Thursday, 10 April 2014

Planes, planes, everywhere!

Whilst we were out on the camp we had flyovers from three different aircraft carrying various geophysical instruments to measure the sea ice. Everyone got very excited by the DC3 (the same one that took us from Qaanaaq to Station Nord) towing the EM bird underneath. The EM bird is a torpedo shaped device that measures the sea ice thickness through electromagnetic sounding. The DC3 tows it on a cable 50m or so beneath the aircraft, only 15m above the ice surface. The cable makes a whistling sound as it cuts through the air and makes for a very dramatic sight.

At the same time as the DC3 we also had the TF-POF Twin Otter carrying a laser scanner and ASIRAS. ASIRAS mimics the operation of the instrument onboard CryoSat-2 and is very useful for linking what we see on the ground with what is seen on the aircraft, and what is seen by the satellite itself.

Then a couple of days later, on 1st April we were treated to multiple fly overs from the NASA Operation IceBridge P3. This is the biggest of the three aircraft and carries a comprehensive set of instruments for assessing the state of the sea ice.

Combined with the measurements that the ground teams made – thousands of snow depth measurements, ice thickness measurements, our radar penetration measurements – we have collected an incredible wealth of data on this sea ice floe. There will be a lot of analysis to do but it should shed some real light on how we measure sea ice using CryoSat-2 and hopefully even improve our methods.

Camp life

The camp itself was very well equipped. Marc and Petter did a great job taking care of us. There was always hot water for drinks and the food was really good considering it all came dried out of bags! When everyone got crowded into the domed mess tent it got really steamy from all the food, hot drinks and our frozen clothing. One downside was that it wasn't possible to dry or defrost clothing - Scarves and balaclavas got really soaked (and frozen solid) from breathing, and after a few days the inside of boots started to get a little damp as well – not good for cold toes (or trench foot!) Here's a picture of the camp. You can see the small sleeping tents on the left, the workshop tent in the middle where we could store equipment and briefly escape the wind, and the mess tent on the right:

And here we all are getting cosy in the mess tent for our evening meal:

By far the worst part of the camp was sleeping. The sleeping tents weren’t heated so getting into the multiple sleeping bags was really unpleasant! I slept with my face totally covered up by a neck scarf and a hat pulled over my eyes. This was great for keeping my face warm but they got totally frozen up on the outside from breathing and then froze to the top of the sleeping bag. The only thing more unpleasant than getting into bed was getting out again the following morning. After you’ve managed to get your face unstuck you have to crawl out of your multiple sleeping bags into a freezing tent to get dressed. Over night your warm breath freezes to the tent, so by the morning the inside of the tent is covered in snow, and if you knock it at all you get snowed on! But it was certainly an experience and we'd both do it all over again! The tents looked especially uninviting after the bad weather:

One night it was hard to get to sleep for another reason – we could hear the ice creaking and groaning. The thought of a crack opening up close to the tent was a little worrying, but highly unlikely (we think)! Marc and Petter surrounded the tents with a trip wire for bears and there were 2 guns on site. Whilst we were out we tried to keep looking around every few minutes in case we were being approached or stalked by a bear. As Marc remarked, if you’re digging a snow pit, wearing a black down jacket, to a bear you look a lot like a seal coming up for air.

We had a small loo tent, which was a relief, in particular for Rachel! Here’s a pretty awesome polar potty sunset pic:

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Making measurements

As soon as we arrived, we got to work building the set up for our experiment. Just as we had practiced in Qaanaaq we assembled the antenna frame, arranged the Network Analyser in its thermal box and mounted everything on the sled. It took a while in the afternoon to get the generator working but that first day we worked until about 10pm and got the first few radar shots done. The sun didn’t 'set' until about 1am, and it never really got dark so it was very easy to keep on working until late.


30th March - Today was a bit trickier. On site we had 3 generators and for some reason - possibly the cold, possibly because they had been shaken around a bit too much in transit – none of them wanted to run for any extended period of time! This was also the day that the rest of the ground team went on a day excursion to a northern site and Ewan came to the ice camp to help us make measurements. Luckily it wasn’t a wasted day as we made a load of snow depth measurements, and the generator eventually started working so we managed to make some radar shots late in the evening.

