Murphy’s Law Still Prevails on the Ice

As I write this blog post, I’m sitting on the comfortable futon of summit station, enjoying our first day off since we’ve gotten here. Its been a long and stressful start to our season, so allow me to catch everyone up to speed on the details of what has happened thus far.

Our team arrived at summit on Wednesday May 14th, happy to be on the ice and in the presence of many familiar faces from last year. We were welcomed into the station by the station manager, Ken, and urged to take a breather, relax, and get used to the altitude. Shortly after arriving, I began to feel the altitude very strongly (Headache, exhaustion, slow breathing, body aches) – not a pleasant beginning to the season as we were all eager to get out to our field site and begin working. I was not the only one in fact, many members of our team weren’t feeling great regarding the altitude or sleeping the first night in tents in the brutal cold (I think it got down close to -40 – quite different than the warm summer temps everyone is experiencing stateside nowadays)

The following day, some members were feeling better and started walking around station to locate cargo and begin getting it transferred out to our field site 10Km NNW of station. Others (myself included) rested on the couches at summit, giving our bodies time to acclimate to the dramatic change in altitude & cold temps. By Friday 5/16, I finally had gotten a good night sleep and was feeling good enough to get to work, though I couldn’t say the same for other members of our team. We took a poll in the morning, and half of us (Vas, Michael Josh & Myself) were feeling good enough to make the move out to our camp, while the others decided to hang back at station, resting and trying to allow their bodies to acclimatize.

The move went smoothly for us, working hard to get our camp established so that we could begin setting up the drill and scientific equipment the following day. By the end of the day, as we all gathered for a dinner that our camp manager, Jamie, had prepared for us – we heard that summit station had an urgent message for us. One member of our team, Isaac, had come down with HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and was being medically evacuated to a hospital in Illulisat (a larger city than Kanger along the Greenland coast). This was a shock to us all, overwhelmed with worry, but apparently in good hands as one member of the station was also trained as a nurse and flew with him to ensure his safety. Meanwhile, Phil & Jayred were also not doing so well physically and kept under close watch of the station medic. Melisa, on the other hand had acclimatized and was to be coming out to camp the next day.

Short-staffed but still with enough to do, we plodded forward with setting up the lab and drill with as many hands were available – while Vas took a ride back to summit to discuss options regarding our staffing for the remainder of the season. When Vas returned that night, he asked us if we wanted to hear the good news, the bad news, or the REALLY bad news. The good news was that Isaac had made it to Illulisat and was recovering in the hospital there (As I write this he is back home in colorado and doing better). The bad news was that Phil and Jayred were both to be sent home the following day (the last day of the flight period) as their conditions (Vertigo and difficulty breathing) were not improving. The even worse news was that Melisa was to be sent home as well, although she had acclimatized well, she had also lost a filling on her tooth and with no dentist around the concerns of an infection developing was enough to have her sent back home.

Disappointing news all around – in that only a few days into the the first half of our season , we were reduced to half of our originally planned team size. I guess Murphy’s law still continues afflicting us even up on the icecap. Needless to say, this has put a negative impact on our plans for the season. We’ve all been working very long days, but been receiving help all around for everyone who can. Between our camp and summit station, there is another camp of drillers testing the intermediate drill for the South Pole Ice core to be deployed in Antarctica the next two seasons. They have been immensely helpful by sending us a drill assistant for the past several days to work with Josh so that Michael Vas & I could set up the lab and begin our 14C extractions. They have also helped us out by inviting us over to dinner at their camp – enabling us to focus as much on the science as we can. This is amazing on their end, considering that their season was even cut short by a week and a half as a result of the issues with the C130 planes I mentioned a few posts ago. They have just transitioned to working 2 shifts, so we will have to manage with just the four of us for now.

Luckily, I’m proud to say that we haven’t really fallen behind yet – largely as a result of cooperation on behalf of the weather (let’s hope is stays that way ;P) and everyone around summit being exceptionally helpful. Vas drafted out a plan for the remainder of the season, and provided that we’re able to get up to a full team of 8 + Jamie on the next flight period (Jun 4th), we may still be able to complete our sampling goals. All of our focus now is in acquiring the samples we came here for. Hopefully when things get simpler we will be able to share more stories & photos of our work here. But until then – we’re working hard up here at summit



Tikilluarit Kalaallit Nunaat (Welcome to Greenland)

As I write this blog post, we are headed to our final destination: Summit. The journey has certainly been long and eventful. We started out driving to Albany on an atypically warm Rochester Sunday. Ben’s aunt Sharon and uncle Ed were kind enough to provide food and lodging for the night. As the sun set, Michael, Phil, and Ben went outside to enjoy their last glimpses of darkness for the next 6-7 weeks. The following day at a casual 05:00, we headed over to the air national guard base in Scotia. The base was a lot smaller than I was expecting, but the planes were huge! We were taking a C-130 up to Kangerlussuaq. The inside of the plane was a hollow shell with a bunch of cargo strapped to the back and mesh seating for the passengers. There was very little personal space and comfort, but we all managed the trip just fine, well maybe not Phil. The most surprising aspect of the plane ride was the men’s “urinal”. It was essentially a metal bucket with a lid behind a curtain at the front of the plane where the seating was. Allegedly there was a women’s bathroom at the rear of the plane, but I doubt it could actually be called a bathroom. Otherwise, the ride wasn’t too bad in terms of the steadiness of the plane.


