Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Riding with the Guard

Story and photos by Ed Stockard

On a still day, icebergs calved from Jakobshavn Glacier reflect their mirror images in the glassy surface of the ice fjord just south of Ilulissat.

When several members of the flight crew break out cameras and begin to take video footage and still images you know you’re on a good flight! On May 18th I was invited with another PFS team member (Mark Begnaud) as a guest of NEEM and the Air National Guard 109th  on a flight from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to the NEEM ice core drilling camp on the Greenland ice sheet.

As you may know, NEEM is an international research project run by the Danes at the University of Copenhagen. The NEEM project is drilling an ice core that goes all the way through the ice sheet to bedrock. The science community wants to get information trapped in the deep ice about past climate going back to the last interglacial period, the Eemian, which ended around 115,000 years ago.  As you may also know, the 109th is the airlift wing that flies the C-130s between New York and Greenland, and then provides heavy airlift around the island for the National Science Foundation’s research program.

So we’re on a “milk run”–the 109th is delivering fresh food, fuel and science equipment to NEEM.

The flight to NEEM is about three hours long. We fly along the coast of northwest Greenland. Views of coastal vegetation and lakes soon give way to inlets, the iceberg-choked and lovely Disko Bay and impressive outflow glaciers, including Jakobshavn Glacier and the ice fjord.  We are fortunate today to have clear weather and calm winds at the surface.

Flying along the coast of Greenland on a clear, still day.

Calm winds at the surface? Who cares?! Well, when my camera catches reflections of mountains on the smooth waters of Greenland from 19,000 feet up, that is pretty darned impressive. In typical fashion I’m snapping photos like a blue-haired lady dropping quarters in a Las Vegas one armed bandit–that would be a lot of photos. 

Soon enough, we are over the ice sheet and on the final approach to NEEM. The skiway is clearly visible and all approach markers are in place.  The giant grey bird, our ski-equipped LC-130, flops on to the skiway and bumps to a stop.  It’s not elegant and there’s no first-class cabin, but these planes deliver the goods time after time to remote polar places other heavy-lift aircraft simply can’t go.  And when you’re invited up front, the view from the cockpit beats first-class travel any day.

JP Steffensen greets the 109th crew upon arrival at NEEM.

On snow at NEEM we are greeted by JP Steffensen, the legendary field leader who’s forgotten more about coring Greenland ice than most people will ever know.  He’s in charge of operations at the camp. JP gives us a tour of the under-snow drilling facility and the dome where operations, recreation and dining are located.

The drill trench is amazing.  We enter through a weatherport-style structure and descend a stairway to approximately 10 meters below the surface.  It’s otherworldly down there. The drillers are between runs, and so the massive drill is at the surface, lying horizontally. A couple of staff are tinkering with the drill. There is an unprocessed core nearby.

Tinkering with the drill.

The crew is busy and focused. They are also quite pleased with the progress being made this season. We ask a few questions and get a few answers before passing through a short tunnel to the area where the core is being kept and processed.  The room includes a heated lab with gadgetry I don’t understand doing all kinds of highly technical analyses of the core’s physical properties, chemical composition, the tiny particles blown on to the ice sheet and trapped in the core all those years ago, and so on. There’s a spur tunnel where cold air is pumped from surrounding firn snow to keep temperatures around a chilling -26C to enable some of the isotope studies they are doing on the core.  

The ice core awaits further processing.

A new core storage cave keeps the core frozen with very cold air pumped from the firn layer of snow.

The NEEM facility currently runs one of the best core labs in the world. I’m no expert, so I won’t even try to do this place justice. Let’s just say it is impressive.

Back at the dome, Lt Col Ed Gadarowski delivers American cook Sarah Harvey a USPS package. This is Gadarowski’s final Greenland deployment with the 109th and as of this writing “Gator” has retired.  Gator was a part time guardsmen; his real job is working with the postal service back in New York, so it’s a good joke. We take a short tour of the facility and pinch a brownie off of Sarah’s lunch service. We head back to the plane for the return trip to Kangerlussuaq. The crew has uploaded empty barrels, garbage and a few precious ice samples.

Lt Col Ed "Gater" Gadarowski delivers the mail to chef Sarah Harvey.

It is a short and bumpy run down the skiway as we depart on our first slide. The next three hours are nothing less than spectacular. As we near Ilulissat we lose altitude and check out the town. Disko Bay sparkles and the icebergs of the Jakobshavn Glacier gleam an otherworldly blue. It is a beautiful day for flying!

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