31st March – we had a really good day. We managed to get one of the generators to run for a whole day non-stop! Taking our radar shots of the sea ice and digging the snow pits to make notes about the snow layer characteristics quickly became a routine and we got really efficient at using our time effectively, so that neither of us was stood around for too long getting cold. The time absolutely whizzed by and we ended up working from the morning all the way through until about 10pm.

In the afternoon the weather set in a bit again. The wind picked up and it began to snow. It wasn’t too cold though – the combination of the low cloud and fresh snow meant that the temperature stayed reasonably high (when it was still with clear skies the air temperature could get down to -30C to -35C). The cloud and snow also meant that the visibility dropped significantly, from 10s of kilometres to a few hundred meters. We were working at the second corner reflector site, about 300m from the camp and when the visibility dropped we got quite paranoid about polar bears – we were stopping and checking around every few minutes. We had our whistles to attract the attention of Marc and Petter, and if it really got close we also had some bear bangers (small fireworks that you launch off a pen-sized device) to put off any curious bears. Here you can see how low the visibility can get with even mild wind and snow:

An interesting atmospheric effect also happens when there are ice crystals in the air - the suns light gets refracted and forms a ring around the sun, commonly known as a 'sundog'. Here's a pic:

We made a lot of measurements, and dug a lot of snow pits. It sure makes your back ache! But we got a really god idea of the variability of the snow layer on top of the sea ice. This is important for us because understanding how the radar interacts with the snow layer is essential for making the best measurements with the CryoSat-2 satellite.

Off to camp!

March 28th - The weather cleared up in the evening, so Christian, Bruce, Marc and Petter flew out to locate a site and set up the ice camp. It was windy where they landed and apparently it was quite a lot of work to get some tents up. The following morning Rachel, Chris, Justin and myself joined them on the ice. Here's a picture of the sea ice off the north coast of Greenland, and then a picture of the camp as we approached:

They had picked a big multi-year floe – thick ice (3-5m) that had survived last summer’s melt season. Multi-year ice tends to have much more topography than first-year ice and this floe had a very varied surface. There were fairly large pressure ridges surrounding us where the floe had be crushed up against neighbouring floes, large flatter areas where last summer’s melt ponds had been, hummocks where last summer’s ridges had been, and everywhere there were wind blown ice drifts and sastrugi. Sastrugi are wind blown erosional/depositional features of the surface, and appear quite similar to ocean waves - 10s of centimetres high and a few meters long - but frozen in time. This pic that Rach took gives an idea of the topography of the ice floe:

Most places there was a fairly thick snow layer – the deepest we measured was around 90cm but on average it was maybe 30 or 40cm. The top layer tended to be a firm crust called a wind slab that was maybe 10cm thick and made walking around much easier. About the bottom 10cm of the snow pack tended to be depth hoar – larger crystals formed by sublimation of water vapour due to the temperature gradient between the top and bottom of the snow pack. The depth hoar is much more loosely packed than the top layers (often the crystals aren’t bound at all) and the effect of the hard crust and the greater amount of air left between the spaces of the depth hoar crystals meant that your footsteps echoed in the snowpack as you walked around. Here's a close up of the depth hoar crystals, thumb for scale!

The flight out to the sea ice was very exciting: the four of us, plus a load of the scientific equipment all packed into the back of the Kenn Borek Twin Otter. We had excellent views of the north Greenland fjords and the sea ice all of the way. When we arrived at the camp the pilot descended to around maybe 100m and made multiple passes over the floe to get a better assessment of the landing conditions. The landing itself was great fun, a bit bouncy but if you put out of your mind the possibility of the plane falling through the ice then it was calm enough!