Photo by Melisa Diaz

A rare C-130 without Skiis

Photo by Melisa Diaz

Isaac loved the C130 flight

Our first stop was at Goose Bay in New Foundland. Though it was about 75 degrees fahrenheit when we left Rochester, Goose Bay was at a brisk 30 degrees. We stayed in the air base there for the duration of the plane refueling, but it was nice station. The couches were super comfortable and gave some of us the opportunity to take a cat nap before re-boarding the plane.

Photo by Tony Boyer

Looking out the window of the East Greenland coast

Next was Greenland. We arrived at Kangerlussuaq at about 18:00 and the runway was amazing! It was surrounded by tall hills on all sides with snowy caps. While we waited for the officials to check our passports, I tried to spot the town. Eventually one of the passengers pointed it out to me. Kangerlussuaq consist of about 15-20 very colorful buildings and around 400 residents. We were housed in a red bunker looking building known as KISS (Kangerlussuaq International Science Support). The living quarters were hostel style, which was a new experience for me. My roommate was an older woman named Leah who was actually going to be at the nearby field camp at Summit working on the Intermediate Depth Drill (IDD). It was rather late after we ate our “food”, so I started preparing my bed. But after entering my room, I was shocked at how bright it still was outside. It looked like it should have been about 17:00 as opposed to 23:30. It definitely took me a while to convince my brain that it was actually late at night and fall asleep.

The next day was full of adventure! Michael, Phil, Ben, and I went next door to the Polar Bear Inn, which is pretty much the only restaurant in Kanger. There were some interesting items on the menu, like musk ox green curry, but not many vegetarian options. Most of us decided on pizza with corn and mushrooms. I’ve eaten some bad food throughout the years, but this was on a whole new level. I’ve never heard of corn on a pizza before so I was a bit curious about it, but it’s honestly a terrible idea. They used canned corn and slimiest mushrooms known to man. It was edible, but I definitely did not want to fill up on it. Phil and Ben generally agreed, but Michael loved it. He claimed it was good plastic-y pizza and finished all our leftovers. I have no idea how his stomach hasn’t just given up on him

After lunch I went on one of the coolest adventures of my life. Also traveling up to Summit were a couple of tower workers planning inspect and increase the efficiency of the ones at Summit. Like me, this was their first time out of the country, so we wanted to go exploring. We rented an incredibly pricey old Toyota Hilux and drove out to the edge of the glacier. The views were absolutely amazing. Most of the water was still frozen, but you could tell that after everything melts, Kanger will be full of sparkling blue lakes and ponds. The road that we took was very windy and rocky and made for an adventure on its own. Along the way we saw a herd of musk ox and some reindeer. They were so cute!!

Photo by Melisa Diaz

Photo by Melisa Diaz

Melisa standing at the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet

We drove on the road as long as it went. The end was a geologist’s playground. There were huge glacial deposits and I grabbed a few samples for my rock friends back in Rochester. The ice sheet was beautiful. It was so dynamic in shape and colorful with the different melt layers picking up shades of blue. We walked on it for a short while before heading back. It was a nice precursor to the sights I will see once I get off the plane at Summit and I look forward to seeing the area again once it melts on the return trip. On the way home, the gentlemen who accompanied me on the trip let me take the wheel and showed me how to drive stick shift. It was kind of terrifying learning on such a difficult road, but I got the hang of it pretty fast. We have since left KISS, but I loved staying there and had a really fun couple of days. The team had a logistical meeting before we left and I’m looking forward to a successful field season!


Polar Research Vs. Murphy’s Law

Hello everyone.  Apologies on not providing updates to our research blog sooner, but it has been a very busy time here at the UofR Ice core lab.  I’m glad to announce that we are leaving for our 2014 season in Greenland this coming Monday, May 12th 2014.  But before we get there, let me take you back a bit through the craziness that has occurred here in the past few months in preparation for this season.

I’ve been very busy in the lab testing the performance of our 14C extraction line that we will use to process our field samples that we have started to collect.  That was my main objective this semester after returning from the Antarctic in late January – hard to believe that was only three and a half months ago.  By mid-march I had finished generating a series of test samples that were sent to our colleague Dr. Andrew Smith to be measured on the ANTARES accelerator at ANSTO.  A few weeks later the results were in that our system was exceptionally clean and performing exactly as we had anticipated – I had the green light to go ahead and process the firn air samples we had collected at summit last year.

