The log written by Leigh was supposed to be our last entry from the field. On Saturday morning, when we were expecting to be on a plane heading to Iceland and home, we were back at work on another glacier! Opportunities to carry out fieldwork in this part of the world do not come around very frequently, and because we were so close to Helheim Glacier, another major outlet glacier of the Greenland Ice Sheet, we decided to stay just long enough to check it out and see if anything was happening. Arne, our captain, managed to make very good time on the transit south from Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier and by the early hours of Saturday morning we were entering the mouth of Sermilik fjord. Helheim Glacier lies at the head of the fjord.
Leigh and I stayed up all night, alternating between games of cribbage and watching movies, waiting for the fog to lift so that we could fly with Hughie up to the glacier and take a look. The fog finally lifted at 5:00AM and after three strong cappuccinos we were ready to go. Tweety lifted off into the still morning air and we flew away from the ship, above the glassy fjord waters and massive icebergs, before turning inland and skirting the edge of the ice sheet on our way to the glacier. Leigh had prepared satellite image maps of the glacier as it appeared in the summer of 2001. Imagine our surprise when we flew over the mountains and saw that the glacier, just like Kangerdlugssuaq, had begun a rapid retreat! Right there in the helicopter we decided to stay a few extra days and carry out a measurement program on the glacier. After a quick fuel stop on the ship (for humans and Tweety), we were back in the air at 7:00AM, heading for the glacier to begin our surveys.
Helheim Glacier turned out to be the most challenging of our glaciers to work on. The crevasses were enormous and more chaotic than anything we have seen onthe trip so far. Hughie was incredibly patient in finding safe landing sites -- several times we set down on the glacier, before deciding that things were too dicey to risk getting out. Eventually, we were able to find 5 good landing sites at the locations we wanted. One site was our particular favorite – we set up our GPS receiver on a crevasse ridge above the most indescribably beautiful melt pool. Another site was more adrenaline-inducing -- because the ice sloped off steeply on either side of a narrow crevasse ridge, Leigh and I had to strap on our crampons before venturing away from the helicopter. Just like the other glaciers we have worked on, the weather was perfect once again, so that definitely helped.
We repeated the surveys on Sunday morning. Leigh and I processed the data as soon as we got back to the ship -- to our amazement, Helheim Glacier has also accelerated in recent years. Leigh clocked the glacier's speed at a respectable 8 km/yr in 2001, using sequential satellite images. But now, the glacier is trucking along at nearly 11.5 km/yr, an almost 40% increase in speed. Clearly, the changes we observed on Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier are not restricted to one glacier in Greenland. The results will give us plenty to work on when we get to Maine.
Tweety needed some maintenance, so most of the remainder of Sunday was taken up with Hughie and a visiting Icelandic mechanic doing repairs to the rotor blades. Leigh and I spent the downtime hiking the mountain ridge above the ship's anchorage. The views from the top were fantastic -- ice chocked fjords, sparkling skies, steep mountains everywhere. Glaciologists certainly have to put up with their fair share of bitter cold and discomforts, but days like this make me realize that I have the best job in the world. No question. And speaking of ice choked fjords -- Leigh and I swam in one after we descended from the mountain :)
After a few hours sleep, we were up again and flying to the glacier at 4:00AM on Monday morning. We had just enough time to do another survey of our markers, measure the depths of some melt pools (using an ingenious device consisting of a calibrated rope weighted with a shackle that we dangled out the door of Tweety while Hughie hovered us close to the surface of the pools – our Lake-o-meter). We returned to the ship with all our equipment and spent a somewhat frantic hour packing everything and saying goodbyes before Hughie flew us to Kulusuk airport and our flight to Iceland. It was very sad leaving the Arctic Sunrise -- Leigh and I truly had the time of our lives. Every crew member contributed to the success of our project and we are tremendously grateful to them all -- I know that many lasting friendships have been formed.
So, a few hours after being on a fast moving glacier in East Greenland, Leigh and I found ourselves in the relatively sumptuous surroundings of a Reykjavik hotel. First order of business was a hot shower. A long hot shower to make up for all the 2 minute ship showers we have taken the past month. And after that, a nice green salad! Tomorrow evening we will be back in Maine, back where the adventure began.