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Greenland Aquifer Expedition: What about a round-trip cargo flight?

April 1st, 2014 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ludovic Brucker

Kulusuk, 29 March 2014 — For our deployment to the field, we need two flights to bring our scientific equipment and camping gear. As mentioned in our previous post, we decided to avoid being on the ice sheet while the third storm system of the week affects the area. However, thanks to Air Greenland and its helicopter B-212’s crew, we were able to have a first cargo flight to the ice sheet on Thursday afternoon. This will allow us to be fully operational as soon the second flight brings our tents, food, more science gear, and us to the ice sheet!

Thursday morning, we went to the airport to meet with the pilot and hear his point of view about a possible cargo flight that same day. While snow-removing activities of the runway were underway, he shared with us his concern that our cargo (if left on the ice sheet with the current weather system developing offshore) may be blown away or heavily buried in snow. Since we did not have a single item fly away in Antarctica during our SEAT 2011-2012 traverse and its Christmas storm, we will make sure this does not happen in Greenland! Regarding buried items; it’s fine as long as the shovels aren’t buried themselves.

Machinery removing snow  at the Kulusuk airport. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Machinery removing snow at the Kulusuk airport. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

A snow plow removes snow from the second storm of the week at the Kulusuk airport . (credit: Clément Miège.)

A snow plow removes snow from the second storm of the week at the Kulusuk airport . (credit: Clément Miège.)

In the afternoon, Clem and I took off with the cargo flight to unload it from the helo, and to build the cargo line. The sky was scattered with clouds, sometimes low, but it cleared up as we were approaching the ice sheet.

Transit from Kulusuk to our ice sheet location, near the settlement of Tinitequilâq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Transit from Kulusuk to our ice sheet location, near the settlement of Tinitequilâq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Approaching the ice sheet's edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Approaching the ice sheet’s edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Approaching the ice sheet's edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Approaching the ice sheet’s edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Flying over the Greenland ice sheet. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Flying over the Greenland ice sheet. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

We landed in the vicinity of our temperature probe system and its Argos antenna, which has been sending temperature measurements every day for almost a year now. With the help of the helicopter’s crew, it did not take long to organize a cargo line along the dominant wind direction to minimize snow drift.

Our cargo line on the ice sheet, near the temperature probe and Argos antenna we left behind in 2013. I'm finishing up by deploying a second cargo strap across the line and through the boxes handles. (Credit: Clément Miège)

Our cargo line on the ice sheet, near the temperature probe and Argos antenna we left behind in 2013. I’m finishing up by deploying a second cargo strap across the line and through the boxes handles. (Credit: Clément Miège)

Our objective was accomplished, the cargo was on the ice sheet. Step 1: Done! Done? Well, of course not. We still had to fly back… But in spite of everyone’s effort, we were not able to fly back to Kulusuk that day. The night was coming quickly and the pilot is not allowed to fly after twilight. Thus, we landed in Tasiilaq 3 minutes after twilight on Thursday. Tasiilaq is on the other side of the bay from Kulusuk, a 15-minute helicopter ride away. Tasiilaq is the largest city on the East coast of Greenland, with about 3,000 inhabitants, and it’s home for the B-212. We landed accurately on the B-212’s kart in front of its hangar so that it could be moved inside quickly. Suddenly, Clem and I were facing a situation for which we were not prepared.

Descending to Tasiilaq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Descending to Tasiilaq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

For a less-than-2-hour round trip to the ice sheet, Clem and I were dressed in our warmest layers, and to face a variety of eventualities (including spending an unexpected night on the ice sheet) we had packed a tent, sleeping bags, food, water, extra jackets, gloves, goggles and hats, a satellite phone, two GPS, and a beacon locator. We knew that in our cargo there was more food, a cook stove, propane and white gas; these were in case for the inbound flight. For the outbound flight, we knew that the B-212 has some safety equipment too. That was all we had. But we were facing a different situation now: we were in the largest town of East Greenland, with the perspective of a storm arriving overnight, and forecasted to last several days.

Air Greenland found us a hotel and a warm dinner. Sweet, we wouldn’t be camping on the helipad. Past the first night, we woke up with the exact same landscape as in Kulusuk. I’m serious! Through the windows we could see the same white sky, land, and horizontal snowfall. Visibility? We still don’t know for sure; neither Clem nor I could tell because we had left Kulusuk with our contact lenses on and did not carry our glasses.

