Power to X

Yesterday, I attended a mini conference on power to X and the potential to generate green synthetic fuels in Greenland.

Power to X became a big thing in Denmark a few years ago and the government is keen to promote it. Danish company Topsoe are currently building a green fuel facility in Herning and they have a nice explainer on their website of the concept.

In Greenland the fuels could be anything from hydrogen to methanol (though I learnt methanol is least likely as it requires a CO2 source that Greenland doesn’t have, ammonia seems the most plausible initially).

It was an interesting meeting, lots of different companies, institutions and the Greenlandic MP Aaja Chemnitz as well as academics were in the room. The emphasis was very much on the social and economic aspects of power to X, but as the title implied: Greenland has the potential to be the “world’s largest energy island.” From a local point of view, Greenland has very high per capita emissions and is heavily dependent on energy imports for transport, though a majority of electricity, at least in the south west, is already hydropower.

Many other smaller and more remote communities however are dependent on diesel generators for heating and power as well as for shipping, fishing and flying between communities.* Transitioning away from these fuels will be challenging but the potential for much larger developments is clear.

Head of development at NunaGreen (the recently rebranded and reoriented NunaOil), Rasmus Wendt, emphasised just how cheap and in theory at least, abundant, Greenland hydropower is. Probably some of the cheapest electricity in the world is generated by Greenlandic dams already operating or planned. And indeed the potential is massive. As the ice sheet melts, enormous amounts of water are produced more or less endlessly in Greenland. It will take at least a thousand years to melt the whole ice sheet, even under a high emissions scenario. We’re not going to run out of water soon.

Figure 2 from Aschwanden et al., 2019.
Observed 2008 state and simulations of the Greenland Ice Sheet at year 3000.
(A) Observed 2008 ice extent (53). (B to D) Likelihood (percentiles) of ice cover as percentage of the ensemble simulations with nonzero ice thickness. Likelihoods less than the 16th percentile are masked. (E) Multiyear composite of observed surface speeds (61). (F to H) Surface speeds from the control simulation. Basin names shown in (A) in clockwise order are southwest (SW), central-west (CW), northwest (NW), north (NO), northeast (NE), and southeast (SE). RCP 2.6 (B and F), RCP 4.5 (C and G), and RCP 8.5 (D and H). Topography in meters above sea level (m a.s.l.) [(A) to (H)].

Wind energy too is extremely underdeveloped but potentially huge in Greenland. The problem is of course, all that potential energy is a long way from the end users as this screenshot from the global wind atlas, shared by energy scenario planner Brian Vad Mathiessen shows well.

Screenshot from the global wind atlas showing wind energy potential in Greenland and the north Atlantic margin of Europe

By sheer coincidence, this morning I stumbled over this article in the Dutch newspaper NRC on mastodon about the large green hydrogen facility currently under construction by Shell in Rotterdam.

It’s a really interesting read – (if you don’t speak Dutch try DeepL translation) and I was struck by many of the same issues being raised there as in the Greenland meeting: lack of trained staff, uncertain commercial environment, cost and competitiveness with other energy sources. Unlike in Greenland, energy in the Netherlands for producing synthetic fuels is scarce, but the market for using the energy is huge and nearby, and given the EU’s ambitions to produce and, crucially, import large amounts of hydrogen fuel by 2030, it seems like many of the important stars are aligning. Importing ammonia to Rotterdam for cracking back into hydrogen seems like it could actually be a viable future for Greenlandic generated fuels in Greenland he medium to long term.

We at DMI are shortly starting a project within the National Centre for Climate Research framework looking at exactly the potential to generate renewable energy from a climate and weather angle. But what I took away from yesterday’s meeting is that while the physical potential in Greenland really is HUGE, the regulatory environment – and probably the local population – is supportive, the economic certainty is not quite there yet.

It felt a bit like being in a bunch of young seabirds clustered on the edge of the cliff, none quite daring to take the flight, in spite of the undoubted rewards. And indeed, this seems the situation in the Netherlands too. I was especially struck by this quote in the NRC piece:

“Another problem is that many parties are just waiting for each other to take the first step so that they themselves dare to go. Producers, for instance, invest only sparingly because they are not sure whether there will soon be customers, and customers in turn hesitate because they are not sure whether the producers will deliver. The classic chicken-and-egg story.”
(Translated with DeepL)

Chris Hensen, NRC, 17thnMay 2023 “De Europese waterstofambities zijn groot, maar bedrijven zijn nog altijd afwachtend”

Perhaps the diving in of Shell, a company that can afford to risk investing a billion Euros in a new facility in Rotterdam, is what the development of Power to X needs?

BP, Air liquide and Uniper already have plans to build follow on plants in Rotterdam. Once one of the birds have taken flight, others will surely follow.

Thanks to Aalborg University,and especially my Danish Arctic Research Forum colleague Carina Ren for an interesting and inspiring meeting.

*(As an aside, I was reflecting while on fieldwork just how difficult removing fossil fuels from scientific work in Greenland will be. We rely on petrol generators to power equipment and oil stoves to warm tents. What if we could develop an easy to operate “tabletop” (or even just room sized) electrolysis system to generate clean fuels from e.g. wind energy, that we could burn instead of paraffin and/petrol? I’d invest in that and it would be a quick win for Greenland science.)

