessed with flower pictures - crouching down constantly to catch them at close range - so expect a flower slideshow sometime soon.
There is already a scientific consensus that human caused global warming is a reality. Scientists here and around the world are doing their part by studying how a changing climate will affect our planet.
People have been asking me about maneuvers with the heli, noticing that when in what (seems to them) the same situation, different maneuvers are sometimes conducted. To answer some of your questions, here is a basic introduction to what can become a very deep subject. If I told you that aircraft are in fact sucked up by a vacuum above the wings, and then went on to explain it, you might be a little bored. So, lets go with the KIS (Keep It Simple) approach.
Individually, the blades at the top of a helicopter are called the main rotor blades; collectively they form the rotor disc, which for all intents and purposes is a rotating, flying wing. When in flight, the main rotor blades of our helicopter (Tweety) turn at 480 rpm (revolutions per minute. Changing the angle of attack (pitch) of the rotor blades collectively, changes the amount of lift - how much they dig into the air. Digging them in less (by making them more horizontal) causes the heli to descend, digging them in more causes it to rise and requires more power. Tilting the entire rotor disc causes the heli to go in the direction of tilt. How the disc is 'tilted' is a complex explanation that would take more writing, than you probably have to time to read.
When flying, the primary concerns are weight and balance. You have a certain amount of power available, and if you exceed that, you will trash the engine - this can happen in about two seconds. The repair bill will resemble a lottery payout. This situation can be monitored at take off, and if you 'red line', you don't fly until you have got rid of some weight. Self-unloading cargo (i.e. people) is usually the answer.
When lifting from the deck you are in 'ground effect' for about the first six feet. This is when your down-wash is stopped by the surface and cannot dissipate quickly. This gives you more lift. Keep in mind that the rotor blades provide both upward lift, and directional propulsion so if you can get more of either from someplace else then you're working the blades, and thus the engine, less hard.
One method of gaining lift, is to get over about 40 knots (46 mph), that's when some aerodynamic wizardry takes over, and generates lift for you, but, in order to get there you have to stay in 'ground effect'. There are various ways of doing that, depending on the situation.
Dropping off the side of the ship, and using the water surface, to generate ground effect, is one method used to achieve this. If I can get into a headwind situation, that helps enormously (for example a 10 knot head wind means I only need another 30 knots of ground speed to reach 40 knots total).
The other method, which is also used to escape from small areas in forests etc., is a 'towering departure'. In Tweety, the blades rotate anti-clockwise. Naturally, the rest of the helicopter wants to rotate with them, but is prevented from doing so by the tail rotor. If, when lifting, I rotate the helicopter in the same direction as the main rotor blades, I decrease the torque effect, thereby diverting power from the tail rotor to the main rotor. I can use this power to increase the pitch of the main rotor blades, and generate more lift. When a reasonable height has been gained, I tip the nose over, and head downwards, using gravity to reach that magic 40 knots. Scary for first time passengers, especially if they don't know what's going on!
Now that we have taken off, we have to land. Take offs are optional - landings, on the other hand, are mandatory. Finding level ground is not always possible. If you land on a steep slope you have the worry of blades hitting on the high side, or worse still, one of your passengers taking a stroll up the hill, instead of down - this generates a lot of paperwork.
Another problem with landing on a steep slope is that if the top of the rotor head goes past a vertical line with the skid (that is if the heli is tilted too far over to the side), a situation known as 'dynamic roll-over' occurs as the gyroscopic effect of the rotor pulls the heli the rest of the way over. This will result in a hole being dug by the main rotors, providing a storage facility for the rest of the ensuing scrap, that is about a tenth of a second behind, to be buried in.
A method of avoiding this is to rest one skid on the ground (keeping the heli level, with the other skid in the air), and have people disembark. I like to know when people disembark, because, as you can imagine, the 'weight and balance' of the aircraft will change dramatically. It is important that crewmembers communicate very clearly with the pilot - especially if it's me. BUT - please remember to take off your headset as you disembark, people do forget - believe me
Balancing on logs, rocks, or ice - with the heli's skids perpendicular to the thing you're landing on - is another method. The basic weight of the machine is supported, and I am just balancing the mass, but again, as in the previous scenario, I like to know when people are departing - that way there are no 'surprises'!
