I just made it out of the ice research camp after bad weather and helicopter scheduling problems delayed our departure by a whole week. Luckily we had 10 day emergency rations to pull us through. I’m very happy to be back on ice-free land and sleeping in a warm bed after a hot shower! But as promised, here’s a glimpse into my experience camping on the Greenland ice sheet for 3 weeks while doing glaciological research. I’ve broken it up into a series of blogs. (Many more will follow!) To start with the adventures, let’s rewind the clock to day one.
I descend into a world of white. As the thrum of the departing helicopter rings through the arctic air I take my first steps on the hard, lumpy, cold surface of the Greenland ice sheet extending out of view in all directions. Through my heavy down jacket, I can feel the bite of cold but other than that the weather is fair with bright blue skies bouncing off the sparkling white ice and a gentle breeze circling through the air.
Glancing around, the landscape almost resembles the middle of an ocean if all the waves were suddenly frozen in place. However, this isn’t a frozen ocean. 1 km (0.6 miles) below my feet, this ice is sliding over land – Greenland – at a speedy rate of 700 m/yr (2300 ft/yr). In fact, here in West Greenland, I’m standing on one of the fastest flowing outlet glaciers in the world, serving as a major conveyor belt of ice from the interior Greenland ice sheet to the ocean. About 30 km (19 miles) away from me is the glacier terminus where Store glacier will reach the ocean and discharge 14–18 km3 of ice annually.
I turn back to the long wave-like ridges noticing that they are punctuated by rushing melt streams. This time of year, the surface temperature of the ice sheet climbs above freezing during the day and as a result, melt ponds and rivers form on the surface and flow downhill. About 200 m away, the surface reaches a low point where many melt streams merge into a churning river which suddenly vanishes into a void in the ice sheet, plunging hundreds of meters down through the icy abyss until eventually reaching the ground below. The glaciological term for this hole is a moulin.
I turn away from the moulin. Apart from the rushing streams of melt water, my surroundings are deafeningly quiet. My boots crunch on the hard, weather-beaten surface of the ice as I follow my field teammates to camp. When I arrive, I’m greeted by a scattering of small 2-person mountaineering tents across the ice, next to one larger dome tent where I’m told meals take place. I’ve arrived at my home for the next 3 weeks.