Since the crew at Summit seemed pretty curious about the work we’ve been doing at our remote camp, we invited them all down for an open house last Sunday and had great attendance! Many folks came down on their day off to tour our facilities and learn about the work that we’ve been doing at our site.

While they were there, we gave them a tour of both our Eclipse drill and Blue Ice Drill sites and explained the work that was being done at each site. The Eclipse drill is responsible for the the 3″ diameter core that is being taken to ANSTO/OSU and the resultant bore hole that has been used to pump air out of the porous firn for C14 studies at Rochester. The Blue Ice Drill produces a much larger core and is being tested this season for its capabilities for firn drilling that will happen next season at our camp. We also showed them our firn air sampling system and the preliminary testing results we’ve achieved that suggest the legitimacy of the air we’ve sampled from the bore hole.


We were also proud to display our back-lit pit, which Jon has worked on a lot with the help of the rest of us to excavate and to highlight prominent features like the melt layer from last summer and some vertical channels through which the melt waters traveled before freezing. While previously untested for its capacity, we fit nine people in our cave to examine the past few years’ layers and admire the beautiful blue light of the upper firn.




Updates, Finally!

Hello everybody,

Apologies for the lack of updates.  Acquiring our samples has been has been our primary focus and we’ve had to focus on that intently over the course of the expedition, especially with the bad weather at the beginning.  Chances to get to summit and access the internet have been limited (and getting the blog to load while there has proven even more difficult).  Over the next few hours we’re going to add a few more posts to share about our experiences here.

Additionally, our Australian collaborator Dr. Andrew Smith has been blogging about the expedition from his institution’s (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology organization) site.  Somehow he has better internet access than all of us, but regardless, feel free to read his account of our journey as well.



Weather clearing up

We didn’t have the nicest of weather in the first few weeks of our expedition, but still managed to get quite a bit done. We’ll try to post a video of our struggles against nature in following posts.

Working in high winds was difficult due to the uncomfortable cold and fast-blowing snows, which created enormous drifts between our camp areas and work sites. Blowing snow was also detrimental for many of our machines, meaning that we had to take extra care of our already poorly-functioning generators in order to ensure that the snow did not affect their operation, as well as other mechanical pieces like the winch that we used to lower the rubber bladder into the bore hole to sample the air from the firn.


photo by Lindsey Davidge

photo by Lindsey Davidge

Fortunately, most days since our first two weeks of mercilessly high winds and cold temperatures have been breathtakingly gorgeous. While some of us didn’t know to expect anything different, the bad weather came as an unfortunate surprise to the many veterans of our team, who persisted in telling us that Greenland is usually beautiful in May. Now that it actually is, we can finally believe them.

As the weather cleared up and travel conditions improved, we were able to begin traveling to Summit Station for our planned days off, to refuel our machines and to restock our food supply. Driving across the ice sheet on unreliable (albeit functional) snow machines has been an incredible addition to our already extraordinary travels: due to the strangely beautiful and entirely planar topography of central Greenland, driving a snow machine across the ice sheet seems almost akin to a boating adventure in the vast open ocean. (Furthermore, when the snow machines shut down mid-route, it highlights the expanse of the ice sheet and silence of the completely empty landscape, which is quite beautiful.) The natural small drifts appear like waves and the reflection of the ever-present sun lingers in the distance, making for beautiful travel routes and some pretty great travel photos, like that of a gypsy-looking Ben traveling into the sun dogs with a sled of delicious cargo from Summit’s kitchen.

Photo by Lindsey Davidge

Photo by Lindsey Davidge

Because of the low winds we’ve had recently, even the occasionally cold -35F night seems much more bearable than it would have the first few weeks of our expedition. Our kitchen tent, which is heated by a small Kuma stove, also fluctuates greatly in temperature due to the winds: while the first few weeks didn’t witness any temperatures greater than 45F, now that the winds have slowed it is sometimes as high as 80F and we have to open its drafty door for ventilation to ensure that our foods don’t spoil. (Since naturally we leave our refrigerated foods on the usually-cold tables and our frozen foods on the usually-frozen floor. Actually, the only foods we keep insulated or worry about at all are the things in cans or jars that we do not want to freeze.)

Overall, the nice weather has made us much more productive and comfortable, and also given us some opportunities to visit Summit (take showers, eat delicious food) so that we are not completely disgusting/malnourished beasts wandering around in the arctic in the name of science. It turns out Greenland in May is beautiful after all!