Inside of the tent during fieldwork, note the primus stove, running on petrol, for melting ice for water and food and the paraffin powered oven to keep the inside warm and dry while camping.

Oh Vienna…

In the before times I would usually spend this week walking around a world class city humming an old 80’s hit (- don’t ask me why it was so durable in my head, probably something to do with being an impressionable age at a time when access to pop music meant half an hour on a Thursday evening).

Anyway, it is the time for EGU… Sadly I will not be wandering the streets of the ever beautiful (and most livable) capital of Austria this year. I have to get some actual work done, but I’m following the #EGU23 on mastodon and hoping to catch a few highlights on the sides. I do have a poster, which will be capably presented by PolarRES PI Priscilla Mooney and my DMI Colleague Abraham Torres on Thursday.

The topic is our PolarRES project – an ambitious Horizon 2020 effort to produce a large ensemble of regional climate simulations over both poles. These are state-of-the-art regional climate models run at unprecedented high spatial resolution and all data will be made open access and free via the CORDEX project.

I will also put it here later – feel free to comment here or ask questions on mastodon or get in touch by email if it sounds exciting.

Mottram, R., Mooney, P., and Torres, J. A. and the PolarRES Consortium: A first look at the new PolarRES ensemble of polar regional climate model storylines to 2100, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-14470, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-14470, 2023.

Other posters and talks I’ve contributed to from PolarRES are

Kristiina Verro’s talk on HCLIM_Arome results from the Antarctic peninsula:

Verro, K., van de Berg, W. J., Orr, A., Landgren, O., and van Ulft, B.: New non-hydrostatic polar regional climate model HCLIM-AROME: analysis of the föhn event on 27 January 2011 over the Larsen C Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-13864, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-13864, 2023.

Abraham Torres joined our group last year and is primarily working on PolarRES also. He will show some of our preliminary HCLIM results for both the Arctic and the Antarctic

Torres-Alavez, A., Landgren, O., Boberg, F., Christensen, O. B., Mottram, R., Olesen, M., Van Ulft, B., Verro, K., and Batrak, Y.: Assessing Performance of a new High Resolution polar regional climate model with remote sensing and in-situ observations: HCLIM in the Arctic and Antarctica, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-14090, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-14090, 2023

Quentin Glaude is a collaborator from Liege in the Horizon 2020 PROTECT project on sea level rise contributions from the cryosphere . Baptiste Vandecrux, a former PhD student with me here and now working at GEUS is also presenting some work based on the same models as Quentin, with a comparison to the PROMICE observation statons on the Greealnd ice sheet. It’s very cool application of machine learning and the results are very interesting.

Glaude, Q., Noel, B., Olesen, M., Boberg, F., van den Broeke, M., Mottram, R., and Fettweis, X.: The Divergent Futures of Greenland Surface Mass Balance Estimates from Different Regional Climate Models, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-7920, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-7920, 2023

Vandecrux, B., Fausto, R. S., Box, J. E., Covi, F., Hock, R., Rennermalm, A., Heilig, A., Abermann, J., Van As, D., Løkkegaard, A., Fettweis, X., Smeets, P. C. J. P., Kuipers Munneke, P., Van Den Broeke, M., Brils, M., Langen, P. L., Mottram, R., and Ahlstrøm, A. P.: Historical snow and ice temperature compilation documents the recent warming of the Greenland ice sheet, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-9080, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-9080, 2023.

Nicolaj Hansen (who finished his PhD with me and Sebastian Simonsen at DTU Space last year) has just submitted a beauty of a paper which he will talk about – also partof PROTECT.

 Hansen, N., Sørensen, L. S., Spada, G., Melini, D., Forsberg, R., Mottram, R., and Simonsen, S. B.: ICESat-2 Ice Sheet Mass balance: Going below the surface, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-12349, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-12349, 2023

Mathias Larsen is a current Phd student with me and is presenting a poster on the CARRA dataset and an application in surface mass balance modelling. This work falls under the danish National center for klima forskning

Larsen, M., H. Mottram, R., and L. Langen, P.: CARRA-driven simulation of Greenland Ice Sheet surface mass balance at 2.5 km resolution, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-5852, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-5852, 2023

Last year I co-organised a bootcamp for early career researchers on Arctic processes in the CMIP6 models. It was super fun and would not have been possible without the support offered by Anne Fouilloux, Tina Odaka and colleagues from the Pangeo project. Their poster is super interesting and if you’re interested in optimising the use of big climate data, go and check it out!

Fouilloux, A., Marasco, P. L., Odaka, T., Mottram, R., Zieger, P., Schulz, M., Coca-Castro, A., Iaquinta, J., and Eynard Bontemps, G.: Pangeo framework for training: experience with FOSS4G, the CLIVAR bootcamp and the eScience course, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-8756, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-8756, 2023.

