Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Category Archives: Geological Sciences

Understanding under-ice water movement in Greenland

Joel Harper and research team drill bore holes in the Greenland ice sheet using an innovative drill designed by Neil Humphrey. Photo: courtesy Joel Harper

Joel Harper and research team drill bore holes in the Greenland ice sheet using an innovative drill designed by Neil Humphrey. Photo: courtesy Joel Harper

In order to better understand how water beneath the ice sheet affects glacial movement in Greenland, scientists have developed and field tested a new way of drilling boreholes from the ice surface to the base rock in order to collect data that can help project future sea-level rise worldwide. The research is supported by the National Science Foundation.

During the summers of 2010-2012, University of Wyoming geology professor Neil Humphrey and colleague University of Montana geoscientist professor Joel Harper drilled 23 boreholes on the Greenland ice sheet using a custom-designed hot water/high pressure drill. In some spots, the ice was up to one kilometer thick.

Heat and pressure

Humphrey designed and constructed the drill, which pumps cold surface water through a series of heaters and high-pressure pumps. The combination of scalding water and high pressure can drill a hole at a rate of 120 meters per hour. After drilling, the scientists installed sensors to monitor water flow and ice motion.

The data collected will help scientists understand how meltwater beneath the ice sheet impacts the sheet’s rate of movement. This is significant because the unique “plumbing” beneath the ice sheet impacts the rate at which ice breaks off into the ocean, which has the effect of causing sea levels to rise. More, as the ice sheet migrates to lower elevations, there is a higher chance it will melt or break off at a faster rate.

Complicated plumbing

However, the basal hydraulic system beneath the ice sheet is complex, and scientists aren’t certain how water drains, the impact of under-ice water flow on ice movement, and more. Part of the difficulty is accessing the bedrock, which can be thousands of feet beneath the ice, to document and measure the movement of melted water.

The predominant theory has been that the water drainage under the Greenland ice sheet is comparable to that of mountain glaciers. But in a paper published in the journal Science this month entitled, “Basal Drainage System Response to Increasing Surface Melt on the Greenland Ice Sheet,” Harper and Humphrey, along with their co-authors, suggest that such a view overlooks important processes specific to the ice sheet.

Under the ice

Each summer surface meltwater migrates through thousands of meters of cold ice to reach a subglacial drainage network to the ice edge. This system is in a constant state of flux as it adjusts to input variations from the surface. The ability of the draining system to move the meltwater impacts how much the ice sheet moves in a season by modulating the speed at which the ice slides over the bed.

Looking beneath the surface

Until recently, accessing the bedrock under the ice has been challenging because large-scale ice coring projects can take years to complete and produce only a single borehole. These studies collect ice samples and analyze them for paleoclimate records.

The novel hot water/high pressure drill gave the scientists unprecedented access to the hydraulic system beneath the ice sheet. This allows scientists to more fully understand how the drainage system responds to surface ice melt. Previously, scientists interpreted Greenland’s velocity changes based on what they know about mountain glaciers. But because of geometric differences between the Greenland ice sheet and mountain glaciers, Humphrey’s and Harper say the systems are not analogous to one another.

Rather than the melting ice draining out from under the ice sheet within a matter of days – as generally happens with mountain glaciers — the melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet moves much more slowly, as ice melts from everywhere on the ice sheet and meltwater moves underneath into a distribution system.

Ultimately, by understanding how the ice sheet will accommodate changes in surface melt and how ice sheets interact with groundwater systems, scientists will be better able to forecast the impacts from ice melt, including predicting rates of sea level rise. More, Harper and Humphrey’s research highlights the benefits of innovation in research methods to fully understand the mechanisms of the Greenland ice sheet and its response to past, present or future climate conditions.  —Rachel Odell Walker

Dark Snow Project probes relationship between wildfires and Arctic melt

Dr. Jason Box, lower right, is asking for public donations to finance a research trip to Greenland to study the impact of wildfire ash on Arctic albedo. Photo:

Dr. Jason Box, lower right, is asking for public donations to finance a research trip to Greenland to study the impact of wildfire ash on Arctic albedo. Photo:

In 2012, the Greenland ice sheet experienced extraordinary ice melt during an unusually warm period in mid-July. Coupled with other geologic events, like a large calving event on the Petermann Glacier, the melting has scientists questioning the dynamics at play and the potential consequences.

