Archive for the ‘ 2010 ’ Category

Lasting Impressions: Scale, Glaciers, Vegetation and Science

Sunday, June 13th, 2010


Signs of science are easy to spot in and around Kangerlussuaq. Three generators below will power a hot water drill getting ready to go out on the ice with a PSU team for six weeks.

Hydrologists Ossa and Birgit are measuring the volume and velocity of glacial meltwater.

Here’s the camp of Mike and Jeff who are studying herbivores, like musk ox and caribou, hiking 7-13 hours a day from May to August. Wow!

The colors in the vegetation are often subtle and leaves are small, about 1 inch, when present.

It takes approximately 100 years for vegetation to start growing on the dry moraines and beds of former meltwater lakes.

Lichens are the first to arrive, followed by mosses and so forth as they begin the lengthy process of building up soils.

Dr. Billings spoke of the creation of soils above the bedrock – aside from the mosquitoes, what a great classroom setting!

After a five-hour hike, we arrived at what was described by Dr. Braaten as the glacial plug, comparing this site to the draining of a bathtub.

The ice here was beautiful, and …

we witnessed our first, small calving event:

Sometimes waiting’s the name of the game.

As we left Greenland, the Hercules C-130 took us down the fjord for one more look at the glaciers and mountainous coast.

I imagine everyone who goes to this island in the Arctic has a hard time conveying the scale of their surroundings. Like others, I will struggle to explain the massive contradictions of weight and light, the vastness, and the energy that envelope you and leave you in awe. It is hard to comprehend how slowly most changes here occur, and yet not difficult to fathom how abrupt and devastating a rockslide, a calving glacier, or a rise in glacial water could be. A giant land held together by ice that falls hard when it suddenly cracks and crumbles.

Thank you for the experience, Joane, Kees, Sharon and David! Thank you for the laughter and company, C-CHANGE trainees!

Greenland Haiku #9: I should have taken more pictures of people

Friday, June 11th, 2010

When superlatives
Are all that apply, I need
A person for scale

Hannah Owens
IGERT Trainee
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

What Is Holding Up Greenland Polar Science?

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

What is Holding Up Greenland Polar Science? The answer is: Kathy Young, Robin Abbott, and Kim Derry – Project Coordinators; Eric (Bear) Copeland, Joe Hurley, and Steve Munsell – Operations Coordinators; Bassee Vaengtoft, KISS Manager, and Rikka Moller, Assistant KISS Manager. This is the team from CH2MHill Polar Services (CPS) that runs the Kangerlussuaq International Scientific Support (KISS) Center, and they provide support for Greenland polar science. They coordinate the schedules of scientific teams flying into Kangerlussuaq from the US and other countries and traveling from Kangerlussuaq to various destinations in Greenland, especially Summit Station located at 10,530 feet at the peak of the Greenland ice sheet.

KISS building

Here’s what KISS support staff did for us: They greeted us the night we arrived, several hours later than expected, with room keys, sheets & towels, and most importantly, a homemade spaghetti dinner. They arranged the three vehicles we drove to the ice sheet on many occasions (they gave us the key to the ice sheet gate!). They provided us with GPS units, first aid kits, hand held radios, a satellite phone, and a set of shovels and saws. They showed us where the kitchens and cafeteria were, designated a seminar room for our use, set up opportunities for us to meet with visiting researchers, and introduced us to the US Ambassador to Denmark during her visit so that we could arrange a one-on-one meeting with her. They were facilitators, fans, and friends during our stay. We bought KISS patches from Rikka, worked with Bassee to get our keys working, relied on Bear, Joe, and Steve to manage our cargo, and called on Kathy, Robin, and Kim for everything else. We look forward for the chance to work with them when we return to Greenland with 11 new NSF C-CHANGE IGERT Trainees in 2012. Until then, KISS team—thanks for your support!

KISS Patch

Joane Nagel
C-CHANGE Project Director

The Most Amazing Classroom…EVER!

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010


I’ve heard it said that nothing beats a hands-on approach to learning. That ideas stick in the mind better when you have an experience to attach the lesson or lecture to. This has never seemed more true. Over the past week we have learned about arctic soils while digging up, touching, and smelling it. We met with hydrologists that are measuring melt water from the ice sheet at the very spot they are taking measurements, looking at the tools they use, and learning about the outcomes and context of their work. We stood at the edge of the ice sheet and waited, watched, and listened for calving events all the while asking questions, and having an expert there to answer them! We learned about the mechanics and science behind ice drilling while looking at the drill and hearing from the folks who – just this morning – left for the ice sheet to do their research. I wished them good luck at breakfast and when I read the paper they inevitably will write, it will be so real. It will stick. The in situ, impromptu lecture can’t be beat! Without a doubt, the best learning experience of my life.

