Adventures in Greenland
Just over three weeks ago on the invitation of my supervisor Alun Hubbard, I set off for West Greenland to meet up with him at his research camp on the ice sheet. Also there were a BBC crew filming for a new series called Frozen Planet, due out next autumn. The following hopes to give a brief(ish) narrative of my trip, along with photos I took on the way.…
The journey out to Greenland was rather protracted, with overnight stops in Manchester and Copenhagen airports. However this meant I got to spend some time wandering round the Danish capital, stopping off at the Botanical Gardens and The Marble Church (the Little Mermaid is currently in Shanghai).
Finally arrived in Kangerlussuaq on the 28th. First impressions of Greenland were a bit disappointing – Kangerlussuaq was founded by the Americans for use as an Air Force Base in the 1940’s, and although it was decommissioned after the Cold War, it still has a very militaristic feel to it…somewhat depressing if you have to spend much time there. Luckily we got to fly up to Alun’s camp on the ice-cap by helicopter the same afternoon, getting some spectacular views along the way. Tore, our pilot, was a good character, though his two favourite conversation topics were either his grudge with Air Greenland or grim death stories, for which he needed no prompting to start rambling. Base-camp was about 100 km east of Kangerlussuaq; around 20 minutes in the helicopter.
When we landed things were pretty chaotic in camp and I was soon trekking out to help gather in seismic equipment from the field. By 8am the next morning I was finally able to get to bed. Camping on ice wasn’t as bad as expected, though was glad I bought a downmat before coming out. Temperatures largely hovered around 0ºC, so didn’t get too cold at night. The only difference with normal camping is that holes had to be drilled into the ice for the bamboo tent pegs. The camp was actually fairly well kitted – the food was plentiful and fantastic meals were regularly cooked, with people even baking when the weather turned bad. Most surprising of all was the toilet was actually pleasant to sit on (expanding foam made sure it was never cold).
Over the next few days, things became relatively calmer, and while the weather was good the BBC crew were out filming at the active moulin BB. The good weather also meant we got to see some fantastic sunsets.
The BBC were also keen to film Alun abseiling down another moulin, BF, which formed after a recent lake drainage event. So on the 1st, I went along with them to reccy out the site for filming. The trip there involved a hovercraft ride over one lake followed by a 4km hike lugging lots of camera equipment. After an hour or so we were met by a huge hole in ice around 7 x 10 metres diameter. Like BB, it was situated on an a massive fault line. No water was flowing in but far below you could hear the rumbling of what must have been a considerable torrent – further up the fault line other moulins could be found with plenty of water going in. The BBC were soon organising their equipment, while I helped Tim (the rope access guy) start setting up a rig to abseil down and have a look. For solid anchor points we used scaffold poles which were put into drilled holes in the ice. The backup pole was 2 metres deep and the others 1 metre. As this was the BBC and all very safety conscious, we used 2 ropes – one to abseil on, then another used with a Petzl ASAP for back-up.
Once in the moulin it was spectacular, with plenty of icicles formed and the walls giving off an amazing blue glow. At 40 metres below you could stand on a small ice bridge, though the way on looked pretty unstable – large ice blocks were jammed in the rift and to go crawling around them seemed like a bad idea. The thickness of ice in this area is about 1200 metres, so there was no chance of reaching the bed, and would more likely hit the water table way before then. A trickle coming in from above meant I didn’t stay around long at the bottom to get wet and cold, and after taking several photos was soon back on the surface.
That night, Alun fixed up the sub-woofer and speakers, and we cracked out the chateau de box.
Although the next few days were dominated by bad weather, Christine and I felt we had to get some science done so left camp to carry out some ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys near BB. We got pretty cold and damp the first evening, and more GPR surveying the next evening was less successful though thankfully not as wet.
On the 4th, the sun had returned, and with it the producer and aerial cameraman for the BBC arrived on the ice sheet, along with a Daily Mail reporter. With new impetus we set off to BF again to film Alun, Sam and I carrying out pressure transducer experiments in the moulin. At the end of the day everyone got lifts back to camp in the helicopter apart from Sam and I, though I did get to drive a hovercraft across the lake.