One of those scientists is Jason Box, from the Byrd Polar Research Center. As reports of 90 percent of Greenland’s surface thawing last July captured headlines, Box saw a potential correlation between the unusually warm Arctic weather and the wildfires ravaging the West. It was one of the worst fire seasons on record. In addition to blazes in Colorado, New Mexico, and California, tundra fires burned huge expanses in Alaska and Canada.

Box modeled the weather patterns during those events and showed that smoke from the fires passed over the Greenland icesheet. He hypothesized that ash and soot from the smoke fell to the ice sheet and darkened it, which altered its ability to reflect sunlight.

He wanted to study the relationship between wildfires and Arctic ice melt, and figured he’d need about $150,000. Such funding was not immediately available.

Rather than scrape the research, Box, who has been the recipient of many  grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation and other agencies in the past and who has worked in Greenland since the mid-1990s, decided to raise the money himself.

For the past year, he’s been leading a fundraising effort to finance a research trip to Greenland this summer.

He calls it the Dark Snow project, and Box plans to sample ice cores and study whether wildfires are responsible for the widespread melting in 2012 in Greenland.

He’s raised slightly more than half of the desired $150,000. Much of that will pay air transport to and from the ice sheet for Box and his team. At least two journalists plan to document the trip, including Bill McKibben, who wrote about Box in the August 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

Box told PBS Newshour that raising the money on his own has been challenging but that it comes with certain advantages.

“There’s fewer strings and less structure, which gives you an advantage to try edgier and riskier research,” Box said, adding that he sees the Dark Snow Project as a pilot study. If the team succeeds and publishes their findings, it could lead to a government grant to fund further research.

Snow’s reflectivity, also known as albedo, decreases as white snow melts because water is darker and absorbs more of the sun’s energy. Soot generated by wildfires and/or industrial emissions that is deposited on the ice can further reduce albedo; dirty snow melts faster than white snow.

Since unveiling his project at last December’s American Geophysical Union meeting, Box has gotten steady support. His research team includes four scientists and a creative team. Stay tuned as we update you periodically on the progress of the Dark Snow Project.  —Rachel Walker

Polar Careers: Jorien Vonk

Jorien Vonk on Shuchi Lake in Russia. Vonk is a biogeochemist whose research has taken her to many remote regions of the Arctic. Photo: Jorien Vonk

Jorien Vonk on Shuchi Lake in Russia. Vonk is a biogeochemist whose research has taken her to many remote regions of the Arctic. All photos: Jorien Vonk

Jorien Vonk’s passion for the Arctic started when she was a teenager and has grown ever since. Today, Vonk is a post-doctorate researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands where she focuses on biogeochemical cycling in arctic regions and the fate of thawing permafrost.

Vonk’s interests don’t stop with research. She’s also engaged in nurturing the next generation of researchers both in the lab and the field. She began collaborating with Max Holmes and the Polaris Project in 2010 as a post-doctorate researcher. She will return to Siberia this summer as a faculty member, mentoring students and documenting their experiences through photography.

This month, Vonk shares how her interests in the Arctic began and where it’s taken her with field notes.

PFS: You’ve traveled quite extensively and lived in a number of countries. Please tell us a little about your background.

A Great Grey Owl. Vonk illustrates the beauty and uniqueness of the Arctic through her photography. Photo: Jorien Vonk

A Great Grey Owl. Vonk illustrates the beauty and uniqueness of the Arctic through her photography.

