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Greenland Aquifer Expedition: The (Arctic) Fury Unleashed

April 10th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Mountain tents with walls.  The gray tarp is the wind break for the bathroom.

Mountain tents with walls. The gray tarp is the wind break for the bathroom.

April 9, 2013 – I suppose you could say I got up at 3:38 am this morning, but I don’t think I ever really went to sleep. I did get into my sleeping bag around 10 pm last night, but I didn’t sleep. Yesterday we had 20-knot katabatic winds, cold air flowing off the ice sheet near the surface – strong winds, blowing the recent snow into our faces, which feels like being sandblasted but with sharp ice particles. With wind breaks, created with bamboo stakes and tarps, Ludo and I were able to complete our third and final shallow ice core while Rick and Clem prepared all of the final electronics for the thermistor strings. As a reminder, the shallow ice cores are to look at the density structure of the firn above the aquifer, while the thermistor strings will measure the temperatures 60-m deep into the aquifer for the next year so we can learn more about how it was formed.

But I digress to science, let me get back to why I so rudely had to leave my tent in the wee hours of the morning. I last officially measured the winds at 25 knots at around 10 pm with our hand-held weather station. At 25 knots, the blowing snow is annoying but you can still see through it and walk normally. The noise of the tent blowing was loud but tolerable. By midnight, though, the tent was blowing too loudly to sleep, even with earplugs. I guess we were at 30 knots.  At 2:40 am, in Ludo, Clem and Rick’s yellow Arctic oven tent, Clem woke Ludo up to make sure the tent corner was still intact (it was), while Rick, who was being showered by the wind blowing the condensation crystals off of the roof and onto his face was also wondering if he was still inside the tent or if it has blown away in his sleep leaving him in a snow drift. He looked up and was relieved to see the tent roof.

I was by myself in a smaller mountain tent. With these tents, we build snow walls behind them to stop the snowdrifts from getting in. My tent wall, built from snow blocks, was about 4-foot tall. At around 3 am, I became aware that the back of my tent was filling in with snow and pushing in on me — I knew I would soon have to get out of the tent and shovel. This is nothing new to me, but I still can’t imagine anyone who enjoys getting out of a warm sleeping bag into a barrage of ice pellets to shovel snow in the dark. Well, it had to be done. I rummaged around to find my head lamp, pulled on my boots and parka, took a sip off my tube of sweeten condensed milk (a great treat and source of heat if you are cold when you are sleeping) and crawled out of my tent. And I mean crawled: the drift had come around the front of the tent and I had to squeeze my way between the vestibule and the snow drift.

I would like to say that I simply stood up and started shoveling but with the winds, probably just shy of 40 knots by now, made it difficult to walk. I kept falling on the drifts while bracing against the wind trying to get to the back of my tent to assess the damage. Sure enough, the drift had come up over the wall — I had not built it tall enough for this storm. I dug out the drift at the back of the tent and made my wall higher. This helped and it would get me through the night until daylight, when I would build a new second wall behind the first. I got back in my sleeping bag around 4:15 am and waited until 6:30 am to get up, take a weather observation and go to go to the cook tent. It was, after all, our scheduled take-out day, but there was no way a helicopter could come in this weather. I called in the weather report for the pilots at 6:50 a.m.: 25 knots sustained winds gusting to 30 knots, -15.2 C (4.6 F), surface definition poor, blowing snow. It doesn’t get much worse than that, so we all knew we would be here another day. I went back out with Ludo to start building a new wall for my tent. With all the blowing snow and wind, it was wet, tiring work and the long full days of fieldwork were catching up with me. I knew I needed a rest, but once the wall was built there would be nothing to do but sit in our tents and rest for a few days.

Ludo and Lora building a new wall for the mountain tent just before the winds stopped.

Ludo and Lora building a new wall for the mountain tent just before the winds stopped.

Blowing snow

Blowing snow

While Ludo and I built the wall, Rick and Clem went to work on charging the batteries for the thermistor string. They went out to the drill site, where the thermistors are placed down the boreholes, to find the wall they had built yesterday for a windbreak had blown over. They started the generator to charge the batteries and it blew over in the wind.  Defeated, they correctly decided to come back to the cook tent to try again later once the storm was over.