Excitingly, at least 3 of the projects at the bootcamp will also be presented at EGU this year. So, lots to be getting on with, for now, here’s a link to Ultravox’s finest…

Q is for Qaanaaq

Back in Denmark after 2 weeks in Greenland. Always a bit strange to come back, not just that transition from Arctic cold to European Spring but the sheer abundance of the fertile mid-latitudes, colours, plants, trees, the sheer number of people.

Not to mention that expedition frame of mind, where you are really focused on accomplishing a given set of often quite complex tasks (almost) without distraction. It is the ultimate deep work task, and naturally readjusting to family life, not to mention the tsunami of work tasks left on hold is… difficult.

This particular deep fieldwork has been carried out in Qaanaaq, Northern Greenland, as I’ve written about before. The community of about 600 people (and maybe a 1000 dogs), was established in the 1950s when the US established the Thule air base. It is almost the most northern settlement in Greenland – and certainly the largest. The small village of Siorapaluk is about 45km (or 6 hours by dog sled) further away.

The town was formerly a summer hunting spot, but after Thule was decided on, the community was moved to Qaanaaq year round. It has an association with the famous Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose old house is a museum (allegedly. I’ve never actually had time to visit it..)

DMI established a geomagnetic observatory there in the 1950s and today its part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation network that DMI operates on behalf of the Danish government from what we now call the DMI geophysical facility. There is transnational access to this via the INTERACT network.

This year we again visited the glaciers at the head of the Inglefield Fjord – expanding a new research programme we piloted last year. We also did a lot of work on the sea ice – not just Steffen Olsen‘s ocean programme, but a new NCKF research programme looking at biological productivity and carbon cycling in the fjord, led by Anna Pedersen, a DMI PhD student also at the University of Southern Denmark. I and another colleagues also did a lot of work on snow processes that is something of a pilot programme for a processes project we’d like to establish next year that will also involve (hopefully) our weather forecasting colleagues and perhaps also the GEUS PROMICE programme.

All of this work involved 6 days of travelling over and camping on the sea ice, plus an additional day trip. We were lucky with the weather, although it was *extremely* cold, around -25 to -28C most days, and dipping well below -30C at night (though being after the equinox it was never truly pitch dark). However, in general there was little wind, no fresh snow (which can really slow the dogs down as they struggle to pull through deep soft snow) and the sun shone every day. This meant we basically managed to achieve the full planned programme – including our extra-optimistic goals – which almost never happens in fieldwork.

Camping on the sea ice at sunset. Northern Greenland
This work by Ruth Mottram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I intend to write a whole series of posts based on what we have been doing scientifically and technically as well as some general observations. There have been various hints already in my preferred social network. The whole trip was super inspiring, it’s always valuable to get out and observe the real world when you’re trying to model it, understand it and make projections of sea level rise.

I also promised to make another Lego scientists series and took quite a few photos in between times to do so. However, the research programme was packed, so I had no time at all to make the comic during fieldwork, that will have to wait a few weeks.

Expect my pixelfed account to host gratuitous numbers of dog pictures. And ice pictures. And unexpectedly clear blue skies. For now it’s time to unpack, get the washing machine going and spend some time with my family.

Sunset over sea ice near Qaanaaq, North West Greenland
This work by Ruth Mottram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

As ever, thanks to my amazing colleagues Steffen Malskær Olsen, Andrea Gierisch and Anna Pedersen for an incredible trip and to DMI station manager in Qaanaaq Aksel Ascanius without whom most of this work would be impossible.

Special thanks to our friends in Qaanaaq, the local hunters, whose unfailing energies and knowledge are absolutely essential to these scientific projects. We literally could not do this without them and of course their dogs.

I must also credit DMI and the Danish Government for funding via the National Center for Klima Forskning and thanks also to Horizon Europe projects PROTECT on sea level rise and PolarRES for additional inspiration and funding and to my colleagues at the Horizon Europe/NERC project OCEAN:ICE for indulging my two weeks away. All three projects will benefit from the insights gained in this fieldwork.

Signs of Spring

Currently, I’m very busy getting ready with colleagues to travel to Greenland next week. We have an extremely full programme of fieldwork activities covering oceanography, biology, sea ice, snow and glacier processes as part of our NCKF work. More on these no doubt in a future post…

Yesterday, one of my ace DMI colleagues (without whom most of the work we plan would definitely not happen) shared the first optical satellite image of the area this year – taken by ESA’s Sentinel 2 (a truly astonishing source of free imagery and everone should know about it). Because the area is very far north, it has been in the Polar night until now so we have been reliant on the ESA Sentinel 1 imagery based on radar.

First Sentinel-2 optical satellite image of the year downloaded from Sentinel Hub’s EO Browser today. Processing with Sentinel Hubs optimised natural colour filter has introduced some artefacts, notable the brigh white patches which probably represent areas of shadow due to the low solar angle. The area is blanketed in thin cloud and only parts of the glaciers, sea ice and icebergs are clearly visibe.

It’s a wonderful thing to see the first satellite image of Spring, akin to other signs like the first cuckoo (in the UK), the first peewit egg (in the Netherlands), and the timing of the cherry blossom in Kyoto.