Jorien Vonk: Originally, I studied environmental science. I always hesitated between chemistry and earth sciences, but then I decided to go for kind of a mixture. As part of my masters, which sparked my interest in the region, I spent time on Svalbard, an island archipelago north of Norway in the Arctic Ocean. I was there a year studying snow hydrology and Arctic mine pollution.

After that, I left research for a while and then went back to do my PhD in Stockholm, where I moved more towards the permafrost world using all kinds of chemical and isotopic techniques to see if there’s actually more old permafrost that is now thawing and to see if we can detect that in rivers or the oceans.

PFS: In general, what are your scientific interests and what is your area of focus at Utrecht University?

JV: I would classify myself as a biogeochemist or a hydrobiogeochemist. Biogeochemistry is an applied form of chemistry where, simply said, researchers look at molecules, bacteria, or chemical elements that occur in the natural environment to learn something about the system.

I like the interactions between hydrology and terrestrial systems. Rivers are big integrators of the landscape that can tell you a lot. You can also look at the more biological parts—enzymes and bacteria—that can help generate greenhouse gasses.

PFS: How did you become interested in the Arctic and polar science?

JV: My interest was triggered by this one book I read when I was 16:  When the Light Comes. It was about a Flemish girl from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium who went to Svalbard for a year and over wintered there with a seal fur hunter. I like that the Arctic is so remote and that the seasons and nature really affect the people there. It’s not like here—the middle-European latitudes—where we rule or determine everything. There, it’s nature against us. So that’s what is special.

PFS: You have participated in the Polaris Project for several years. What is your role as part of the Polaris team?

Vonk with Polaris Project undergraduate students in 2010. Photo: Jorien Vonk

Vonk with Polaris Project undergraduate students in 2010.

JV: I’ve been involved with the Polaris Project for the last three summers, from 2010. I contacted Max Holmes asking is we could collaborate or if I could do a postdoc with him, and then he invited me to join in 2010. The first two years, my role was more like a postdoc—serving as a bridge between the undergraduate students there and the more senior PIs. Now I’m more and more part of the faculty.

It was a great experience. I was suddenly exposed to scientists with different backgrounds and views of the system. Some were ecologists, others were more terrestrial people.

That makes the Polaris Project quite unique and very interesting. The students can learn from us, and I can learn from the senior PIs (and from the students!).

PFS: You’ve taken many amazing photographs of the Arctic, including documenting your experience with the Polaris Project in Siberia. What can people learn about the Arctic and Arctic science from your pictures?

JV: You try to make people curious. People always ask me when I go to Siberia, “Oh! It must be cold there?” But in these pictures you can see people are swimming in the river everyday in bikinis. Parts of the Arctic can be very warm at times.

PFS: What are some of the rewards and challenges of working in the Arctic and in the region’s coastal ecosystems?

JV: If you really enjoy being in the Arctic, you are willing to accept some challenges—the mosquitoes, mud, no Internet and all these kinds of things. But the reward is it’s such a unique place. Every time I go, especially when I go back to Siberia, the landscape is never the same. You never get bored of it. Another reward is the people. There’s a common interest that creates good energy.

When you are in the Arctic you have to seize the moment, especially with cruises. On cruises, it’s now or never. There’s not a lot of sleep, there’s lots of work and at the end you’re totally exhausted, but you can build on the experiences and the samples you collect for years and years after that.

PFS: What’s next?

Busy prepping sediment cores during her 2008 voyage on a Russian ship in the East Siberian Sea.

Busy prepping sediment cores during her 2008 voyage on a Russian ship in the East Siberian Sea.

JV: I just started at Utrecht University a few months ago. I got a fellowship from the Dutch National Science Foundation. So I’ll be here for at least three years, but I hope to stay here and build my own lab with PhD students, masters students and postdocs. One of the Polaris Project students from last year is going to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to come to my lab, so that is a good start!