Past this first reality check, we headed to breakfast (dressed in our long underwear). We had a specific topic to discuss: what were we going to do during the next hours, days, week? The ideas ranged from finding a book, a toothbrush, an Internet connection, an alternative to water for our contact lenses, learning Greenlandic, finding a boat… Three hours after breakfast, we started a hunt for a set of playing cards to play cribbage. I asked the hotel manager if we could borrow cards from the hotel, or any other game that would keep us busy a few hours, days, a week. He pointed out a souvenir store where we could buy such items. Well, despite knowing that one should take his passport to the field, we did not have money. The hotel manager had a swift idea: “That’s not a problem, you can wash dishes after lunch.” Good times! So, we registered for being the little hands in the kitchen. The next 15 minutes were funny, I was trying to explain this to Clem, and to convince him that it was no joke at all. After lunch, we would be on dish wash duty, dressed in long underwear, and without glasses.

I left for a minute to go back to the room and heard Clem running toward me: “Dress up, we are leaving! The helicopter will take off within the next hour. We must go the airport right now.” Ha, ha, funny Clem, you thought I was joking with washing the dishes, and now you feel the need to make a joke too, but I ain’t a silly fool, and it’s not April 1st yet. Well, when I saw Clem dressing up, and tightening his shoes in a hurry without wasting time to comment further on his statement, let me tell you, I quickly dressed up too! I could not risk missing that flight, if it happened.

Air Greenland was able to fly us back to Kulusuk using a French-made helicopter (an Ecureuil – an Astar helicopter) flown by an Icelandic pilot. Certainly, he was used to windy conditions, and low visibility. We were reunited with Rick for lunch in Kulusuk!

We would like to thank Air Greenland for their dedication to serving our project yesterday and today.  Working with us on a flexible schedule to get the cargo flight in yesterday was a big help. Accommodating us in Tasiilaq and getting us back to Kulusuk this morning allowed us to be ready for the next opportunity to fly to the ice sheet so we can begin our experiments. A continued good relationship with Air Greenland and their pilots is important for the success of our science. We view them as team members critically needed to move forward with a successful campaign.

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!

Pine Island Glacier 2011: It’s Showtime!

December 9th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Greenbelt (MD), 23 November — After years of waiting, our time has finally come. The years have not been empty. There have been hundreds of e-mails, scores of telephone conferences and a handful of face-to-face meetings to iron out the mountain of details required to support more than a dozen scientists’ intent of unlocking critical mysteries within the light-less, frigid void beneath a thick floating plate of ice in one of the most remote regions on earth: the Pine Island Glacier.

Map showing the location of Pine Island Glacier, which is almost 1,400 miles (2,200 kilometers) away from McMurdo Station.

What causes my team of scientific experts and me to focus on this seemingly innocuous location is a silent change that is unfolding and already affecting millions of people in their everyday existence, quietly threatening billions more. Ice sheets, those vast continental-sized slabs of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, are shrinking. The ice they are shedding is raising sea level across the globe. This is bad news. The good news is that the rise is gradual. My job is to understand the processes that cause ice sheets to shrink so that credible projections can be shared with policy makers and planners. If we get this right, societies will have the chance to adjust to rising sea level in a deliberate manner and minimize the human and economic impacts.

We are heading to a particularly remote corner of the planet, expecting to be greeted with bone-chilling temperatures, violent winds and dangerous crevasses (deep cracks in the ice) because this is where satellite data tells us that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing ice most rapidly. The Pine Island Glacier (called PIG, for short, from here on,) has nearly doubled it speed in the past 15 years and is thinning at rates of nearly 10 meters (30 feet) per year. It alone is responsible for 7 percent of the total global rate of sea level rise. The pattern of change satellites have captured shows that the changes are greatest at the coast and decrease inland. That means the trigger for these changes is located at the coast where the ice meets the ocean. PIG is 1200 meters (4000 feet) deep at the coast where it plows into the ocean forming a thick floating ice shelf. As the glacier forces its way into the frigid waters, the ocean resists its icy intrusion. The ice shelf can be thought of as a plug that limits the rate at which the PIG can drain the ice sheet. The little Dutch boy’s thumb inserted into the dike to hold back the sea is a particularly apt metaphor, in this case.

The problem is that the ocean is melting the underside of this PIG ice shelf, making it thinner and allowing the PIG to flow faster. This is what we’ve come to study. This is where the key to ice sheet stability and future sea level will be revealed. Damn the wind, damn the cold, damn the crevasses—we are on a mission and we will get our answers. This is the level of drive and determination that is required to do the work we have given ourselves.