The first lapwing (peewit) egg of the year was traditionally presented to the Dutch monarch – these days, given the

There was recently a very illuminating thread on phenology on mastodon in reply to a query by Pauline von Hellerman where the Diagram Monkey John Kennedy pointed out the existence of the Pan European Phenology network – not something I was aware of before (though I’d suspected it’s existence) – and who have all sorts of interesting data.

Where biology is clearly showing us earlier springs due to climate change, the date of the first optical image is unlikely to change any time soon due to climate change.

A newer updated version of the Economist’s cherry blossom flowering date plot provided by Datagraver after I posted the old one. See: https://mastodon.social/@Datagraver/110021046678442071

Nor are species assemblages (it’s not quite certain that it’s the same variety of cherry blossom for the whole 1200 year period), or biodiversity losses (the cuckoo is down 65% since the early 1980s alone in the UK, and heaven knows it was not particularly common then) likely to affect it. Not to mention human behaviour changes, the lapwing has gone from being a common agricultural bird to near threatened over the same period, which probably also affects the reliability of that data.

Of course, quite a bit of what you might call bulk phenology can be done by satellite too now…

Copernicus land dataset showing biological activity in Europe basedon satellite data available here

As for Qaanaaq, there is not much in the way of biological phenology, but a compilation and analysis of data on sea ice cover and thickness over the last 60 years would probably be as instructive. Do get in touch if you’re interested in doing this as a student project…

Out and about in Leeds..

I’ve been on holiday this last week and I’m combining the trip to the UK with a visit to colleagues and collaborators at the University of Leeds. I’ve also been nabbed while I’m in Leeds to give a wider interest talk at the Royal Meteorological Society Yorkshire branch in Leeds.

I’ll be discussing ice sheets, their contribution to sea level rise and how the future is looking. There may also be some nice photos from our fieldwork in Northern Greenland for those who like dogs, icebergs and snow…

If you’re in Leeds and fancy joining you’re most welcome to register and attend at this link.

In general, I’m trying to reduce my travel this year, last year, with all the rolled over meetings from the COVID times was disruptively busy with work travel, it makes it challenging to actually get the work done. So I think combining work and holidays and rolling up meetings into a block is the way forward.

Although I very much appreciate the opportunity to present online at various meetings, I’m less convinced about hybrid meetings where the purpose is mostly scientific discussions, that is something that works much better either all online or all in person in my opinion, but I think they work well when the aim is to present new and ongoing work (like EGU).

For those who are interested but can’t attend I will see if the talk tomorrow will be recorded and can be uploaded somewhere. Here’s the abstract:

Frozen Threats: Understanding the Role of Ice Sheets in Sea Level Rise

In this talk, we will delve into the world’s ice sheets and explore their importance in the climate system. Ice sheets are the largest stores of freshwater on the planet, their size and location means they influence our climate but their interactions with the atmosphere and ocean are complex. As the world warms, they will inevitable have an impact on sea level. Adapting to sea level rise will be one of our civilisations biggest and longest challenges, so understanding ice sheets is now of critical importance. They are also beautiful and fascinating environments in their own right. In this talk I will discuss some of the scientific challenges, but also show how far we have come in understanding ice sheets and glaciers.

The Inughuit cliffs near Qaanaaq in Northern Greenland rising up above the sea ice. In the far distance a dog-sled is a small black speck.

The expedition frame of mind

We will head to the field in Qaanaaq in late March with various instruments.

Update: It’s official now, I have booked my tickets, we have new instruments to deploy and a colleague and I are working on developing a new programme that we can hopefully also fit in alongside the currently planned programme. More on this at some point no doubt. The countdown has begun and I am getting into that fieldwork frame of mind.

I came across this blog post from old friend and former colleague, Karen Darke, who I’m now more or less out of touch with, unfortunately.

She is just back from her incredible Pole of Possibility expedition in Antarctica and she wrote this which I think perfectly summed up that expedition frame of mind..

It’s a really great blog post and well worth a read of the whole thing.

There are people and places I look forward to again but my soul is already grieving for expedition life, for the dualities that it brings: complexity and simplicity, space and confinement, alone-ness and together-ness, vulnerability and strength, connection and disconnection. I miss waking up huddled closely with my tent-mates and the time skiing silently in big open white-scape. I miss the detailed organisation of kit and systems and the contrasting uncertainty of every hour of every day. I miss feeling small and vulnerable as well as strong and capable. I miss the clear, invented purpose of every day.

Karen Darke, Pole of Possibility
One of those moments on a fieldwork expedition when everyone is busy, drilling holes in the ice to send down a CTD, drilling a sea ice core to measure salinity, digging snow pits, deploying instruments. My DMI colleagues Steffen Olsen and Andrea Gierisch are the ocean and sea ice scientists driving this work in close collaboration with our Greenlandis friends, you can read more about their work here: ..

Our fieldwork expeditions are maybe a bit more frenetic than the pole of possibility has been (in some ways, probably not others). We are always racing against the clock and the weather to get as much work done as possible. We probably cover less distance and there is perhaps less physical stress as the dogs do the hard work of pulling, rather than skiing with human muscles. Nonetheless, there is a constant low-level thrum of thinking, planning, checking. Even if there are also often whole hours, where not much other than travel happens and that are extremely valuable thinking time. (And how often do we get that in the modern world?)