Anna Kern
IGERT Trainee
Environmental Sociology

Prof Billings impromptu lecture on arctic soils

The Hydrologists

Asking questions about the ice

Last Day in Greenland

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010


Tomorrow morning we leave Greenland and head home. I am going to miss several things about Greenland including the delicious musk ox burger at the Polar Bear Inn, meeting scientists who are dedicated to their work, the wildlife and the ice.

The caribou are very curious creatures. We saw these two while on a hike to a lake and the edge of the ice sheet. At first they were in the distance and then they came closer to check us out.


I do not think I can describe the ice in a way to do it justice – it is so expansive and beautiful. We studied about ice sheets and glaciers in class this past semester and saw pictures and graphics of them and the moraines which they create as the ice sheet moves forward, pushing soil and rocks like a bulldozer. They are so much bigger and more impressive than the pictures showed. In this picture the moraine is the gray pile of rocks and sediment at the edge of the ice sheet.


What I think I will miss most is the sounds of Greenland. Since arriving I have been struck by how this place sounds – not the names of towns or the language, but the place itself. It is an elemental sound dominated by water and wind, punctuated by bird song. It is quiet and noisy at the same time, perhaps because the sounds are primarily natural and not man-made. On the ice sheet there are dozens of small streams of melt water.

glacial stream

I will not miss the mosquitoes, which are plentiful, but not as noisy as I had anticipated.

Linda Williams
IGERT Trainee
Environmental Policy & Public Administration

Greenland Haiku #8: Tiny in a Big World

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

To appreciate
The granduer of the tundra
Use a macro lens

Hannah Owens
IGERT Trainee
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Long Days of Research

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010


The constant sunlight enables researchers to use the most of their time Greenland – meeting with fellow graduate students conducting research north of Kangerlussuaq provided insight into the amazing amount of time that they dedicate to collecting field data that is only possible during the long daylight hours of arctic summers. The students we visited from Penn State conduct research under Dr. Eric Post, recognized for his research in northern latitudes, and focus upon ecosystem ecology. They work towards understanding the function and interaction of organisms in the Greenlandic environment. Supplied with research from the site since the early 1990s, the students have a wealth of data to inform their research exploring fascinating issues into arctic area, including potential impacts of global climate change which is predicted to impose the greatest degree of warming around polar regions.

The 7 to 13 hours the students dedicated to recording plant, insect and herbivore (mainly musk ox and caribou) activities was amazing, and I think represents not only a passion for research but also a passion for better understanding the arctic environment in which they work. They research we’ve been exposed to since arriving – ranging from ice drilling and radar ionosphere monitoring to hydrological recording and herbivore observations- has provided insight into the breadth of research and also into the multiple ways to approach the same issue: what is the state of the arctic and how might it change in the future. From melting ice caps, changes in ecosystem functioning with warming and change in sun activity, the research that is ongoing in Greenland is informative and advancing science and our understanding of arctic environments and the changes that may rapidly approach in coming decades.

Alexis Reed
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Greenland Haiku #7: Hungry, Hungry Caterpillars

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Here caterpillars
Decimated willows just
On north-facing slopes

Hannah Owens
IGERT Trainee
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The essence of what the IGERT does for me

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010


The first or second day we were here, Adam was driving us back down to Kangerlussuaq from Russell Glacier. He was SO excited to get to drive the Hilux on the badly grated gravel road – he made sure we took a photo of him driving… When those of us in the back seat teased him about being so excited to drive a beat up truck across a beat up road, he responded “I’m a historian – we don’t get to do field work like this! This is the essence of what the IGERT does for me!” That comment got me thinking – What is the essence of what the IGERT does for me?

Like Adam bouncing our four-wheel truck down the road to the glacier, if I had to pick one moment on this trip that was the essence of what the IGERT does for me, it would probably be eating the whale meat last night.

(On a side note, Joane reminded me that I forgot to say whether or not I liked it. I’m not a huge fan of carpaccio, so I might have liked it better prepared another way, but it was still pretty tasty. The color and texture is much like beef, but it was more tender and much more fish-tasting – it was clearly the meat of a marine animal. It had a very strong flavor, but it blended nicely with the parmesan cheese and salad/dressing. So, I suppose I would say I liked it, although that was not really the point in eating it)

Researching bowhead whale hunting all semester, it was fascinating to see how bowhead whales, Inuit communities and western commercial whalers all impacted each other throughout history and how that has led to current whaling debates. In my own field I never would have researched the cultural attitudes towards whaling and the use of whale products, and how these viewpoints affected the style and magnitude of whale hunting and the relationship between western whalers and the Inuit. My disciplinary input for the project came mostly in the form of effects of climate change on bowhead populations, but adding historical regulation of whaling and cultural conflicts over a shared natural resource was really where the most interesting and enlightening aspects of the paper arose for me.