In future blog posts, we’ll write about who we are, what we plan to do and, inevitably, how our initial plan changes as we wrestle with Mother Nature. For now I hope this captures your interest and sets the stage. I have had the luxury this year (this will be my sixteenth Antarctic expedition I’ve led) of enjoying Thanksgiving with my family, but already my mind is turning southward and my packing occupies a large corner of my bedroom. Yesterday was my last day in the office and I couldn’t leave with the others who were thinking most about tomorrow’s Thanksgiving pleasures until I felt all the unfinished work I left behind could withstand a two-month hiatus. It felt strange to close the office door that final time, but once I imagined the house lights being turned down on all the other work, I could feel the glare of the stage lights being cranked up to their full brightness on this field expedition. It’s showtime! The waiting and planning are over and this adventure is about to begin.

Learn more about the Pine Island Glacier expedition on the project’s website, or by reading this NASA web feature.

SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: Happy Sunday Around McMurdo

December 6th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Clement Miege

Hello everybody! This is Clement, for my first blog post! Sunday, November 27 was our day off, so we went exploring the surroundings of McMurdo Station. At around noon, Michelle and Lora decided to go cross-country skiing on sea ice while Jessica and Randy went to Scott Base for some shopping at the Kiwi store, which is stocked with lots of Antarctic T-shirts and other souvenirs.

On our side, Ludo and I took advantage of the wonderful weather and hiked the Castle Rock loop. I hiked this trail last year and it is by far my favorite walk near the station. We started at the fire house at around 11:30 AM. Because the trail is pretty long (9.8 miles), we were required to take a radio with us and give our estimated return time and the contact info for our point of contact in town to the responder on duty at the firehouse.

The walk toward the summit of Castle Rock is very pretty, with amazing views everywhere: behind us, we had Mount Discovery and the Royal Society Mountain Range. In front of us, we had incredible scenery with Castle Rock in front of Mount Erebus and Mount Terror. While approaching Castle Rock, we were able to enjoy a nice scramble leading us to the summit, with fixed ropes set for safety on the ascent. After a quick break at the summit, where it was really windy, we decided to head back down.

Here is our hike in pictures so you can enjoy it as well.

One of the three “apples” that you can find along the Castle Rock loop —a warm emergency shelter and a good spot for resting safe from the wind.

Castle Rock on the left, with Mount Erebus in the background.

Ludo and I: Happy faces at the Castle Rock summit!

Open water, and huge tabular icebergs. The ocean is not far from town — in January, an icebreaker will open a path to get to McMurdo and resupply the station.

Ludo, following the flag line on his sled!

It took us about 4 hours to walk/slide through the whole loop. In fact, we cheated a little bit, taking advantage of the last shuttle to go back to McMurdo station from Scott Base, which knocked off about 2 miles. It was a wonderful trip; it was good to be outside while the weather was nice!

But that wasn’t the end of our day! After dinner, Jessica, Randy, Ludo and I went with a small group to Pegasus runway, an airfield near Mc Murdo station, to visit the remnants of a plane that crashed in 1970 and got stuck in the ice. It took us an hour to get there, travelling in a Delta. After spending a little time checking out the plane, we got back to the station at around 8:30 PM, ready to go to bed after a long day of adventures outside.

Jessica, Ludo, Randy and I are standing on the tail of Pegasus. It was the first time that I got to walk on top of a plane, pretty cool!

Pegasus, with visitors.

Here are some bits of info that I was able to collect on this crash, where fortunately nobody died. The plane, a C-121J named Pegasus, took off from Christchurch, New Zealand in October 1970. The flight to McMurdo went well until a storm started developing near the runway. Unfortunately, the flight had already passed the point of safe return, which meant that it did not have enough fuel to make it back to Christchurch. The only choice remaining was trying to land with no visibility. After a long time circling above the runway to get a little bit of visual information, the pilots attempted to land and the plane slid into a heavy snowdrift deposed by the storm, spun and broke its entire right wing and finally stopped. Luckily, nobody died in this accident.

If you would like to get more information on this story, follow this link.

Now this site is becoming a touristic attraction but it still shows a part of the Antarctic history. After this dramatic event, more precautions have been taken to allow planes to boomerang back to Christchurch if they run into bad weather.

SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: Ice cores: From Antarctica to the lab

November 4th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Utah to help the team finalize planning for this season and to visit the ice core lab and our 2010 ice cores at BYU. The entire was there, except for Ludo, who was in Hawaii competing in a triathlon. (Ludo is not only a top scientist but a top triathlete. I hope he is not getting too use to the warm weather because in less than a month he will be facing temperatures around 0°F.)