Work at C14 Camp

Now that our whole operation is up and running, we all try to keep busy with the tasks around camp and the drill/science site in order to ensure things keep happening. On most given days, a few of us are in the science lab screening and sampling the firn air in between bouts of the drillers drilling the bore hole deeper and someone recording the length and origin depths of the resultant ice core pieces. At other times, we might be cooking meals in our kitchen tent or digging paths through the various drifts left by the winds around our site. (We’ve also done quite a bit of digging for a back-lit pit/cave, which enables us to see the layering of the upper firn quite nicely. We’ll write more about that later!) Attached is a picture of our drill site at work!

Photo by Andrew Smith

Photo by Andrew Smith


Firn Air Sampling

As described in the post about our scientific goals, the main objective of this expedition is to collect samples of the air trapped in the open pores of the compacted snow (firn) before it is trapped in ice bubbles.  Acquiring these samples is a multi-step process requiring several people and 2-4 hours depending on how many samples we collect.  Here, I’ll try to give everyone a flavor for what it is like to collect a sample of firn air.

The Firn Air Sampling Device consists of a 5m piece of expandable rubber tubing (aka. The bladder) that is sealed with metal endcaps.  The bottom endcap has two inlet lines of synflex tubing (coated thin wall aluminum tubing) that are used to sample the air from the bottom of the borehole which are somewhat separated by a metal baffle plate.  The higher up (and larger flowrate) inlet is called the waste line, while the line below the baffle plate is referred to as the sample line.  The purpose of the waste line is to remove any potential contamination that may leak past the edges of the bladder, allowing the sample inlet to collect as pure firn air as possible.  These sampling lines run through the length of the bladder and out the top endcap continuously for ~115m.  .  Additionally, there is a third line running from the bladder to the lab that is used to inflate the bladder to overpressure.

The first step in the procedure requires gently lowering the bladder into the borehole.  This takes several people to do in order to prevent the connections from getting stressed and leaking.  The bladder is carried over to the borehole and gently lowered down by an electric winch.

Photo by Andrew Smith

Photo by Andrew Smith

Every 10m we attach a metal clip to the winch cable with a prusik knot around the bundle of cable to prevent the lines from kinking as they travel down the borehole (Props to John Miller & his boys at the UofR machine shop for making these for us!).  Lowering the bladder down the borehole was quick at first, but once the hole got to be ~70m deep it could take as much as 20 minutes.  Tying these clips in the freezing cold is a really great way to lose feeling in your fingers.

Photo by Ken Keenan

Photo by Ken Keenan

Once the bladder is in the borehole, we head into the lab and inflate the bladder.  The rubber bladder material stretches against the walls of the borehole under pressure – ensuring that we are actually sucking air from within the firn – preventing any outside air from leaking past the bladder.  Once the bladder is inflated, its time to quickly turn on the sampling pumps and take a look at the air that we get out.  Monitoring and directing the flow of air is done by a complicated looking instrument that was built ~20 years ago specifically for this purpose.  It has 4 vacuum pumps was well as a series of valves, flow meters and pressure gages that enable us to monitor the flow of air as it comes out of the firn and direct it to either be measured or filled into sample flasks.

SL 0009

Photo by Andrew Smith

We brought two instruments to the field with us that enable us to measure the concentration of the air that is sucked out of the firn.  One is a Cavity Ring Down Spectrometer manufactured by Log Gatos Research that lets us continuously measure CH4 and CO2 in the air stream.  The other is a Reducing gas detector (essentially a specialized Gas Chromatograph) by Peak Labs that measures CO and H2.  We flush the firn air through the system while measuring the samples on our instruments.  We are looking to see two things when we examine the concentration of the gas stream:  First, we want to make sure that the concentration of the air stream is constant for a good period of time, indicating that we are pulling air from a single layer within the firn.  Additionally, we are looking to see if the concentration at a given depth level agrees (within uncertainty) with a diffusion model calculated by one of our team members, Christo Buizert.    We measure the air once it first comes out as well as between filling different flasks to make sure that the concentration is constant over the time that it takes to collect a sample.

Once the air stream is determined to be of good quality, we direct the flow to fill a variety of flasks that will be measured at several different laboratories for different quantities.  First, we fill 2 2.5L glass flasks to ~8.5psig be measured at NOAA in boulder, Colorado to measure CO2, CH4, CO, H2, SF6 and N2O concentration levels.  Another similar 2.5L glass flask is filled to measure Non-Methane Hydrocarbons at UC Irvine.  We fill a 3L stanless steel ‘Silco-Can’ to be measured at LGGE in France for CO isotopes.  Finally, we fill two large 35L Stainless steel canisters to 40psig – one to measure Noble Gases and N2 fractionation at UCSD– and the other for UofR to measure Carbon 14 of CO2, CO and CH4 . All in all, by the time we’re done flushing the system and filling flasks, we’ve pumped anywhere from 1000-3000L of air.  While this seems like a lot of air, in reality, it only comes from a few cubic meters of firn.