Unlike the Antarctic, working with local people in Greenland means that we also see the landscape as a working place, not just a white desert far away and as Karen writes, how true this is:

It is harder than we anticipated to leave, but Antarctica has been a reminder that we are adaptable, resilient, purpose-seeking, capable humans. No matter how harsh our environment may be, we seem to find ways to connect, collaborate and create ways to not only survive, but to thrive.

On a slightly different note, I had momentarily similar thoughts to Karen on the problem of despoiling the landscape with toilet visits the first time I visited Qaanaaq, before realising that when travelling with 30 dogs (as the local people have always done), the problem is rather moot. But as I have written before, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pristinism in the Arctic. Our work on the Arctic environment is a reminder that it really isn’t. Even in Antarctica, environmental pollutants from lead to microplastics have been found, while the curse of overfishing is almost as visible in the Southern Ocean as in the northerly just as climate change is also taking a toll.

But finally, I also find myself fully agreeing with the last part, because although fieldwork is often cold, uncomfortable, difficult, exhausting, boring and tiresome, it’s also often fascinating, rewarding and exciting. And the experience can change us.

Just as a photograph can’t always capture the profundity of a place or a moment, it is sometimes difficult to find words that describe how something has sculpted us. An experience can impact us so deeply that we don’t immediately know how to translate it for others. And may never

I am immensely privileged to be able to do fieldwork in Greenland and I am extermely grateful for the opportunity to do so.

The Unicorn and The Lamprey

On the 16th may 1619 two ships, the Unicorn and the Lamprey, set sail from Copenhagen searching for the fabled North West Passage. On board there were 65 men, led by their captain, the Danish explorer Jens Munk. A year and a half later, the Lamprey limped back into Bergen (Norway) with just 3 men, including Munk, on board.

Almost all of the other crew members had died of scurvy in Hudson Bay .

The story of this terrible voyage, their sailing round Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Bay and into Hudson Bay is outlined in this wonderful atmospheric podcast from DR.

A Map, hand-drawn by Jens Munk in 1624 of the area between Cape Farewell and Hudson Bay, seen from the north; (Source: Tromsø University library)

The UK has similarly many tales of Arctic and Antarctic suffering, listening to the podcast I was put in mind of Coleridge’s famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, but we rarely hear of the similar stories from other nations, a clear benefit of learning other languages is being able to access these archives and stories*.

The podcast contains a wonderful description by a Greenland pilot of the sea ice and how tricky navigating it can be along with interviews and inputs from many others. If you are at all familiar with Danish – I really recommend the series.

However, the description by a nutritionist of the terrible effects of scurvy had me wondering. I learn (via Dutch family and confirmed by the OED) that the name of the disease, caused of course by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, is probably from the Dutch Scheurbuik – rip belly – an eloquent description of one of the notable later stages of the disease.

Rip here is less a description of enhanced musculature and much more a description of what it feels like when your internal organs start to bleed and your muscles and bones are weak from lack of nutrition.

Photo of chest cage with pectus excavatum and scorbutic rosaries – from this paper

Upon looking it up (Thankyou Wikipedia), I learn that the causes of scurvy had been repeatedly identified, forgotten and mistaken since at least the middle Ages. There is an estimate that around 2 million sailors died as a result of scurvy between 1500 and 1800.

2 Million almost entirely preventable deaths and 2 million men who died in appalling agony.

And this happened in spite of what appears to be the first recorded medical trial by James Lind in the 1750s, it still took the Royal Navy 40 years to start giving out fresh citrus fruits as a standard on their ships. Vitamin C itself was only finally recognised and extracted in 1932.

This story is an outrage in many ways, but a clear example also of how science and medicine, properly conducted, can help to improve and save lives. It is also a clear warning to conduct thoughtful experiments with care and to listen to those warnings when they have been issued.

It might also be a recommendation that learning foreign languages is not only fun and useful but can be it’s own reward.

*I should also mention here that the rather awesome Danish Arctic Institute are currently producing a very well written series on Danish exploration in the Arctic in English, based on their own very comprehensive podcast series. These are published online in the Arctic Journal. Both the series of historical accounts and the newspaper in general are absolute top recommends for those interested in the subject of the Arctic environmentally , socially and politically.

The lure of the poles (Svalbard in Spring, the coldest time of year)

Extract from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

…With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound! …”


How pristine is the Arctic?

“The Arctic is one of the last great pristine ecosystems, a safe haven for endangered species and home to Indigenous Peoples whose lifestyle has survived in harmony with nature for thousands of years.”

This quote in the wake of COP21, extracted  from a celebrity I’ve never heard of (sorry, I’m just not that interested in actors)  raised my hackles as it repeated yet again the idea that the Arctic is “pristine”.

Even without contemplating climate change, it is most certainly not, as the polar portal season report I was vaguely involved in compiling this year made clear.

