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The Unbearable Lightness of Greenland

A behind-the-scenes, on-the-ground look at climate change research


University Communications science writer Joshua Brown traveled with geology professor Paul Bierman and graduate student Alice Nelson as they conducted climate change research in Greenland in early June. Read on for a week's worth of updates from the field — and view photos from the trip here.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

It’s our second day on the coast of southeastern Greenland, and I’m thinking of Manhattan. A sea fog is rolling in over the settlement of Tasiilaq, perched on the edge of a still-frozen bay, surrounded by mountains, about 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

I’m here with four geologists —  Paul Bierman, Alice Nelson, Jeremy Shakun and Dylan Rood. It’s 10:36 p.m., but the sky is still bright. The sun, above the fog, has gone behind a mountain, but it is mostly going sideways, sliding not setting. The scientists, still at work in our hotel’s dining room, drink tea and study maps of glaciers and deltas that they plan to visit in a few days.

They’re trying to find rocks and sediments that will help them solve a most important climate change question: how fast will Greenland melt in a warming world? “We want to know: how stable is the ice sheet?” Nelson told me. That’s why I’m thinking of Manhattan: if the whole Greenland ice sheet — that covers most of this not-green island — were to melt, sea level would rise more than 20 feet, inundating coastal cities around the world.

The scientists, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, want to help get a clearer picture of how quickly such a melt-off could happen. And to auger the future with greater precision, they look to the past, collecting rocks and sediment that, back in Bierman’s lab at UVM, let them measure how extensive the ice was here thousands of years ago.

I’ll tell you more about that method — it's new and a potentially transformative way to get a sense of the pulsing growth and total melt-off of Greenland that has happened over the past 5 million years or so — in another post soon.

I’m here, an embedded science reporter (armed with skis and a camera, instead of body armor, thank goodness), to write a story about the scientists’ adventures, scientific and otherwise, that will appear in the fall issue of Vermont Quarterly.

There are no roads that lead to Tasiilaq — we arrived by helicopter. It seems another world from Wall Street. But what happens in Greenland over the next centuries seems likely to affect the whole world.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sea fog, lit from within, moves in a long band across the fjord. Behind, the mountains remain visible like pencil marks on a white sheet. Sky and water bound the fog in blue. It’s our second day in Tasiilaq, Greenland, population 2,000, where the houses perch in a pleasing jumble on the hills, brightly painted in red, yellow and electric blue. Patches of snap-white snow, umber rocks, gray rocks, and golden grass — and, everywhere, searingly jagged mountains — make a background. It’s like the landscape was done by a god of elements and the houses by Crayola.

The geologists are in a stream. Well, Shakun stands in the stream, nearly overtopping his Muck boots, dipping his hands into the “32.1 degree water,” he says, collecting sand from the bottom.

The rest of the team perches on melting snow mounds and rocks nearby, pouring the sand into plastic bags, entering GPS data into a notebook, taking photographs of a magnetic number board that will let them identify the site when they’re back in the lab — and making fun of Shakun. Pairs of sled dogs — tied up in a field full of sleds and sled-dog crap — look on curiously to this curious scientific enterprise.

In the sand the scientists have collected is quartz, and in the quartz an element called beryllium, and in one form of the beryllium hides information about how long Greenland and how much of Greenland has been covered with ice. That’s why the scientists are here: to take the measure of Greenland and its prodigious ice sheet, enough water to fill the Gulf of Mexico — one isotopic atom of beryllium at a time. In a warming climate, how long will the ice last? This research promises to give the world a clearer answer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Time is a strange master when traveling with geologists.

Arriving here three days ago, Paul Bierman and I were looking out the window of the plane, as the gray mountains of Greenland went ripping along below. Paul pointed to a flatter, gravelly place just above sea level and said, “There was a beach there a hundred years ago, maybe two hundred.” In one frame of mind, for geologists, a hundred years is less than a rounding error. Their imaginations, by professional habit, travel often in the howling expanses of geological time, where thousands of years pass in a footstep.

Now we’re preparing to fly in a helicopter to the outwash of six or seven glaciers and Paul is a bit concerned — about minutes. The flight is scheduled for 2:45 p.m., but the last two afternoons a fog has rolled in, and the helicopter pilots can’t fly if they can’t see where to land.

The team hunches over their maps in the hotel (no surprise, geologists spend a lot of time looking at maps) trying to decide what the most important sampling sites are, if the itinerary must be curtailed, and how many minutes each stop will take. “We can just grab the sand and go,” Paul tells the team. “No need to sieve it til we get back.” The fuel and money burn rate of a chartered Air Greenland helicopter makes thousands of dollars tied into this few-hour trip.