Next year, 2014, I will be on the Swedish icebreaker the Oden returning to study the East Siberian Sea. I first visited there in 2008. SWERUS-C3 is an international, large project by Swedes, Russians and Americans to study carbon dynamics in the Siberian arctic land-shelf-basin system. I will be looking mostly at the bottom of the sea because there is a lot of permafrost underwater on the shelf that is still frozen. We don’t really know that much about it. I will be part of the team collecting sediment cores.

Communicating Polar Climate Change Through Art

A research vessel cruises Arctic water. See more Polar Seed images at Image courtesy Polar Seeds

Last month marked the culmination of an innovative, year-long collaboration between City University of New York (CUNY) professor Marco Tedesco, artists Ethan Ham, Ina Saltz, and Jonhathan Perl (The City College of New York), and a handful of their students. The group collaborated on Polar Seeds to communicate the processes behind Greenland climate change are communicated to the public in a new, very visual, way.

“I went to my colleagues with the idea that they would communicate my research in Greenland through their own interpretation of the science,” says Tedesco. “People have heard now about warming and melting, but it’s time to get people to understand positive feedback mechanisms – how these processes are related.”

He says he reached out to non-scientists to “make science not boring.”

Tedesco’s artistic contributions include photography – photos taken during research excursions to Greenland of landscapes, scientists and students working, and a variety of gear and materials used in their field work along with videos and audio recordings.  The artists interpreted his scientific results graphically and data are translated into sounds with variations in pitch, tone, and amplitude to communicate various concepts and multiple datasets simultaneously.

Polar Seeds Experiment Video

“We also have a video game that people can play at the exhibition, where it will be projected on a wall, or online. The player must balance a number of physical properties – clouds and precipitation, for example – to keep the ice sheet healthy. This is an effective and interactive way to engage people while helping them understand processes,” says Tedesco.

The group was awarded $50,000 from a competitive, college-wide grant program, called CITY SEED, meant to foster campus partnerships.  Visitors to the campus’ Compton-Goethals Art Gallery can see the results of their collaboration January 28 – February 14.

Installations, including a soundscape of field recordings and time lapse photographs of blocks of ice that melt at different rates, depending on their color, will provide ambient exhibition background, are meant to round out the experience—one that Tedesco wants to feel like a conversation.

“This is a team effort. Even though I had a clear idea of the project, I wanted my collaborators to feel free to do what they wanted to do. It was really interesting to work with artists because I had to first communicate my science to them and then let them go,” Tedesco says. ” There was compromise on both sides. It was interesting from a management perspective because I knew the outcome could go anywhere – this is not at all like writing a scientific paper, but it’s actually quite similar to doing field work as we get ready for the exhibition. It’s very exciting because, through visualization, we are breaking the 3/D and 4D barrier to communicate science.” —Marcy Davis

See you in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Annual Meeting


This image of polar bears is one of 24 featured in the inaugural Arctic Visions calendar. Drop by the CPS booth in the exhibition hall (Booth 5439) to pick up your complimentary copy. Photo: Jeff Johnson, University of North Texas

This year we’re sending a team to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting in San Francisco to represent CH2M HILL Polar Services (CPS). The AGU meeting represents the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences, attracting nearly 20,000 earth and space scientists, educators, students, and policy makers.

The meeting “showcases current scientific theory focused on discoveries that will benefit humanity and ensure a sustainable future for our planet,” according to the AGU website.

It’s our privilege to support a wide range of fascinating work, and it’s always fun to see some of “our” scientists presenting their work.

At the meeting, PFS field risk manager Allen O’Bannon will talk about field safety and bears in the Arctic on Monday, 3 December, at noon. If you’re around, drop by the Arctic Community Meeting Room at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, 4th Floor, Pacific Room J.

CPS is hosting a booth in the exhibition hall, (Booth 5439) which will be populated by scientists and research support experts. If you’ve got questions about working in the Arctic, stop by.

