May 27

Traveling to the North Pole, Part 12: A Glacier in Greenland (the last part)

Category: Arctic,JHUAPL,Travel,Work

On the way home we had a layover of a day and a half in Kangerlussuaq.  As luck would have it, my roommate there was Dr. Ron Sletten, a university of Washington geochemist.  This summer he is supervising a team of scientists who are studying the way that microorganisms interact with the area’s geology.

I volunteered my labor for the next day’s field study, and he graciously offered me the opportunity to ride along. The next morning, eight of us filled two pickup trucks with equipment and headed out on one of the handful of roads leading from “Kanger,” as everyone calls it.  None of the roads go very far – the only way in or out of Kanger is by air or ship.  This is typical of Greenland communities; it is a frontier region, and the only paved roads are within towns.  Inhabited regions are separated by vast areas of wilderness.

The bumpy dirt road didn’t afford any photographic opportunities, but it offered lots of possibilities: rolling hills, stretches of desert-like sand, wide riverbeds, endless plains of tundra grass and moss, and erosion patterns of every sort.  Although we were above the Arctic circle, it was much warmer than Alert – being hundreds of miles south.  The 40-degree air and presence of plants and even birds was a little shocking – it felt positively verdant after the sterile whiteness of Ellesmere Island (Although in a few months, even Ellesmere will come alive for its brief summer).  Occasionally a caribou raised its head to watch us pass.  Eventually we reached the Russel glacier, a tongue of the vast Greenland ice sheet. This glacier is the easiest one to reach from Kanger, and is much visited by scientists.

In the spring and summer, the glacier’s melt-water combines with similar runoff from other ice to create a river, which is visible in the foreground.  The Glacier is too large to be seen in its entirety from the ground; what is pictured here is only a tiny part of it.

Glaciers are rivers of ice.  As they flow – ever so slowly – they push up piles of soil and rock in front of them.  These piles are called moraines, and are hardly different from what happens when you drag your leg on a sandy beach, dredging a pile of sand in front of your foot.  When Glaciers are in a melt phase, they retreat slightly from their moraines, leaving a well-defined pile of rubble, like this one:

Of interest to this science team, though, was the water issuing from the glacier.  Glaciers slide on a layer of water that comes from melting as the warmer season advances, and also water that melts from the enormous press of the glacier’s weight.  The water seeps out from a multitude of crevices, but is concentrated in certain areas, where you can see it pouring out, as if from an open fire hydrant.

Underneath the glacier, within this layer of water, life is present.  Microorganisms cling to the rock surface and to the underside of the ice, and they excrete compounds that change the chemistry of the rock.  Evidence of their activity is also present in the meltwater.  The team needs to collect this water every week or so to examine the changes in water chemistry as the summer goes on.  It is possible to work backwards from the chemical makeup of the water and arrive at conclusions about the bacterial activity going on underneath the glacier.

However, as the summer goes on and more and more water comes out of the ice sheet, the river in front of the glacier will turn into a raging torrent which would be dangerous to cross.  The scientists need a way to get across the river without endangering themselves.  It’s not only the water they need to worry about; huge chunks of glacier occasionally fall off and plunge to the ground (this is known as “glacial bombardment”). These ice chunks are big enough to crush an apartment building, so you really don’t want to be near them when they go.  It’s important to minimize time spent underneath its crumbling face.  In the next image you can see the result of a glacial bombardment; to the lower left, one of the team stands on the beach.  In between the ice rubble and the person, the glacial outflow is visible as a waterfall that flows into the river.

The solution was to attach a steel cable to rocks on the riverside, tow it across the river using a boat, and then attach it to the glacier on the other side.  Then, a hose was inserted into the meltwater outflow and run back to the other shore by suspending it from the cable.  It was a nice piece of construction work that kept us busy all day long (actually, there is no night at this time, but you get the idea).

You can see the collection tube running along the ground and straight into the outflow:

After emplacing the cable and tubing, we collected ice samples using a chainsaw.

