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,