Around 9:15 am, I realized that wow,it was only 9:15 am and already it had been a busy day. We all ended up back in the cook tent beaten by the wind and called for our check in. To my surprise, the pilots did not cancel our flights — they asked for another weather report at 11:00 am saying that the weather forecast called for diminishing winds at 10 am. We all laughed – together as a team, we have over 40 years experience working in cold icey places and we were certain we would be here for not only one more day, but probably a few more. So we made some hot drinks to warm us up, dried off and sat down in the cook tent. Suddenly, I realized it seemed rather quiet. Clem opened the tent door and, in a matter of about 15 minutes, our 25-knot plus winds dropped to 8 knots. We were all dumbfounded. I called in the new weather conditions 8 knots sustained winds, -14 C (6.8 F), surface definition clear, no blowing snow… it doesn’t get much better than that!

Then the mad dash started. We completed the final installation of the thermistor strings, packed the food boxes, dug out the cargo and tents from the drifts and pack our personal gear. The helo was scheduled to arrive at 12:30 pm and it did, taking half the gear, Jay and Rick away. Ludo, Clem and I took down the last two tents (for safety, we always leave one up until we know our transport is on its way) and waited for our flight. At 3:45 pm, we left our camp with everything but the thermistor strings.

Helicopter landing to pick up cargo.

Helicopter landing to pick up cargo.

Helo taking off with Rick and Jay. The Arctic oven still standing for safety until we knew the helo would return for second trip.

Rick loaded in helicopter to head back to Kulusuk after a successful field campaign.

Rick loaded in helicopter to head back to Kulusuk after a successful field campaign.

Ludo, Clem and I landed softly at around 5:00 pm, still a bit shocked that we had gone from a huge storm on the ice sheet to a calm and sunny Kulusuk in the same day. We unloaded the helicopter, walked to the warehouse, unloaded the gear and opened up every box so all the blowing snow could dry out. After the work was completed, we had an hour to shower and put on clean clothes for a nice dinner of salmon at Hotel Kulusuk. We were all feeling good but tired: we realized we had all worked every waking hour we were in the field to get back on schedule from the delayed put-in  Field work is hard, but always rewarding!

In the middle of dinner, the hotel manager came out and said there were three polar bears across the fjord, a mother and two cubs. We grabbed binoculars and were able to see fuzzy, creamy dots on a big rock, on an island in the middle of the frozen fjord. Very cool! Many of the people from the town were taking snowmobiles out to look at the furry visitors.

I have been writing most of the blog posts so far, but now the rest of the team members are going to submit some posts on the specific science they are doing to give you different perspective on the trip. Enjoy them as they are posted over the next few days, with lots of images of the work form the field!

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: We made it!

April 8th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

I finally made it to our field site on Thursday and we’ve been working super hard since then to make up for our delays. Jay has done an amazing job, drilling 10 hours a day, and I’m glad to report we’re back on schedule. We’ll be done by the end of today, and hopefully we’ll fly back to Kulusuk tomorrow.

We’ve drilled two deep holes: one is 30 meters deep, and the other 60 meters. We’ll lower our thermistor strings (cables with temperature sensors on them) into these holes and leave them there for a year, recording temperatures. We’re also videoing the holes, to see what’s in there.

The aquifer, which is about 12 meters below the surface at the spot where our camp is located (it is shallower or deeper in other parts of the ice sheet), contains more water than we expected. So much, in fact, that we haven’t been able to use our small drill to make holes. We’re only using the big drill, the thermal one. We use the radar to locate the top of the water layer and when we drill, we try to stay about two meters above the aquifer so the drill doesn’t get stuck. Our hands get cold with so much water and at the end of the day we can’t bend our gloves, because they’re encrusted in ice.

We’ve also drilled three other small holes, about 10 meters deep, spread along a 500-meter line. I’m doing density measurements in these holes (and I tell you: it is tiring to pull a sled with the science equipment half a kilometer from our camp to the farthest hole). The density gives us information on the structure of the layers of snow that water goes through to get to the aquifer below. We’ve been able to observe the melt layer cause by last summer’s extreme surface melt event – it’s now 2.5 meters below the surface, which means that this winter has brought 2.5 meters of snow accumulation at this spot.

If we had brought the right equipment, we’d also be doing porosity studies of the cores – but we didn’t, because this is just an initial assessment of the aquifer and we’re traveling light. Still, we’ve tried blowing into portions of the cores to make water come out, so we can see the tiny pathways it used.

