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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!

SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: Until Next Time

February 15th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Lora and Ludo, back in the office at NASA Goddard, point at where in Antarctica their snowmobile traverse took place.

I am feeling a little sad as I write this post. I always do when writing the last post of a research season.  Being able to share my science is one of my favorite parts of my job. I assume some of you looked at our blog’s photos and thought “they’re crazy,” while others started planning how they too could get to Antarctica. Either way, I hope you have found this blog interesting, entertaining and inspiring and that you learned a bit about how we measure snow accumulation in Antarctica.

For some quick updates: Jessica, Randy, and Clem are back home in Utah, Michelle is on her way back to Copenhagen, and Ludo and I are back at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Our radar gear has already arrived from Antarctica and has been packed away in the lab to wait for another season. Our ice cores made their way from WAIS Divide Camp to McMurdo a few weeks ago but it is uncertain if they will make it back to the U.S. this year: There has been a problem with the ship going to McMurdo, which just passed an inspection in New Zealand and is now making its way to Antarctica. We are hopeful that the cores will make it on the ship northbound but have been told not to expect it. Just another example of the logistical difficulties of working in Antarctica! If the cores do not return this year, it will not affect the science, just our patience. The cores will stay in a freezer until the next ship comes in February 2013. But we’re keeping our fingers crossed that our cores are loaded on this year’s ship.

My next field season, and therefore field blog, is not set right now but please continue to follow online the work that my colleagues and I do at our lab’s website, on Twitter, and through the NASA Visualization Explorer app for the iPad. Results from this research will be posted through those outlets.

Also, the complete collection of our expedition’s blog posts is here.

Until next time, stay warm!

SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: Antarctic Storms

February 14th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Randy Skinner

The wind began to blow at approximately 1:00AM on December 20. In Antarctica the wind blows most of the time, as there is nothing to slow it down and air is continually shifting from location to location due to density. But this was different: The force of the wind was strong enough to cause our tents to shudder continually, making it very hard to sleep. Snow began drifting around the tents, and packing between the tent body and fly. The force of the wind would even drive snow through the tent body, so that it showered down upon you.

At 6:30AM, Clem stopped by my tent to let me know that we would not be traversing to site 5 that day, as the weather was so bad. Following breakfast ,we began to build snow walls to protect the tents from the force of the wind. A flag line was put up to guide us from tent to tent in the event visibility dropped below 10 feet (3 meters). We checked the sled loads to make sure they were tied down well, and tightened all of the tent guy-out points. By noon the wind was blowing even stronger.

Ludo, happy to experience his first Antarctic storm. Notice the snow walls we built in great haste, and the flags on which we tied a rope to be used as a handrail when visibility dropped below 10 feet.

A small portable weather station that we had with us recorded wind speeds of 35mph (56 kph) with a wind chill temperature of -32 degrees Celsius (-25.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Noting to do but hunker down and read or sleep. The wind did not change all day long, except to increase and decrease slightly in speed. Every slight ebb of the wind strength would give us the hope that it was ending, only to have those hopes dashed at the next strong gust.

Randy entering our Scott tent, probably to get a hot cocoa.

We awoke on the morning of Dec. 21 to more of the same. Drifts of snow around our tents were 3 to 4 feet high (0.9-1.2 meters). The wind had scalloped out snow in other places making walking around camp treacherous. Mac-Op’s assured us that we should start to see improvement later that day, so we were hopeful that we would not have to re-build our eroding snow walls. The rule of the day was to dig. Every time I, or anyone else was out of their tent, we dug the snow away from our own tent and then the others’. This was to keep the doors open, and the tent from being collapsed by the weight of the accumulating snow.

Our camp in the evening after the first storm.

By 8:00PM the wind had dropped enough that we began digging 2 to 3 feet (0.6-0.9 meters) of snow away from the sleds, and unpacking the snow from the engine compartments of the snow machines. We worked for several hours to free all of the equipment so that it would be ready to traverse in the morning.

