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Greenland Aquifer Expedition: Oh, The Places We Can Go!

April 1st, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

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A view of Kulusuk.

March 31, 2013 — We just finished our last dinner, Easter dinner, in Kulusuk. We spoke with the helicopter pilots today and expect to have an 8:15 am flight to our location on the ice sheet about 100 km to the Northwest of Kulusuk, where the aquifer was drilled into last year for the first time.

We have had an exciting time in this beautiful village, population around 350. We are staying at the Hotel Kulusuk and have been their only visitors since we got here, something that comes with many perks. Bo, the chief and interim manager while the manager is on vacation, has allowed us to make ourselves at home. We had our science gear spread around the dining room, had access to the kitchen and hotel truck and were even allowed to hide candies around the hotel for Easter morning. The only thing we do not have, which we expected, was Internet. There is Internet in town but we currently can’t get log-on access and the person who can fix this is on vacation. He was supposed to return yesterday but didn’t show up on the flight so I imagine this blog post will be a bit delayed. All part of the adventure!

Not only do we have full run of the hotel but we are also granted some pretty amazing access to the airport, which has been storing all of our science cargo. Just yesterday after a plane landed, we walked right out to the baggage train to see if our gear had arrived. (A few days ago, Jay sorted one of the baggage carts just to be helpful since most of it was our gear anyway.) The plane was still on the tarmac but we are allowed to just walk around like we were employees. It is a small airport, and the manager knows us now. We have driven the airport trucks, which are unlocked with the keys inside, to move our gear. Car theft is not really an option here: there are only about 2 miles of road, which go from the airport to the hotel and to the warehouse were our cargo boxes are located, that’s it. Snowdrift on the road is higher than the roofs of the cars, so it feels like you are driving in a tunnel.

Our stored science cargo.

Our stored science cargo.

Snowdrift on the airport road.

Snowdrift on the airport road.

A dogsled team in the airport.

A dogsled team in the airport.

We were very anxious to get the plane cargo yesterday, March 30, because it was the last opportunity for our remaining gear to arrive before our scheduled put-in date. But let me start this story from the beginning. We have 2,030 kilograms (4,475 pounds) of gear that will accompany us into the field. As I wrote before, the gear was shipped from all over U.S. and took many different routes to get here. On Friday, March 30, we were told our generators and drill antifreeze coming in from Nuuk would not be arriving, but the back-up cutters coming in from Iceland would.  With no generators to run the drill (which itself had only arrived on March 27), we would have to delay our put-in. Not only were we told the generators would not be coming in, but that all planes that could carry them would be full until April 6, which would force us to delay by a week. We quickly started looking around for a generator and found one. After a few phone calls, we were granted access to use it. This was great news but left us with one problem: the ~200 lbs generator was 15 feet up in a loft, with just a few ladders to get it down. We dug around the warehouse and found two pulleys. Ludo and Jay got some of our rope, hooked the pulleys up to the rafter, attached the generator and safely lowered it to the ground. It was quite a sight.

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Ludo and Lora lowering the generator.

To replace the antifreeze, we called the hospital in Tasiilaq to see if they had any medical alcohol that they could spare. They said they could send us 10 liters, which was sufficient. By Friday night, we had found replacements allowing us to stay on schedule if the original gear didn’t arrive.

On Saturday morning, we went up to the airport expecting to find the drill cutters. We ended up leaving with our generators and alcohol… but no cutters. Exactly the opposite of what we expected to get, but that is often how it goes. This was all good news because the cutters were backups (we have another set), so we could still stay on schedule for the April 1 put-in.

Testing the camping gear.

Testing the camping gear.

Jay and I spent the rest of Saturday loading all of our gear, which we had sorted into three helicopter loads, into baggage carts at the warehouse. The first load has food and camp supplies, the second science gear and the third the drill. The cargo was taken to the airport, where we unloaded it from the carts, weighed each piece and reloaded it again. We have now moved the 2,030 kg of gear at least four times, by hand – my arms are tired!

Rick and Clem spent the past few days preparing our thermistor strings, one 25-m and one 60-m-long cables with temperature sensors on them, for deployment on the ice sheet. One of the most important pieces of our project is to leave the temperatures strings in the ice to measure temperatures at 86 locations over the next year. The temperatures will help us understand how the much water is in the aquifer and how the aquifer may have formed.

The weather looks good for us to leave Kulusuk behind tomorrow and start our work. Everything is ready. We are well-fed and will get a good last night of sleep in the nice, soft, warm beds at the hotel. There is just one bad thing that has happened during our time in Kulusuk: everyday has been sunny and warm with no wind. “Why is this bad?”, you might wonder. Remember this is one of the snowiest and windiest areas of Greenland so, statistically, we know some bad weather will need to offset this good weather strike. We hope we do not have to pay for the current clear skies next week when we are in our tents trying to do science.

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: It Takes A Village

March 28th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig (as told to María José Viñas)

Kulusuk in East Greenland. Image courtesy of Tom Olliver (Flickr).

Kulusuk in East Greenland. Image courtesy of Tom Olliver (Flickr).

All the members of our team are now in Kulusuk, Greenland. We’re quite isolated in this tiny village but we have a whole team behind us, making sure we get our stuff on time. The people in town are helping us a lot, too (hence the title of this blog post), letting us drive their vehicles or use their buildings to organize our gear.

We have almost all our equipment — except for a couple of important items, like the generator that runs the drill and the ethanol we will use to free the drill if it gets stuck inside the ice. Both items should arrive on Saturday.