A last mention, about something I am a bit anal about - DOORS. When you leave the aircraft they must be closed properly behind you, with the seat belt INSIDE, and clipped together. If I am flying along, and a door 'pops', I have to land. This may not be convenient. It also scares the living daylights out of me. And if a loose item were to get sucked out, and go into the tail rotor... lots more paperwork, but perhaps not for me and my crew.
I hope these facts and explanations have been helpful. Briefings are given to crews before a flight, but, if in the meantime you want to know anything, just ask, I will try and think of an answer.
- Hughie the pilot
[Hughie, a native of Scotland, has been flying fixed wing aircraft for 10 years, for Greenpeace and commercially. He put himself through helicopter training eight years ago with the idea of being a Greenpeace heli pilot, and has logged nearly 4,000 hours flight time. He has never lost a passenger, and in person is an easygoing kind of guy, except when it comes to helicopter safety.]
I've been through a lot of fire, man overboard and abandon ship drills, but I've never seen a crew muster on deck as fast as we did this morning, when the polar bear alert came over the ship's address system.
It was a big bear, or at least it looked big to me - but then this is the first polar bear I've seen outside of a zoo. Apparently, that the males can weigh up to 900 pounds. Majestic, even from a distance in fairly thick fog, that much I can say for sure.
I do wonder what the bear made of us. It was walking parallel to our course on thick pack ice, going the other way in no apparent hurry. Maybe busy hunting the two seals we saw a few minutes later. Of course, if I'd been out there on foot or in a kayak he might have decided I was breakfast instead.
At the time, we were about 65 miles (105km) from shore, and if you don't know polar bears, you might think it strange to see one this far from land. In reality, this is where they live for much of the year. Out on the pack ice. It's even common for them to go much further out than this.
Polar bears depend on the ice. It's where they hunt seals. They are no match for seals at swimming, but polar bears use a number of clever strategies to catch them anyway. They sneak up on seals basking near the edge of ice floes, break into the their ice dens, and wait patiently at breathing holes to snatch them from the water.
Like many arctic species, the polar bear depends on sea ice for its survival- ice that global warming is melting. Unless we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and soon, the wild polar bear could well be extinct in my lifetime. So, I'm glad I've seen one at least, but if someday I have grandkids I hope they get a chance to do the same.
Fortunately, we do have options - as individuals and as nations. We can push our politicians to sign and properly implement the Kyoto Protocol, choose energy efficient products, and demand a switch to proven renewable energy technologies, like wind and solar. If you live in the US, your help is especially needed - act today.
Greetings once again from the ice.
It's 9 p.m. on July 8th and everyone keeps asking when we are going to arrive at our next stop, the Zackenberg Environmental Research Station.
We left Ittoqqortoomiit three days ago and at that time, our ETA Zackenberg was tomorrow morning. But upon departing Ittoqqorttoomiit the ship encountered an unusually heavy amount of pack ice, and that delayed our progress quite a lot. At one point the ship traveled six miles in six hours. In open water we cruise along at nine or ten knots per hour, so the ice definitely thwarted our expected arrival time.
Not only has there been more heavy ice than expected, but we've also had a lot of what we call "our favorite three-letter f-word." FOG. At one point today the visibility from the ship was a mere 250 meters, and with fog like that, finding an open lead in the ice is virtually impossible.
Likewise, there's no need to climb 11 meters up into the crow's nest for a better view of what's out there because there is no view, no matter where your viewpoint is. That makes the going even slower.
Even though the ice hampers our progress, I still prefer to be in it than in open water. I prefer the more noisy slamming, scraping and jarring motion of the ship in the ice to the rolling and pitching of the ship when it's in open water. I don't get seasick when the ship is in the ice, and since my personal goal is to be on board for two months without puking, you can understand my fondness for it.
But it's more than just avoiding seasickness. There's a lot to see and observe since the ice is incredibly diverse in terms of each floe's size, shape, thickness, hardness, age, color, and how much of the ocean's surface is covered by it. You never know what you're going to see when you look out a porthole. The ship can move from thin to heavy ice cover in what seems like a moment.
