Dark Snow Fieldwork Log: First Entry
July 4, 2016
I’ve been incredibly fortunate already in the first few days of Dark Snow 2016.
Things have been hectic in a very, very good way.
Within a day of my arrival, I bumped, literally, into Asa Rennermalm, (pronounced “Oh-sa”) a Rutgers scientist I had interviewed last year in Ilulussat – who immediately introduced me to members of her team, and invited me to come out to
their camp on the edge of the ice sheet for a couple days.
The place is called “Point 660”, and it’s another 20 kilometers or so
beyond where Dark Snow was based last year. The team camped there consists of Asa and several UCLA researchers who are part of Dr. Larry Smith’s team, that got quite a bit of press last year for there research into Greenland meltwater flows.
Each year, the federal government spends about $1 billion to support Arctic and Antarctic research by thousands of scientists like Dr. Smith and his team. The agency officials who receive that money from Congress, including the directors of the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say the research is essential for understanding the changes that will affect the world’s population and economies for more than a century.
But the research is under increasing fire by some Republican leaders in Congress, who deny or question the scientific consensus that human activities contribute to climate change.
Leading the Republican charge on Capitol Hill is Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the chairman of the House science committee, who has sought to cut $300 million from NASA’s budget for earth science and has started an inquiry into some 50 National Science Foundation grants. On Oct. 13, the committee subpoenaed scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seeking more than six years of internal deliberations, including “all documents and communications” related to the agency’s measurement of climate change.
Any cuts could directly affect the work of Dr. Smith and his team, who are supported by a three-year, $778,000 grant from NASA, which must cover everything, including researchers’ salaries, flights, food, computers, scientific instruments and camping, safety and extreme cold-weather gear. Every scientist, Dr. Smith said, is keenly aware that the research costs “a tremendous amount of taxpayer money.”
The scientists were excited but anxious as they prepared to travel
inland by helicopter to do the fieldwork at the heart of their research: For 72 hours, every hour on the hour, they would stand watch by a supraglacial watershed, taking measurements — velocity, volume, temperature and depth — from the icy bank of the rushing river.
“No one has ever collected a data set like this,” Asa Rennermalm, a professor of geography at the Rutgers University Climate Institute who was running the project with Dr. Smith, told the team over a lunch of musk ox burgers at the Kangerlussuaq airport cafeteria.
Dr. Smith showed up here in Kanger yesterday, and the team flew off this morning to continue the measurements at the same spot on the ice in the coming 3 weeks. I’m on some kind of a list for possibly flying in to have a look, but won’t know for sure until it happens.
I recommend reading the rest of the Times piece, it’s fascinating, and describes how another Dark Snow supported researcher, Johnny Ryan, a drone specialist I’ve camped with in the last 2 years, has been helping the UCLA team. It’s a small town, this ice community.
The place Asa invited me, Point 660, is unique because it offers access by foot to the ice sheet, and allows researchers to set up instruments without having to chopper them in, which is a big deal.
To get there, Asa drove us for an hour or so through spectacular Arctic-Isle-of-Skye landscapes, rocky cliffs, clear blue lakes, and dazzling sections of the ice sheet in the
back ground. It’s called “Russell Glacier’” but it’s actually a tongue of the
much larger (3xTexas) ice sheet.
Once at the remote camp, set in a mossy field less than a kilometer from the ice,
we met with the group, and immediately set out for the day’s chores, including
meeting with a group of Danish, Greenlandic, and American high school students
on the ice edge to point out some basic glacier dynamics.
After that, I continued with a smaller group to a point where instruments were in place measuring temperature, wind, and water flow.
The following day I was able to hike around much of the open country
away from the sheet, dotted with a number of lakes, and a river rushing from
underneath the base of the ice sheet, where I climbed down and
was able to get the shot you see at the end of the clip above.
Good news is that I was able to snap a large number of stills and do a
pretty good first stab at ice sheet time lapse, a selection of which
you can see in the short reel as well. I’ll be continuing to produce these while
I’m here for the next two weeks, and try to keep posting them as I have
time and energy – but following up on opportunities will be the first priority.
I’ve been looking into several opportunities to hitch rides with teams into the
bush or onto the ice, and things look promising. Already I’ve got
material I’ll be sorting for months.
The real story I’m here to follow is whether this spring’s extremely
spiky behavior in surface melt continues, and if it results in a big melt
season on the ice as a whole. Situation unclear now, although the
Watson River, which runs directly adjacent to the Science Support center
here in Kangerlussuaq (Ganger-slus-uak is correct, I’m told)
does seem higher than I’ve seen it in past years right now.
It’s somewhat of a question of random weather chaos whether another
big clear weather system comes in and hangs over the sheet during these
weeks of maximum sun and warmth. If that happens, things could even more
interesting in a hurry.