 Photo by Lindsey Davidge

Photo by Lindsey Davidge


Moving in to carbon-14 camp

Getting out to our field camp has been quite an adventure.  After taking a few days at summit to acclimate to the climate and altitude, we were eager to get out to our site and start collecting our samples.  With the winds often over 20 knots leading to blowing snow and poor visibility, folks operating summit station were not too keen on letting us travel out there and set up in such poor conditions.  Eventually, even though the weather was not great, the need to get things started at camp was very high.  A few of us piled emergency survival bags into the back of the tucker (think snow tractor) and drove the majority of our cargo out to our site.  I even got a chance to drive the tucker for a bit

Photo by Ken Keenan

Photo by Ken Keenan

All of our scientific cargo arrived to summit palletized by the Air National Guard.  It took the 5 of us who came out there quite a few hours, but with everyone working together, we got the majority of our science gear to the site and unloaded.  The case (seen below) was instrumental in lifting all of the heavy stuff and getting it in place.

Photo by Ken Keenan

Photo by Ken Keenan

The following day (May 8th), a large part of the team set out on skidoos with some of the more fragile cargo.  Driving the skidoos is quite fun, though since we were towing precious cargo over some significant snowdrifts, we had to take caution not to go much over ~20 km/h.  Once we got to the site, we moved as many boxes to their appropriate locations and helped to set some of the remaining 8’x8’ “arctic oven” personal tents.  We still had to stay at summit that night, as we still had some DNF (Do not Freeze) and personal cargo to bring before we could finally move in.  However, getting most of the folks out there to see the site got us really excited about the adventure we were about to experience. 



Facing the Brutal Cold of Summit

Salutations from Summit station, 10530 feet above sea level atop the Greenland Ice sheet. As of writing this, the current conditions are -28C (-18F) and wind at a calm 15 knots. While those conditions may seem extreme to the majority of you, it’s been some of the better weather we’ve had while here. The first night the temperature dropped down to -36C outside (although inside the insulation of our Arctic oven tents it fell to only about -20C). The wind is generally more problematic than the temperature. 20 knots seems to be the threshold point for when visibility decreases dramatically due to blowing snow. Once the winds are that high, travel anywhere, even around camp, can be dangerous due to not being able to see where you are going. The photo below shows a view of the facilities and tent housing from summit looking out of the big house

The view from the Big House

Speaking of sight, the flat white view from atop the icecap is pretty breathtaking. Outside of the structures erected in camp, traces of snowdrift are the only visible things in all directions. Outside of the flat white, the glaring sun circle overhead in the sky at all times. During the night, the sun kisses the horizon, possibly setting for an hour, although the sky never gets dark. Most days when the visibility is good, a really awesome optical phenomenon called parhelia (aka. Sun dogs) are visible. It’s a really amazing sight of bright winking lights formed alongside the sun. They are often accompanied by a partial or complete rainbow halo encircling the sun. If the sky is clear, you can even see a second pair and its rainbow halo at a greater distance. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to photograph them completely, perhaps we’ll get more practice as the season continues.

Sun dogs - parhelia

I should be clear to mention that sun dogs are distinctly different from what you think of rainbows, which formed by refraction of water droplets in any position and orientation. Sun dogs are created as a result of the high abundance of ice crystals in the atmosphere. The ice crystals exist in a hexagonal lattice structure. As the sunlight travels through the atmosphere, the ice crystals act like prisms, refracting the light that travels through them. The size and angle of the sun dogs can change based on the angle of the incident sunlight, though the optics of the crystal structure requires them to form at a minimum of 22 degrees. They occur often in the high arctic where the sun is low in the sky and the temperatures are cold, but we’ve been able to see them every day so far, which is apparently rare for summit.

