The Quest for the North Pole Bonus Episode 4: Live from Greenland
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I’m 750 miles above the Arctic Circle, at the very place where explorers had launched their quests for the North Pole more than a century ago.
Before me lies the huge Greenland Ice Sheet, the world’s second-biggest expanse of ice after Antarctica. It’s covered in a layer of spotless snow and rises from where I stand up to the horizon, where it meets a bank of clouds. Behind me, the bare terrain slopes for several miles to the sea, where I spot teeny little icebergs dotting the waters. The only signs of civilization are a couple of shacks and a gravel road that leads to the U.S. military’s Thule Air Base, hidden behind some hills about 18 miles away.
From my vantage point, it’s easy to imagine that not much has changed since the explorers’ time. But climate records show that it has changed—dramatically. The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing 280 gigatonnes of ice a year due to the warming climate.
A metric gigatonne is 1 billion tonnes. And 280 billion tonnes is equivalent to more than 5 million Titanics.
It’s hard to see an impact so massive. But that’s why I’m here: I’ve come with two scientists from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, or GEUS, who have invited me to see how they gather the data that reveals the future of the ice sheet, and by extension, us.
Glaciologist William Colgan and electrical engineer Christopher Shields are harnessing themselves to a pair of sleds filled with sensors, tools, and boxes of lead batteries that each weigh more than I do. Despite the six inches of fluffy snow, we still wear crampons over our waterproof boots. Our destination is an ice sheet monitoring station 1500 meters away, all uphill. I have the easiest job, just bringing up the rear while the guys man-haul the sledges in true 19th-century explorer fashion. But I still find myself huffing and puffing in the cold, dry air and terrain as slippery as a sand dune.
More than 100 years ago, explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Robert Peary traversed this Greenland ice. Their expeditions tested the boundaries of geography and human endurance. As I flounder up the icy slope in Chris’s sled tracks, I begin to understand the extreme physical challenges they faced in their quests.
Our mission may be less strenuous, but perhaps more important. Liam and Chris will replace environmental sensors on the monitoring station and download two years’ worth of ice sheet data. This information is key toward understanding how the ice sheet’s doing now, and what kind of catastrophes might occur in the future if we do nothing to halt climate change.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, you’re listening to the Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this is our final bonus episode: Live from Greenland.
Just getting to this remote part of Greenland was an adventure. After flying from New York to Copenhagen by way of Reykjavik and racking up three negative COVID tests, I met up with Liam and Chris the following morning at the airport. We boarded an Air Greenland flight to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s major international hub. Then we transferred to a much smaller plane for our flight to Thule Air Base, about 950 miles from the North Pole. The base would be our research headquarters for the week.
From the plane, the barren terrain of western Greenland spread out below my window. In the southwest of the country, countless lakes speckled the glacier-scoured rock. A bit farther north, we flew past the Jakobshavn ice field, one of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers, which appeared to litter the sea with icebergs. The terrain shifted from weathered rock to snow-covered hills, and then finally the Greenland Ice Sheet, which covered the land except for a narrow, level strip at the coastline. That’s where we were headed.
Knud Rasmussen, a Danish-Greenlandic explorer honored with a bronze bust at the Kangerlussuaq airport, connected this area to the ancient legends of Thule when he set up a trading post here in 1910 [PDF]. Long before that, this area served as a crossroads of people and ideas. Waves of Arctic settlers migrated the short distance across Baffin Bay from present-day Canada to Greenland between 2500 BCE and 1200 CE.
They found a treeless land rich in food sources, thanks to the confluence of Arctic, Atlantic, and glacial waters. The seas support a vast web of marine life, from the tiniest fish to the fattest walruses, as well as Arctic foxes and musk ox—which were common sights during my visit. The plentiful game supported a village in the shadow of a tall, flat-topped mesa, both of which were named Uummannaaq, meaning “heart-shaped.”
In earlier episodes of The Quest for the North Pole, we mentioned how John Ross and William Edward Parry were the first European explorers to meet the Inughuit here in 1818. In the century following that meeting, more explorers and whalers dropped their anchors at the foot of Uummannaaq. In 1849, HMS North Star was on a mission to resupply ships searching for the missing Franklin expedition. The North Star got iced in and its crew was forced to spend the winter just offshore, which gave its captain, James Saunders, plenty of time to bestow British names on all of the surroundings. On a map today, you’ll find North Star Bay, Saunders Island, and Mount Dundas, the British name for the mesa.