On Friday and Saturday, we got the big storm that had been forecasted, but it wasn’t all that bad. The winds were mild and we got 3 inches of new snow. But now, even when it’s sunny, we have 20-knot katabatic winds that are blowing the new snow in our direction and burying our tents.

As I mentioned, the helicopter’s supposed to pick us up tomorrow. We’ll only need two loads this time, in part because we’ve shed 250 kilograms of cargo (by eating our food and leaving behind some of the science equipment, like the thermistor strings), and in part because helicopters are able to carry more load when flying out of the field, since they land on an airway instead of the ice sheet. The problem will be the volume of our gear, not the weight – we’ll try to pack everything as tight as possible.

Once we’re back in Kulusuk, we’ll spend a couple days drying and cleaning our gear, and we’re giving a talk at the local school on Friday. We’re scheduled to fly back to the U.S. on Saturday.

More on our fieldwork (and photos!) when we’re back in Kulusuk!

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[Note: This blog post was written by María-José Viñas, based on a satellite telephone conversation with Lora Koenig. Normally, Lora writes her own posts and María-José edits and publishes them. However, there is no Internet 1,500 meters high on the Greenland ice sheet.]

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: Alone in Kulusuk

April 4th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

No new photos today -- but here's a picture of Ludo hiking around Kulusuk a few days ago.

No new photos today — but here’s a picture of Ludo hiking around Kulusuk a few days ago.

April 3, 2013 – Well, if there is one thing you can count on when doing fieldwork, it is that plans will change. Good thing we always have a plan A and plan B ready. But today we must have hit plan H, because we were not really ready for it. Originally were told we would have two flights this afternoon. It was a beautiful day, so we figured there would be no problem getting us into the field. As I have mentioned before, all of our cargo was organized for each put-in flight. Roughly, the three loads were camp gear, science gear and ice core drill to fly in that order. On April 1, Ludo, Clem and Rick went in with the camp gear. At around noon today, when our flights were supposed to start, the pilots said they were running a bit late but hopefully we would still get in two flights. At 1 pm they said they could only fly one flight before their duty day (the amount of time they can fly in a day) ended. We are already 2 days delayed and drilling the cores through the aquifer will take the most time, so we decided we had to get the drill in first. Jay and I quickly reshuffled the gear. It was a good thing we wrote the weights on each box the first time we weighed them, because we had to completely reorganize the remaining 1,200 kg of gear in about 30 minutes and re-total the new weights.

In the mean time, the flight from Iceland arrived. Jay, now nearly a local at the airport, marched right out to the plane to help unload and look for our back-up cutters that I had mistakenly left at home (thanks again to my mom, who is also helping to take care of my toddler while I am in the field, for sending those along.) The cutters had arrived. Jay shoved them in his bag and shortly thereafter we loaded the helicopter with the drill. I should mention that many of the drill pieces are quite long, over 2 meters (6.56 feet). We knew in advance it would be a tight fit to get the drill in one helicopter load. Some of the pieces had to be loaded at an angle just above the passenger seats. Jay had to wedge himself in with his head ducked, but it all fit and he was shortly whisked off to the ice sheet.

I walked back to the hotel feeling rather alone with the rest of the team in the field. My spirits were lifted slightly because the flight from Iceland had also brought the hotel manager and he restored the Internet at the hotel. The bad thing is that the cord to download pictures from today and my flash drive just got sent to the field, so I apologize for the lack of new photos.

I spoke to Rick last night and the now field team had safely reached the camp site, set up three tents and were ready to start the radar surveys. I image by now the drill is set up and the radar survey complete. We hope to drill at a site where the top of the water layer, as imaged by the radar, is about 15 meters (49 feet) below the surface. Jay will be drilling with the 4-inch drill, called like that because, well, it drills a 4-inch core. If all went well this evening, they will have probably already drilled 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 ft) of core. The first cores come up quickly because the drill does not have to travel up and down the hole very far, but as the drilling gets deeper, it will get slower. We plan on drilling a 60-m (196-ft) and 30-m (98-ft) hole, but as you can already see with all our transportation hiccups, plans may change. We will not be bring back any of the core — we’ll analyze it in the field by weighing it to get the density and taking infrared pictures to learn about the firn structure.

