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.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

T - 54 hours

We're nearly there! Our shipment has gone; three boxes with a total weight of about 160kg are currently sitting in a warehouse at Copenhagen airport awaiting their flight to Kangerlussuaq. We're wrapping up all of the final odds and ends that need to be taken care of before we leave the country, trying to think of every eventuality and making sure that we can deal with it when we're so far from civilisation. Buying billions of hand- and foot-warming gel packets, socks, first aid kit, red bin bags that we can fill with snow so planes can see where we are, pencils and waterproof notebooks, every possible plug adapter combo, USB sticks, tape measures, tiny flags on wire for marking out snow grids... The list seems endless!

Today Rachel and I sat down with Andy Shepherd (CPOM boss), Rosie and Ewan for a good four hours and went through our plans. Yes, we have a plan. It was a really productive session: we talked about schedules (our schedule as well as the schedules for the camps, flights, CryoSat orbits, the other ground teams), practicalities (how we are going to deal with working in such an extreme environment, hauling 100kg of radar around), eventualities/priorities (what if there's really awful weather for half the time and we can't make all the measurements we'd hoped for). Plus the scientific objectives of the experiments - what we hope to achieve with the data that we gather. 

We are spending the best part of tomorrow with Jim McNeill of Ice Warrior - he's coming to UCL with the remainder of our specialised polar clothing and we're going to have a day of essential survival training. We'll cover some of the small, unimportant matters like how to deal with humongous hungry mammals and what to do if someone falls into the freezing ocean (!) Obviously doing this kind of training in a meeting room in Central London is not ideal but given the time constraints it is the best we could do. That's not to say that we're going unprepared - Ewan has a lot of experience doing fieldwork and has been to Greenland several times, and we will have additional training in Greenland from our dedicated polar explorers Marc Cornelissen and Petter Nyquist before we go out on the sea ice.

After that it's just the small issue of packing....

Friday, 7 March 2014


Lots has happened over the past couple of days. On Wednesday we drove down to Ice Warrior in Windsor to meet with Jim McNeill who provided us with a full set of polar clothing - from boots to jackets to extreme thermals. The clothing should keep us warm and functioning down to temperatures of -50C (see here for the climate we are going to be up against - average temperatures between -33C and -27C in March, not including the wind chill). One of the major challenges of the campaign is going to learning to deal with fiddly components in the extreme cold, wearing up to 4 pairs of gloves! Even things like typing become very difficult in those conditions.

We built the frame that goes on the back of the sled, which holds the radar antennas. You can see it at the back of the room in this picture - you'll also notice that the office has become incredibly cluttered...

On Thursday ex-CPOMer Rosie Willatt came into UCL to work with us on setting up and using the radar. In 2011, Rosie did a very similar experiment to the one that we are going to attempt this year (you can read her blog here). It was a very productive day, Rachel and myself got a lot out of it and we feel much more comfortable going into the field knowing a bit more what we're doing! There was a hair-raising moment when I thought I'd knackered one of the (very precious, non-replacable) antenna cables, but we managed to fix it in the end.

Then yesterday evening Rachel and I took a van to north-west London to collect the CPOM Komatiq - a sled that we have had custom built by Snowsled. It's a fantastic piece of work, beautifully made, and the perfect thing for the job.

The sled was the last piece of kit that we were waiting on so I've spent the day sorting, weighing and packing all of the items that we are having shipped to Greenland. It came to about 160kg in total - I hope the handlers are feeling strong. That'll all get collected Monday hopefully and it'll be a big relief to see it off, hopefully to be met in Qaanaaq in a couple of weeks!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Kit, kit and more kit

Over the past few weeks our office has become a store room for all of the kit that we are assembling for the trip. Last week we went to the the British Antarctic Survey, in Cambridge, to collect a load of CPOM equipment that had just been shipped back from a field season in Antarctica. This includes the radar that we will be using to make measurements on the sea ice - it has been to the manufacturer and for a service/calibration and has now turned up back in the office. Here is the beast itself:

Doesn't look much like a radar... actually it isn't, it's a network analyser. You plug two antennas into the sockets on the front and it can be used as a sort-of radar. As well as this we have bits of clothing, the radar thermal box (used to keep the radar at 15C when it's -40C outside), spare parts, tools, hundreds of wires, etc, etc


Then there's the generator, which we're going to use to power the whole lot:


Stayed tuned for tomorrow when the sled should arrive we'll maybe even have some awesome polar outfits...

Monday, 3 March 2014


We are Rachel Tilling and Tom Armitage, PhD students at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, University College London. We are taking part in the European Space Agency’s CryoVEx 2014 field campaign – an international effort to make ground and airborne measurements of the sea ice north of Greenland to validate the ESA CryoSat-2 satellite. We will be accompanied by Ewan Shilland (UCL Geography) as we make our way to the northern tip of Greenland and eventually onto the frozen Arctic Ocean itself.

The CryoSat-2 satellite carries a unique radar altimeter, purpose-built to make accurate measurements of sea ice thickness from space. It has been widely reported in the media that sea ice extent (area of the ocean covered by sea ice) in the Arctic has been declining over the past few decades. When combined with measurements of thickness made by CryoSat-2 we can estimate the total volume of the sea, and as the mission progresses we will be able to chart changes in the sea ice volume over time - the satellite was launched in 2010, and is still going healthy.

One of the largest remaining uncertainties with CryoSat-2 measurements is the interaction of the radar on the satellite with the layer of snow on top of the sea ice. The main purpose of our experiment is to try to better understand this interaction and reduce this uncertainty. We will make ground-based and airborne radar measurements in conjunction with tradition ‘dig a hole’-type measurements as the satellite passes overhead, so that we can compare the situation on the ground with what the satellite is seeing.

In this blog we are going to share our experiences over the next 6 weeks or so, as we prepare for the campaign, travel to Greenland, plan our experiments, make our measurements and everything in between.