Photo by Melisa Diaz

Taking good notes is important for sound science!

Time was of the essence too, since the 35L electropolished steel cylinders containing our samples from last year needed to be evacuated and shipped to Greenland to contain the samples we are planning on collecting this upcoming season.  The rush was on, and I began working as hard as I could to process and extract our 14C samples.  Working 10-12 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week became the norm – as deadlines with regards to this season were fast approaching.  Likely as a result of long days spent in the lab, I made a critical mistake one Sunday night – I accidentally fractured part of the glass on our sample line!

Photo by Ben Hmiel

Luckily this occurred while I was setting up the line rather than during sample collection, so I was very thankful that no sample was lost.  As you can see from the photo the damage to the line was minor, and since I was following proper procedure it was isolated to only a single section of the line.  Taking a deep breath – I sent an email off to our glassblower who could hopefully patch up the line and after a day or two of flushing clean air through I could be back in business.  The first essence of panic came to me when I found out that our glassblower (West Scientific Glass) was on vacation, and would not be returning for about a week.  This was troublesome, but manageable, giving me time to catch up on processing cargo and doing other logistics preparation.  Time was running short to process all of the samples, but at least I had a few days to catch up on sleep before the final push came through.

The flowing week Joe came in and repaired the line in his usual perfect fashion, however; the following day as I attempted to flush the line with clean air and get it in operational condition again, I came to find out that the high-pitched whine coming from our Turbomolecular pump was signaling its own death – as it failed to spin up to the high vacuum needed in the procedure.

I wonder what Agilent would do if we returned it looking like this

I wonder what Agilent would do if we returned it looking like this

Aaaah, only when I had recovered from one problem another presented itself to me!  Spending the better part of a day on the phone with the manufacturer – I found there was another pump on the shelf available in their Delaware location that I was able to rush ship to us.  In case that wasn’t going to arrive in time, I also had our colleagues in Boulder, Colorado at INSTAAR ship out a pump that we could use.  In the meantime, Phil was driving a Penske truck with the majority of our cargo (Save the sample tanks and a few things we needed to ship last-minute to the Scotia Air National Guard base).

The day that I finally get the line flushed and in operational condition, we received a rather important email from the NSF regarding the C-130 aircraft that we fly to Greenland:

Dear Greenland Researchers:

The LC-130’s NSF uses to support operations in Greenland are experiencing a fleet-wide mechanical issue. The flight period planned for April 22-May 2 is postponed until further notice. NSF is exploring options for continuing science operations in Greenland while the aircraft are repaired. The 109th Airlift Wing is exploring options to make some aircraft available for missions to Greenland starting in May.

The bleed air lines, which are responsible for moving air away from the engine to heat the aircraft and for other purposes, may have corrosion that could cause significant issues in flight. Each aircraft needs to be inspected. Replacement parts are in limited supply given the number of C-130 aircraft nationwide that potentially need replacement bleed air lines and replacement seals and other parts for re-sealing the engine following inspection or repair.

We are looking at options for supporting the planned science. Science has already been delayed but no projects have been cancelled so far.

Wow.  This came to us at a time when I’m already working at full capacity to get our prior samples processed.  Kind of familiar to last season at Taylor Glacier, where the government shutdown nearly cancelled our season.  I guess the nature of our work is a constant battle against Murphy’s Law – “If something can go wrong, it will”

Many discussions were had at that point about what would happen to our season.  This came ~3 weeks before our scheduled departure, so our options were as varied from a week delay to cancelling the whole season until next year.  It was a very uncomfortable 6 days until we finally got news that the repairs had been made to the planes and the test flights were successful!  We got the green light to go as scheduled.  Good news for our season – bad news for me in that I had to work like a dog to get the rest of the samples processed before we leave.

Photo by Melisa Diaz

This is the most challenging part of extracting samples – one mistake when flamesealing and all that time and effort is wasted!

Well, that was about a week ago and after a series of long days & nights in the lab, I’m proud to say that as of yesterday, I have officially extracted a full suite of 14CH4 & 14CO samples from the firn matrix collected at summit last year.  In fact, as I write this, I am processing the final standard extraction on the system to complete our set of 14C samples that will be shipped to ANSTO to be measured in the coming month.  This will constitute the first major dataset of my PhD!

Bubble wrapped and ready for shipping acoss the world

Bubble wrapped and ready for shipping across the world

As for the season preparation, some science projects, including the IDDO Intermediate Drill Test were delayed about a week and a half.  Hopefully they will still be able to complete their work in their time at summit.  Let’s just hope the weather behaves.  On our end, the sample tanks were cleaned out and shipped off the ANG base on Tuesday with the last of our cargo.  Many thanks to officer Durant at the Rochester airport CBP office for processing the customs registration for us.  Now all that is left is for us to pack up our clothes and make the journey over to Scotia for our flight.  Next you hear from us we should be up above the Arctic Circle!