When I was in Reykjavik’s airport, I suddenly remembered I had forgotten a backup set of drill cutters (the bits that cut into the snow as the drill goes down) — they were inside a little box that slid under my car’s seat while I was driving to the airport in Maryland. Fortunately, my mom came to the rescue, recovered the box and sent it expedited to Greenland — it should also arrive to Kulusuk on Saturday’s flight. Here’s a big thanks, mom!

Our put-in date continues to be April 1 — in the case not all of the missing gear arrived on Saturday, half of the team might still go to the drill site that day, while the other half will wait for the remaining equipment. We’ll make a firm plan tonight. Meanwhile, the team and I are testing our gear… and enjoying our surroundings! Kulusuk is a small town built around an airstrip and surrounded by big mountains. Its few hundred inhabitants mostly work in the airport, or are hunters or fishermen.

The weather’s beautiful, there’s not a cloud in the sky, and we’ve seen the northern lights — we have great photos that unfortunately, we can’t send right now. (I’ll send pictures as soon as possible, after fieldwork is done and we have a better Internet connection.)

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[Note: This blog post was written by María-José Viñas, based on a telephone conversation with Lora Koenig. Normally, Lora writes her own posts and María-José edits and publishes them. However, there is no Internet at Lora’s hotel in Kulusuk until a repairman arrives on Saturday’s flight.]

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: The Packing Begins

March 20th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Hello and welcome (or hopefully, welcome back) to yet another of my field blogs! It’s a chilly day here in Greenbelt, Maryland, and I am packing away my warmest parka and sleeping bags – yes, I said bags, in plural, since I will need two to keep me warm enough during my upcoming field work. This time, my team and I are off to southeast Greenland to investigate not ice, but water we believe is trapped within the ice. During this expedition, jointly funded by both the National Science Foundation and NASA, we will be camping on the ice for a little over a week in a very remote area of the Greenland ice sheet. We will gather as much information as we can about the captive water, which we termed a perennial firn aquifer. This will be a very exciting field campaign because it is exploratory: we don’t know much at all about the aquifer, so we will attempt to determine some of its basic properties and which tools work best for exploring it.

The (tiny) red star marks the approximate location of our drill site in Greenland.

The (tiny) red star marks the approximate location of our drill site in Greenland.

Let’s start with what we do know. In 2011, during the Arctic Circle Traverse (ACT), two of our team members, Rick Forster and Clement Miege, were involved with a drilling project to investigate how much snow falls in southeast Greenland. That region has the largest amount of snowfall in all of Greenland  (for Twilight fans, think of this place as the Forks of Greenland: cold, dark and wet. And let’s add windy to the list as well.) Because southeast Greenland has such high snowfall and is relatively far way from any established camps, it’s a difficult place to work. Hence, not many ice cores have been drilled in this region. That’s why the ACT traverse went to Southeast Greenland: to collect much-needed cores . When they were drilling their last one, closest to the edge of the ice sheet and about 65 feet (20 meters) deep, and they pulled up the drill, they found water dripping out the end of the core barrel. This was quite a shock. The ACT team looked at their radar data, which can show the top of a water layer but not the depth, and were able to trace the water mass. They drilled again a few miles away and again hit water. The drill they were using was not designed to drill into water, so they had to stop. But they had discovered something new. And why does it matter there’s an aquifer buried under the ice, you might wonder? It is important because water that is released from the Greenland ice sheer can directly raise sea level. We are not sure that this water will ever be released, or if the quantity of water is large enough to matter, but anytime ice melts to water and has the possibility to leave the ice sheet, we want to know more about it.

Now Rick and Clem have invited myself and two others to go back and find out more about this water.  So here is the formal team lineup. The team is lead by Rick Forster, a professor of Geography at the University of Utah who specializes in remote sensing of the cyrosphere. Clement Miege (Clem) is a PhD student from the University of Utah who studies accumulation using radars.  Ludovic Brucker (Ludo) is a research associate for University Space Research Association at NASA Goddard Space Flight and is an expert in remote sensing of the ice sheets as well as sea ice. (You may remember Clem and Ludo from the SEAT traverse blog in Antarctica.) Jay Kyne is a driller from the University of Wisconsin’s Ice Drilling Design and Operations (IDDO) program. And then there’s me, Lora Koenig, a remote-sensing glaciologist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

From top left, clockwise: Rick Forster, Ludo Brucker, Jay Kyne (his furry friend won't come to Greenland), Clement Miege and Lora Koenig.

From top left, clockwise: Rick Forster, Ludo Brucker, Jay Kyne (his furry friend won’t come to Greenland), Clement Miege and Lora Koenig.

We have assembled a great rough and ready team with a broad assortment of tools to learn as much as we can about the aquifer. We will all be traveling to Kulusuk, Greenland next week, which was conveniently featured by NASA’s Earth Observatory recently. From Kulusuk we will pack our gear, including ice core drills, temperatures sensors, a down-hole video camera and ground penetrating radars, into a helicopter and onto the ice sheet. We hope you will join us for this expedition. You may want to start watching the weather. Our fist put in date will be April 1, (April Fools’ Day – but this is no joke), weather permitting. Over the next few weeks, will we publish more blog posts about our science, the logistics of getting all our gear to Kulusuk, and life on the ice.

I guess there is just one last thing to do, and that is to name our team. The official title of this project is “An initial investigation of the Greenland perennial firn aquifer,” which I admit is not very exciting and I can’t seem to turn into a catchy acronym. So for now we will be the Greenland Aquifer Team. If you reader come up with a better name for our team, please post it in the comments section. We may just adopt it!

Notes from the Field