How Climate Science Gets Done In The Icy Fjords of Greenland

The boat is small, but the view is great.

View from an Iceberg

Magnus Petersen and Dave Porter prepare to lower a temperature-depth-salinity sensor into a fjord near the village of Kullorsuaq, as part of a study into changing conditions where Greenland's melting glaciers meet the ocean.Margie Turrin/LDEO

Do you wonder what doing climate science in remote locations might be like? Read the Greenland Thaw blog, which is being updated regularly from the fjords of northwest Greenland, where the giant island's glaciers meet the ocean. With Greenland's ice sheets melting faster than ever, the study's scientists want to document and understand why the Alison Glacier, on Greenland's northwestern coast, is flowing to the sea faster than other glaciers in the area.

This is not a Jacques-Cousteau-waxing-poetic-aboard-the_-Calypso_ type of expedition. Rather, it involves working out of a small, open, benzin-fueled boat owned and operated by a local fisherman. But hopefully the spectacularly beautiful scenery makes up for the raw working conditions.

Yesterday blogger Margie Turrin, an education coordinator with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, described collecting samples along the water column: "The science goal for today is to complete 8 CTD casts," Turrin writes. (CTD stands for conductivity - a measure of salinity – temperature and depth).

We load into our vessel, a Poca 500GR. We have discussed a 6 to 8 hour window of boat time with Gabriel the captain and Magnus our navigator and stocked up on 40 liters of benzene [sic]. The benzene sits in a clear jug by my side, from there funneled into the motor... The winch set-up is one that is comfortable to the Greenlandic as they use it to lower line 1000 meters down for fishing. Several times during such a trip they will load hooks for 200 or more fish onto the line, lowering and hauling it back up by hand crank. After the first cast we are faced with iced in conditions. Gabriel maneuvers the boat as best he can but we will not be able to get to the point we had hoped to collect next. Everywhere we look we are surrounded by ice, bits of mélange (ice rubble) cover the ice surface interspersed with larger icebergs. We attempt to make our way down different channels to see if there is a pathway around some of the ice but it appears we will need to make adjustments to the cast points.

As well as taking ocean samples themselves, the scientists say they will work with villagers of tiny nearby Kullorsuaq to continue collecting data after the researchers have left.