Archive for the 'Arctic' Category

Traveling to the North Pole, Part 4: An Excursion and a Hare

May 09th, 2012 | Category: animals,Arctic,Travel

There is a big, slow-moving storm hanging over us, so all air operations have been suspended.  This gives me some free time for much-needed sleep and some R&R.  A few of us decided to take an excursion using tracked vehicles.  Although I’m too suited up to be easily identified, that’s me. 


We were planning on going to “Crystal Mountain,” a local ridge where there are deposits of quartz crystals that are particularly nice, but there was an almost complete white-out and we had to turn back, because we couldn’t see the road or the terrain. The little dot in the next picture is the sun; although you can’t tell, there is a horizon and mountains in this image!

Such conditions are disorienting.  Even when it’s bright and sunny in the Arctic, distances are hard to gauge accurately, because when everything’s white and there are no familiar objects for scale, it is hard to tell how far away things are.  In conditions like these, there is simply nothing to see at all, except the occasional rock that is close by and sticks out of the snow.  Bouncing around in the vehicle, it was easy to imagine becoming motion sick; I tried not to think about it.  My eyes strained to find something to look at, without success.

Last night, when the weather was better, my friend Jeff and I went out looking for animals.  Can you see the critter in this next image (click to enlarge any image)?

Here it is, a little larger:

Earlier in this trip there were a lot of sunny days that exposed some soil and the plants that cling to the rocky surface.  Although it’s hard to believe, things do grow here: lichens, mosses, and grass.  The Arctic Hares can be found wherever this stuff has been exposed and there isn’t too much human activity.

Here’s a composite of all the things I watched the hare do: eat, dig, sit, and run.  Its “circle of fear” was about 20 feet.

One word comes to mind when seeing this plush, cute, cottony hare: Bunneeeeee!



Traveling to the North Pole, Part 3: We reach the pole

May 08th, 2012 | Category: Arctic,Travel,Work

A few days ago, I finally reached the pole. 

The switchyard project has defined ten locations on an imaginary line stretching from Alert to the pole.  Each year, the same locations are sampled; over time, the properties of the water at these locations are compared to each other and to other measurements in order to contribute to understanding of climate behavior.

The distance from Alert to the pole is about 450 Nautical miles, or 520 “normal” miles.  Regardless of our particular destination, our standard  proceedure is to pack up the aircraft early in the morning, fly a short distance west along the shoreline, and then head north. We carry a lot of stuff – the instruments to perform the water sampling, a winch, generator, ice auger, fuel for everything (including, sometimes, the aircraft), survival gear, and a lot of odds and ends.  We have headsets so that we can talk with everyone on board – typically, 4 or 5 people including the pilots.  Everyone pitches in to get the work done; when on the ground, the pilots help us set up the gear for our operations.

In the pictures below you can see the sea ice in the forground – this is what the surface of the ocean looks like from high above.  The ice is not one unbroken sheet, but is composed of plates which smash together and form pressure ridges. In the background are the mountains of north Ellesmere island.  


The wind pushes the ice around, causing cracks (called “leads”) to open up.  The leads can last for days or just hours.

When we reach the vicinity of the day’s sampling location, we’ll try to find a reasonably flat-looking area to land on, and  drop to a lower altitude to examine the candidates.

When we find a good one, the pilot will pull some “energetic” maneuvers, turning repeatedly to go back and forth and an altitude of only a few feet, eventually doing a touch-and-go to drag the skis along the ice without actually landing in order to gauge the roughness of the surface.  In the picture below, you can see by the horizon line that we are pulling a tight left turn at low altitude.