Staying Warm,
Ben (Photos by Andrew)

Scientific Goals

During our stay in Kanger, our nine-member field party met to discuss the scientific goals and the logistics of how they were to be accomplished. In a nut shell, the principal goal is to study the fate of in situ produced 14C (‘radiocarbon’) in firn and shallow ice. This firn air will be used for other studies as well, for example analysis of the isotopes of neon. Secondary goals include a detailed analysis of the bubble-close off process as the firn becomes ice, analysis of last season’s anomalous melt-layer (specifically the effect it had upon CH4 (methane) concentrations), measurement of black carbon aerosols over the last 200 years and also of the 10Be (beryllium-10) concentration over the same period. I am involved in the primary goal, through measurement of the 14C concentration of the CO (carbon monoxide), CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 by AMS (accelerator mass spectrometry) in our laboratory at ANSTO in Southern Sydney. I am also involved in the latter two secondary goals and a ~ 85 m core from the surface will be shipped back to Australia for these studies.

Some of these terms deserve an explanation. As snow falls in Polar Regions it generally doesn’t melt, the big melt all over Greenland last July was unusual, but not totally unprecedented. So, the snow continues to build up, compressing and sintering the underlying snow. While this process is going on, the spaces between the snow crystals which are filled with air are still in contact with the atmosphere, but through paths of increasing tortuosity as the depth beneath the surface increases. We call this sintering snow ‘firn’ and at Summit the firn layer is about 65 m thick. At about this point, the ‘lock-in depth’, these channels begin to close off and the atmospheric air within is locked into bubbles that then move with the ice. Of course this air will contain CO, CO2 and CH4 in very small concentrations, just as the atmosphere does. The C (carbon) atoms in these molecules can be one of three carbon isotopes: 12C (carbon-12, ~99% abundant), 13C (carbon-13, ~1% abundant) and 14C (carbon-14). Normal atmospheric concentrations of 14C in CO2 are very small: about one 14C atom for every 830,000,000,000 12C atoms! This is why you need a particle accelerator to count them by the technique of AMS. This trapping process continues over about another 20 m and at ~ 85 m depth, the ‘close off depth’, all the channels have become bubbles and no further exchange with the atmosphere is possible. So, it can be seen that the air in the bubbles is younger than the ice that encloses it; in practice there is also a spread of ages and this differs somewhat for each gas species as they have different coefficients of diffusion which affects the speed that they can move through the firn layer. It is possible to drill a blind hole, stopping at depths all the way from the surface to the close off depth, to plug that hole with an inflatable bladder, and to pump ‘firn air’ from the base of the hole to tanks at the surface. Large air samples (~ 500 L) can be collected in this way, and the air comes from a narrow depth range. This is because of density changes which produce layers that are less permeable than others and tend to suppress vertical movement of the air. These layers are normally produced seasonally.

The objective is to obtain a series of firn air samples at about 13 levels from about 5 m depth down to the close off depth. A number of different gas tanks and vessels will be filled at each level and will be sent to different laboratories for analysis. But, the firn air can also contain 14C that has originated not from the atmosphere but is produced in situ by cosmic rays, or more correctly by the energetic secondary particles that are produced when the primary cosmic ray loses its huge energy by collisions with gaseous nuclei in the atmosphere. On reaching the Earth’s surface, these secondary cosmic rays still have enough energy to split apart the O (oxygen) nuclei in the H2O (water) of which the ice is comprised. Some of these nuclear fragments contain 6 protons and 8 neutrons and so are 14C nuclei which quickly react to form 14CO, 14CO2 and 14CH4. We need to fully understand the fate of this in situ produced 14C for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has the potential to confound our studies of the 14C content of past atmospheric air, samples of which we obtain from air bubbles in old ice. Secondly, if the 14C is not conserved in the bubbles, this gives the potential to use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of ice cores where annual layer counting is not possible or practical. Thirdly, if it is conserved it could be used a ‘proxy’ to reconstruct the past cosmic ray flux.


Musk Ox and Bike Rides

Waking up early after a long day of travel the day before would seem like a cruel joke on its own, but heading up to temperatures of -36C and 18 knot winds is unimaginably cruel. Not much we can do though; the field season’s upon us. Our bags were ready for packing by 9am and our flight time set for 1pm. Our only hope was the weather at Summit being to poor for the planes to land. And so the talk began- how bad was it up on the ice sheet? Would we be able to stay in the relative warmth of Kanger for another day? At 12:30 we received the answer we had all been waiting for. We were free to explore or sleep for the rest of the day.

ride to sugar mtn

We got our team together for a lunch of Greenland Thai which included musk ox in every second dish. It was not bad- a little gamey and tough but certainly filled a stomach. Those of use not choosing sleep then headed off on a bike ride in hopes of getting our first view of the ice sheet as well as the bridge that washed away during last years historic melt. As we needed to get back to camp for a meeting, we were only able to get a brief glimpse of the ice sheet. Tomorrow morning we should be heading right to the top of the sheet at 10 500ft. The wind has died down which means that it is unlikely the flights will be canceled, but the temperatures have also dropped with a low for tonight of -40C. In preparation of possibly crashing we are required to wear our extreme weather gear on the flight. Lets hope our trip does not come to this but better safe than sorry.