Robert Peary made the area his headquarters for his attempts to reach the North Pole, though his main camp at Etah was about 140 miles north of Uummannaaq. Knud Rasmussen lived in Uummannaaq while operating the trading post and conducting his seven Thule Expeditions across the polar wilderness between 1912 and 1933. His colleague Peter Freuchen’s house still stands among the small cluster of brightly painted shacks on the edge of North Star Bay.
When I visited the village—now usually called Dundas—it was eerily quiet. In fact, it was abandoned. The U.S. military had removed the 27 families who lived there in the 1950s to a new settlement 60 miles north—because the Americans were building a top-secret air base on the other side of the bay.
It was called Operation Blue Jay.
At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. invested heavily in building air bases to create a network of defenses against the Soviet Union. Because the Soviets could theoretically launch ballistic missiles the short distance over the North Pole to the U.S., American military leaders realized they needed an Arctic-based system to detect those missiles. After securing agreements with NATO and Denmark, which administered Greenland, the U.S. Army launched Operation Blue Jay to construct Thule Air Base in 1951.
More than 7000 construction workers and engineers departed from Norfolk, Virginia, to build the base, but the mission was so secret they weren’t even told where they were going. The Thule airstrip opened in September, followed by sled-dog patrol units and a lot more. The specially-designed construction materials proved so sturdy that most of the barracks and offices—dubbed “flattops”—at Thule today are the original 1950s facilities.
In 1952, the military went public with Operation Blue Jay. A few years later, the U.S. built camps nearby to experiment with cold-weather defense and nuclear technology. One was Camp TuTO, an acronym for “Thule Take-Off.”
It served as a staging area for transporting equipment to Camp Century, a nuclear reactor base dug inside the ice sheet 100 miles inland.
Jim Fennell: They were red plywood buildings with snow all around them. Some would be like a mess hall, another would be the latrine, and another would be the library. The library was great.
That’s Jim Fennell. He was trained as a weather observer in the Army and served at Camp TuTO in 1962 and 1963.
Kat Long: What were your duties during your weather observations?
Jim Fennell: There was a standard sheet that you had to fill out every hour, which was, of course, the temperature, wind speed, direction, and then you go out and estimate the cloud heights and the types and the visibility. All of these things were done, of course, without any radar or any of the things that people use today. The only mechanical things we had were the wind speed and direction looked like a little airplane that would spin around and that would read out on a printer in the weather station.
I remember the one thing that most stood out was I recorded the low temperature for 1962, and that was -63 up at Camp Century.
That’s minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit. By recording the weather conditions at Camps TuTO and Century, Jim became part of the earliest organized climate research in this area of the Arctic.
Jim Fennell: To me, it was more of an adventure. I didn't get to go to Germany. I didn't get to travel in Europe, but I at least got a slight break from staying in the U.S. all of the time.
These camps were abandoned roughly a decade after they were built. The Army dismantled Camp TuTO’s red buildings, but left the long gravel access road from Thule Air Base out to the edge of the ice sheet.
And that’s where I found myself in September 2021, bouncing along in the backseat of a red pickup, with Liam at the wheel, Chris on the passenger side, and sea shanties blasting from the stereo.
The terrain as far as I could see had been bulldozed to create material for the road. The light layer of snow gave the plantless brown land a sugar-dusted look. As we neared the end of the road, the edge of the ice sheet came into view. The smoothly-sloping mountain of ice broke off in a slushy lake on one side of the road. On the other, I could see that the ice had receded and left behind a field of rounded boulders. The remains of the road leading to Camp Century rose about 150 feet above the surface of the ice sheet. Though it was no longer safe to travel on, we used the old ramp as a landmark on our slippery trek up to the ice-monitoring site.
The station is not a building or large structure. It’s a tall steel tripod and T-shaped metal bar with sensors to measure wind speed and direction, air temperature, solar radiation, and snow height. Two other sensor arrays were installed within the ice to measure temperature and pressure at different depths. They’re all connected to a box, which Chris described as the station’s brain, that transmits the data by satellite to the internet. Anyone can view the status of the Greenland ice sheet in real time.
This site is paired with another identical station higher up on the ice sheet. The eight pairs of stations scattered around Greenland make up GEUS’s Program for Monitoring the Greenland Ice Sheet, a.k.a., PROMICE, as Liam explains.
Liam Colgan: These stations, one lower and one higher, their goal is to measure ice and climate parameters. And so that means things that we need to know about how the ice sheet is responding to climate change.
We have to measure all the things you might need in a climate model, for example. We want to actually measure them, as we say in situ or out in the real world so we can compare what our climate model sees versus what is actually happening.