So you may be asking, what is the forecast? It has after all been beautiful every day except  for our original put-in morning of April 1. All this good weather is definitely making all of us nervous. (Yes, even scientists can be superstitious when it comes to the weather.) When I talked with the weather office this morning, they expected a nice day tomorrow with a moderate storm (meaning 15- to 20-knot winds and moderate-to-heavy snowfall) on Friday. Not a great forecast! Additionally, I just got a text message from Susan, our logistics superhero who arranges the charter flight, tracks cargo, and much more, saying that the AirGreenland helicopter we are chartering has a very full schedule tomorrow supplying the local villages. They have tentatively scheduled my flight for 16:45 local time but I was told it was not guaranteed that late in the duty day. I have nothing against Kulusuk, but I really would like to get out of here tomorrow, especially if there is a storm approaching that could cause further delays. Yes, I really do want to leave this nice warm hotel room for a cold tent, even with a storm approaching, if that gets me closer the team and to completing our science objectives. The good news is that the drilling, our primary objective, has already started.

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: April Fools

April 3rd, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

April 1, 2013 – I was tossing and turning this morning between 5 and 6:30 am, anticipating our 8:15 am scheduled take-off. Our gear was packed and we were ready to go. I rolled out of bed at 6:30, looked out the window and realized our luck had run out: I couldn’t see any of the beautiful peaks surrounding Kulusuk and snow was lightly falling. The pilots called our hotel at 8 am and told us the flight was delayed and they would reassess at 11 am when the next weather forecast would arrive. Eleven o’clock came and the weather had not changed, so our on-time put-in was canceled. Not only that, but we were told tomorrow was not an option either: due to the Easter holidays, tomorrow’s helicopter schedule is full transferring supplies to the smaller villages. It is typical to have delays, so we were not too disheartened. However, it was bit frustrating when all the clouds burned off around 2 pm and we had a beautiful blue-sky afternoon. It was too bad we couldn’t fly today. We all made the best of the situation and went out for a hike to enjoy the nice weather and some free time before the field work begins.

April fools!

Our team in front of the helicopter.

Our team in front of the helicopter.

Here’s what really happened: Yesterday we were told there was no chance we could fly today. Imagine our surprise when at 10 am the helicopter pilots called the hotel and said they would give us one of our three put-in flights at 11:20 am.  We already have the gear for the three flights at the airport and had a put in plan just in case we had to split the fights, so we jumped into action.  Rick, Clem and Ludo would be in the first helicopter load with emergency gear, gear to set up camp, food and the radar gear to do the initial survey to find the top of the water layer we are going to drill into.  Rick, Clem and Ludo packed the last remaining items in their rooms, I filled water bottles and Jay got the hotel truck ready to haul us to the airport. (As I mentioned before, they are nice enough to let us use their truck.) Once at the airport we weighed our items and put them on the luggage carts. The helicopter arrived and was literally packed full of gear. Our first load is light at around 800 kg (we can have up to 950 kg including passengers), but it is bulky with all the tents and food. The helicopter pilot confirmed our location, asked about the conditions of the site from 2 years ago, when Clem was last there, gave a quick safety briefing and took off just after 11:45.

Self-portrait of the Greenland Aquifer Team members.

Self-portrait of the Greenland Aquifer Team members.

Loading our gear.

Loading our gear.

The helicopter takes off, taking Ludo, Rick and Clem to the field.

The helicopter takes off, taking Ludo, Rick and Clem to the field.

Now our team is split. Rick, Ludo and Clem will establish camp and complete the radar survey. Jay and I are still waiting in Kulusuk that camp is set up and all is well. The next check is at 4 pm (as a safety precaution, we always have check-in times). Tomorrow at noon we will start the last two put-in flights to bring the drills, the rest of the science equipment, Jay and I. Today’s was an eventful morning, but the fieldwork has officially started. The weather report is good for tomorrow and Jay and I are ready to go — we can even go early if the pilots decide to give us a call at breakfast.

If we get into the field tomorrow, we will transmit brief updates using our satellite phone to keep the blog updated.  Then, when we get back from the field, if the Internet here is fixed,we can start sending more of our spectacular photos.

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

April 1st, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

IMGP8340

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.

kulusuk 016

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.