The “pristine” wilderness of Von Postbreen, Svalbard

There is a whole literature in the humanities on Orientalism and “othering”, about how we define other people and places partly to define what we are not. I’m not sure if there is a term for this narrative of a “pristine wilderness”, let us call it “pristinism ” for want of a better term. But before I list the ways in which the Arctic is not pristine, let me make very clear, I am well aware I also suffer from pristinism, to some extent. What my boss teasingly refers to as “the white disease”, the fascination with snow and ice that makes me want to leave the comforts of house and home and go and live somewhere deeply uncomfortable, and indeed dangerous in order to plumb the mysteries. I have been visiting the Arctic for well over 12 years now, though as most of my work is on  computer, I don’t get the option so often anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing, perhaps the last thing the Arctic needs is more people flying to it.

The ecosystem has been significantly degraded by the loss (hopefully now in reverse) of most of the large cetacean species by commercial whalers. Similarly, walrus and polar bears in Svalbard were almost rendered extinct before hunting was banned. It also appears there were walrus in Iceland when the vikings arrived that, like any polar bear at the present day arriving on Icelandic shores, were quickly dispatched. The Greenland vikings were certainly rich from walrus ivory as their main source of income. Not content with exterminating the walrus the early settlers sent their sheep out and very successfully deforested the 25-40% of Iceland that had been forested, leading to dust storms, soil erosion and the unfortunate inability to build boats to get anywhere else very far away. Deforestation has only recently begun to be reversed. In much the same way Musk Oxen were virtually eliminated from Eastern Greenland by hunting, but then rather too successfully introduced to the west where there has been a population explosion.

Fish stocks have at least been largely preserved in Iceland (sensible given how important fishing is to the economy), but there have been several notorious crashes in different fish species in the North Atlantic and around Greenland. Although, to be fair these latter seem to be at least partly caused by changing ocean temperatures rather than purely overfishing. Then there are the invasive species, largely limited so far to the (admittedly delicious) King crab , an omnivore that will eat everything in it’s path much to the fear of some local ecologists around the Arctic coast of Norway.

And then there are the birds. Different bird species face declining populations due both to loss of habitat outside the Arctic as well as hunting in the Arctic region. I was somewhat surprised, though in retrospect I should not have been, at the very few bird numbers that I saw while on a kayaking trip within an easy boat ride of Nuuk.


I would have seen many more in the Scottish islands, but if a subsistence species is within easy reach of a large town (which in themselves would have been impossible prior to colonisation), it is an inevitable tragedy of the commons waiting to happen. Similarly, seals are incredibly wary and remain as far from people as possible in Greenland, a big contrast to the rather trusting and curious creatures I have been able to paddle very close to around the British Isles. And Heaven help any polar bear that strays too close to any Greenlandic settlements, legal protection or not…

Part of the problem are the difficulties birds have in reproducing. This is at least partly down to the toxic mix of chemicals stored in their fat, which comes out in a rush when these animals and birds have to live on their body fat supplies – as they do each summer when incubating eggs. These eggs also appear to contain high levels of mercury, cadmium, PCBs, organochlorines, dieldrin to mention just a few, with an effect on the developing bird embryos inside and of course anything that eats either bird or eggs.

A report compiled by the WWF in 2006 (pdf) from the peer-reviewed literature lists dozens of such studies like this one.  There are also suggestions that environmental pollution is having a significant effect on cetaceans as well as in seal species.

And this of course is because that “pristine” Arctic has an extremely high concentration of industrial chemicals, heavy metals and other by-products of our manufacturing society. Albeit a long way from most sources of production. I was once fascinated to discover that all sorts of historic events such as the Greek and Roman production of silver (and it’s leaden by-product) could be identified in the Greenland ice cores, as could the introduction of leaded petrol and it’s later phasing out. The atmosphere acts as a kind of distillation column, concentrating these poisons at the top (and bottom) of the world, not to mention the local sources. There are coal mines in Svalbard, aluminium smelters in Iceland and Greenland, the oil + gas fields of Alaska, Newfoundland, Norway and Russia. Not to mention god only knows what hazardous (radioactive?) waste is leaching away from forgotten islands in the Russian sector of the Arctic.

Three polar bears take over an abandoned dog shed for a sleep in the shade, Svea coal mine, Svalbard

In the food chain, the little animals get eaten by the bigger ones, which get eaten by the bigger ones, concentrating and accumulating toxic chemicals all the way to the top of the food chain.

To us.

Because humans are, in the Arctic at least, the top predator.

It is by now well known that with a diet that is high in meat, much of it derived from marine mammals and fish, Inuit peoples in the Arctic have very high levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies, and in their breast milk. Greenlandic women are in fact advised to reduce their traditional foods in pregnancy (pdf) and eat something imported instead. Then some recent research suggested the high rates of Parkinson’s disease in the Faroes may be down to a whale meat rich diet.

Yet at the same time we in the crowded, populated mid-latitudes project our fantasies of a pristine fairy-tale at the top of the world.


The Arctic is very very far from pristine, and if what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, the reverse is also true, the Arctic is part of this world for good or ill. There is however, no doubt that it exerts a powerful pull on our imaginations.

