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Notes from the Field

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!

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3 Responses to “The (Arctic) Fury Unleashed”

  1. Jim in IA says:

    That was an interesting account of your final day. Enjoy some creature comforts. I look forward to reading the future posts about the science.

  2. Jill M. says:

    I love reading these posts (from the comfort of sunny California). Thank you for all the work your team does!

  3. Lisa says:

    I am quite impressed with your endeavors and attitude! Keep writing, I love reading about your fascinating work and environment.