When we arrived there was a little bit of wind, but it quickly died down. By the late afternoon/evening of the 29th it was very still and sunny. To the south we could see the mountains of northern Greenland and Cape Morris Jesup, the most northerly land on the Earth. Here you can see the mountains:

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Weather days

27th March- Marc and Petter arrived late last night in the Kenn Borek Twin Otter with all of the camping equipment and supplies. After a late supper we sat down and went through our plans for the ice camps, and they briefed us on some of the practicalities of the camp itself. It all sounds pretty promising: a heated mess tent, a workshop tent for storing some equipment and 4 two-man sleeping tents which aren’t heated but we have some pretty serious sleeping bag arrangements.

By the time we left the bar the wind had got up and on the walk back to our accommodation we were treated to a pretty serious snow-blasting. Unfortunately this was a sign of the bad weather to come. This morning it has been completely overcast and snowing a bit – the pilots can’t fly in these conditions so we’re stuck on base until it clears. We should have another update from colleagues with satellite imagery of the area this evening but there are no truly reliable forecasts for this area.

So another day of delay. Let’s hope it clears up by tomorrow… Here's Christian looking a little windswept:

28th March- The weather cleared up a little overnight and this morning but it’s deteriorated again – we just attempted to walk down to the sea ice in the local fjord but the wind picked up again and we turned back.

An interesting side story has been developing whilst we’ve been here though. One of the Danish Army dog sledding teams – there are six teams that patrol Greenland to maintain Danish sovereignty (“keep out the ugly Norwegians” as one of the base staff put it) – are having a bit of trouble. They’re less than 40km from Station Nord but they have run out of fuel and are on half rations. There is so much powdery snow, and no pre-made tracks, so the dogs can only get them about 5km per day and are getting very tired. Obviously these guys are incredibly well prepared and well trained, but it’s still a very difficult situation for them. The first night we were here they went out on skidoos to try to mark out a track for the dogs to use – two of the three skidoos broke down and one is still stuck 33km from the base. They are making contingency with our pilots to make a barrel drop of food and fuel to keep them going a bit longer, but so far the weather has prevented this.

Anyway, it’s fairly disheartening to be stuck here. The base is great – the staff are brilliant and it’s very comfortable – but that’s not why we’re here! Rachel and I put in a huge effort to get us here and to think we might not be able to get all the data we want is pretty frustrating.

But here's an obligatory frosty beard shot to lighten the mood ;)

Arrival in Nord

26th March- Here's a pic with our host in Qaanaaq Hans Jensen as we were leaving to get on our flight to Station Nord:


We arrived up here in Nord (81.5N, 16.6W) after a really nice 3 hour flight in a Kenn Borek DC3. It was originally built in 1941 and took part in Operation Market Garden but the flight was very smooth, if a little noisy. Here's our Station Nord selfie:

Nord is a very interesting place! We had a guided tour from Tom, one of the more senior guys up here – he has been up here for 21 of his 26 month stint. There are only five guys based up here permanently but the base itself covers a fairly large area and includes 35 separate buildings – workshops, garages, stores, quarters, a mess, a bar, even a small but surprisingly well-equiped vet’s room to keep the camp’s two dogs in good health. One of the dogs is a retied Greenlandic sled dog and the younger one is a sled dog from the Danish military, and they’re absolutely great. Until a few years ago they had a sled team based here permanently but it was too costly to keep it going especially when skidoos will do the job. Here are the dogs snacking on some dried mackerel, and our dorm for our stay at Nord:

Today we have been checking through all the equipment and planning as we’re awaiting the arrival of the rest of the team in a Kenn Borek Twin Otter, hopefully sometime later this evening. There was a pause this afternoon however as we watched the arrival of a Danish C-130 Hercules containing a four star general, and then a huge Ukrainian aircraft landing. The Ukrainians are supplying Nord with fuel as well as new fuel tanks.

Then, depending on weather of course, the plan is to attempt to establish the camps tomorrow – first  our camp managers Marc Cornelissen and Petter Nyquist will be flown out to locate a suitable site, and begin setting up the tents and preparing the runway. Then later the science teams will be taken out onto the ice camps as well.  At least that is the plan – we’re running a little behind schedule (about a day) but if we get out tomorrow that will still be 5 nights camping on the ice.  