But the best part of being in the ice is spending time in the bridge watching the captain, Arne, maneuver through it.
Moving a ship through the ice looks like playing chess, Pacman, and bumper cars, all at the same time. The ice is dynamic and seems alive, as if every floe is a member of an opposing team that's trying to outsmart you. Or the ice is a trickster that lays out a set of clues and then sits back, waiting to see how you will react.
Of course I write this as a layperson, aspiring cryophile (if that's even a word) and casual observer. I mean, Arne has been the master of ice-going ships since the 1980s, and when asked the number of times he's piloted ships to the Antarctic and Arctic, he gets a puzzled look on his face, scratches his head and then thinks about it for a while before estimating he's been to Antarctica 16 or 17 times and to the Arctic around ten times. Arne is a zen ice master and incredibly good at what he does, but above all else, he is very humble and modest about his experience, accomplishments and skills.
At any rate, it's been a few days since my last update so I figured I'd spend some time in the bridge tonight watching Arne "do his thing." My goal was to ask him questions so I could get an understanding of the various levers, screens, dials and other tools he uses to make his way through the pack ice. But in the end, I just don't have the mental glue for putting it all together. It'll take a lot more observation and understanding before I can wrap it all up into something that's coherent.
So I'll tell you what I do know: I have no idea when we will get to Zackenberg Station. And neither does anyone else. We will get there when we get there, and it's a matter of how well Arne can play the chess/Pacman/bumper car game against the opposing teams of ice and fog.
I have no doubt we'll be there soon.
We are headed north in thick fog. The ship is rolling a bit now that we are in an area with little sea ice.
Thom has the BBC on in the radio room. Crewmembers are stopping in to listen as work permits. Almost all of us have friends or family in London, and they are obviously foremost in our minds today.
It's the wee hours of July 6, 01:15 in the morning to be exact. Arne is up in the crow's nest maneuvering the ship through heavy pack ice in Scoresby Sound. At some point in the next five or six hours we will hopefully be out in open water, heading north. Martina and I are both at work on our laptops, trying to be productive since it's not worthwhile to even try and sleep with all the jarring and scraping from the ice.
The previous night, when we arrived at Ittoqqortoormiit, we moved the ship's clocks forward one hour so that we would be on Greenland time, and in the morning put up posters around the village offering rides out to the ship for open boat - from 15:00 to 17:00, and then again from 19:00 to 21:00. This should have worked out well since it gave the crew a couple of hours to see the village before having to get back to the ship to host open boat. But five minutes before the first open boat started, we found out that all (or most) of east Greenland is on Greenland time, EXCEPT for Ittoqqortoormiit, which sets its clocks one hour ahead. Honestly, I still don't understand exactly what happened, all I know is that we all got an extra hour of sleep last night, but we had a major scramble and some moderate pandemonium when our open boat started with most of the crew still ashore.
At any rate, the open boats were fantastic. Five hundred people live in Ittoqqortoormiit, and although I don't know what percentage of the town's adults came to the open boat, I know for sure that close to 100 percent of the kids visited. Twice. They loved it and so did we. The crew did a great job managing enthusiastic, energetic kids getting in and out of boats and around the ship, along with the many adults who came out to visit.
We also heard some heart breaking stories about the impacts of global warming on the village and their lives. The mayor talked about how much less food the hunters are able to bring in, now that sea ice appears so late in winter and breaks up earlier in spring. Likewise, he described how the dog sledding season used to start in October, but these days cannot start until Christmas because the ice is too thin to support a sledge and dog team. Although Greenlanders are used to adjusting to changes in the climate, the mayor said changes are now taking place so quickly that folks are unable to adapt.
I wish we could have spent more time at Ittoqqortoormiit, but we have a schedule to adhere to and one can never really tell what the ice conditions will be like until they're encountered. Weighing all the options, it's really best to lay down some tracks for Zackenberg and allow for a few "ice days" along the way.
Last night we arrived at Ittoqqortoormiit near the mouth of Scoresby Sound, and went to anchor a bit off shore surrounded by floating ice chunks.
One of the younger villagers paddled out in his kayak. He chatted with Millie, our translator, and took calls from shore on his cell phone. Yep, with a population of about 500, they have cell phones (about 300 of them), and high-speed internet access.