But the day remains clear and shockingly bright, and at 3:10 the helicopter lifts, thudding and whining, while we all stare out the windows, suddenly ripped from the ground. It is loud — and an incredible,visual riot of geologic delights for the next five hours.

First the village of Tasiilaq comes fully into view, handsome red boats in the harbor, a tumbling dump of rusted snowmobiles, debris, and old plastic toys on the edge of town. Then the sage, tan and lichen-covered closer hills. Then the vast stretches of the formidable island of Greenland: far-off ragged huge ranges, blocky icebergs with azure pools on top, vertiginous peaks that remind me of Wyoming — but in an elongated funhouse mirror — plates and panels of intersecting sea ice, huge glaciers spilling down valleys.

The helicopter banks and all the world is now on its side, we circle, the machine slows, descends, its rotors so powerful that water on the ground sprays like a hurricane and rocks roll away. Down again. On ice. Here a rushing stream pours out of a glacier, milky and frothing. The landscape, transected by abstract lines of white and grey, makes the helicopter look puny and gaudy, resting, incongruous, in a ponderous snowfield.

We clamber over boulders and down to where the stream slices along a wall of snow, old gray below, fresh white above. There is a loud cheerful rushing of water.

The scientists quickly dig with a trowel in the sand on the stream edge, dump it in a plastic bag, label it with a marker, then take photos of the location. We’re about to hustle back to the helicopter. There are more sites to visit, more samples to collect that will provide months of work back in the lab and thousands of years of perspective on what is happening here.

“Listen,” says Bierman, pausing for a few seconds, “that’s the sound of Greenland melting.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Jeremy Shakun lifts a small sledgehammer and slams it down on a chisel. No rock comes free.

On this raw, gravel-covered hill, overlooking a frozen sea, the colors pop. Rust, mustard, purple-blue puddles, and shocking snow — super-saturated in an overwash of Arctic light. We can hear the wavering howl of many sled dogs, rising up the slope from the tiny settlement of Kusuluk. It makes a haunting noise backdrop to the metronomic clinking of metal on metal.

Shakun hits again and again, legs splayed out on a rounded lump of bedrock. “You have to be patient,” Paul Bierman says, laughing. Dylan Rood offers a stream of bogus advice about Shakun’s technique, most of it unfit for print.

Bierman, 50, has some twenty years on both Rood and Shakun, but they’ve all smacked plenty of rocks before: Shakun is a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard; Rood, a Californian, recently moved to Glasgow to take a post at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre; and Bierman has been a professor of geology at UVM since 1993.

Next to where Shakun is working, the geologists have erected a high-sensitivity GPS antenna and receiver. It gathers satellite information with enough precision to pinpoint our location and elevation to within two or three feet.

The rock that they collect here will travel back to Bierman’s shop in Vermont, one of the few cosmogenic isotope laboratories in the world, where it will be painstakingly dissolved to yield nearly pure quartz. “I was working on samples for twenty-five straight days,” Alice Nelson says, with the rueful head-shaking characteristic of graduate students.

From the quartz, Bierman and his students will extract the element beryllium and then ship it to Scotland, where Rood will test the beryllium in a specialized mass spectrometer, capable of detecting a single atom out of a million billion atoms. It’s like having a machine capable of finding a misplaced grain of sand on a very large beach.

Despite all this technological gee-whiz-ness, for these geologists trying to collect a few good field samples, there seems to be no advanced tool better than a hammer.

Shakun makes a huge, grunting hit and, finally, a chip, the size of a quarter, comes free. Rood gingerly picks it up and drops it in a bag.

Why, you may be asking, would four geologists — interested in understanding climate change — want to collect chips of ancient metamorphosed granite in order to count the atoms of beryllium in its quartz?

Because of cosmic rays. Really. This radiation, born at the beginning of the universe, rains down on you, me, sled dogs and rocks. It penetrates the top few meters of the earth’s surface. And where it does, ever so rarely, it smashes into oxygen within the quartz, knocking a chunk off.

What remains from the busted oxygen is a special form of beryllium, the rare isotope 10Be. The longer the quartz is exposed to the sky, bombarded by cosmic rays, the more 10Be accumulates within its crystals.

But buried under snow and ice — shielded by, say, the Greenland ice sheet — no 10Be accumulates in the quartz. So the amount of beryllium in a grain of sand can reveal how long it was exposed, versus how long buried under ice. Collect enough of these grains, from enough spots in Greenland, and you could begin to sketch a picture of when and where ice rested here in the past.

