Wind and lakes and ice and cake

by Guest Blogger

August 16, 2005

It’s Saturday and we are anchored in a lovely bay we’ve nicknamed

“Pete’s Haven” after the first mate. We are east of

Disko (every time I say “Disko” I move my arm like John Travolta in

“Saturday Night Fever”) and Arveprinsens islands, it was a short transit

of about five hours last night from Ilulissat to get here.

Pete’s Havn is really lovely. The ship is located 2.5 nautical miles

(4.6km) from Eqip Sermia, a glacier that flows out from the Greenland

Ice Sheet into the bay. Even from here the glacier looks formidable.

Jason Box, the scientist on board, says the glacier’s calving front is

330 feet (100m) high in some places. Yowza. Between the ship and Eqip

Sermia lies a nunatak: a rocky point that once poked out from a glacier.

The nunatak near us is now an island, but at some point I guess this

entire bay was filled with glacial ice and only the top of the island

stuck out. The land near Eqip Sermia is barren but the land closest to

the ship is covered by green tundra, testament to the influence of

glaciers on the landscape.

Last night Hughie flew a reconnaissance flight to check out the melt

lakes and other structures on the ice sheet so we could then make a plan

on how to best to measure their depth and document them. Jason went

along with him and came back with some pretty incredible pictures taken

on his small digital camera through the helicopter’s plexiglass windows.

This part of the ice sheet is riddled with melt lakes, rushing rivers

and moulins (a moulin is a large hole where a meltwater river disappears

into the bowels of an ice sheet or glacier). You wouldn’t think that an

ice sheet would have so much moving water on it. The lakes are very

striking to look at, much like Mono Lake or the Dead Sea in the middle

of the desert. I’m confident we’ll be able to document them in a way

that will explain to the rest of the world the compelling nature of this

huge meltwater system in a place that we all think of as frozen solid

all the time. I mean, who would think it’d be possible to stand on the

Greenland Ice Sheet with a six km wide melt lake or roaring river

nearby? I can’t think of a better visual for telling the story of how

climate change is affecting the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Our plan today was to begin flying people and gear up to the ice sheet

at 9:00 a.m. and use a small inflatable boat and a fish finder to measure

the depth of each lake. The depth measurements could then be compared

with the color of the lakes in satellite photos, giving scientists a way

to approximate the volume of water held in the lakes. This is important

because as the melt lakes drain they deliver water and a warming signal

into the glacier’s core. Some of the water winds up at the base of the

glacier where it lubricates and hastens the glacier’s flow from the ice

sheet into the sea, where it then calves into icebergs.

When we got up at 7:30 a.m., it was clear and calm outside ” perfect

weather for flying. But a little past 8:00 a.m. catabatic winds started

flowing off the ice sheet and by 9:00 a.m. the winds were a steady 30 knots

with gusts to 40+ knots (74 km/hr). Hughie could have flown up to the

ice sheet, but it would have been difficult and dangerous to deploy the

equipment and make measurements in that kind of wind.

So we spent the day waiting, waiting, waiting for the winds to die down,

but it’s 9 p.m. and they’re still blowing with a vengeance. There won’t be

any flying tonight because there’s only about an hour and a half of good

light left. Catabatic winds die down in the evening, or so I’m told. I

don’t completely understand how they work but they seem to be fueled by

cold winds on the ice sheet and changes in temperature caused by the

shift between day and night. Hopefully the winds will die down by

tomorrow morning and we can get an early start. Our itinerary has a lot

of ‘weather days’ built into it, but I always thought they would be used

for delays caused by fog and ice. I never imagined our work being

delayed by catabatic winds. The winds have an odd feel to them because

the sky is clear and blue, whereas the wind is what I’d normally

associate with dark skies and horizontal rain. The ship has been

swinging ’round and ’round on the anchor chain, it’s almost dizzying.

Today is John’s 42nd birthday and as part of the celebration, Martin

and Isha made him a cake in the shape of Greenland. They baked a sheet

cake, cut out the shape of the country and then used cut away pieces of

cake to form mountain ranges and islands. A thick layer of chocolate

icing covered the cake and whipped cream was the ice cap. A small wooden

Arctic Sunrise used to track the ship’s location on a world map in the

messroom was placed in a “bay” on the cake, along with 43 candles (one

for good luck). It’s the most amazing cake I’ve ever seen, and the most

delicious country I’ve ever eaten. I had a piece of Scoresby Sound, Faye

and Hettie ate Disko Island, and the Birthday Boy himself demolished

Thule, where a “Star Wars” radar station is located, in a mere three

bites. The cake was unveiled not even two hours ago and when last I

looked, our unregulated addiction to chocolate (1/2kg in the cake, 1kg

in the icing) already resulted in destruction of 2/3 of the country.

Signing out from the Greenland lake district,

– Melanie

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