[So a special hello to anyone from Ittoqqortoormiit reading this. Thank you for letting us visit your village, and it was great talking with the many of you who came on board.]
About the village
The first things I noticed were the colorful buildings - blue, red, green and yellow - not clashing with the landscape but accenting it. The next thing I noticed was the sound of the dogs. You could hear them all the way from the ship - a yowling noise different from dogs back home. Once ashore, I got a closer look. They seemed friendly enough, but were working dogs - not the sort you pat on the head and throw a Frisbee. They looked tough, and like they had a lot of character.
Later I watched one of the villagers cutting up red meat for his dogs. The dogs watched too, with considerably more intensity. They howled in concert, working themselves up in a frenzy, but once fed quieted right down - not wasting time begging for more.
My hour ashore almost up, I headed back to the boat landing. On the way, I surveyed the town's layout. There was a church in the center, a small hospital (with a dental clinic), a little tourist office (they occasionally get tourist ships here) and a general store. Not much food in the store though. No fresh fruit or vegetables. You can't farm in this part of the world, and there's been no supply ship for months.
Later, discussing global warming, villagers told our translator Millie that years ago they used to hunt for almost all of their food. Now, because the ice has become too thin to hunt on for much of the year, they are now forced to rely more and more on store bought food.
Phil (bosun) was shuttling people out in one of our boats, but it seemed like every kid in town was trying to get on board. Driving slowly to the ship, Phil let village kids take turns putting their hands on the wheel to "help him steer." You could see they loved it. On the ship, kids were everywhere - examining things, climbing ladders, and playing tag on deck. Despite all their rambunctiousness, I saw they respected the boundaries we'd set up. None of them went past the rope put across the stern to keep people away from the helicopter, and none of them went into roped off accommodation areas.
One Greenland custom is dropping in on friends for kaffemik (coffee) to celebrate special occasions. It's a nice way of wishing well, so we had some out for our guests.
Meanwhile, the kids went crazy over the apples Isha handed out. Many of the younger villagers spoke English. We talked about what it's like to work on a ship, and live in a Greenland village. I was only a little surprised to find out they have a disco here, and listen to a lot of the same stuff as in the U.S. One teenager with a big "50 cent" patch on his pants told me they like a wide variety of music. Apparently, Eminem's big, along with Metallica and pop music in general, but the only live music in town is traditional Greenlandic.
Unfortunately, we couldn't stay to hit the disco. (I'm guessing Tuesday is a slow night anyway.) We're eager to head north to Zackenberg station, where they've been studying the effects of a changing climate for a decade.
Normally, the only ice I see on the 4th of July is in a beer cooler. But this time I went for a walk on a big floating chunk of it.
What struck me most were the winding turquoise streams feeding in to pools so blue it startles you. Maybe to a Greenlander this scenery is perfectly common. For me, walking this frozen icescape was entirely surreal. So, how to describe this scene for those of you who'll never get to walk on sea ice yourselves? Well, if I am going to be perfectly honest, it was like the world's best ever arctic themed miniature golf course. Only better.
I will also say that it was surprisingly easy to get around on - not too slippery at all. There was a light snowy covering, which made for good traction, except over by the pressure ridge (where the ice has been scrunched up on itself), which had large ice granules - maybe from melting and refreezing.
Access to the ice was via a ladder rigged on the bow, which was wedged up against the ice. Several times, but fortunately not while anyone was on it, the ship drifted off - leaving the ladder hanging above open water. Mental note: always good to look down before climbing down. And, in case you're wondering, yes we could have used the helicopter or one of the boats to reach the ice, but in this case a ladder was more convenient.
Why do it?
An entire ship, with a crew of 27, doesn't stay parked for half a day just so the web editor can stretch his legs. This week, leaders from eight of the world's wealthiest nations (the G8) are meeting in the UK. We decided to send a message to help nudge the Bush administration towards joining the rest of the G8 nations in committing to legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
It's not an easy job at all, but we were resolved to give it our best shot - mindful that we need to play our role as part of a much larger movement towards renewable energy. After a brainstorming session in the mess, and conversations with the U.S. office, the two messages pictured are settled on. Polar bears are only one of the many species threatened with extinction by global warming.