That’s why Jeremy Shakun keeps clinking away with a sledgehammer, while the rest of us eat granola bars and wait for him to prize out a tiny chunk of knowledge.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

We wake to bad news. Air Greenland has called to say our flight to Nuuk, the capital, is cancelled.

I can see why: white on white, a heavy fog sifts over the snow. Or, rather, I can’t see the airport that is only a few hundred yards from our hotel. The combo freight/passenger Dash 7 propeller planes that ferry people across the ice sheet are well-suited to descending steeply over the mountains to land here — but this ain’t O’Hare. The runway is dirt.

We’re stuck in one of the most remote airports in the world and the next scheduled flight to where we need to go isn’t for three more days.

Not only does this jeopardize the scientists’ several days of planned field work, but it means we may not be able to catch our military flight back to the U.S. on Saturday, from Kangerlussuaq, with the NY Air National Guard. “We might not get home until next week,” Paul tells us as we sit in the dining room.

I’m working my third cup of coffee. The forty Taiwanese tourists who arrived here yesterday make the dining room as loud as it was quiet last night — when I could hear the snuffling of three arctic foxes that came poking out from under the melting ice and went prancing around outside the hotel, wrestling in the 12:30 a.m. sunset.

The hotel is pleasant and clean. It’s run by tall, blond men from Denmark who serve delicious food: tender pork loin, warm chocolate cake, pickled herring (ok, Paul doesn’t think this is delicious), and lots of other pickled stuff, including one item that we debated whether it was an onion or pear, but agreed was tasty.

In front of the hotel, a rutted dirt track leads in one direction to the airport and in the other through a fifteen-foot deep canyon of snow to the village of Kulusuk. I read in Smithsonian Magazine that only 75 miles of roads have been built in the entire 836,000 square miles of Greenland. I doubt if this counts as one of them, but, in any case, neither direction goes nearly as far as we’d hoped to go today.

This, it seems, is how polar science often works: months of intensive careful planning from the comfort of home, followed by frantic calls on a satellite phone from the field. At least that is what Bierman is doing right now — to the National Science Foundation contractor in charge of logistics. He’s hoping to fend off chaos, and discussing the possibility of returning to Iceland on the same flight as the tourists, to get at Nuuk by another route — but that doesn’t look promising.

Alice Nelson, Jeremy Shakun and I play a round of Scrabble, using the set in the hotel. Except it’s a Russian edition, so we use the Cyrillic letters as best we can to proxy for our alphabet. Dylan Rood and Bierman feverishly sketch and re-work numerous scenarios about how they might get some of the geology fieldwork done on an interrupted schedule. Perhaps a return trip later in the summer?

Hours later, we still don’t know what's going to happen. The fog has cleared — but it’s also clear we’re not getting on the Iceland flight and that no trip to Nuuk is happening today.

“Let’s go skiing,” Bierman finally says. I’ve been skiing with him every day since we arrived in Greenland. Our daily outings have put him over a hundred days on skis for the year  — making it to 100 for twelve years in a row. Alice Nelson, who captained the Williams College cross-country ski team, decides she’s going to walk the road to Kulusuk with Rood and Shakun. Her boots are still wet from yesterday.

An hour later, we all re-gather in the village of Kulusuk, population 300. Local people, with coppery Inuit complexions, push their babies in baby joggers. A dead seal sits in a wheelbarrow. A giant Volvo forklift trundles by. Piles of candy-bar wrappers and Tuborg beer cans litter the snow and dirt paths that wind between the red houses. Then a man shouts, and I can see his sled dog team huffing past the grocery store where I just paid about eight dollars for two bananas. The dogs pass between a traditional wooden sled and a snowmobile resting on the edge of the frozen bay, and disappear behind distant icebergs.

“There is a lot international attention to climate change," Jesper Krough, 29, told me. "People are concerned about Greenland because they’re worried about their end of the world — not this place.”  Krough is the Danish manager of the hotel, who has lived in Kulusuk for four years, overwintering alone in the hotel. “It’s easy to forget," he says, "there are actually people living here in Greenland.”

Krough talks to us from a jeep as we come down the road out of the snow canyon. Air Greenland called, he says, to tell us our flight to Nuuk has been rescheduled for tomorrow at noon. Phew. Things haven’t completely melted down yet.

Thursday June 7, 2012

Paul Bierman and I are heading uphill on skis toward a mountain that overlooks Kulusuk. He’s looking for the beach. At least he thinks this gravelly spot might have been a beach about 8,000 years ago. He picks up a rounded rock, eyeing it quizzically. Was this dumped here by a glacier or tossed by the sea?