All of this led to my arguments against the current International Whaling Commission moratorium on whaling, over which I gave a talk for the other IGERT students. We can discuss the effects of climate change on bowhead populations until we’re blue in the face, but international debates over the right of communities to whale are also important for whale populations AND whaling cultures, and are something over which we have more direct control. The rights of the Inuit to hunt whales, as they have for thousands of years, are now in the hands of the IWC, and the (non-Inuit) governments under which the Inuit must operate – none of which seem to fully understand the dietary, psychological and cultural importance of maintaining a connection with whales. And none of which I would understand (or even realize existed) if the IGERT didn’t require expanding our research outside our direct field of study.

And really, that is the essence of what the IGERT does for all of us – drags us out of our disciplinary boundaries and gets us to talk with, and listen to, other perspectives. This is particularly important for an issue like climate change, which is global not just geographically, but disciplinarily. When I started the IGERT, I wasn’t really sure how a sociologist or an anthropologist or an historian would study climate change – it’s an ecological/climatalogical issue, how can anyone other than natural scientists study it? Now I see how utterly ridiculous that idea was, but only because I’ve talked with IGERT students and faculty in those fields about their research and how climate change fits into their studies.

The bottom line is, you have to have the structured viewpoint of your discipline, but you also need to be able to get outside that structure and look at the world from a different perspective, or you’ll never see anything new. And that is the essence of what the IGERT does for me.

Laci Gerhart
IGERT Trainee
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

On the importance of cold places

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010


The vastness of the Greenland landscape that remains relatively unmarred by human activities evokes memories of our planet’s other cold locales, where the proportion of land displaying obvious evidence of western culture is similarly small. I have always been fascinated by cold places, and coming to Greenland only deepens that feeling. Cold regions appeal to me because the human imprint on the landscape, though present, is less discernable than in more hospitable climes. The challenge of survival here is also appealing; being physically challenged in an unforgiving environment resonates with our evolutionary history and on some intrinsic level feels appropriate. The sensation of being physically uncomfortable is a satisfying counterpart to our embarrassingly comfortable lives.

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of cold environments, however, is the ease with which we can find landscape-level processes in these locales that operate on vastly different time scales. Cold environments like those in Greenland support plants, for example, that appear to be responding to one orchestral conductor so synchronized are their growth responses to the first warm spring day. In one day, environmental cues can transform entire hillslopes from brown to green. Cold landscapes are also controlled by temperature-limited Earth processes that operate on much slower time scales, however. In Greenland, this is most obviously exemplified by the dynamics of the Greenland ice sheet. Glacial advances and recessions over millennia transform the surrounding landscape’s shape, govern hydrologic linkages between terrestrial and ocean systems, and leave legacies in soil profiles that influence biological, geological, and ecological processes for centuries.

If I were to explore an ecosystem feature where these dramatically different time scales – the remarkably quick biological response to temperature and sunlight, and the millennial pace of glacial movement – jointly govern ecosystem processes in an obvious manner, I would start digging. Cold regions’ soil profiles display legacies of both rapid responses to springtime warming and their recent glacial history, and evoke questions that must be addressed at multiple time scales. Will the microbially-mediated processes within soils that produce nitrous oxide, a key greenhouse gas, be more or less sensitive to temperature than the microbial process that transforms this gas to harmless dinitrogen? How will the development of ecosystems on land recently exposed by the retreating ice sheet, and their associated biogeochemical fluxes, influence the chemical composition of the atmosphere? To what extent will the vast stores of organic carbon, promoted by centuries of ecosystem productivity outpacing respiratory carbon losses, be mineralized and released as CO2 with warming? Will the mineralization of relatively recalcitrant organic matter experience greater sensitivity to temperature compared to more labile material, as predicted by enzyme kinetics? Such a response to warming has the potential to be a significant positive feedback to warming.

Elucidating these questions reminds me of the importance of Earth’s vast northern regions, with their immense stores of organic matter, in governing our climate. They also remind me that the joy I feel in watching spunky caribou, listening to the roar of glacial meltwater, and feeling raw wind on my face is coupled with great joy in recognizing that it’s a fantastic time to be an ecosystem scientist.

Sharon Billings
Co-instructor, IGERT C-CHANGE course
Climate Change in the Arctic