The landing is usually pretty bumpy, with occasional rafting into the air because of an ice hummock.  The pilots and our expedition leader are experienced at choosing good sites to land; the trick is to find a spot where the ice is “thin” – but not too thin to support the plane.  In this area of the Arctic, the sea ice can be 20 feet thick, but the ideal thickness for us is 4 feet or so.  Any less than 2 feet will not support the plane; any more than 12 feet and we can’t drill through it with the equipment we’re carrying.  just a few years ago, an aircraft fell through the ice; nobody was injured, but the plane sank and was lost.  Fortunately there was a helicopter in the area and all on board were rescued within 12 hours.  This year there is no helicopter; if we became stranded, we’d have to rely on another aircraft, which would land as close as possible and wait for us to walk to it.  This would be a challenge, because walking long distances on the ice is not simple.  Leads are usually too broad to jump across; false surfaces conceal thin ice; pressure ridges are more rugged up close than you would think.  Falling in the water without warm shelter nearby would likely be a death sentence – assuming you could even get out of the water.

Eventually, we land, unload the plane, and set up a tent on the side of the plane where we do our work.  What we do in that tent will be covered in a future post.


In order to reach the pole, we flew to a fuel cache previously set up on the ice.  Here’s what it looks like from ther air:


Once at the cache, we refuel from 55-gallon drums using a small pump.

Two hours later, we were at the north pole!  There is nothing to visually distinguish it from any other spot on the Arctic icecap, but it was pretty cool to see map on the GPS display.  While orbiting the site to look for a good landing spot, we circumnavigated the earth several times.  Here’s out victory shot.  From left ot right, that’s co-pilot Mike, Pilot Troy (both of Kenn Borek Air), Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory expedition leader Dale, and myself (of JHUAPL).  It was pretty warm out (5F) and there was no wind, so we’re not over-dressed.

Here’s some images of the beautifully wind-sculpted ice:

In the next image you can see the startling blue color of sea ice when it’s not covered by frost and snow.  At the bottom of the lead in this image, you can also just see the green lnie of algae that grows on the bottom of the ice (you may have to click to enlarge the image).


Traveling to the North Pole, Part 2: Arriving at Alert

May 06th, 2012 | Category: Arctic,Travel,Work

After our short stay in the bustling metropolis of Kangerlussuaq it was time to take off again.

We tumbled back into the Herc and flew up  the rugged coast of Greenland on our way to Thule Air Force Base (about 3 hours), where we refueled and took off again in short order.  Couldn’t take any pictures on the base, but here are some of the surrounding area.

This mesa (below) stands in the bay right off the Thule runway.  Someone told me it has a golf course on it.  That figures; in my experience, the USAF is golf course-centric.

Next stop, Canadian Forces Station Alert (3.5 hours frm Thule)!  In every direction, as far as the eye can see – and much farther than that – ice and snow cover the mountainous and unforgiving terrain.  There are no trees and no other human structures; we are 450 nautical miles from the geographic north pole.  The ocean is completely covered with multi-year ice, filled with broken, jumbled chunks of ice (the foreground in the next picture).  Where soil is exposed, it is black, rocky,  and inhospitable.

Below: Alert seen from the air.

Here I am in front of the famous Alert sign, with names of visitor’s cities and the distances.

The Herc offloads extra fuel into the base’s tanks, turns around, rumbles up the ice runway and is soon gone in a cloud of disturbed snow and noise.

The base itself is a complex of interconnected modules, each standing off of the ground to isolate them thermally as much as possible; if they were on the ground, they’d melt the icy soil and sink into it.  The doors to these buildings are like industrial refrigerator doors, with heavy latches to withstand the arctic winter’s fierce winds. 

The air is cold, but mild for this place – about 5F.  However, when the wind blows, it is truly frigid, becoming intolerable for bare skin that is exposed for more than a moment. I’ve only been here a week, and in that time, it’s been mostly sunny and beautiful, except for one day, when a 30-knot wind howled out of the south, transforming what had been simply very cold air into something completely different and a little scary.  Get caught in the wrong place, and that weather will kill you. 

At this season, the sun never sets, but simply orbits around at the same altitude.  The only difference is the direction of its light; at 2AM you need sunglasses. 

The wind sculpts the snow into amazing shapes:

Alert sits on a bay, so the ocean is right there.  Below: a charming quonset hut with an ocean view!

