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Operation IceBridge: Arctic 2011: College Student’s Arctic Impressions

March 17th, 2011 by MIDN Eric Brugler

March 11, 2011

Eric Brugler is First Class Midshipmen who is an honors Oceanography major at the United States Naval Academy. He is interested in the polar regions of Earth because he believes they play a very important role to the Earth’s climate system.

My research is focused primarily on sea ice and using airborne measurements to infer sea ice thickness over an area of the Arctic. If only the person sitting in the window seat knew that, maybe he would have understood why I kept leaning over him to get a look out the window.

Stepping off the plane was a shock in itself, all the moisture in my nose immediately froze! The highlight of my first day was definitely getting my “Arctic gear;” so now when I walk to the chow hall, at least I won’t be shivering the whole way. In all seriousness, the gear they issue to us upon arrival is really a lifesaver; the temperatures get to 50 below zero on some days. Having this gear will make the stay much more comfortable.

Our first flight in the P-3B aircraft, NASA’s scientific data collecting plane, won’t happen before Tuesday [March 15], so everyone is anxiously awaiting to finally get airborne and look at areas in the Arctic that are changing quite rapidly. Understanding the change happening in the Arctic is very important because the poles serve as harbingers for the Earth’s climate system.  Basically this means that the poles give insight into what changes will happen around the world before any other place on earth. Being able to come to the Arctic and study this first hand is quite humbling since I am only a senior in college. However, I think that having firsthand experience will enhance my future studies as I continue to delve further into polar science.

Operation IceBridge: Arctic 2011: Day3: Sledding Down an Ice Cap (Sort Of)

March 15th, 2011 by LCDR John Woods

March 12, 2o11

Saturday morning at Thule AFB is pretty slow paced. MIDN Brugler and I went to the gym around 0730, and we were the only ones there, except for a few Air Force guys. We had a lazy but productive morning (laundry, some research, email) in preparation for our sled ride trek in the afternoon coordinated by the base Activities center. The group was supposed to take us to the ice cap, however, the access road was closed, so we searched for an alternate site. We hitched a ride with some Greenland contractors (Danish citizens who work at Thule for years at a time), and we actually ended up going over to Dundas Village again. This time it was a much easier voyage via car, rather than walking across the sea ice. Also, the sun was shining bright, so the icebergs in the bay were even more spectacular!

While waiting for the start of the Operation IceBridge mission, Woods and Brugler tried sledding in Greenland. Credit: John Woods

We finally ended up finding a spot to go sledding, and it had a great overlook of the entire base, harbor, and Detachment 1 site. The airstrip is enormous, and we had a perfect vantage point from where we were sledding. Thule operates a modern airfield with a 10,000-foot runway and more than 3,000 U.S. and international flights per year. Looking off in one direction you could see the harbor where each summer a Maritime Sealift Command docks with a fuel re-supply.  The base is home to the northernmost deepwater port in the world. Off to the south we could see Detachment 1, where the US Air Force’s 23rd Space Wing’s global network of sensors providing missile warning, space surveillance and space control to North American Aerospace Defense Command and Air Force Space Command. It was a great panoramic vantage point in beautiful weather (only minus 5 degrees today with a minus 20 degree wind chill!)

Detachment 1 can be seen from the panoramic vantage point of Dundas Village. Credit: John Woods

Everyone had fun sledding and snowboarding down the side of the hill. The snow was very dry and not very deep. The surface was a bit inconsistent and varied between ice, snow, and rocks.  It reminded me of my early years learning to ski in New Jersey. Following the sled trip we went back to the community center and traded stories of how fun it was hiking back up the hill after a very fast sled ride down, no chair lifts here in northwest Greenland. It was another fun-filled day with once-in-a-lifetime experiences!

We’re still waiting for the P-3 to show up, after which we can start collecting some sea ice data! One more day of “Thule Trippin” tomorrow, then we get down to business on Monday when the plane and rest of the NASA and instrument teams arrive.

