Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

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


Once in Kangerlussuaq, we stayed at KISS (Kangerlussuaq International Science Support) and on our first trip, we even camped out with the IGERT group near the ice edge on a beautiful lake for about a week. This provided an amazing setting for many delicious camp-cooked meals and great conversations among scientists of various disciplines sharing their knowledge.

Camping next to Seahorse Lake with the ice sheet in the background. Photo: Matt Ayres

Incredible sunset over ice sheet from campsite. Photo: Ben Kopec

Going with the flow

A simpler hydrologic cycle and often beautiful weather provide a great place to learn more about various processes in the water cycle. My research includes sampling the water of these lakes and measuring its hydrogen and oxygen isotopic composition. By looking at the isotopic balance of these lakes, in addition to the volume of water that moves in and out, we can gain a better understanding of the primary processes controlling these lakes – precipitation, evaporation, and transpiration.

After sampling this past summer, we now have a record of three years of isotopic data in order to see how these lakes change from year to year. With the first time period being relatively dry and the past year very wet, we have a great contrast to help us learn more about the local hydrologic processes.

Fellow IGERT student Sam Fey and Ben overlooking an amazing lake right next the ice sheet. Photo: Matt Ayres

Fellow Dartmouth graduate student Annie Putman crossing a rock bridge built to cross a small section separating two lakes. This section was dry last year so it’s evidence of a wetter year with lake levels rising. Photo: Ben Kopec

The weather is here…

In addition to sampling the lakes, we also measured the isotopic composition of the water vapor in the region around Kangerlussuaq and directly above the lakes. To do this, we drove around our LGR isotopic water vapor analyzer to measure the changes in isotopic composition across the landscape. In addition, we took the analyzer out onto the lakes to see how the composition changes over the water as we navigated a small inflatable boat across the lake.

We also took a variety of weather measurements including temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, among others. We would either put our weather station on a tower attached to the truck as we drove around, or on a tower next to the lake we were sampling to provide addition information to understand evaporation rates.

Sampling on our boat on a lake near the ice edge. Photo: Matt Ayres

Weather station mounted on our truck with the vapor analyzer sampling out of the window, ready to sample across the landscape. Photo: Ben Kopec


In addition to the sampling work, I had a number of other great experiences exploring the region. We were able to do a lot of hiking across the tundra (we had to get to the lakes somehow!) which resulted in some incredible views of the lake filled landscape. Sitting up on a mountain while watching the sun set over the ice sheet is a memory I will never forget. We saw a ton of wildlife including musk ox, caribou, Arctic hare, and much more! We also met lots of great people along our journey.

Landscape near the ice edge up the valley from the IGERT camp. Photo: Ben Kopec

Edge of Russel Glacier carved out by a river draining the ice sheet. Photo: Ben Kopec

Baby musk ox crossing the sand dunes up the river from Kangerlussuaq. Photo: Ben Kopec

These incredible journeys to Greenland would not have been possible without the logistical support by Polar Field Services and I will be forever grateful for all of their help. If you want to follow along with more of my groups’ adventures, feel free to check out the Dartmouth IGERT blog and the iisPACS blog.

One thought on “First-person field report: Ben Kopec and the hydrologic cycle in West Greenland

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