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.


I have been meaning to write about my return to field science (after 10 years mostly working on climate models) for the last 2 years, but prompted by this beautifully written piece in the Danish Newspaper information, I decided Christmas Day was the day (it for sure beats the washing up)…

“For at forstå, hvad der er ved at ske ved kloden, rejste vi mod isens ende”
“To understand what is happening to the earth, we travelled to the end of the ice”

Martin Bahn og Anders Rye Skjoldjensen (foto) in Information 23rd December 2022

To make one thing very clear straight away, and as the newspaper article also makes very clear, my colleague Steffen Malskær Olsen has established and maintained a very long-running programme of observations in the fjord near Qaanaaq. This town in northern Greenland on the edge of a large fjord, and close to the North Water polynya has a uniquely interesting location to study and understand Arctic processes. The DMI facility there is long established and part of the INTERACT network of Arctic field stations. The 15-year record collected by Steffen is more or less unbroken and uniquely valuable. None of the science I’m planning to do or to work on would be possible without his dedication, hard work, insight and bridge building within the community in Qaanaaq. He and my other DMI colleagues involved in this programme are brilliant scientists and great field companions and I feel privileged to be able to work with them in this incredible place.

In the field: Steffen and team retrieving an oceanographic mooring with instruments on it after a winter out in the fjord in 2021.

Secondly, as the article also makes clear, scientists are not individualistic heroes who beat the odds, it’s a team sport. And it’s especially true in Greenland where the true heroes of this story are probably not scientists but the local hunters and fishers who guide and transport us and whose knowledge and experience is unmatched. I include also on this category our DMI colleague Aksel Ascanius who lives and works in Qaanaaq has been an essential part of the programme since the earliest days, as well as keeping other long-term observations in the network running in this part of the world.

Collaboration with the people who live in the Arctic has been essential for success in Arctic science since since the days of Franklin and Rae (for British readers) or Suersaq, aka Hans Hendrik, (after whom Hans Island is named) for Danes..

Anyway, back to the science of the present-day. DMI has progressively added more and more elements to the field laboratory in Qaanaaq in addition to the longer running observations. A non-exhaustive list would include an infrasound monitoring station that is part of the CTBTO, weather observations (of course), surface emissivity measurements by drone, fjord salinity, temperature and photosynthetically available radiation measurements plus snow and sea ice measurements as well as work with satellites and biology. One glaring omission, up to this year at least, was the glaciology of the region. How does the ice sheet affect the regional climate, how does the ocean affect the glaciers that calve into the fjord? Can we learn about some important but poorly understood processes like calving and melange dynamics using this area as a test bed? What about surface mass budget and snowfall and snow melt?

A lead in the sea ice – these fractures in the ice have sea water (the black) welling up between two thick plates of sea ice. The conditions were perfect for frost flowers to grow on the surface. Sea ice turns out to be a lot more interesting – and complex- than I’d ever imagined…

Now, as a glaciologist, I’ve mostly worked with the interface between atmosphere and ice sheet (at least the last 14 years or so, but I am also still (after my PhD topic on ice fracture and crevasses) interested in calving glaciers and the processes that control how fast icebergs form. And the fjord, Inglefield Bredning has *a lot* of calving glaciers in it. It is a natural laboratory for glaciology and for developing numerical models. Calving is actually a surprisingly difficult thing to model with computer models of glaciers.

Or perhaps it’s not that surprising?

Observations are difficult to get (to put it mildly). There are a number of (possibly wild) theories of “calving laws” that remain poorly constrained by observations as a result. Common parameterizations of ice flow makes it hard to deal with fast flowing glaciers where calving is common. Dealing with grounding lines, where glaciers meet the sea and start to come close to flotation can give notorious numerical errors and retreat requires the remaking of ocean grids in fully coupled climate models.

Satellite image from ESA’s Sentinel-2 satellite showing glaciers calving icebergs into the head of the Ingle field Bredning fjord. The black is open water, icebergs show up as blueish dots, the land is carpeted in snow. Low winter sun (in late September 2022) casts deep shadows.

These are not easy or computationally cheap problems to solve. And where there are at least thousands (maybe even tens of thousands?) of scientists working on atmospheric weather and climate modelling, the community working on ice sheet dynamic models is probably only in the low hundreds.

And of course, we really lack long time series of measurements – essential in a system that changes only s l o w l y, but likely irreversibly and which we are, only now as the system is changing rapidly, starting to understand.

This of course is why the fjord observation record of Steffen is so valuable – these are reliable, repeated measurements of ocean properties that are known to affect the outlet glaciers that meet them. It is indeed a natural laboratory.

What we are now also working on is a field lab to study these calving processes in-situ. I have already found the return to the field scientifically valuable. There is really no replacement for going to observe the earth system you want to understand. (My PhD supervisor used to call it “nurturing your inner glacier”). Observations taken in spring/summer 2022 have already changed how I think about some processes and hopefully the follow-up we have planned in 2023 will confirm our new theoretical framework.

Heading home from the deployment of instruments out near calving glaciers at the head of the fjord.

I am fortunate indeed in that at the same research department, we also have colleagues collecting and analyzing satellite data and developing the numerical models we want to use to understand how ice sheets fit into the earth system. All three of these elements – field, satellite and numerical model- are essential.

In this project we are using the satellite observations to extend the time series of field data and we can use both sets of observations together to develop and test a numerical model of this fjord and the glaciers that calve into it. The numerical model we can then extend to other glaciers in Greenland. Hopefully, we can also use this work to understand how Antarctic glaciers might also respond to a warming ocean. Ultimately, the aim of all this work is to understand the contribution of these glaciers to sea level rise both now and in the future.

This is not a frivolous question. In fact, if large (more than a couple of metres).of sea level rise is expected, it is a question that is basically existential for Denmark.

I will add more on the specifics and science in coming months, this is already long enough. However, I’d like to mention a couple of other points:

Firstly, DMI is by no means alone operating up here. Many of the key articles, particularly on glaciology in this region, have been written by the Japanese group at Hokkaido University and their collaborators at the Meteorological Research Institute, the national institute for polar research and others. We at DMI are also working directly with the Greenland institute of natural resources, Asiaq, GEUS, KU, DTU, AU, SDU, ESA, Eumetsat and many others in this research programme.

Secondly, if you want to read more about it, I made these comics for my kids featuring some of their Lego pieces while out in the field this year and last. They’re kind of fun (I hope) and also informative (I hope).

Finally, this work is currently being carried out under the auspices of the Danish National Centre for Climate Research (NCKF), funded by the Danish Government though with contributions also from other research projects mostly funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe frameworks as well as ESA’s climate change initiative for the Greenland ice sheet.