Apart from one last filming session at BB with Alun lowering an abyssal camera down the moulin, and collecting some bathymetric data from the nearby lake, it was time for us to pack up camp for the summer. The 400 metres of rope I had bought had gone unused, though this was probably a wise decision given the active nature of the moulins around. Exploration would probably be best done a few months later when there would be less meltwater around and more frozen conditions.
Arriving back in Kangerlussuaq was a sensory overload. The smell of grass when the helicopter landed was overwhelming, as well as all the colours, though we quickly realised how bad we smelt (some had been on the ice for 6 weeks). Back in KISS, some of us showered and tucked into some Thai food the BBC team had kindly bought us. Although completely knackered we decided to hit the town’s bars and get some beers in. It was a great night out and highlights include seeing the girls being forced to dance by a very camp Greenlandic guy, fisherman’s friend shots and learning some Danish dancing on the dancefloor.
We stayed a few days in Kangerlussuaq packing freight pallets etc. before Sam, Christine, Richard and I took our flights north to Ilulissat first on the 10th, then on to Uummannaq the next day. While in Ilulissat we took a walk round the Jakobshavn icefjord (a World Heritage Site), sampled some local beer then picked out a camping spot near the airport. Ilulissat gave me a completely new perspective of Greenland – with its brightly coloured buildings, huskies chained up everywhere and a fishing harbour, this was more like the real Greenland I had expected.
As Uummannaq is located on a small island, the last leg of the trip involved a helicopter ride in. Once landed we went off find Gambo, Alun’s boat, in the harbour. After crêpes for breakfast, cooked on-board by some visiting Sheffield Uni climbers, and some general faff round town, we departed for Rink Glacier that evening. Gambo was being skippered by Nolwenn, with first-mate Max, both from France.
After dropping off the climbers at a mountain and a brief anchorage at Nugatsiaq, we arrived at Rink Glacier. Here we carried out 9 CTD dips (conductivity, temperature and depth) in front of the calving margin to around 1 km deep. The bad news for us that we learned that evening was that the batteries in the equipment weren’t giving out enough voltage to get any data, so the days work was all for nothing. Enthusiasm to carry out more the next day was low, but with the equipment fixed overnight, an early start was made and we managed to get 8 done by mid afternoon, this time successfully. Considering that on each dip we had to haul up the logger using a tiny winch, this was quite an effort. As there were quite a few of us on-board and bunks being limited, Tore and I went ashore to sleep in a tent one night. As expected, his death and rescue stories were on true form.
With our work done at Rink Glacier, we headed back to Uummannaq on the 15th. Nolwenn let me drive the boat for part of it, and thankfully I dodged all the icebergs. The plan was for everyone to rest in the harbour, then head straight on to Store Glacier for aerial shots with the BBC and to collect some swath bathymetry in the area. Unfortunately for me, my flight back home was on the 17th so didn’t have sufficient time to join them. Instead I got time to relax at the town’s Polar Institute and explore the island, even having a swim in the lake below Uummannaq mountain.
The journey home involved 5 flights and 3 train rides, with overnight stays in Kangerlussuaq and Copenhagen. On the way I bumped into a couple of guys from Aber’s computer science department who were en route to meet up with Alun. With them they had brought a remote controlled boat fitted out with a swath kit and laser scanner. Their plan was to collect a high-res terrain model of the marine and terrestrial landscape of one of the fjords in the area. The experiment is certainly unique and the results should prove interesting. As for Gambo, the last I heard it was due to sail up to Petermann Glacier in the far north of Greenland. Just a few weeks ago a humongous chunk of ice broke off, so there is huge scientific interest in the area at present.
Thanks to Alun Hubbard for inviting me to join his expedition, and also to all the people I met along the way for making it a great trip. Don’t forget to watch the BBC’s Frozen Planet next year – from seeing some of the footage taken already, it looks to be an awesome series.
Research being carried out by Alun Hubbard and his team on the Greenland Ice Sheet can now be viewed at Aberystwyth University’s new website www.aber.ac.uk/greenland.
Frozen Planet [BBC.co.uk]
Melting scepticism [MailOnline]
Expédition Groenland 2010 [Maxglace’s Blog]
Huge ice island breaks from Greenland glacier [BBC News]
The Greenland Ice Sheet [Aberystwyth University]