Another day at the office…

Meanwhile, a team member put on ice spikes and climbed around on the glacier to collect ice cores using a hand-cranked corer.

The area immediately in front of the glacier is strewn with boulders which melted out of the glacier.  From a distance, they have a drab appearance, but when examined up close, they have amazing colors:

The river, which has many glaciers draining into it, has many waterfalls:

The glaciers have been grinding away at the landscape for million of years, producing every size of rock from house-sized boulders to microscopic sand grains that make quicksand – a real danger in the back country of Greenland (and all of it is back country!).  Along the shores of countless creeks, rivers, lakes, and swamps, there is every variety of sand and gravel.  It is not easy (or always possible) to tell just by looking at it if it’s firm or if it has the consistency of pudding.

We had a great day, accomplishing our goals with no injuries.  I felt so privileged to spend time in this environment and to experience it in ways that I’ve only dreamed about until now.

In this journey, I have stood at the north pole – sea level, where it was 5F at its warmest, Greenland with its glaciers, the northeast US where it was hot and humid, the desert of Arizona, where it was close to 100F and dry, and finally – Flagstaff, at 7000 feet, where it was pleasantly cool and the scent of pines was once again in the air after a long winter.  The trees, traffic, buildings and people were a shock to my system after almost a month spent amidst the stark beauty of the high arctic, where there was absolutely no sound and almost no sign of life.  The kind of journey that I took in two days would have taken years in the very recent past, and in any group of people attempting to do it, not all would return.  I have experienced one of the wonders of our age (long-distance travel) and played a small part in the effort to understand the way the planet works;  I consider myself truly fortunate.



9 Comments so far

  1. Gaelyn May 28th, 2012 6:10 AM

    You are fortunate indeed. Must have felt like a heat wave at 40 degrees. I’m guessing the hose could be buried or swept away by the powerful flow of water or a bombardment.

    So where to next?

  2. Dan Greenspan May 28th, 2012 11:05 AM

    The tubing will eventually be swept away or crushed – which is why the cable has been left in place and the boat can be used to quickly get to the other side by hand-over-hand towing. I don’t know where or when the next trip will be… next month, or next year… I will have to live in ignorance for a while.

  3. Bert May 30th, 2012 9:59 AM

    Welcome back ‘home’! Your curiosity and range of interests knows no boundaries. In your next ‘life’ you might become a geologist, or a botanist,zoologist, meteorologist or climatologist. You already are a scientist,photographer (par excellence),adventurer and travel writer.Your blogs should be revised and sent to travel and science periodicals.
    Public television also? Your observations and comments deserve a larger audience!

  4. Dan Greenspan May 30th, 2012 12:05 PM

    Thanks Dad!

  5. Brenda May 30th, 2012 5:51 PM

    Dan- your blog and all of the pictures you took are amazing. Looks like you had such a unique experience and you were imersed in world so many people may never get to experience. Glad you got to go, and happy to have you back home.

  6. Jeff June 3rd, 2012 9:47 AM

    Hey Dan, What a fantastic read !! Your article gave me some great insight as to what you guys were doing when you left Alert !! It has been a while since you left and I see you have not wasted any time since leaving here. It was a great pleasure to meet you and spend some time with you while you were here and I wish you many more safe travels to come !!

  7. Bob June 3rd, 2012 6:18 PM

    I’m glad you made it home safely. I didn’t realize you were bloging while you were up there. Your pictures and blog are excellent. Your blog deserves to be published somewhere; you have a talent for sharing your photos and written experience and making the reader (me) feel like I was there. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  8. inayat khan June 24th, 2012 3:12 PM

    Hi all iam inayat khan from pakistan and now living in italy I looking to much country but I like greenland and ellesmere greenland people so nice and good iam visiting next years I looking greenland and ellesmere thanks to all greenland and ellesmere people bye bye

  9. Heidi F. Rubinstein August 29th, 2012 9:20 AM

    Nice blog, and GREAT photos! Thank you for sharing so much insight. Heidi

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