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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 Long Way to Kulusuk

March 27th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

As I write this post, on Tuesday, March 26, our team is spread across the globe. I am at Dulles airport near Washington, D.C. waiting to get on a plane that will fly through the night to Iceland, and then onto Kulusuk, Greenland, tomorrow. My gear includes a thick parka, boots, cloths, medicine (just in case) and even some chocolate for Easter, all packed in a nice water-tight bag so no snow will get in it. Jay, Clem and Ludo are already in Kulusuk and Rick is waiting in Iceland to get on the same plane that will take me to Greenland tomorrow.

Some of my gear, before packing.

Some of my gear, before packing.

How did we all get so spread out? Well, it was mostly caused by the unpredictably of weather canceling flights and the limited number of flights into Kulusuk (there are only two each week — on Wednesdays and Saturdays).

To figure out our logistics, we have to start with our put-in date that is scheduled for April 1. “Put-in” is when we go from Kulusuk to our field site on the ice sheet to put in our camp and start the science. A put-in date of April 1 means we all need to arrive in Kulusuk at least one flight before the connection flight, to give us a cushion. Rick and I will arrive on the March 27 flight, which is the last flight with a cushion. We would have all arrived on this flight but the Easter Holidays threw a wrench in our schedule: all services will be closed in Kulusuk from March 28 to April 2. So Jay, Clem and Ludo arrived early to buy some extra food, fill fuel canisters and make sure all the science cargo arrived safely.

To get to Kulusuk, we go through Reykjavik, Iceland. Clem and Ludo got an extra day in Iceland because they had a boomerang flight. “Boomerang flights”, common in the polar regions, happen when a plane takes off for a location and then the weather takes a nasty turn, so the aircraft has to return to its point of origin. So you take a long plane ride but end up right back where you started – that’s one of the reasons we plan lots of extra days in our schedule for delays.

Beyond getting people to the field, we have to make sure all of our gear is there as well. Our gear was shipped the first week of March – different shipments were sent from Kangerlussuaq (Greenland), Greenbelt, MD, Salt Lake City, UT and Madison, WI. We have about 4,000 lbs of gear, including the science equipment, camping equipment, generators, and food. Jay, Clem and Ludo have confirmed that everything arrived safely except for our deep drill, which, proof of Murphy’s Law, happens to be one of the most important pieces of gear. We knew it had been delayed in shipping for a few weeks and right now, it’s in Kangerlussuaq, waiting to get on a plane to Nuuk and then onto Kulusuk. Hopefully it will arrive Tuesday, but the latest news is another delay due to airplane maintenance that canceled the flight to Nuuk. There are still two flights that could get the drill there in time, so we are watching this closely.  If the drill does not arrive in time, we will have to delay the field work.

Right now the weather is beautiful in Kulusuk, so hopefully all the pieces (people, gear and weather) will come together for an on-time field season. Now I will board a plane, hopefully get some sleep, and send my next update from Greenland.

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: Coming Together

December 12th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Christchurch (New Zealand), 29 November — I realized as the moment approached to get in the car and head for the airport that I have been mentally drifting south over the past couple of days. Going over the list of what to pack, then packing, and then mentally running through what I packed, caused me to try to envision every situation I might encounter (at Pine Island, McMurdo Station and even in New Zealand) and what I wanted to be sure to have. “Where’s my ear sweater?” “I need to find my down booties.” Those were the kind of thoughts going through my head. Personal comfort is a big deal in Antarctica—although you can’t take everything with you, when the weather gets nasty you want to have the right stuff.

These same scenes are being played out in other locations; every member of our team is experiencing something very similar as they pack their bags and run through their own list of possible upcoming situations in their minds. Successful Antarctic field work is very much about accurately anticipating what is likely to happen so you are prepared beforehand. When you forget a tool, help is usually very far away and can’t be counted on. You learn to make do with what you have.

Picture of the PIG project members taken in November 2009 following successful drilling test program at Windless Bight, near McMurdo Station. From left to right: Bob Bindschadler, Jim Stockel, Martin Truffer, Tim Stanton, Dale Pomraning, Alberto Behar.

Everyone on the team understands this and is preparing accordingly. When our proposal was first submitted, I called them the Dream Team. Some reviewers were offended by the term, but it’s a good way to express the fact that we have the best Antarctic geophysicist, the best engineer of polar oceanographic instrumentation, the best ocean-ice boundary layer oceanographer, the best developer of ice borehole instrumentation and the best lightweight hot water drillers on the planet. Our collective years of polar field experience are measured not in months or years, but decades. I’m extremely proud of the team we have and am confident that if we can’t do this job, this job can’t be done.

Tomorrow, most of us will meet again for the beginning of two months together. We have flown to Christchurch, New Zealand from places scattered across the US: Alaska, California, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Maryland. We come here to receive our cold-weather clothing the National Science Foundation provides us. We try it on for size, change whatever doesn’t fit, return what we don’t want and request special items of personal preference. Each kit will be different in hidden details of shirts, vests, and even underwear, but in the end we all will probably have the same black ski pants/red parka exterior that scientists in the US Antarctic program take on. Good clothing is important—it’s what keeps you warm. You pay attention to what you are given and what you take with you to “The Ice”.

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.