Personally, I liked the idea of using the U.S. flag, and doing this on the Fourth of July. I've always felt that Greenpeace is also part of a much larger movement of people committed to protecting and exercising freedom of speech. That the artwork was actually done by a Canadian, the guy in the polar bear suit is Australian and that there are a dozen more nationalities represented on board, seems entirely fitting. After all, people who really believe there are solutions to global warming, and who really believe in the power of free speech, are not confined to any one country.
I was up on the bridge all night helping out with a glacier survey we are conducting for a scientist at a university in the UK. The scientist arranged for a satellite picture of Scoresby Sound to be taken last night at 23:15. Our job was to count and document all of the icebergs in the satellite image.
The data we collect will be compared with the satellite photo, which in turn will help the scientist adjust his models based on the difference between what he sees in the satellite photo and the data we collect.
Iceberg behavior - how they travel and degrade over time - is an indicator of global warming. As the Greenland ice sheet warms, its glaciers move faster towards the sea and discharge more ice into fjords.
We took a photo of each berg and used the radar to measure each one's distance from the ship and the size at its base. We recorded each berg's GPS coordinates and its shape (tabular, sloping, dome-shaped, weathered or glacial). This took from midnight until around 09:30 this morning, so by the time we were finished, I'd been up for 24 hours and definitely needed some sleep.
Polar bear with an escort
So I hit my bunk for five hours and when I woke up, I trundled bleary-eyed up to the main deck, looked outside and saw Thomas in a survival suit escorting a polar bear by the arm across cracks and around melt pools in a huge ice flow. It was very surreal and quite an unusual sight.
When I went to bed earlier this morning, the rest of the crew set up two photo shoots that will hopefully be used around the upcoming G8 meeting.
Bernard (deckhand from Canada) used charcoal to draw a 14 x 18 meter (15 x 20 yard) polar bear and a 20-meter (22 yard) square United States flag on the ice flow with the words, "SAVE ME" beside it. While he was doing that, John (who works with Lonnie and Eric at One World Expedition and is on board helping us with logistics and safety) dressed up in a polar bear costume, and was photographed on the ice flow holding a banner that read, "SAVE ME." The polar bear suit looks fantastic but doesn't allow the wearer to see much of anything, so John had to be guided by Thomas, a deckhand from Norway, across the ice.
Even though it looked like a bit of a comedy to watch a person escorting a polar bear across an ice flow, the threat of global warming is very real and not too far off in the distance. If scientific models are right, polar bears could be extinct by the end of the century if warmer temperatures result in an ice-free Arctic in summer. That's in my lifetime. It's a very grim thought.
We are now crunching through ice toward Ittoqqortoormiit on the north side of the entrance to Scoresby Sound. Our ETA (estimated time of arrival) is some time before midnight. I'm looking very much forward to seeing how village life in Greenland compares with village life in Alaska.
We are getting ready to head out after a successful three days of research and documentation in this area. Gordon and Leigh, our guest scientists from the University of Maine, seem well satisfied with the data they collected. After analysis they should have a clearer picture of how these glaciers are reacting to warming temperatures. Getting this data wasn't easy though, or without risk.
To understand the danger involved in glacier work, you need to first know a few things about the nature of glaciers - mainly that they move, or rather, flow. That is, the ice of a glacier flows downhill somewhat like water, only much more slowly. Being ice, it doesn't act just like liquid water. Deep cracks and ridges form - especially towards the front (terminus) of the glacier where both of the ones they studied here flow the fastest.
As the Australian Antarctic Division's Field Manual puts it, "Crevasses are caused by the inelasticity of ice and snow. As the ice flows over obstructions or changes in the underlying terrain, it splits and cracks."
Think of water flowing over a rock in a fast stream. Now imagine if that water froze in an instant, but by the sheer mass of it still kept slowly moving.
Some details of the work
Different glaciers flow at different speeds. The interesting question is whether these glaciers are moving faster now than they have historically.
In some cases, glacier speed can be measured by satellite (this is part of Leigh's work), but in this instance the front of the glaciers are moving too quickly (roughly 10 meters per day) to be measured with periodic satellite overpasses - so on the ground data is needed.