No one had visited this station since May 2019—thanks, coronavirus! Liam and Chris had to lay the whole station on its side to replace the sensors, and that required digging the tripod out of a year and a half of accumulated ice. Then each sensor had to be unscrewed from its mount and a new one screwed in. Knots of frozen wires had to be untangled. Easier said than done when it’s about 17 degrees and snowing sideways, like it was during our visit.
Liam Colgan: This is why you get like frostbite on your fingers because you're doing this really fine detailed work, like splicing a wire in and then trying to like close the cap back on and doing these little screws and something like that, it'll take 45 minutes to troubleshoot and solve.
The pain is worth it to glaciologists like Liam, because it leads to a better understanding of the ice sheet’s mass balance—the measure of how much mass the ice sheet is accumulating through snowfall, and how much it’s losing through melting or icebergs breaking off.
Liam Colgan: The idea is, if we can get a handle on the mass balance, the inputs and the outputs through time, through space, then we can understand how the ice sheet health is changing through time and space today, or at least in recent years.
When we look into the climate projections that the UN talks about, we can look at the different climate pathways and try to say, "Hey, this is what the ice sheet health is going to be under each pathway based on our knowledge of these processes today."
Kat Long: And so what is the health today that you're looking at?
Liam Colgan: The ice sheet is in a state of persistent decline or poor health today. It has a negative mass balance, which means the output that is the meltwater runoff and the iceberg calving, the outputs are much greater than the inputs. And as the climate warms, that has a direct effect on how much the ice sheet melts.
Remember those 5 million Titanics-worth of ice lost each year that I mentioned at the beginning of our story?
Liam Colgan: That's equivalent to about eight or 9000 metric tons per second, which is also an almost inconceivably large number, but maybe it also helps to contextualize it when you just think of thousands of tons of mass loss per second. That's the annual average that's day in, day out around the clock, around the year.
All of this is actually changing gravity. Essentially, as Greenland loses ice, it becomes lighter, which means it can exert less gravitational pull. Because of that, it can’t hold ocean waters as close to it as before. The waters are released to slosh around the Earth and collect elsewhere, meaning that places thousands of kilometers away are more affected by melting ice than places nearer to the poles.
Another mind-boggling effect of Greenland’s loss of ice is called “post-glacial rebound.” For millennia, Greenland’s land has been pressed down under the weight of the ice sheet. But as the ice sheet melts, it gets lighter, and the land below it springs upward. At a monitoring station near the fast-moving Jakobshavn glacier, the bedrock is now 10 feet higher above sea-level than in 1900. That’s 10 times the average. Other Greenland glaciers have experienced one foot of rebound in that time period—which is still a lot.
Knowing how different Greenland looked back then, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many ways the explorers’ experiences differed from mine. The glaciers and icebergs and snowpack they witnessed no longer exist. The Greenland Ice Sheet near the TuTO road terminates in a lake instead of land.
Just the fact that I, a regular New Yorker, could visit this part of the world was an indication that times had changed. Instead of sea boots and woolen mittens, we wore layers of down and fleece. Instead of hauling thousand-pound sledges over the ice, we carried only the gear we needed for each day’s work. And instead of spending months or years in the Arctic wilderness, we went back to the air base’s hotel each night—we even had a beer at the Top of the World Club, the local bar.
Liam Colgan: Our days were hard, they were tough, they were long, they were cold and windy, but if you back up almost a hundred years, it's just, now we have, Gore-Tex and goggles and stuff. I can't imagine what it would be like to be sledging across the ice sheet in anything colder than full polar summer. It must have just been super tough.
Kat Long: I was encased in multiple layers at all times on 98 percent of my entire body for this entire week. So for all the obsessing and reading and historical analysis I've done of the Arctic, this was my first time actually going there and I survived and that's okay and I didn't even have to eat any pemmican, so.
Liam Colgan: No, by Arctic standards, this is the first week that the snow has started to collect on the ice sheet so it was still Arctic summer here last week and now the snow is starting to collect and we're in single digits negative temperatures, so it's cool.
Kat Long: I can't help but notice that throughout the whole week in Greenland, you never once wore a scarf. Can you discuss how this is possible?
Liam Colgan: Well, I didn't pack a scarf. It was colder than I expected, but it wasn't that bad.
To me, this trip really capped off the story of the Quest for the North Pole. I was able to see the dramatic effects of climate change on a place that explorers believed would be frozen forever. It drove home the idea that what happens in the Arctic does not stay there. Its future is our future, too.
The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.
This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.
Thank you to Jim Fennell, Liam Colgan, and Chris Shields.
For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit mentalfloss.com/podcast.
The Quest for the North Pole is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, check out the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.