The wind direction changed overnight and our snow machines and sleds got partially buried in snow.

The storm on Dec. 20 was great practice for the storm that came on the evening of Dec. 23. Just as we finished dinner the wind picked up noticeably to around 30mph (48 kph). We had built a long continuous snow wall behind the tents as we sat up camp the day before. The wind had drifted snow all the way to the top of our 4-foot wall, and snow was now drifting between the tents. Ludo and Clem set to work to make the wall higher and dig the drifts down.

In the morning of Christmas Eve, the wind was stronger than at any time during the first storm. Clem commented that this was possibly the worst polar storm he had ever been in. This coming from a man on his second trip to Antarctica, as well as having spent time in Greenland did not comfort me very much. By evening time the wind was gusting in excess of 50mph (80 kph). Blowing snow limited visibility to less than 25 feet (less than 8 meters), and the wind chill was at -48 degrees C (-54 degrees F). Drifting snow had mostly buried Jessica’s tent, and we abandoned it and she moved into the Scott Tent for the night.

Ludo, checking out Jess' partially buried tent.

Christmas Eve was cancelled due to weather.

Christmas morning was more of the same. The snow was drifting so bad that the restroom myself and Ludo had built was no longer useable. Someone was getting out of their tent every 2-3 hours to dig out the other tents. Snow drifts around one tent became so bad the tent appeared to be in the bottom of a small snow-coliseum.

Randy during the second, more intense storm.

Fortunately for us, Mac-Op’s assured us that we were on the edge of the storm.

By the evening of Christmas Day the wind of the second storm had begun to slack in strength, and once again we began to dig ourselves out. Because of things we had learned from the first storm, the sleds and snowmobiles were not as packed with snow, even though the storm was stronger. The tents however were nearly buried, and removing some of the dead-men anchors was very time consuming.

Our camp site after the second storm. Ludo was looking for his tent's dead-men anchors, which were buried below the snow walls.

Fortunately we did not have the opportunity to use again what we had learned about pitching the tents during the second storm, as this was our last bit of bad weather.


SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: Feathered Christmas Visitors

February 10th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ludovic Brucker

The only wildlife we saw during our three-week traverse was three snow petrels and one Antarctic petrel. I still haven’t decided if they were sort of a Christmas gift, or the announcement of a storm!

The birds visited us when we were at camp 5,430 km (265 mi) inland. I was surprised to see them so far away from the coast and once I was back at McMurdo, I looked for a bird specialist on base and found Dr. David Ainley, who gave me some info about the birds that I want to share with you.

Snow petrels are all white except for their black eyes, eyelashes and feet/legs.

The Antarctic petrel is mostly black though white below and with white trailing edges to wings, it has pink legs and black feet. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to take pictures of this bird, so we simply enjoyed watching it.

These two species are seabirds. They never leave the Antarctic (that is, they never fly north of the Antarctic Polar Front) and spend most of their lives at sea, mainly associated with sea ice. Adults spend about four months of the year nesting. They build their nest in cavities in the slopes of inland nunataks (exposed rocks in ice fields or glaciers) and mountaintops. Most of these birds’ breeding areas are still unknown to the scientists studying them, though they are known to nest in the Fosdick and Ford ranges in Marie Byrd Land.

About six million Antarctic petrels (30 percent of its total population, according to at-sea surveys) and one million snow petrels (their total population is unknown) feed during summer in the Ross Sea: that is why there’s a push to designate the Ross Sea a marine protected area. Furthermore, according to Dr. Ainley, the Ross Sea also hosts 38 percent of the world’s adelie penguins, and 26 percent of its emperor penguins. You can read about the efforts to preserve the Ross Sea here.

Our traverse was on Mary Byrd land, where, as I mentioned above, many petrels breed. So the birds we were lucky to see weren’t lost, as I had initially thought, but flying from or returning to their nests.

Notes from the Field