May 6

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

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.



3 Comments so far

  1. Gaelyn May 6th, 2012 10:29 PM

    Wow, what a place to survive in. Or is that on because of all the ice. I’d very much like the silence on a calm sunny day, but couldn’t stand that chill wind. Seeing the tracks across the snow, so like tracks in the sand. Hope you see some of these elusive creatures. It is so wonderful to visit this place from the relative warmth of northern Arizona. Look forward to more.

  2. DiAnne May 19th, 2012 11:40 AM

    Ruby wants to know “Are those big or small?” referring to the ice/snow curls. There is nothing in the photo to determine scale…

  3. Dan Greenspan May 19th, 2012 7:07 PM

    They are about 8 inches long. I knew when i posted that image that i should have included my hand or something… Actually, the largest one was about 8 inches, and there was a whole series of them that got smaller and smaller until they vanished. There are so many amazing things to take pictures of – I want to spend a lifetime up here, but I’m just stealing odd moments of time, usually late at night instead of sleeping! That picture was taken at maybe 10 PM, but the light is always the same – assuming there is no storm – just from a different angle at different times of day.

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