Operation IceBridge: Arctic 2011: Day2: Exploring Thule and Surrounding Areas

March 15th, 2011 by LCDR John Woods

March 11, 2011

**We woke up to some horrible news about the Earthquake and subsequent Tsunami that struck Japan, and then threatened the Hawaiian Island and West Coast of the U.S. I taught the Intro to Oceanography course at USNA, and 2 of the core objectives are introducing the student’s to earthquakes and tsunamis. I hope that all those I taught were able to follow what was going on with a better understanding of the physical scientific processes that were taking place. The video and destruction were frightening to watch and my prayers are with the Japanese people to give them strength during these difficult times.**

LCDR John Woods participates in the Arctic 2011 campaign of NASA's Operation IceBridge mission in Thule, Greenland. Image is courtesy of John Woods.

Since the P-3 will not arrive until Monday we took the opportunity to take in some of the sights around base. Thule Air Base is the U.S. Armed Forces’ northernmost installation, located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We were issued Arctic Gear the day before, which consists of a VERY warm down parka, and other essential clothing that you need to survive the minus 5 degree Fahrenheit air temperatures and even colder wind chills. Unfortunately the base was in a weather warning when we woke up which meant no off base travel was authorized. However, after lunch the weather warning was lifted. Before you are allowed to travel off base you must visit a building to check out a radio, and fill out a trip plan with your personal info, and planned return time. There was quite the character in there. He was a Emergency Management worker from Denmark telling us about recent polar bear sightings and the possibility of finding some Inuit Seal hunters in nearby Dundas Village. He was joking (we think) about which of us could run faster, stating that whoever was slowest should be a distraction to the hungry polar bear, and the faster runner should survive!

LCDR John Woods and MIDN Eric Brugler stand in front of Mt. Dundas in Thule, Greenland. Credit: John Woods

We took a taxi (more about them later) to edge of Northstar Bay and began our trek across the sea ice towards Dundas Village. The village looked only a mile or so away, however, all features seem closer than they really are here due to extraordinary clear atmosphere, it is quite the optical illusion.  We got varying reports from folks how long it would take us to walk across the ice, from 1-2 hours. So off we went.

The clear Arctic atmosphere makes Dundas Village in Thule, Greenland, appear just a short distance away. Credit: John Woods

The wind was only about 10 or 15 knots, but right in our faces, which made any exposed skin very uncomfortable. We had our facemasks pulled up covering every last portion as we followed recent dog sled tracks towards the hunting village.  When we arrived (approximately 45 minutes) it was eerily quiet, as we hadn’t noticed any motion during our walk across the frozen bay. There were no signs of recent activity, minus LOTS of sled dog droppings, and a polar bear paw, with its fur and claws ripped from it.  We found it strangely odd that just this one paw was left behind with no other signs of anything, so we took a few photos, and put it back where we found it.

LCDR John Woods and MIDN Eric Brugler find a polar bear paw during their Arctic excursion. Credit: John Woods

We explored the dozen or so huts, and decided to climb the small incline past the village to see what was on the other side. What a site! Another frozen body of water was in front of us, but this time three large Icebergs were within walking distance. We decided to hike out to the nearest one and got some good photos climbing to the top. At this point we were outside for about two and half hours, and we graciously took the offer of a Danish couple, who was out for a sightseeing drive, for a ride back to base. They were very pleasant, and shared all sorts of neat information about what it is like to live in Greenland. He was a firefighter and EMT, and has been here for over three years and she has been here just over a year and was a physical therapist on base. They brought us up towards the BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System more on this in a later post), and to some great vantage points over looking the Wolstenholme fjord. This is the only place in the world where four glaciers combine into one fjord, it was an amazing view!

Woods and Brugler hike by a fjord in Thule, Greenland. Credit: John Woods

On the way back to base, we stopped in one of the many Survival huts, to take a look around. These are all over the roads off base, and on base in case of a sudden storm that can create impassable white out conditions. It was an exciting day, filled with adventures that you just cannot experience in many other places on Earth!

Operation IceBridge: Arctic 2011: How We Got Here: From the U.S. Naval Academy to Greenland

March 11th, 2011 by LCDR John Woods

March 10, 2011

LCDR John Woods is a Meteorology and Oceanography Officer (METOC) currently teaching in the Oceanography Department at the United States Naval Academy (USNA).  He is part of the Sea Ice Thickness Observation team joined NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission in the field for the Arctic 2011 campaign. (OIB 2011).