We will also showcase our first annual CPS calendar, Arctic Visions. This collaborative work features winners in our inaugural photo contest, some of whom are members of the U.S. NSF’s research program in the Arctic, and some who are new friends. Featuring images ranging from the ethereal to the precise the calendar documents many aspects of life and scientific research in the Arctic.

It is also free.

We are looking forward to seeing old friends and new next week.

Arctic Lakes Help Explain Ancient Ancient Climate Patterns

Jason Briner's field team is fired up! All photos: Jason Briner

Greenland’s unglaciated landscape is one of starkly exposed bedrock undulating in gentle ridges and swales. Small lakes form in the topographic lows where rainwater and glacial ice melt collect. University of Buffalo’s Jason Briner is part of a National Science Foundation-funded collaboration of 10 institutions looking to use these small lakes to reconstruct the last 2000 – 8000 years of arctic climate change.

Last summer, Jason Briner spent a month on Canada’s Ellesmere Island last summer, hiking, camping, and boating on Ayr Lake. Oh yeah, he and his team also got many lake core sediments.

Darrell Kaufman, Northern Arizona U, is the lead PI on this massive effort.

Lakes Provide Important Climate Change Evidence

The collaborators will double the amount of existing high-resolution climate records reconstructed from arctic lake sediments. In particular, Briner and colleagues will focus on collecting cores from Alaska and Greenland likely to record the transition between the Holocene Thermal Maximum, a warm period between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago, and the Little Ice Age, a cooler period between the 16th and 19th centuries.

One of the perks of working in Greenland: water, fresh and fast.

“We have good climate information from ice cores, ocean sediment cores, and tree rings, but not from lake sediments. So, for this project we pulled together people who are good at studying lake cores. Ultimately, we want to extend back to 8000 years and collect cores from around the Arctic,” says Briner.

Middle Holocene as Proxy for Today

“The middle Holocene period climate was warmer than today so it is our closest analog to modern climate change. By studying how and when the ice sheet retreated during a warming climate and constraining the timing and degree of margin fluctuation during the subsequent Little Ice Age, we will place constraints on the sensitivity of the GIS to temperature change. Understanding this sensitivity is urgent given contemporary issues.”

Briner and UB graduate students Nicolas Young, Sam Kelley and undergraduate student Stefan Truex worked out of three field camps near Ilulissat in 2011. The team collected cores from lakes a few hundred meters across where the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) spilled its melt along with pulverized glacial flour, very fine-grained glacial sediments. Briner had many lakes to choose from. Ultimately he and his team sampled from lakes closest to camp, portaging their sediment cores in a small, motorized Zodiac boat.

Exploring the glacial landscape near Illulissat, Greenland.

How to Get a Lake Sediment Core

Once on a lake, the team used GPS and a fish-finder device to get a sense of lake bottom topography and water depth. After creating a rough map of the lake bottom, they chose a coring location with a water depth that would accommodate their coring apparatus: two meter-long sections of clear tubing, or several-meter-long sections of PVC pipe. Coring from a “cataraft,” two pontoons with a plywood platform in between, Briner’s team successfully cored five lakes.

Using ropes and cables, the scientists lowered the coring contraption into the water whilst keeping track of the length deployed by measuring the amount of rope out. Once the tubing was on the bottom, they hammered the top of the PVC pipe until they couldn’t any longer. Then they pulled up the tube, making certain to hold it vertical to contain the muck.

On the boat, the core bottoms were capped, and a piece of floral foam was put on top. By gently pressing down, the team drained the water from the tube; back at camp the core sat upright over several days to let the sediments compact. Before transporting the cores from the field, the team split some of them lengthwise for inspection.

Just another day at the office...

What the Sediment Cores Tell Us

Briner, who runs the UB Paleoclimate Lab, uses the relative thickness of varves, layers of sediment that accumulate in response to seasonal weather changes, to get a sense of how warm or cool a particular year was. During warm summers, the GIS melts more readily and, consequently, transports more sediment downstream to the lakes. Consequently. the varve layer will be relatively thick for that year. Conversely, in mild summers with low discharge, the sediment transport will also be low and the varve layer relatively thin.