There is a reason poor old Ursus maritimus has become the poster children of climate change. Perhaps it’s all the bright white snow and ice, even if the Arctic Report card shows us the browning of the Arctic as snow lies for ever shorter periods at the same time as sea ice cover at the end of summer is similarly declining…


From the Arctic report card 2015: "Northern Hemisphere (NH) June snow cover extent and September Arctic sea ice extent. Sea ice extent data for 1979-2014 are derived from the NASA Team algorithm (Cavalieri et al., 1996); ice extent estimates for 2015 are produced from real time data (Maslanik and Stroeve 1999). Bold red and blue lines are 5-year running means of the original snow and sea ice extent records, respectively."
From the Arctic report card 2015: “Northern Hemisphere (NH) June snow cover extent and September Arctic sea ice extent. Sea ice extent data for 1979-2014 are derived from the NASA Team algorithm (Cavalieri et al., 1996); ice extent estimates for 2015 are produced from real time data (Maslanik and Stroeve 1999). Bold red and blue lines are 5-year running means of the original snow and sea ice extent records, respectively.”

I am optimistic but cautious about the Paris agreement at COP21. I hope it will come in time to preserve some remnant of the Arctic wilderness, but even if it does we still have some big challenges to face. Sweeping these under the carpet for the sake of a convenient narrative about a pristine wilderness is not helpful. I have a great affection for the Arctic, the people and the wildlife that lives there. I started this post originally some time ago but failed to finish it as it made me rather depressed to think about, but then I was put in mind of this poem from Seamus Heaney and decided it was worth finishing after all with this piece.

Clearly, the myth of “The North” and “the Arctic” has been with us for some time, but surely we owe it to the Arctic and the peoples who live there to try and see through the “pristinism” and start to fix some of these challenges?



I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly
those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,
those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue
was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,
the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.
It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

were ocean-deafened voices

A Svalbard Field Journal, part 1.

This is a piece about field work I did in Svalbard in 2010. I’m not sure it really belongs here, but I hope it is interesting to read about what Arctic fieldwork is really like. I have been tremendously lucky to have had several opportunities to work in the Arctic, but as I hope this makes clear, it’s quite often a big slog with uncertain outcomes.

The sun rises early in March in Svalbard but it is not yet hitting the town, we are before the Solfest in Longyearbyen, and I am lying in bed alternately wishing I could sleep longer and being hugely excited at the prospect of getting out in the field again. With the light comes the cold, it is -26C outside with a fresh wind and some light snow falling, not brilliant weather for fieldwork. I am 12 weeks pregnant and the nausea comes early and remains all day but I hope the cold dry air on the glacier will help. In spite of that, I know my fieldwork opportunities will likely significantly reduce when the baby arrives so I’m determined to do one last big trip.

Down at UNIS (the university centre on Svalbard), our boxes are already packed with equipment, we just need to get them on the sledges, pick up our snowscooters and go. This is prime fieldwork and study time and the logistics centre is bustling with students, excited to be out on their first trip, and the long-termers getting ready to set up experiments. I’ve already got my scooter gear sorted out, huge padded suit, enormous padded boots, crash helmet, thin woollen undergloves, leather gauntlets, neoprene face mask. It feels a bit ridiculous inside but I know I’ll need it later on the scooter and the glacier.

Packing a sledge is an artform, one which, over the course of the week, I will gradually start to master, but for now I’m pretty useless and just try and hold stuff when asked and keep out the way while my colleague C gets on with showing me how it’s done.

Finally, we’re off, later, as usual, than we’d wanted, but all the kit is with us and we’re making good time. Our route intially lies up Adventdalen (named for the old whaler Adventure which explored this area). In summer this is a more-or less impassable morass of braided streams, gravel, mud and silt, glacially scoured rocks brought down by an ever shifting river. When the cold comes, and the river and the soil freeze, and then the snow falls, this is the main highway out of town.

We follow a long straight line of multiple overlaid scooter trails; riding a scooter is like riding a motorbike, fast, loud and exciting. I get up to 80km/h on the straight, in spite of towing a trailer, and wonder vaguely if the foetus can feel the vibrations. I thank UNIS silently for having such good kit, the heated handlebars of the scooter are essential, and in spite of the boots my feet are already getting chilly, I remember to wiggle my toes to keep them warm and, as we peel away from the main trails and slowly motor up ever narrower valleys and gullies, I lift my goggles momentarily to allow the frozen condensation on the inside to clear.

We are heading to Tellbreen (breen meaning the glacier in Norwegian, the “tell” in question being, I suspect, William Tell), a small and rather unimportant glacier about an hour and a half from Longyearbyen. A number of small and unrelated projects are going on there this year and there is a weather station lower down that we will be using. We will be working very high up on the glacier near the col at the top where the glacier divides in two. It falls fairly steeply down from this point and I struggle to get the scooter with the trailer up. I realise too late I haven’t given it enough power and there is a slow inevitable deceleration as the scooter digs itself into the soft snow. Fresh soft snow on a slope is the hardest for a scooter to deal with and I have just made the classic mistake. I determine not to make it worse and wait for my colleague C to return with the spade. You don’t drive anywhere in Svalbard without a spade. It’s not a bad dig-in and within half an hour we’re finally at the top of the glacier.

