Winter Camp: A Blog from the Greenland Summit

It’s probably not surprising that someone so at home in the snow—she learned to ski before she started school—would eventually wind up where Lora Koenig did this winter. Still, some people might consider her passion for the snow and the cold a little extreme.

Lora Koenig on the Greenland Summit, February 2009.

NASA glaciologist Lora Koenig at Greenland Summit Camp, January 2009. (Photograph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

Koenig, a remote-sensing glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, spent three dark, frigid months on top of the Greenland ice cap. She was one of four people—two scientists, the camp manager, and a mechanic—who staffed the National Science Foundation’s Greenland Summit Camp research station from November 2008 to February 2009.

Summit Camp huddles on the apex of a 3,200-meter-deep ice sheet. An uninterrupted expanse of white extends more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) in all directions. In the winter, temperatures plummet to -50 degrees Celsius. Driven by storms with near-hurricane-force winds, snowdrifts periodically engulf the buildings.

Photograph of the Greenland Environmental Observatory on the summit of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Summit Camp, one of the most isolated spots on Earth, consists of a handful of permanent buildings, surrounded by temporary housing in the summer months. (Photograph courtesy John Burkhart, GEOSummit.)

In the summer, dozens of people—scientists and support staff—converge on Summit Camp. They come to collect observations on everything from winds and temperature, to atmospheric chemistry, to ice elevation, to the types and amount of snow and ice. But in the winter, only two scientists stay to conduct their own research and to keep up the station’s year-round science observations and experiments.

Photograph of the four person 2008-09 Greenland Summit winter crew.

A skeleton crew of four spends the winter on the Greenland Summit. From left to right: Brad Whelchel, Kat Huybers, Lora Koenig, and Bill McCormick. (Photograph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

Koenig blogged about her experiences at the remote outpost and the science going on at Summit Camp. Near the end of her stay, Koenig emailed the Earth Observatory answers to a few questions about how she wound up in Greenland and what is was like to spend the winter there.

Photograph of the sun just above the horizon from the Greenland Summit, November 2008.

The Sun never gets far above the horizon during the Greenland winter. (Photograph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

Was spending the winter at Summit Camp a reward or a punishment?

I love this question. For me the answer is “reward.” I first came to Greenland in May of 2006, and during the first week of that trip, the Sun would set for about 15 minutes. When the Sun dipped below the horizon I found myself wondering how the ice sheet would look in polar darkness and day-dreaming about what the northern lights would look in the middle of the vast whiteness. I knew then that I wanted to come back in the winter. Last spring I heard of an opening to come to Summit for the second phase of the winter season, and I applied for the opportunity to come. I was thrilled when I was chosen.

Map of melt days on the Greenland Ice Sheet, 2008.

Microwave instruments aboard satellites measure temperature and snow conditions on the Greenland Ice Sheet. The map above shows the 2008 melt day anomaly, the difference from average in the number of days that the surface of the ice melted.

Ibuttons (left, above) are tiny automated sensors Koenig evaluated during her winter stay in Greenland. Ibutton temperature measurements (left, below) could augment satellite measurements and fill in gaps between Greenland’s widely scattered weather stations (indicated by circles on the map above).

(Map based on data from Marco Tedesco. Photograph and graph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

What measurements are you taking that are most important for NASA’s satellite missions? Is there a particular question or problem with a sensor that these wintertime observations will help answer?

I am taking two types of measurements that will help NASA’s satellite missions. The first are radiometer measurements. [A radiometer is a device that measures the intensity of radiant energy, like radio waves, light, or x-rays.] Over the ice sheets, passive microwave measurements, which are measured by the AMSR-E [Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for the Earth Observing System] sensor on the Aqua satellite, are still not fully understood. The data have shown great potential for monitoring snow accumulation rates in certain areas of the ice sheet, yet not in others, and so the question of ‘why’ remains. My measurements will help us better understand the microwave signal [emitted by the ice and measured by AMSR-E] and, hopefully in the future, produce more accurate maps of temperature and accumulation changes on the ice sheets.