There were a few tasks to complete in Utah. The first was to look at many different types of satellite data on the region where we will be traveling to make sure there aren’t any crevasses or other dangers along the route. A crevasse is a crack in the ice. As the ice flows (yes, ice flows just like a mound of putty), it can crack when it goes over a bump or accelerates. Here is a recent picture of crevasses in Western Antarctica, from a NASA Operation IceBridge flight.

Photo Credit: Michael Studinger/NASA

As you can imagine, we would not want to drive a snowmobile in an area like this. So we spent hours looking over maps of the rock bed under the ice sheet to look for bumps, visible and radar satellite images of the surface of the ice sheet, and satellite data showing the velocity of ice flow to make sure that we are traveling on the safest possible route. We ended up moving one ice core drilling location slightly to avoid a dark spot that we could not clearly identify in one of the radar images, just to be extra cautious. Once the route was established, we generated waypoints (coordinates) every kilometer to load into the GPS units that we will use for navigation. The place we are going to is big, white and flat: It is very easy to lose your sense of direction, so we rely heavily on GPS units for navigation.

For some great images and videos on how ice flows in Antarctica please check out this video, made by our NASA colleague Eric Rignot who (thanks again, Eric!) also checked the data that sits behind these videos to help ensure our safe route.

If you would like an in-depth look, this file, which opens on Google Earth, shows our final route with points every 1 km.

Our second task in Utah was to visit last year’s ice cores and have our first meeting to discuss the initial data coming from them. First, here is a picture of a core in the field, taken in December 2010.

In this photo, Michelle (right) is labeling the core and I (left) am getting the core tube ready for storage. The arrow on the ice core bag shows which direction is up.  It is very important that all the cores are labeled in order, or we would lose our time series. The metallic tube in the center left of the picture protects the core during shipping. The core in the tube gets placed in the white core box sitting open on the left side of the picture. (Also, notice that Michelle is standing on a bright green pad to help insulate her feet from the cold snow. It’s a veteran trick for keeping your toes warm.)

Here is that same core in the lab today.

Summer is holding what was about 8 feet of the core and the rest of the about 50 feet of core is stacked in the boxes behind her, waiting for analysis.

Here is a very basic explanation of what happens to the cores once they arrive at Summer’s lab at BYU. (Normally, Summer would be the one writing this, but she is currently studying glaciers in Bhutan.)

When the core arrives, we put it in the freezer.  Here is Landon peering out of the freezer door:

In the freezer, we weigh the core to determine its density and measure its electrical conductivity, which tells us about its chemical composition. A volcanic event would be detected in the cores by the electrical conductivity and can be used to set a point in time. We take all these measurements twice, or even three times, to make sure they are accurate.

Here is a picture of a core that Landon is preparing, sitting on the freezer’s core handling tray:

This freezer is set to -4°F, so when not posing for a picture, Landon would normally be in a parka with gloves on.  As you can see, the core is still in its protective bag, which will be removed when actually processing the core. From here, the core is cut up into sections less than an inch (2 cm) long, and melted for the next stage of analysis.

I will add a quick note here that on last year’s traverse Landon was our lead driller. Both Landon and Jessica are masters students at BYU. They are not only integral players of the field teams, but are also the lead students for the lab analysis of these cores.

Once we have melted the core and put it in a bottle, we send it over to Jessica.

Here is Jessica operating the mass spectrometer (black box to the left in the picture with the blue screen) that will measure the stable water isotopes used to date the core. The isotopes in the snow have an annual cycle and it is this cycle that determines age of the core.  An isotope is an atom, in our case an oxygen atom, that has different variations with different number of neutrons and atomic numbers.  Oxygen has three stable isotopes: 16O, 17O, and 18O.  The peaks and valleys in the ratios of 18O/16O reflect the warmer (summer) and cooler (winter) temperatures, respectively.   Once the mass spectrometer determines the number of isotopes, we can establish the age of the core, in a way similar to counting tree rings. During this process, the core is in the little blue vials just to the right of Jessica.

After spending some time in the lab, we looked at the data from the first core that has been analyzed.  At this point the density and isotopes have been measured and Summer is carefully working to put together the depth-age scale, which is the age of the core at each depth where the core use to sit in the ice sheet.  I will use the density data from the core to determine an age-depth scale from the layers in the radar data and if all goes well the radar and ice core will line up giving us confidence in our analysis.

Last Monday, when I returned to Goddard, I had received my travel itinerary.  We will be leaving the U.S. on Nov 17th to make our journey down to Antarctica.  With all of this preparation, I am eagerly awaiting getting my feet on the Ice.

Notes from the Field