Prior to this trip, my sense of Greenland came largely from the schoolroom maps of childhood. The traditional Mercator projection stretched Greenland into a huge blank white wedge, larger than Africa -- a timeless fortress of ice resting at the top of a rectangular world.

But Greenland is smaller, more complex -- and its ice, perhaps, more fragile than those old maps suggest.

A few days ago Alice Nelson patiently walked me through a PowerPoint about the research she and the team are doing here. They’re trying to get a sharper picture of how the extent of the Greenland ice sheet has changed over the last six million years.

They know it has had distinct chapters of melting and growth as global and regional temperatures rose and fell. But how big did the ice sheet get? Where did it grow first? When did it melt? “It may have been totally gone 100,000 years ago,” she said.

“It’s really hard to study ice sheets from the past,” she told me. “If it melted, it melted.”

“So the information we have on Greenland is limited,” she told me, “We know there was ice, and we can date that pretty well, but we don’t know how much ice.”

Bierman and I don’t know how much ice is under our skis as we gingerly skirt around some rotten snow near the water’s edge. Even in the few days we’ve been here, the landscape has changed. New pools form on the surface and a sudden four-foot wide torrent sliced through the road.

We make it back to the hotel and a few hours later, we’re rising above the “big ice,” as people here call the ice sheet, breathing sighs of relief. Our delayed plane got off the ground from Kulusuk. We’re on our way to Nuuk.

The team has had to abandon one leg of the trip, to Narsarsuaq, where they planned to collect elevation data. I’m disappointed we won’t get to visit Viking ruins there. (You know, Erik the Red named this place “green” land to attract settlers from warmer climes. It might be the first great real estate scam.) But the second day of helicopter work tomorrow should be do-able, if the weather holds.

As we’re flying along, the flight attendant passes around a basket of homemade cookies while Jeremy Shakun tutors me on a paper he published in Nature this April. It shows clearly that as global carbon dioxide levels rose at the end of the last ice age, global temperatures followed.

“It’s pretty hard to explain that -- if it’s not causal,” he says.

And I’m thinking about how all this is more than an academic exercise.

The probable effects of global warming are largely predicted by computer models. And these forecasting models look to the future by benchmarking from the past. If past climates — that were two or three or four degrees warmer than today — didn’t have a Greenland ice sheet, there is good reason to think that future ones won’t either.

All I can see out the window are clouds, but beneath, I know the big ice rises in some spots to a 10,000-foot thickness. Some climate models project that local warming over Greenland will go up at least 5 degrees Fahrenheit and perhaps as much as 16 degrees during the next century. Melting here and in West Antarctica could very plausibly push sea level up several feet before my young children are old people.

“Carbon dioxide can end an ice age. It’s clear today, by instruments, that the climate is changing,” Shakun says, sketching a pair of rising curves in my notebook. “Exactly where and when we’re going to feel it is not that clear.”

And how many centuries it would take Greenland to retreat back to bedrock is a tough modeling problem. Some scientists are concerned that the climate — and Greenland with it — is near a tipping point where the entire ice sheet will begin to melt unstoppably, vanishing in about 2,000 years. “But it’s very complex,” Shakun tells me. These geologists I’m traveling with would like to clarify the picture.

Happily or not, there is only one earth. N=1, the scientists might say. And so the changes that people have wrought on the planet, pouring out vast quantities of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from our fossil-fuel and jet-plane-loving ways of life represent an experiment with no control group. We can’t run it again with a bigger sample.

Which is why scientists try to understand how past warm periods affected things — like Greenland’s ice sheet — as a way of guessing what will happen next. Based on what we know, buying real estate in Greenland might not be such a bad idea.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Kangerlussuaq is home to huge flying things — and not much else. A former World War Two U.S. military airfield, it’s now Greenland’s largest commercial airport, where inbound 757’s from Copenhagen touch down. Fat-bellied C-130 US military propeller planes, equipped with skis for landing on the ice sheet, sit in a motionless row on the tarmac.

And then there are the mosquitos. They’re big enough to serve an inflight meal. We drag our train of backpacks and gear — including a cooler nearly full with 150 pounds of rocks and sand, double bagged, carefully labeled, and wrapped with duct tape — out to the parking lot. The mosquitoes are on us immediately, landing with military precision all over backs, wrists and Paul’s, apparently delicious, bald head.

It’s warm and sandy here on the southwest edge of Greenland. The snow is gone. A silty river sweeps by, and the landscape looks more like Yosemite or Afghanistan than a land of ice. But the silt is a clue that, not far from here, the ice sheet remains, melting and calving, pouring down water bound for the sea.

