Preparing for my field work in Greenland started about six months ago, and I’m now in the final week! The countdown has begun!
This is the first scientific arctic expedition I’ve taken part in and there has been lots to learn throughout the lead up to the trip. My team of four will be based out of the Summit Station which is a year round research station in the very center of Greenland’s ice sheet. It has a main building which supports the teams based there throughout the summer, and we’ll eat our meals there, and use the building’s work spaces. We will camp on the ice near the main building, in tents provided for us (called Arctic Ovens!) which have plywood platforms inside.
Here’s a breakdown of the three main parts of the preparation that I’ve been working on for the past few months:
Map of Greenland showing where we will be working. Blue triangle is Summit Station, where we will be based and return each night. Red triangles are the seven seismometers we will be working on (note the one on the south east coast!). The brown shading denotes elevation.
The whole impetus for this trip up onto the Greenland ice sheet is for our team to retrieve data from our seismometers which have been recording the movement of the ice (and the bedrock beneath it) for the past year. I am part of a team of scientists who use these data to better understand how the ice in Greenland is changing, what the bedrock and deeper mantle look like beneath the ice, and how both of those things will influence the future evolution of Greenland’s ice sheet. My research over this past year of graduate school has focused on these questions.
Up until this point I’ve been working with data from a set of seismic instruments located around Greenland’s coast. The new data we will collect this summer will be our first chance to look at data from the northern part of the ice sheet and will improve our ability to understand Greenland’s far north.
The gear I’ll be taking to Greenland is a combination of some pieces of my heavily-used, much-loved backpacking gear, and a few new very high tech additions. During the days we will be working in temperatures around 0° F and there will be plenty of sun reflecting off the snow, as well as a fair amount of wind. Additionally, because the center of Greenland is covered in ice two miles thick, we’ll be working up at 10,500 feet and need to take precautions against altitude sickness and dehydration.
Here’s a taste of what is going into my two big pieces of luggage:
Base Layers– On top: merino wool shirts, and a few mid-weight capilene 3/4 zip tops to layer. On bottom: my warm capilene long underwear bottoms and a pair of fleece pants. These are the regular, wicking clothes that I often take on backpacking trips or wear on runs.
Warm Outer Layers – A lightweight down jacket under a big warm parka will keep my upper body warm. Having the option to shed the parka and still have a down jacket on will be great for when I’m doing physical work, like digging down to uncover the instruments buried in the snow. For my legs I have a pair of very warm snow-pants. I’m also carrying a full set of rain gear, because we will be spending a few days along Greenland’s coast. The coast will be much lower elevation and we’ll no longer be on the ice sheet, but there’s a definite possibility of rainy/windy weather out there.
Hands and Feet – My boots are truly heavy duty, and are rated down to -100° F!! (much colder than anything we’ll experience this summer). I’m wearing my regular, warm wool hiking socks with these. My Gore-Tex work gloves have leather on the palms, which will hopefully stand up to day after day of working with metal poles and stakes which we use in the installation of our instruments and the solar panels which power them. Because there’s no option to acquire more gear once you’re out there, I’m taking two sets of these big gloves as well as two pairs of thin liner gloves just in case. We’ll also have hand warmer packets with us, and I’m bringing hiking boots for the times when I’m not actually out on the ice.
Head and Eyes – Just like the rest of my body, my head, face and eyes, will be almost completely covered when I’m working outside. I have a heavy duty windproof fleece hat, a thin inner balaclava, and a fleece outer balaclava. Glacier glasses will protect my eyes from the high levels of light which reflect off snowfields and as a backup I’m also carrying ski goggles.
Other Essentials – A big, burly -40° F sleeping bag is the single bulkiest thing I’m carrying. Even in its compression sack it takes up about three times as much space as my regular 15° F bag. I’m also carrying my laptop, an additional field laptop, three external hard drives which we’ll backup the data onto, and my camera. Food is valuable in helping to stay warm and I’m bringing a big collection of energy bars to snack on while we’re out doing work between meals. A couple of books, toiletries, sunscreen, and multiple tubes of very protective chapstick round out my gear.
The Medical Preparation and Clearance
I am traveling and working with a National Science Foundation (NSF) supported group, which is how we are able to visit this remote part of Greenland. We’ll be working many hours away from any sort of medical facilities and as a result there is an extensive medical clearance process to go through before anyone is given the go-ahead to participate in a field expedition like this. Over the past few months I’ve had multiple dental and medical check ups, and filled out a multitude of forms on all of the details of my past medical history. Once I had everything assembled, including letters from my doctors stating that I am fit to participate in fieldwork in a remote polar environment, my file was sent off to the NSF’s Polar Medical Operations office where it was reviewed by one of their specialists. They followed up with questions about specific details in my file, which prompted follow up letters and copies of medical records on my end. Happily, it all wrapped up about a month ago with an official statement that I have been “Physically Qualified for Polar Deployment”.
Additionally, I recently completed a Wilderness First Responder course to beef up my own backcountry medical training before this trip. The course imparted lots of knowledge to call upon should an unexpected situation arise, and gave me a more well rounded sense of what it will take for this expedition to run smoothly.
These last few days before I leave will involve last minute errands and tying up loose ends before I leave the city. I look forward to sharing pictures and stories from this trip when I return!