Thu, Nov 05, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Scientists add to climate data on Greenland mission

The US government spends about US$1 billion per year to support Arctic and Antarctic research, while the researchers are aware their work costs ‘a tremendous amount of taxpayer money’

By Coral Davenport, Josh Haner, Larry Buchanan and Derek Watkins  /  NY Times News Service, ON THE GREENLAND ICE SHEET

On Oct. 13, the committee subpoenaed NOAA scientists, seeking more than six years of internal deliberations, including “all documents and communications” related to the agency’s measurement of climate change.

Any cuts could directly affect the work of Smith and his team, who are supported by a three-year, US$778,000 grant from NASA, which must cover everything, including researchers’ salaries, flights, food, computers, scientific instruments and camping, safety and extreme cold-weather gear.

Every scientist, Smith said, is keenly aware that the research costs “a tremendous amount of taxpayer money.”

GETTING READY

In July, Smith’s team arrived in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, a dusty outpost of 512 people on the island’s southwest coast, which serves as a base for researchers to prepare for fieldwork on the ice sheet.

The scientists were excited, but anxious as they prepared to travel inland by helicopter to do the fieldwork at the heart of their research: For 72 hours, every hour on the hour, they would stand watch by a supraglacial watershed, taking measurements — velocity, volume, temperature and depth — from the icy bank of the rushing river.

“No one has ever collected a data set like this,” Asa Rennermalm — a professor of geography at the Rutgers University Climate Institute who was running the project with Smith — told the team over a lunch of musk ox burgers at the Kangerlussuaq airport cafeteria.

Taking each measurement was so difficult and dangerous that it would require two scientists at a time, she said. They would have to plan a sleep schedule to ensure that a group was always awake to do the job.

Everyone knew the team would be working just upriver from the moulin — the sinkhole that would sweep anyone who fell into it deep into the ice sheet.

The morning before departure, the team gathered in a hangar to pack gear and provisions: tents, collapsible metal cots, generators, pickaxes, crampons, freeze-dried meals, a wealth of scientific instruments, vials for snow, ice and water samples, and a cooler to take samples back to the US.

They also took toilet paper and several plastic bottles, each labeled in marker with a large letter “P.” The bottles were for the scientists to urinate in should they not want to go outside in below-freezing nighttime temperatures to the open-air “toilet” on the ice. Afterward they would serve a practical purpose, as hot water bottles tucked into sleeping bags.

Not least, they packed a pair of 4.5kg aerial drones, to map the icy watersheds.

Every item was weighed and reweighed since the helicopter could carry no more than 360kg and would have to make several trips. Smith’s grant covered 10 hours of flight time, including the pilot’s fee, at a cost of about US$5,000 per hour.

The scales brought bad news: The gear was far too heavy.

“Now we start getting rid of things,” Smith said grimly as he and the team began jettisoning extra food, utensils and blankets. They scaled down to the barest essentials and anxiously reweighed the items: 359.9 kilograms.

The helicopter took off with the team’s gear hanging from an attached net sling. The scientists gazed at the seemingly endless ice below, spreading in all directions, threaded with aquamarine rivers and lakes. After a 40-minute flight, the pilot cautiously bounced the helicopter on the ice, making sure it was hard enough to land on.

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