To get this data, the science team use Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, which get positioning information from between four and twelve satellites at a once - allowing for precision of up to one centimeter (.39 inches) after processing the data.
First the team deploys a static receiver on stable rock, to be used as a stationary reference point. Then five more receivers, with mushroom like antennas mounted on copper pipes drilled into the ice, are placed across the glacier.
To do this the team is brought on site by helicopter because ice this close to its front, the glacier is so riddled with crevasses, some hundreds of feet deep, it would be impossible (or nearly suicidal anyway) to cross by foot.
How and where
"Landing" might not be the exact right word for what Hughie (pilot) has to do on such uneven and potentially unstable ice. Perching maybe, or "hovering exactly at ground level" is a more accurate description.
Hughie picks the location itself carefully with input from John (logistics) or Gordon, who both have extensive professional experience in glacier work. The site needs to be big enough to set up the equipment at least a short distance from the helicopter, to minimize blow down from the propellers. It also has to be at least somewhat flat, and ideally will be slightly bowl shaped to keep people from slipping over an edge. One fortunate thing is that there is little snow in this wind swept part of the glacier since it's summer - so at least the cracks and crevasses are visible. No one goes any closer to the edge than is absolutely necessary, or stays on the ice one minute longer than they need to. In reality, the area they have to work with is often smaller than the hold of our ship, say 50 feet (15m) by 30 feet (10m), and the team usually gets their work done in under 15 minutes.
The entire deployment process has to be done twice for each glacier.
Each unit stays out for an hour or two, gathering positioning data, before being retrieved. Twelve hours later the units are re-deployed in the exact same locations on the ice (marked by pink flagging tape, yellow leftover banner material and the antenna poles).
The ice in this part of the glacier is too unstable to risk leaving the equipment out there for too long. After the second set of data is collected, everything is removed from the site.
Why it's safe
It isn't safe, not really. However, a combination of experience, training, proper equipment, and careful planning reduces the amount of risk to a small and reasonable level.
That said, there still is a certain element of danger that each member of the team has made a personal decision to accept because they believe in the importance of the work.
We are all driven to expand the base of knowledge about global warming - a base of knowledge that scientists world wide now agree indicates human induced global warming. The more we know about how fast our planet is heating up, and the impacts this will have, the better our chances of getting business and political leaders to take real action.
This is an urgent matter, and time is not on our side. Help is needed around the world, but because the U.S. is the world's largest per capita global warming emitter, we are making an extra effort to mobilize people there. If you are a U.S. citizen, join the Thin Ice Contest.
This place has probably ruined me for all the other fjords of the world. Where we are now is part of Nordvestfjord, and in addition to being part of the world's longest and widest fjord system it is also the world's deepest charted fjord.
More specifically, since yesterday we have been anchored in a branch of Nordvestfjord. There are no indications of depth marked on our chart for this apparently un-named fjord - meaning it has probably never been properly surveyed. It is (relatively) small, being only about 27 miles (44km) long, and there is a chance (though I think only a small one) that we are the first ship ever to anchor here. Certainly, around the corner, the branch leading to the face of Daugaard-Jensen glacier is chock full of glacier ice. Hundreds of chunks of it, ranging in size from little growlers to massive icebergs - all moving. Some of that ice makes its way into this branch as well, probably blocking it completely at times.
We do know, however, that we are not the very first visitors. On the hill nearby is what Greenlanders call an inussuk, a cairn in English, left to show that someone once before visited this place.
We are now in the world's largest national park, near the head of the world's largest fjord. The physical beauty of this place is so extreme that it challenges our ability to work and sleep. You literally have to force yourself to stop staring at all the icebergs, mountains and the rest of it, and get on with the job. I know it sounds crazy, but if you've ever been to a place like this I'm sure you understand - otherwise just take my word for it.
Unparalleled beauty or not though, the work has to go on, and as always there is quite a lot of it. Everyone puts in full days, and longer whenever needed. It's half past midnight here, according to ship's time, and the scientists are still out on the ice. For most of today the glacier was covered in fog, and there was a low cloud ceiling overhead - so they're taking advantage of the good weather while it lasts.