“Eventually, we can say ‘when it’s this thick, it was this temperature’ and we can mathematically extrapolate that assumption back in time to get a detailed climate picture from these very fine sediment laminations that correspond to annual sedimentation,” explains Briner.

Glacial lake varves yield volumes about Greenland's past climate.

Reconstructing the Climate

Dating lake sediments is also important in climate reconstruction. Briner correlates the upper two or so centimeters of sediment to historical climate records and then counts sediment layers to get the number of years back to the end of the core. He and his researchers also date organic matter using radiocarbon techniques, which helps constrain the onset of glaciation. Biological markers like pollen grains or insect assemblages, particularly chironomids, two-winged flies that spend much of their lives in arctic lakes, highlight climate details. Ultimately, these data will contribute to climate models that will help predict GIS behavior in a changing climate.

“One of my real passions is finding out where the glaciers have been and how they’ve advanced and retreated. We need more detailed climate records not only to establish the timing of retreat, but because the pattern and rate of future ice sheet retreat are unknown,” says Briner. “We know that the GIS marginal extent fluctuates, but we need to know how long and when the ice sheet was at its maximum as well as how fast the margin retreated and associated volumetric changes given the temperature during that time. If we know these things we will be in a better position to predict the response of the cryosphere to warming–rates of global climatic change, glacier melt, and sea-level rise through the next century.”—Marcy Davis

First-person field report: Ben Kopec and the hydrologic cycle in West Greenland


My name is Ben Kopec and I am a graduate student the Earth Sciences Department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.

Over the past two years, I have been studying the hydrologic cycle in West Greenland, primarily conducting a lake water balance to better understand the key components of the system: precipitation, evaporation, and transpiration.

There is limited knowledge of these processes in the Arctic and they will play an important role in the effects of future climate change in the region. I traveled to the Kangerlussuaq region of Greenland the past two summers as a member of the Dartmouth IGERT for Polar Environmental Change and of the iisPACS group (Isotopic Investigation of Sea-ice and Precipitation in the Arctic Climate System), led by Xiahong Feng and Eric Posmentier of Dartmouth College, and John Burkhart of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

View of landscape surrounding Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. The picture is taken from Sugarloaf to the east of Kangerlussuaq and the view overlooks a few of the many lakes, a river draining the Greenland Ice Sheet, and Sondre Stromfjord, the 190 km fjord ending at the town of Kangerlussuaq. Photo: Ben Kopec

Oh the places you’ll go!

Traveling to Kangerlussuaq is quite exciting! We flew with the Air National Guard’s 109th division on LC130 flights out of the Stratton ANG base in Scotia, NY. It was an awesome experience riding in these classic military planes, sitting in cargo netting, and even landing on the ice on our trip to Summit, Greenland.

LC130 at Summit, Greenland ready to take off on the ice. Photo: Ben Kopec

Inside the LC130 with members of the IGERT group on the cargo net seating. Photo: Mary Albert

Continue reading

A day on KNS glacier

In August, Susan Zager, CPS project manager, visited Nuuk, Greenland, and spent a day with researchers Martin Truffer and Mark Fahnestock (University of Alaska) as they wrapped up an NSF-funded study of Kangiata Nunata Sermia Glacier (KNS).

1. Mark Fahnestock; 2. Fahnestock (left) and Truffer disassembling a seismic station; 3. The edge of the Kangiata Nunata Sermia (KNS); 4. Truffer consulting with the helicopter pilot on the next stop; 5. The Bell 212 transports researchers and equipment from Nuuk to areas inaccessible by boat; 6. Icebergs lay stranded after a lake drained; 7. A crevasse showing the blue ice beneath the dust-coated top of the glacier; 8. A hint of fall colors in August; 9. Caribou near a GPS site; 10. Bright reds in the tundra grasses; 11. Fahnestock (left) and Truffer taking down a GPS station and the solar panels that powered it; 12. The high walls lining the fjords. Photos: Susan Zager