LCDR John Woods stands on the USS Annapolis during ICEX 2009, 200 miles north of Alaska. Credit: LCDR Woods

Most midshipmen at USNA spend their spring breaks in some warm, tropical location. But I like to introduce students to an environment unknown to many, the Arctic. These next few weeks I will be living at Thule Air Force Base on the Northwest coast of Greenland, flying in NASA P-3 aircraft, observing the collection of data of Arctic Sea Ice. I have a senior research student along with me, who will be finishing up his project on looking at sea ice observation techniques with some “in-field” experience.

How did we get here? About two months ago, my attempts to participate in a Navy Ice Camp off the North Slope of Alaska, to which I brought two students in 2009, were not looking so promising, so I began looking for another mission to the Arctic. A good colleague of mine, Jackie Richter Menge, pointed me towards the Sea Ice Observing Team (of which she is the lead) meeting at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center right down the road from Annapolis, in Greenbelt, Md. I had never heard of IceBridge before this meeting, but left with the prospect that a student and myself would be able to participate in P-3 overflights of the Arctic. Well, after weeks of thorough coordination with multiple parties and agencies (Navy, NASA, NOAA), we found approval and funding for our trip.

MIDN Brugler is finishing up his USNA Senior Research project working with me on sea ice thickness measurement studies. He has been busy for two semesters reading papers and looking at data, but my goal was to get him into the field to observe the collection techniques he has spent so much time reading about. It was a big sacrifice to give up his final spring break, but I think he is excited about this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

So, our trip began at Baltimore Washington International Airport just a short 30 minute drive from my home. We piled our three children into the car, and my wife Anne drove Eric and I to the airport at 9 p.m. We showed up at the Military Airlift Command, to a fairly empty airport, and one of the easiest check-in process I have ever experienced traveling. We then searched out some food to wait for our 2 a.m. flight departure, and we ran into the rest of the party traveling to Thule with us. It was great linking up with the rest of the “first wave” of IceBridge team members. A majority of the team will be arriving via the P-3 aircraft next week on Monday.   2 a.m. arrived and we boarded the DC-8 chartered aircraft for the 5 hour and 45 minute flight due north to Greenland.

The departure flight board at BWI airport notes our 2 a.m. flight to Thule. Credit: LCDR Woods

The flight was comfortable, although a bit chilly at times. It was similar to a commercial airline, however, it was primarily a cargo mission, with most of the plane consisting of a large cargo hold and with only 30 seats situated towards the rear of the aircraft. I was able to sleep for some part of the flight (remember it was VERY early in the morning!) However, I was gratefully woken up by a strong beam of sunlight as the sun rose through the window across from me. This was a pleasant surprise, because as I looked out my window I saw a beautiful sight. Large sea ice floes creating a seascape like one I have never seen before. I began snapping pictures for the remainder of the flight. Each minute the area of ocean below us was constantly changing. It would be completely covered in ice, then only several floes. Large cracks or leads, different stages of ice formation, open water, icebergs, and even sea smoke (or low clouds) forming over the relatively warm ocean and VERY cold air above. It was truly breathtaking!

Large sea ice floes below are illuminated by the sunrise. Credit: LCDR Woods

We landed at approximately 9 a.m. local (a 1-hour time advance), to some more great scenery.  Once the coastline of Greenland was spotted, we were already on final approach. This was another landscape that I have never experienced before. The Greenland Ice Sheet was directly below us, mountains went right to the ocean, glaciers flowing between peaks, ending in a field of broken up icebergs floating just offshore stuck in the ice. We were only over land for a few minutes before Thule Air Force Base was in sight. We rounded Mt. Dundas and landed smoothly on the white ice-covered runway. A short taxi to the terminal and we stepped out into the bone-chilling minus 25 degree weather. Instantly the moisture inside my nose froze. It was a very interesting feeling. Once inside the terminal, the base commander and his leadership team greeted us (as we were the only flight in for the week), and instantly made us feel at home. We are excited to explore the base and take in as much of the Thule experience while we have the opportunity before we get involved with the IceBridge flights scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

On the ground at Thule AFB, Mt. Dundas can be seen in the background, right-hand side. Credit: LCDR Woods