Here’s the beach.  On this shore, there is no surf, no seagulls, and no sound of any sort.  The ocean is completely silent, which is part and parcel of the barren, treeless land, the unbelievable cold, and a sense of utter desolation.  At this place, I feel that I am truly at the end of the earth – and in a sense this is true, because north of this, right at my feet, starts the Lincoln sea of the Arctic ocean, which stretches all the way to the pole, where there is no land – only ice. 


Looking to the south, over the windswept snow, there are mountains.  Imagine what it would be like to walk to the horizon; what would it take to survive?  In bad weather, the conditions are hard to believe.  In 1991, a Hercules aircraft just like the one I flew in on crashed only 10 miles away from Alert;  It took 3 days for rescuers to reach the survivors.

As lifeless as all of this looks, it is deceiving.  There is, in fact, lots of life here.  Under the snow, there are mosses and lichens that grew in the brief summer when the snow melts at lower altitudes.  These are eaten by Lemmings and hares, which are eaten by foxes, which are eaten by wolves.  Under the sea ice, there is a layer of algae that grows at the interface between ice and liquid sea water; fish eat the algae, seals eat the fish; polar bears, of course, eat the seals.  I have not yet seen any animals, but they are here, as their tracks show:

Polar bears are sighted here every so often.  Right now there are old polar bear tracks near the end of the runway.  Speaking of tracks, it is not always possible to get around on wheeled vehicles.  The base has plenty of snowmobiles, and also tracked vehicles like these:

I am extremely busy and the internet connection is very slow, but I will get more posts out when I can.



Traveling to the North Pole, Part 1: the Herc to Greenland

April 30th, 2012 | Category: Arctic,Travel,Work

I’m working as part of a Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab/Columbia University LDEO collaboration on the Switchyard project, which among other things, collects data about the origin of water in the arctic region, and is also collecting depth soundings for the sea floor under the arctic ice in the area known as the Lincoln sea.  I’m the team member from JHU that wrote the firmware for the device and is taking it into the Arctic to use it for the first time.

See here for a map of my trip up to the polar region.  I’m not literally staying at the geographic north pole, but at a military/research base that is the northern most inhabited place on the planet – CFS (Canadian Forces Station) Alert Bay.  Alert bay is about 450 miles from the pole; we’ll be flying twin otter ski planes daily from Alert towards the Pole, landing at various spots and drilling holes through the ice so that we can sample the ocean water beneath and insert sensors under the ice.

The Air National Guard is responsible for ferrying people and supplies northward,under the management of the national science foundation.  The departure point is Stratton Air force base in Schenectady, NY, which is the home of the 109th Air lift wing of the NY air national guard, which performs the flights. So they picked us up from our hotel at 5AM, and we were briefed and awaited boarding permission.  The plane had already been stuffed with our gear.


It took about 6.5 hours, but eventually, the Dramatic coast of Greenland came into view.

Greenland is a majestically barren and quiet place.  We landed at Kangerlussuaq, which is a base dedicated to supporting various arctic missions.  Kangerlussuaq sits just inside the arctic circle.  The Kangerlussuaq International Science Support organization (KISS) provides housing, food and other logistics to people like me – scientists and engineers going to the polar regions.

Since it doesn’t get dark until midnight, I was able to borrow a bike from KISS and take a pretty difficult ride up to Black ridge, which overlooks the town.  Along the way I saw some of the unique Greenland Dogs.

Musk oxen are hunted and are a common source of food.  I was fed Musk Ox stew for dinner.

This is what it looks like at 10 PM here.  The effect will be even more pronounced close to the pole.

Note the street names.

Check out the sign…

There are no roads here; every board and sack of cement has come here on an aircraft.  It’s not beautiful, but it is very welcoming.

Tomorrow we will get up at 5AM, which is better than the 4AM wakeup today!  Then, we will fly to Alert, with a stop for refueling in Thule.


« Previous Page