Ice sheets, arctic foxes and partying like you’ve not seen the sun in 4 months!

A few hours into the flight from the Azores to Greenland we started seeing sea ice below and then the Greenland ice sheet. I’d never seen this before and it fascinated me. Sometimes you could see large rock formations poking through the top, other times it was a flat white waste-land, with drifts and patterns caused by the wind. We passed over the Jakobshavn fjord, where we could see huge icebergs that had come of the glacier, currently stuck in the ice. This is currently the fastest moving ice-stream on the planet!

A glimpse of the Greenlandic ice sheet from the DC8 View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
A glimpse of the Greenlandic ice sheet from the DC8 View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).

 

Icebergs and sea ice off the coast of Greenland View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
Icebergs and sea ice off the coast of Greenland View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).

We flew over more sea ice before coming into Thule. After so much landscape without visible signs of humanity, it was funny to see the buildings of the Thule air base appear, resilient against the harsh conditions. After landing we were towed straight into a heated hangar, where we were given arctic parkers and could take a free taxi to the on-base hotel. It would only have been a 5-minute walk, but because of the extreme conditions the air base provides free taxis between all the buildings. All entrances have double doorways to keep out the cold, and the hotel was well insulated and comfortable. You only had to be careful about things like leaving clothes in the drier after it was finished as cold air coming up the vents would quickly freeze any remaining moisture very quickly.

Icebergs frozen into a fjord in Greenland, seen from the DC8 View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
Icebergs frozen into Jakobshavn in Greenland, seen from the DC8 (credit: Christina Williamson).

We fly a meteorologist on the mission, who is busy in flight updating the scientists, navigator and mission director on upcoming conditions in-case we need to adjust plans accordingly. Working alongside a team back at NOAA, he informed us before take-off to Thule that there was a large storm system due to come in two days after we arrived in Thule, right when we were due to take off again. This could stick around for a number of days and keep us grounded in Greenland. We therefore made the decision to leave Thule the very next day after landing. This is hard for the scientists to service and turn around instruments in a short time frame, and tough on the crew too to not get a down day in between flights, but we all felt it better than getting stuck indeterminately up in Thule, though we were sad not to see anything of this incredible place.

View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).

We were fortune to arrive on the evening of the “first light party”. Although it’s had not been dark all the time for a while now up at Thule, the base itself had not yet received direct sunlight this year. If the land was flat, the sun would have appeared on the horizon a week or so before, but the mountains blocked this. With the long flight, the time zone changes and the quick turn-around we were all keen to get an early night, but being in Thule for a first light party is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, so we dropped by just to take a look.

Me in a borrowed arctic parker on Thule Air Base, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
Me in a borrowed arctic parker on Thule Air Base, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).

A whole warehouse was dedicated to the party, and long tables laid out with a big meal. Everyone from the base was there, and in high spirits, with lots of costumes being paraded proudly. After surviving the winter up in Thule I imagine anyone would be ecstatic at the prospect of direct sunlight again. We left them to their well-deserved revelry and caught some sleep ready for the next flight.

Arctic Fox on Thule Air Base, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
Arctic Fox on Thule Air Base, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).

Between a very good breakfast with Danish bread, cheese and pastries in the mess hall, and the preflight I had a little time to explore base. It was -28C outside, so I even with my arctic parker 20 minutes outside felt like more than enough and my cheeks were red and sore when I came in, and my eyelashes frozen. I saw some arctic foxes roaming around base, one white, one black. They were clearly scavenging, and not too afraid of humans. Apart from that it was too cold and the time too short to see much other than the military buildings on base. But I got the impression this is quite an incredible place to be and felt lucky to have seen it, even for such a short time.

Taking off from Thule just before it receives its first direct sun of the year View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
Taking off from Thule just before it receives its first direct sun of the year View coming in to land at Thule, Greenland (credit: Christina Williamson).
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