C and a student came out in late Autumn and put two tarpaulins on the glacier surface. These will be the baselines for our experiments. Their positions marked with 2m long bamboo canes. Very little of the canes are showing through the snow and it takes us a while to locate them. The wind is getting fresher and blowing snow through the pass, we are in an incredibly exposed position and I am even more thankful for UNIS equipment. Our first task is to dig a work trench. This will give us protection from the wind but will also be where we stick our temperature sensors into the snow. We will be placing two large water canisters in the snow pack and letting the water, with a dye added, drip through the snow and refreeze. At the second site the canister will be directly on the glacier surface. The temperature sensors will record the effect the water has on the snow temperature at different depths. At the end of the experiments we will dig through the snow to find the ice, record how far it has run and how thick it is. The dye will tell us on which day the water ran through.

It sounds like a simple and very esoteric set of experiments, but it is actually intended to help us shed light on a very difficult problem. Most of the glaciers in the Arctic melt, at least partly, in summer, but the water does not run off, it refreezes in the snow or on the surface of the glacier, forming superimposed ice. It is almost impossible to distinguish superimposed ice from normal glacier ice remotely so while we can measure melt directly by satellite, we have little idea how much of it remains on the glacier and how much is lost to the ocean. The GRACE and GOCE missions give us another way to measure mass loss over large regions but for climate models like the one I run in Denmark, where we make future projections of glaciated regions, we still need to factor this in. The work C and I are engaged in is aimed at developing an approximation we can put into the model to take this into account. In Antarctica the problem doesn’t occur as most of the glaciers there don’t melt.

We have brought a snow blower with us to plough the snow away and it is making short work of the trench, there is still a lot of digging to do though, and I reflect that whenever I am in the Arctic I seem to find myself doing a lot of digging either for latrine pits, to examine glacier sediments or to clear snow. At the Greenland ice core sites high up on the ice sheet, famously the first thing you’re given when you arrive is a spade.

I try and cut some blocks of snow to use as a wall against the wind but the snow is too soft and my efforts are only partly successful. Thankfully though, C had thought to bring some wide boards and we use these to cover the trench so we can work sheltered from the howling wind. It has taken us almost all day to dig the trench and the hole for the first water canister. Now it’s starting to get dark and we really need to leave before driving down the glacier gets too hazardous. We hurriedly stick the sensors in the snow pack, I’ll have to measure the spacings accurately tomorrow, fill the canister with dye and warm(ish) water and open the tap to a dripping position. As the wind gets even stronger we cover over the trench as far as we can, gather our stuff, shouting at each other to be heard over the wind and get out of there.

By the time we’re off the glacier it’s almost completely dark and I am grateful for the strong headlights on the scooter, even so it’s a much slower trip back as we carefully try to avoid the rocks and hard ice chunks that litter the track. I am exhausted with the work and the fatigue of early pregnancy, but high as a kite with the successful completion of the work we’ve managed today – I wasn’t sure we’d manage as much as we did. Tomorrow we do the second experiment, but for now it’s time for a beer (for C) and an orange juice a big plate of chips and a hamburger in the pub for me. I had barely managed to eat anything all day, it’s too cold and I simply wasn’t hungry enough to attempt it. I am extremely thirsty, the work was physical and sweaty, but in the cold you don’t feel the thirst, and I always forget to drink.

I fall into bed at 10pm, ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

To be continued….

Love Letter to Copenhagen

On my way to work every morning I cycle down several tree lined streets – the lime trees are now in flower and the scent will always remind me of Copenhagen in the summertime. I wrote this piece last year and was reminded of it this morning by the perfume, so I dug it out and adapted it a bit, if I get time I’ll add photos later.

It’s mid June and after a baking hot May it’s cooler and humid in Copenhagen. The city is getting very quiet as the locals start to go off to their summer houses on the coast, or in Sweden, for the month of July, leaving the streets to tourists and musicians here for the jazz festival. In some ways it’s the best time of year to actually be in the city. The boulevards and streets are lined with sweet lime trees which has a very beautiful scent and the city is perfumed with it.

The parks and gardens are filled with flowers and in the evenings the remaining residents sit out in the parks with little barbecues. There are lots of areas set aside for sports and games and local teams spring up seemingly spontaneously to play street hockey, table tennis and football.

The zoo has a big elephant enclosure with an outdoor area open to the rest of the big Frederiksberg park, of which the zoo area is a small part. The elephants have a big natural pool and sandy beach and many of the park visitors outside the zoo spend time watching the younger elephants bathe and play in the water and throwing the sand over their backs, sending the ducks scurrying off in a panic with their ducklings trailing behind.

Cycling through the city is wonderful just now, especially in the evenings and especially if there’s no place you really need to be; the smell of flowers and charcoal smoke and grilled food all mixed in together, music being played in little bars and big open squares, even the careless tourists who forget to look for bikes before crossing the cycle lanes are tolerated with amusement, not everyone is so lucky to have a lifestyle like this after all. It really feels like a blessed place and a blessed time to live.

Update: I notice a friend, Kitty B. over at these sublime days has a post about childhood memories. I think the lime tree will be my memory of Copenhagen, and some day, when the Sterna family finally have a nest of our own, we will plant a lime tree so the scent will always remind us of this place.