Expedition 001

s/v ArcticEarth in Sondre Sermilik in June 2022. (all photos by David Conover unless otherwise noted)

ArcticEarth’s first charter (AE001) is a research expedition by the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine and its Director, Paul Mayewski. They are a partner of ArcticEarth, brought together by Peter Neill at the World Ocean Observatory. Paul’s team’s goal over the next 10-11 days is to collect at least 50 coastal water samples in southwest Greenland, and define a baseline chemistry that will help Greenlanders and others track and understand future human impact in the area. The job of ArcticEarth, Captain Magnus Day, and Mate Julia Prinselaar is to get this team safely into position. I am here to help record and convey the story of these efforts, and to witness the ArcticEarth initiative getting underway as imagined!

Day 2. Our first water samples will be in an ice-choked fjord known as Qooroq.  Before the team can get to the water, we have to get through the ice. What kind of ice is here?  How much?  How close to the desired stream can we safely pilot this aluminum boat?  What are our risks?  How does one “read the ice?” or “talk about ice?” For background, Magnus has sent me a tome of a book with the evocative title of MANICE. Man. Ice. Menace.  Hmmm. This is one of the go-to resources he draws upon as an experienced Ice Pilot. The long title is: Canadian Manual of Standard Procedures for Observing and Reporting Ice Conditions (a future JOURNAL will solely focus on ice, a substance upon which it is surprisingly easy to completely geek out).  This book contains the nomenclature for one out of six ice regions worldwide (the region that includes Canada and the USA… but I am not yet sure about Greenland?)

The Qooroq Fjord has a lot of three common types of ice that sources from a glacier, in this case the floating front of a glacier that is streaming down from the great Greenland ice sheet. In the three films I’ve produced about the kind of glacier that flows out of the mountains and down to the sea – the descriptive layperson’s term has been “tidewater glaciers” (I note that that term is not in this guide).

Make room to lower. The blue barrel is the "stranding kit," permanently tied into the bow of the tender.
Tender has been launched. Progress to shore is a combination of paddle and outboard.

Below are the terms for at least some of the ice that we are seeing here in the fjord (pictured above) as the team considers launches the tender to head to shore and take a sample from a feeder stream.

Growler = A piece of ice smaller than a bergy bit and floating less than 1 m above the sea surface, a growler generally appears white but sometimes transparent or blue-green in color. Extending less than 1 m above the sea surface.

Bergy Bit = A piece of glacier ice, generally showing 1 to less than 5 meter above sea level, with a length of 5 to less than 15 m.

Small Iceberg =A piece of glacier ice extending 5 to 15 m above sea level and with a length of 15 to 60 m.

An immediate and fascinating resource for understanding ice, however, is sitting right next to me!  Paul Mayewski (pronounced My-yeff-ski) is an internationally acclaimed glaciologist, climate scientist and polar explorer, leader of >60 expeditions to remote reaches of the planet including many field seasons traveling across Antarctica covering more than 25,000km, more than 100 first ascents of mountains in Antarctica, traverses over Greenland and many field seasons at high altitude throughout the Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau and the Andes. He has more than 475 scientific publications and two popular books “The Ice Chronicles” and “Journey Into Climate.” 

Assisting Paul on many of these trips has been Mariusz Potocki. Mario is a talented and published researcher in his own right, with great energy and competency in the field. He recently received his PhD and is considering future studies to help understand the impact of plastic in the environment. Alex Kuli also joins the UMaine crew for the trip. His training in emergency medicine has already been useful.  I flew to Greenland with these three and saw Alex help deliver supplemental oxygen to a fellow passenger who had collapsed at altitude. 

Mario Potocki takes a water sample from a stream, while Paul and ArcticEarth standby.
A water sample is taken atop a bergy bit in Sondre Sermilik.

As one might run lab tests on body chemistry to assist with individual health, so does Paul and Mario collect samples and run tests to describe the vitals of an earth system. In the fjords south of Nanortalik, they’ve collected four different types of water samples from the sea and from streams and lakes -even from a puddle on top of a melting iceberg!

Processing these samples back in the lab over the summer, they will measure soluable ions of sodium (salt) and other elements including rare earth and uranium. Plus PFAS forever chemicals and plastic. Some of these measurements require highly specialized equipment. I am intrigued with the plan of ArcticEarth helping others do this monitoring work with Paul, and to expand the story with a potential future film about the atmosphere. This is an under-appreciated area where the Arctic connects with the rest of the Earth.