The buildings in the villages we visited in East Greenland are in a style Paul called “permafrost utilitarian”: simple wooden houses raised on high foundations for the snowy times of year. Here, the single, desolate row of buildings look like modular Army barracks. That’s because they were.

“Heading for KISS,” Bierman says. At the Kangerlussuaq International Science Station — identical, except for its sign, to the nearby Polar Bear Inn — we dump our gear in dormitory rooms, amidst a small stream of wandering American scientists.

But no rest. We’ve got to get ready for our next outing: a head-bumping hour in a pick-up truck to make a river delta crossing in the most godawful foot-sucking mud on the planet. Results: one more sand sample, minus one boot (temporarily) and one sock (permanently). Mine.

Now we’re wolfing down musk ox pizza, hustling again to our main mission: a second afternoon of “helo time” as the scientists say. Still chewing, we cram in the back of a small AStar helicopter and float into the air. Our Norwegian pilot, with a chin worthy of Hollywood —  and a job worthy of a marriage proposal, Alice later jokes — listens on his headset to Paul’s directions as he looks at his handheld GPS, trying to match the landscape to the map. The Watson River passes underneath. We’re going toward the ice sheet and the river, carrying a massive load of sediment toward the deep ocean.

And it’s from the deep ocean that the most important insights of this research project will come.

Sediment, washing off Greenland, has sifted to the ocean bottom and piled up there, in intact layers, for millions of years.

In 1993 and 1995, a large international effort collected two long cores of these sediments, drilled from the sea floor, off the southeast coast of Greenland. This year, Jeremy Shakun traveled to Germany to get samples of these cores stored in a huge refrigerated hangar there.

In the deepest — and therefore oldest — of these samples, the team expects to find high levels of beryllium in the sediment, revealing a time when much of the bedrock was exposed to cosmic radiation — a time before glaciers had covered Greenland with an ice sheet.

Moving up the core, the scientists expect to find decreasing beryllium concentrations as the ice sheet grew. But, punctuating this big downward trend, they expect to find short up-pulses during brief interglacial periods (“brief” to geologists being in the neighborhood of every 100,000 years) when the ice sheet was reduced.

To make better sense of these ocean core data, the team collects samples from today’s Greenland. That’s what this whole trip is for. Contemporary erosion rates, sediment transportation, ice coverage — and associated beryllium levels — provide a good picture of the recent geologic past, roughly the last 10,000 years. This picture will serve as an analogy to the deeper past, Nelson tells me, guiding interpretation of the records drawn from far down the ocean core.

In short, beryllium concentrations in ocean sediments will be a yardstick of the ice sheet stretching back six million years.

It’s a method that has worked for Bierman in studying other landscapes — but has never been tried before on ocean cores, which is a large part of why the National Science Foundation is investing in flying these four geologists out to places in Greenland where, in all likelihood, no person has ever stood before.

The helicopter hugs the terrain, roaring through a narrow rock opening with enough speed to make George Lucas happy. We turn on a bank of nothingness, and there it is. The Greenland ice sheet. Black and pale grey and brooding and dripping. A wall on a different scale than everything else I’ve seen here. We stop and collect sand, like lycra-clad ants at its base. Then the helicopter rises again, over the lip, and the ice sheet stretches, white and pocketed, a whole landscape of frozen water, toward an end that can’t yet be seen.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

On the runway at Kangerlussuaq, a half-circle of scientists, many bearded and baggy-eyed, gather around a clean-shaven officer from the New York Air National Guard. We’re getting final instructions — I guess — about what to do if our transport plane has to ditch over water. A generator nearby is so loud I can’t hear a thing he’s saying. The scientists smile and nod and then slowly, happily, climb the steps into the hold.

The C-130 — flown here to train soldiers in cold-weather combat and to aid scientific expeditions — is dark inside and full of red webbing, gray metal boxes, plastic-wrapped pallets of gear —and tired people. Some soldiers wrestle with hooks and straps in the back. Others, boy-faced in olive drab, already doze on the nylon bench seats.

Our ears stuffed with plugs, the plane lifts off. Cranium-thudding, loud experiences are getting to be a habit on this trip. Paul Bierman and Dylan Rood work on their laptops, preparing data, and writing each other notes on-screen, tired of shouting over the engines. Alice Nelson reads a novel, her third this week. Jeremy Shakun scrolls through science papers on his iPad.

Inside one of the pallets is a blue cooler, now full with dozens of bags of sand and small rocks from Greenland. They’re going to Vermont. And they’re quite heavy. These four geologists hope they’ll tell us something useful about the ways the ever-so-much-more-heavy ice that rests on this island, now passing away beneath us, is getting lighter — becoming, perhaps, for coastal parts of the world, an unbearable lightness.