The sunsets are fantastic when you're so far north, because they last for absolutely hours. Here's a couple of pics from the first night in Nord:

Monday, 24 March 2014

Time to go!

Around lunchtime today we will be getting picked up by our colleagues arriving from Resolute, northern Canada, in a plane filled with all of the stuff we’re going to need over the next 10-12 days. And it’s going to be quite the 10-12 days! During that time we’re going to be based at Station Nord, then spending up to 8 days camping on floating sea ice that’s a few meters thick, hundreds of kilometres from rescue. We’re looking forward to seeing what it’s like to land on the sea ice in a small plane! There are going to be six scientists on the ice, including two of the UCL team at any one time, along with our two camp managers. The ground teams will be making detailed observations of the sea ice and snow on the ground. At the same time there will be three planes in the area making measurements of the sea ice with a number of instruments. The planes can record the thickness of the ice and snow, take high resolution photographs, take detailed laser scans and much more. About 3 or 4 times a day, CryoSat-2 will shoot from horizon to horizon, 730km above our heads and moving at 7.5 kilometers per second. Needless to say it will be the culmination of a lot of effort from many people!
We’ve had a really great couple of days prep here in Qaanaaq. Yesterday we spent a few hours pulling each other around on the sled on the sea ice, to get a feel for how much effort it will be hauling the radar to our survey sites. It turns out it was easier than we anticipated, although the conditions here are very good because there is very little snow on the sea ice. We even had time to stop for a cup of tea by one of the icebergs that serve as Qaanaaq’s fresh water supply during the Winter.

 Yesterday we assembled the whole radar set up down on the sea ice and made some proper practice measurements. Hans Jensen gave us a lift to the ice in his car, then we assembled the radar and off we went. The local sled dogs were very interested in what we were doing (they probably thought we had food). It went extremely smoothly and we managed to make some very handy measurements to test whether our experiment plan will actually work. Good news, it will! We also did a complete run-through of all the experiments we will do in the field, including all the different radar measurements and digging pits in the snow to look at layering and snow characteristics. Hans took some great photos of us in action:

And so our first stint here in Qaanaaq is over. We’ll be spending some time here on our return back to the UK, waiting for the one flight per week and madly analysing all our data (fingers crossed!) There really isn’t a nicer place to be waiting. Whilst it’s been a great place to do our preparations, it’s also been an incredible place to have the pleasure of spending some time, and everyone has been extremely friendly. Not many people get the opportunity to come up here and we’re all feeling very lucky that we’ve had the chance.
Not sure how easy it will be to blog from Station Nord. But hopefully we’ll be able to provide a few updates whilst we’re there, maybe no pics though.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Learning lessons

We’ve been making good progress up here in Qaanaaq, it is definitely a really good thing that we’ve got these four days here to assemble our kit, practice making our measurements and start to get used to working in the cold. The conditions have been good here, but even at -20C to -25C, with a little wind, fingers and toes can get numb very quickly! Conditions were even sufficiently still yesterday morning for us to see our first polar mirages, off in the distance over the sea ice – cliffs appearing on a distant island where there are none and icebergs seemingly floating on the horizon. We’re anticipating possibly another 10 degrees colder on the sea ice, where we’ll be just a few hundred kilometres from the pole, so being able to ease in gently is a real bonus.