“It was Sunday, the last day of the helicopter charter which had already been pushed around by weather,” Zager recalls. “The fog retreated and eventually gave way to a flawless afternoon – clear skies, no wind, and jackets-optional. We left Nuuk behind in the big red (with white polka dots) 212, and followed the zigzagging fjords toward KNS — one unbelievable view after another. The study sites were in vastly different landscapes and we landed on tundra, ice and rocks, as Mark and Martin gathered up equipment. At one site, two caribou ran off as we flew in — but the curious pair returned before the rotors had even stopped spinning to check us out. At the last site, the glacier’s rumbling sounded like a construction zone and I caught sight of a huge chunk of ice falling into the water and bobbing up and down as the waves rolled out in slow-motion. Truly an unforgettable day!”

KNS  jolted to life a few years ago, spilling ice into the fjord and catching the attention of Greenland researchers, who have been studying the fjord for a decade. Truffer and Fahnestock worked with colleagues from Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources to investigate specific causes of this speed up—and its impact on the ice sheet that feeds it with Spring/Fall trips to attend to time-lapse cameras, GPS, and seismic instruments —collecting information on the KNS and the fjord.

First-person field report: Glacial history in eastern Greenland

Hello! My name is Laura Levy and I am a PhD candidate at Dartmouth College. I study how the Greenland Ice Sheet and small glaciers in Greenland have responded to natural climate change during the current interglacial period (the Holocene epoch; ~11,650 years ago to the present) as a baseline for future conditions.  During the past two summers I have traveled to Scoresby Sund in eastern Greenland, with Meredith Kelly (my advisor at Dartmouth), Tom Lowell (University of Cincinnati) and Brenda Hall (University of Maine) and their graduate students. We’ve also had the pleasure of working with collaborators Ole Bennike (Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland) and Yarrow Axford (Northwestern University). Polar Field Services provided logistical support both years and I’ve been asked to share some photos of our day-to-day life and fieldwork.

Muli-tasking in the field. Holding a freshly retrieved lake sediment core while making our daily phone call to Kathy Young at Polar Field Services. (Photo: Yarrow Axford)

Transportation to the Scoresby Sund region (like many places in the Arctic) is a challenge! To get to our field sites we fly to Reykjavik, Iceland then on to Akureyri, Iceland and finally to Constable Point, eastern Greenland.

Constable Point, eastern Greenland. (Photo: Yarrow Axford)

Once in Constable Point we spend a day sorting our stored/shipped gear and food in one of the hangars.  Note the copious amounts of peanut butter in lower left corner of photo!

We then fly to our field sites via Air Greenland helicopter. Graduate students Aaron Medford (University of Maine) and Paul Wilcox (University of Cincinnati) are all smiles headed into the field.

Once in the field, we set up camp. Finding a soft, flat spot for sleeping is rare in this region! But we did have a nice view of the ice cap in the background.

We use our cook tent for food storage, eating meals, and as our conference room. In the below photo, Meredith Kelly, Paul Wilcox, Brenda Hall, and Yarrow Axford use the cook tent as a sheltered place to study satellite imagery of the region and review bathymetry (bottom) maps of lakes.

We use various methods to determine how the glaciers in the Scoresby Sund region have changed during the Holocene.  One way is by extracting sediment cores from lakes that are down valley from glaciers.  We can study the changes in lake sediments and learn how the up-valley glacier has fluctuated over time. In the photo below, Tom and Aaron prepare a new coring tube while I (far right) label and wrap a freshly retrieved sediment core.

Another way we can learn about how glaciers have changed is by dating the glacier deposits that mark their past extents. The line of light grey boulders in the above photo (upper right to lower left) represents a past extent of the glacier (which has now retreated to the right, off the photo). We can use a dating technique called surface exposure dating using the isotope beryllium-10 to determine how long the boulders have been exposed to the atmosphere, which we interpret to be the timing of glacier retreat. In the photo below, Bill Honsaker (University of Cincinnati) and I take numerous measurements on a boulder before sampling it for beryllium-10 dating.