Day 7.  With almost 50 samples already collected, the boat is anchored at an island named Uunartoq.  We turn off the Refleks heater and button up the hatch.  All six of us board the tender for the trip to the beach. We see a few very old foundations. Did the Norse also have a camp or settle here to farm during the 500 years they resided in Greenland  (starting in the 10th century)? Was this spot part of the Eastern Settlement or the 400 farms in Greenland identified by archaeologists? The site is supposedly mentioned in the Sagas. Uunartoq is a spectacular place, and today appears to be occasionally visited and used as a fish camp.

Something else draws people to Uunartoq, we soon discover. We wander up a well-trod path, passing a secure cove and sand beach with pier on the north side of the isthmus to the hot spring. There is a natural hot spring! I never realized geothermal activity can be found in Greenland.  The site is clearly popular, perhaps with the residents of nearby Alluitsup Paa. Two changing cabins have been built. A set of rules posted. A rock wall encircles the round pool with a sandy bottom. The sand is warmer the deeper one buries in the hands and feet. Very snug. Magnus helps washes his wife Julia’s hair, and then they join the rest of us in the hot spring for at least an hour.  As we take that step into the bracing fresh cool air, we see a small runabout come into the cove with the next group. They are Inuit: three small children, two men, and two women. We meet them on the path and they are clearly very excited to reach the relaxing hot spring on a Friday afternoon.

Mario in the Uunartoq hot spring.
Magnus washing Julia's hair far from Hot Spring.

A bit of trivia for you hardcore historians of navigation… just across the way, an archaeologist named Christen Vebaek found an 800-year old Norse “bearing dial” or “sun disk” in 1948.  This piece of carved oak became known as the Uunartoq Disk.

Modern replica showing how a course of Northwest by West may have been plotted by the Uunartoq Disk's user around the time of the summer solstice. The traveller rotates the disk while keeping it level until the vertical gnomonic pin tip's shadow touches the summer solstice gnomonic line (1), which reveals the direction of true north (2). The traveller then turns the horizontal directional pin five compass points to the west for NWbW, and adjusts course to match the direction of the pin (3) (photo and text creative commons/wikipedia).

A few more fjords with a few more adventures, and then a final transit of a dense glacial drift ice back to the airstrip at Narsarsuaq. In the end, over 81 samples have been collected. We all regretfully said good-bye to a fantastic group for ArcticEarth’s first charter! I look forward to what these samples reveal, and to help organize future expeditions with the Climate Change Institute.  We are considering opening these trips to private groups.

Pass the Mic

After meeting Paul in Maine a few times, we flew together with Mario and Alex en route to meet the boat in Greenland. Over lunch in the airport, Paul introduced a logistical question… with a twinkle in his eye.  He apparently covers this question on the first day of every expedition:

“If by some misfortune in the days ahead, we find ourselves starving to death -with neither food nor prospect for acquiring food- and we have decided that we must resort to the unspeakable act of consuming one of our team… who should that person be?  I find it best to decide this question now.”

I immediately raised my hand. Cheers everyone. Happy to serve (or be served?) A Conover for the Carnivores.

"The Arctic air is cool and moist and so breathable. I always want to breathe in the biggest possible gulp of air."

[David]: Tell us about your goals for this expedition.  [Paul]: We’re in the 10th day of sampling program off of ArcticEarth in which we’ve been collecting water to look at  chemistry, which changes as a consequence of glacier melt. We’ve been getting these samples from the open ocean by going up into the fjords, by sampling streams that drain into the fjords, streams that come off glaciers and glacier ice. The Arctic is changing really fast, and we want to find out what those changes are and be able to make better predictions for the future.

How are you proceeding with this program?  We all know the Arctic is warming. We all know that it’s a consequence of human activity. All of these measurements are being taken from ArcticEarth, a vessel that’s extremely well equipped for polar environments with an amazing, highly-experienced crew.

In order to do the sort of monitoring travel over the distances that we have to do to understand what’s going on throughout the the North Atlantic and the Arctic, we wanted a vessel that was not going to pollute. We also need to be able to move in and out of very tight inlets. We need a vessel that’s strengthened for the type of ice that surrounds us. And we need a vessel that can go long distances without necessarily using a lot of fuel. ArcticEarth is really beautifully set up for this.

And what is next?  This trip was a reconnaissance to find out how much sampling we could get done in ten days. We wanted to learn more about the coastal environment. Despite the fact that we’ve been working in Greenland for many years, this coastal environment is different is new to us. 

In future years, we’re interested in the entire region of the northwestern Atlantic, which includes where we are right now, southern and western part of Greenland, right up the entire west coast into Baffin Island and around to Nunavut and then back, of course, to Maine.