We’ve assembled our sled-radar-antenna rig with a little help from some of the locals. Turned out the wood I had packed that sits flat on the sled, and which supports the antenna frame, wasn’t really fit for purpose. Luckily we’re staying in a dog sledding community, so there are plenty of workshops and spare bits of timber lying around. Hans Jensen took us down to see Morton(sp?) the friendly carpenter who was kind enough to provide us with some timber that did the trick perfectly. And help here doesn’t always have to be sought out; on Wednesday afternoon one of the local hunters (Martin, we think, although we aren’t sure) saw us pathetic southerners fiddling with our ratchet straps to get the antenna frame securely attached to the sled. Needless to say he had some ideas on the best way to do it, and gave us a bit of a schooling on how to rig a sled.
Yesterday afternoon we practiced measuring and marking out our snow grid. This is a 20x20m square centred on a corner-reflector (a big triangular piece of metal that is very bright to radars on the plane, and acts as a calibration target) and the idea is to mark it out as accurately as possible. At no point are you allowed to step inside the square and risk disturbing the snow. Two people then walk in lines measuring the snow depth and calling out the numbers to the third person who writes them down. Sounds easy enough but it can actually be a bit tricky, especially if it’s windy. And then you have to contend with the other (canine) locals – the semi-feral sled dog puppies were determined to run off with our little red marker flags!
Yesterday afternoon we went down to the Qaanaaq promenade and had a walk on the shore-fast ice. We were unsure before we arrived whether this would be safe, but after watching JCB diggers and dumper trucks driving back and forward on the sea ice to collect fresh water ice from the icebergs, we thought it was probably OK. The packs of sled dogs are kept out here when they aren’t out on hunts and it was nice to see all of Qaanaaq from the sea.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


When we arrived at Ilulissat airport were assured by the friendly Anders from Air Greenland freight that our stuff was getting on the flight, and sure enough a few minutes later it came out on the forklift truck and got dumped unceremoniously on the tarmac ready to load on the plane. This was a great relief to all and the flight up to Qaanaaq was amazing – incredible, desolate scenery; mountains, glaciers, icebergs and sea ice. Ewan discovered quickly why the window seat next to the emergency exit on our Dash-8 was free – he had a cold breeze all the way. Greenland is a very sparsely populated country - you could fit the entire population in a moderately sized football stadium (just over 50,000 inhabitants) but they are spread over an ice-free coastal area of 1.75 million square kilometres (mainly in the south and west).

Qaanaaq itself is one of the last true bastions of Inuit culture. Hunting narwhals with traditional harpoons and packs of sled dogs is still a way of life here. The town is set on the coast of a wide ice fjord and we have incredible views from our base for the duration – the Hotel Qaanaaq – of the large snaggletooth icebergs frozen in by the sea ice that stretches off into the distance. Hans Jensen (the owner, local legend) has a trailer that he drives out and fills with blocks of ice from the icebergs and which supplements our fresh water supply at the hotel. Here's a picture of Qaanaaq town:
Last night we had a delicious dinner of fish soup and rabbit (Arctic Hare) meatloaf with potatoes and gravy. After dinner we went for a walk to look at the sunset and all you could hear is the sled dogs howling. There was a Swiss couple staying with us here last night who have gone off on a 6 day dog sledding trip where they are going to dress in the traditional fur clothes, eat the traditional foods and get as authentic as they possibly can. I think if we see them on the way back I’ll ask them about the traditional nose-curling stench. Here's a picture of Hotel Qaanaaq:

Yesterday we went through some checks of the equipment, got hold of some oil and petrol for the generator and started it up, ran the Network Analyser and took a radar shot of Hans Jensen’s dining room floor. It all seemed to be functioning remarkably well considering it’s travelled here from the Rothera in Antarctica, via the Falklands and London in less than 4 weeks. Today we’re going to assemble the full radar set up outside and see that we can operate everything in the cold using the generator. Then maybe later we’ll wander down to the ‘beach’ to check out the sea ice down there and maybe start thinking about marking out snowgrids and digging pits…
A final picture - spot the Arctic Hares:

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Northern lights, and the radar saga continues...

March 18th – Last night we all saw the Northern Lights for the first time! They were awesome, dancing around from horizon to horizon in a pale green colour. I tried to take a photo but my camera had frozen. Once it had warmed up the lights had dimmed a bit, but I got this very amateur shot just to prove it. Note to self: if you’re using an SLR in -25C, always keep it in your jack to keep warm!