Many teams going to other destinations are having similar conversations about the cold and the forlorn discomfort -40C temps can bring. One group will be heading to the ice sheet above Tunu in the far north-eastern part of Greenland. Like us they will be sleeping in tents but unlike us they will note have the convenience of shelter 10km away. It is hard not to be slightly concerned for them. You can keep track of their team moral by checking out their blog

First view of ice sheet


Boomeranging to Kanger

Greetings from Kangerlussaq! Today marked the first true day the expedition. We awoke at 4:45am at our hotel in Clifton park after arriving from all over later the previous night. Looking out in the morning, I took great care to observe the last real sunrise we were to experience for quite awhile. I wish I had taken a photo, but I was not exactly a happy camper to be up that early. Piling into cars and buses, we headed to the US Air National Guard base in Scotia NY. Once we dropped off our cargo, it was time to check in and spend quite a bit of time in a boring white room and wait for the plane to be ready. While everyone seemed a bit sleep deprived it was still a great experience to talk get to know the other members on our expedition, as well as several other groups heading to other parts of greenland on the same flight. As i recall, there were 34 passengers in addition the the Air National Guard crew. By the time 9am rolled around, we were informed that our plane was ready for take off and we headed out to the tarmac.


Getting out of the room, it was really great to feel the warmth of the sun. It must’ve been over 80F, and all of us crazy people are headed up to the arctic. Jon & lindsey even took the opportunity to get a last bit of laying in the grass before the flight.

Last bit of Sunshine

Packing into the plane and getting situated took quite a bit of time. The plane was cramped and dark with only small circular windows facing outward for light, not to mention VERY full. So much that every single seat was taken. We were given earplugs in advance and warned multiple times about how loud it would be… and they were definitely right. You couldn’t hear anyone unless you yelled directly in their ear. Shortly after we took off, I noticed that the plane appeared to be turning multiple times and that the houses started to get bigger outside the window. After awhile, we landed back in Scotia after flying in circles for awhile overhead. I was pretty confused and puzzled, although the more experienced travelers looked frustrated and indicated that the plane “boomeranging” like this is just part of polar travel.

We were brought back to the boring white room and told to wait to see what was going on. Someone overheard that there was a hydraulic issue on engine #4, thus it was probably a good thing that we didn’t progress with the flight all the way to Greenland. We waited back in the base for another three hours before we were cleared for flight on another LC-130. Since the plane was so full of people and cargo, we had to take a stop in Goose Bay, Canada – Roughly halfway to Kanger – in order to refuel. The drillers were excited to hear that we were stopping in Goose Bay, because they apparently have fantastic ice cream. While I wasn’t expecting packaged ice cream bars, I will admit it was the best dang strawberry shortcake I’ve ever had. With a quick chance to pee & strech our legs there, it was back on the plane for another 4 hours to kanger. Strong vibrations made it difficult to take a steady photo, but I did the best I could.

LC-130 inside

Later on in the flight, the plane started to get quite a bit colder, and after we dropped below the clouds I saw a wonderful view of ice fjords outside of the small window. It was then at this point that I realized I did not back enough warm clothes in my carry on, which only got worse as we had to wait outside in the cold for the Greenlandic border agent to stamp our passports. I felt quite foolish to have only worn baselayer top and bottoms, a fleece and pants, but even in kanger it was below freezing. The customs agent laughed at me when he saw me shivering, claiming “Hey, its summer here!”. Luckly, I was shortly reunited with the rest of my gear when we arrived at the KISS (Kangerlussaq International Science Suport) facility where we are staying tonight. Being ~11pm local time when we finally got in, the restaurants and canteen were closed, but CPS had purchased a large supply of mystery thai food for us to eat. I didn’t care what it was, for hot food felt really good after eating only granola all day.

We got a briefing from the coordination office here, and were told that our flight was scheduled to leave tomorrow rather than on the 6th as we had first expected. This means that we won’t have much free time to hang out in kanger, but hopefully we’ll get to do some of that after we finish our science. Tomorrow is the big flight to summit, and we still need to check on the status of all of our scientific cargo. Also, better make sure to have my full set of Parka/bibs/boots for the flight this time since the weather forcase at summit for today said it was -32C.

Regards from Kanger!