Once we have extracted sediment cores from a lake, we have to move all our gear to the next lake by foot. Just going a few hundred meters can be quite a challenge in this region (note the boat with legs!).

Bill and Meredith carry pontoons for our coring rig from one lake to another.

Although the Scoresby Sund region offers a host of complex logistics and tough terrain, it is also an incredibly beautiful and pristine place.

Niviarsiaq, the national flower of Greenland.

The fall foliage of blueberries.

An arctic hare enjoys a good stretch. (Photo: Meredith Kelly)

Brenda, Meredith and Ole hiking home from a long day in the field.


Getting home after our field season can also be an adventure. You can see a video of some of the logistics to our long journey home here:

Thanks for reading!


Do you have questions for this early-career scientist? Send them to us at We’ll get answers from Laura and post them here for others to see.

Polar bears visit GNET, Kangerlussuaq

Perhaps the bear thought this Iridium antenna, part of an autonomous monitoring site in Greenland, was an ice cream cone. Photo: Bo Madsen

Technicians visiting autonomous instruments on Greenland’s northwest coast last week found more evidence that polar bears have a taste for science.  An American and a Danish scientist conducting maintenance on GNET stations south of the Thule Air Base found one had been “aggressively damaged” by a bear, wrote Finn Bo Madsen of Technical University of Denmark (DTU).  The Danish institute is collaborating with U.S. National Science Foundation-funded researchers led by Mike Bevis (The Ohio State University) to maintain a network of more than 45 Global Positioning System (GPS) and seismic monitoring stations that ring the perimeter of the world’s largest island.

GNET is part of the larger Polar Earth Observing Network, or POLENET, which has also instrumented Antarctica’s ice sheet with autonomous monitoring devices.  Scientists study the data collected by these instruments to monitor the mass balance of the world’s great ice sheets. Seismic information, combined with very precise GPS measurements, tell scientists about regional changes in melting or accumulation on the ice sheets, information that helps them to explain how the ice sheets are responding to changing climate.  The GNET system also records earthquake activity believed to be caused by post-glacial rebound—the land bouncing back under the lessening weight of Greenland’s shrinking ice cap.

This map of Greenland shows the sites where GNET installations are located. On the northwestern coast, technicians repaired polar bear damage at ASKY last week; to the north of ASKY and Thule Air Base, site KAGZ has been visited by bears twice. Image: GNET

Though GNET planners avoided areas known to be frequented by bears when they selected project sites, this is not the first time a polar bear has left its mark on a GNET monument. In 2009, a maintenance team visiting a site north of Thule Air Base found suspected polar bear damage on instruments and solar panels used to power the site during the summer. They repaired the damage, but the installation stopped sending data to scientists back in their labs shortly thereafter. A repeat inspection in 2010 revealed that bears “may have rubbed their backs on the monument, been chewing on cables or have given the equipment a thorough pounding with their paws,” reported Bo Madsen at the time.

This time, Madsen speculates that the bear was “perhaps scratching its back on the solar panels,” as a panel, antenna and cable were damaged. Technicians armed with repair kits spent more than five hours repairing the site, improvising additional ways to make the site less interesting to bears.  Madsen mentioned that the team would later assess how much data the site had collected in the interim.

Rare sight: this polar bear wandered down a path near Kangerlussuaq.

Meanwhile, a polar bear spotted on the edge of town was the talk of Kangerlussuaq, where CPS personnel staff the NSF’s logistics hub in Greenland. Polar bears are known along Greenland’s northern coasts, but are rare to the south, where Kangerlussuaq is located. Locals recalled that this was the first bear spotted near Kangerlussuaq since 1998; prior to that, the last bear was seen in 1957.—Kip Rithner