Today we left Kangerlussuaq and flew to Ilulissat, making that flight 3 of 6 before we get to Station Nord (where the CryoVEx campaign will be based and we will fly out on to the sea ice). At the Airport we were reunited with the radar! Sadly it was behind security glass. So close, but so far. The baggage handlers weren’t overly encouraging when we asked if it would be on our flight to Qaanaaq tomorrow. It absolutely has to be on that flight, else we won’t have it before we get to Nord, because there’s only one flight a week to Qaanaaq. Here’s the radar looking sad and lonely:

And here’s the brilliant view from my hotel room in Ilulissat:

March 19th - Today we fly to Qaanaaq, where (hopefully) we’ll spend a few days practicing with the radar, running through our whole experiment setup, and getting used to working long hours in the cold. One thing we noticed when walking around Ilulissat is that the wind makes a real difference, it’s unbelievably cold and at one point I couldn’t even open my eyes. Off to the airport now to pester Air Greenland baggage handlers before we fly to Qannaq - wish us luck!

Monday, 17 March 2014


We're going to try to record and upload videos to our YouTube channel whilst we're out here. Here's a taster of some of the unmissable action from this afternoon:

Arrival in Greenland

16th March- we flew to Copenhagen. Unfortunately it wasn't a very eventful stopover - we stayed at a hotel right next to the airport and did some work. Here's an amusing picture of Rachel with an enormous bag though:

17th March- We had to get up horrendously early to catch our flight to Kangerlussuaq. The flight was good though, and there was one particular highlight from the in-flight magazine:
"During a dog sled trip the dogs defecate and the farting, pooping stench in the slipstream curls your nose hairs."
Great stuff! Can't wait. We also got some great views as we passed over the eastern coast of Greenland:

And from there it was only a short while till we arrived in Kangerlussuaq:

It was a bit of a shock stepping off the plane into -22C but it's a gorgeous sunny day otherwise. Kangerlussuaq is an interesting little place - used to be a military air field so there's not much of a town or anything: there's a handy shop to buy some dinner and we picked up a compass at an outdoors shop. We're staying at Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS) which is a permanent field station that provides support and accommodation to scientists working in Greenland.

We've spent a couple of hours this afternoon familiarising ourselves with all our (incredibly good) polar clothing, figuring out what it all does, what works, what doesn't work. Also, trying out some of the equipment (GPS, satellite phones) with varying numbers of gloves on. I think we've established the tricky part is going to be keeping the face/nose warm, whilst not steaming (and freezing) up the sun glasses. More to follow.

Anyway, this is the first time Rachel and myself have been inside the Arctic circle (north of 66.56) and here's a picture of the GPS co-ordinates to commemorate (67.009N, 50.687W):

Friday, 14 March 2014

Training with Jim

Today Jim McNeill of Ice Warrior has been at UCL - he came to deliver the rest of our clothing and do some training in the afternoon. Here's Ewan looking good in the office:

The training has been great - Jim is a real expert and has tons and tons of experience. He starts stories with lines like "I've only nearly perished twice until now..". We have been over a lot, from the obvious hazards like polar bears and hypothermia, to the not so obvious risks like trench foot. 

Somewhat counter intuitively, one of the key things to be careful of is getting too warm and sweating because once you stop working the sweat can freeze and cause a real risk of hypothermia. We talked about what happens if someone falls into a crack in the ice - after three minutes you will begin to lose feeling and dexterity, after 6 minutes you lose feeling and dexterity, by 9 minutes you will be unconscious and you will be dead after 20 minutes. Jim showed us some really gnarly pictures of limbs and extremities with varying degrees of frostnip and full on frost bite. Really grim, but a real risk - just a few seconds of exposed skin and it will freeze! Once it thaws you have a blister, which can then freeze again causing more damage...

It has really brought home the challenges that we're going to face and how we're going to have to rely a lot on each other and those around us to stay safe. I have to say I'm a little less worried about encountering a bear now than I was this morning, but I'm not sure if that's because I've been reassured or because there are so many other perilous things we're going to be up against! I'd rather come up against a curious polar bear than Rachel if she hasn't eaten for 2 hours. Just joking. Obviously.