The second measurements I am taking are surface temperature measurements. There is a lack of in situ [on site] temperature measurements on ice sheets because they are vast and harsh. With this project, I am testing a new, inexpensive temperature sensor/data-logger system called an “ibutton.” These sensors are the size of about 5 dimes stacked on top of each other. They are performing very well in the harsh ice sheet environment. If the ibuttons prove worthy, they could be easily and inexpensively distributed to many sites on the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to validate infrared surface temperature products produced by sensors such as MODIS, on board the Aqua and Terra satellites.

Photograph of an ibutton on Greenland.
Graph of temperatures at the Greenland Summit measured by ibutton.

Did your orientation and training for wintering at Summit Camp include driving lessons for the snowmobiles and caterpillar?

I did not receive too many driving lessons because I have driven snowmobiles on previous research trips. My first snowmobile ride was in Greenland in 2006: I got the snowmobile stuck in a snowdrift and started my “driving” lesson by shoveling the snowmobile out. I did received one driving lesson this winter from our mechanic. In the winter we cannot idle the snowmobiles; they have to stay moving in the extremely cold temperatures so the belts won’t freeze.

Photograph of Lora Koenig on a snowmobile, Greenland Summit, 2009.

Lora Koenig driving a snowmobile. One of the Summit Camp buildings (the Big House) is in the background. (Photograph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

As for driving the caterpillar, I have also had a driving lesson previously on a trip in Antarctica where we were using caterpillars to pull trains of science equipment. After a 15-minute driving lesson with the caterpillars, I realized I was not great at driving them. I was tentative and constantly worried about getting them stuck. Here at Summit, the manager and mechanic operate the caterpillar, and I am more than happy to watch.

How does it feel to experience a day with no sunrise?

The first day without a sunrise was strange. The horizon looked like the Sun was coming up, and then it never did. It just got dark. Having no sunrise plays with your senses, but I really don’t mind. So far this winter, I have enjoyed the darkness. Most days when I walk the mile round trip to our farthest science experiment, I see amazing stars and northern lights. The only time the dark bothers me is when the winds are above 30 knots [about 35 miles an hour], and the snow is blowing all around. In those conditions, I find myself wishing it was lighter.

Photograph of stormy conditions during the polar night.

Twenty-four-hour nights on the Greenland Ice Sheet can make trips away from Summit Camp dangerous, especially during storms. High winds and blowing snow make even short trips difficult. (Photograph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

What was the scariest, most frustrating, or most exciting moment so far? When you look back on this trip, what event do you think you will remember most vividly or for the longest time?

My most frustrating moment so far was when I spent two days preparing to take radiometer measurements and with 4 measurements left to go, I had to quit because a water droplet got in the radiometer horn [a protected cone or cylinder on the front end of the device, where the microwave energy enters the radiometer]. Since water is much more emissive than snow, I had to stop and haul the instruments inside to dry. [Emissivity describes how well a surface radiates energy.] As the radiometer horn was drying, the winds picked up again, blowing snow around and preventing me from finishing the measurements.

Photograph of microwave radiometer.

Even enclosed in a hard-sided equipment case, Koenig’s microwave instruments are susceptible to the elements. (Photograph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

I was frustrated because I had spent so much time preparing the snow pit [see Week 9’s blog] and taking the first 11 of 15 measurements that I wanted to finish. I still got good data, but it is frustrating when the weather prevents you from completing science goals.

My scariest moment was when I fell off of a ladder trying to get out of a roof hatch. [Read about snowdrifts in Week 6’s blog.] I was fine but when you have even a small injury you remember how remote you are and how careful you have to be all of the time.

What I will remember for the longest time is how Summit looked in the darkness and the first time the sky was completely lit up by the northern lights.

Photograph of the Northern Lights above Greenland Summit.

The northern lights. (Photograph courtesy Lora Koenig.)

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