Blog | May 1, 2018, 13:28 PDT

Team Sea Ice or Team Land Ice?

By Linette Boisvert, Kangerlussuaq, Greenland 

Above Greenland, where land ice meets sea ice and some open water. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

Above Greenland, where land ice meets sea ice and some open water. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

Linette Boisvert is a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and researcher with Operation IceBridge. The mission of Operation IceBridge, NASA’s longest-running airborne mission to monitor polar ice, is to collect data on changing polar land and sea ice and maintain continuity of measurements between ICESat missions.

For more about Operation IceBridge and to follow future campaigns, visit http://www.nasa.gov/icebridge.

I am lucky enough to get to travel to Kangerlussuaq—a small town on the southwestern coast of Greenland that means “big fjord” in the Kalaallisut language—to join NASA’s Operation IceBridge for the remainder of their Arctic spring campaign.

I landed in Kanger on the morning of Friday, April 20, after leaving Washington, D.C., Wednesday evening, flying and overnighting in Copenhagen, Denmark, and then taking an Air Greenland flight, crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice in less than 36 hours. (Fun Fact: Greenland is owned by Denmark, so flying through Copenhagen is the only way to get to Greenland commercially.) The flight was on an Airbus, which had a surprisingly large number of passengers aboard.

After landing I thought, hmm, why do all of these people want to go to Kanger? Kanger is a small, roughly 500-person town comprising buildings surrounding the airport. There is a grocery store, a coffee/ice cream shop that never appears to be open, a youth “jail” for all of Greenland, and a Thai restaurant that is known for its pizza. Odd.

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View of the town of Kanger from across the river. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

Regardless, Kanger is pretty, being situated in the fjord valley with a river running through it, although currently it is frozen solid. It is also warmer here than I would have expected for Greenland, with highs in the upper 20’s to low 30’s. For the rest of the campaign, until May 4, I will be in Kanger, with the rest of my “OIB family,” as I call them, living in dorm-style housing and cooking family-style dinners together just about each night.

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Build your own pizza for dinner in our dorm-style housing in Kanger. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

April 21 was our first science flight out of Kanger, and as with the rest of the flights from here, it was a land ice flight. Sidebar: I am a sea ice scientist and have never been on a land ice flight before. There is a friendly rivalry between the land ice and sea ice scientist community (go Team Sea Ice!), and it is clear here that I am the only sea ice fanatic aboard, so I get picked on a bit. For those of you who don’t know, sea ice is frozen seawater that floats around on the ocean, and land ice is snow that is compacted over many, many years and turns into ice and is located on the bedrock of Greenland. Sea ice = salty (good in a margarita), while land ice = fresh (good in a smoothie).

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NASA P-3 aircraft propellers outside the hangar in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert
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Photo showing land ice (bottom left corner) flowing down through the channel in the (center), and sea ice (bottom right corner). Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

It is not surprising to say that they really wanted to convert me to Team Land Ice, and they couldn’t have chosen a more scenic flight for this attempt. The flight is named Geikie 02 and highlights eight glaciers on the Geikie Peninsula on the eastern coast of Greenland.

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Screen shot of the “Geikie 02” flight line mid-flight. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

Glaciers are slow-moving rivers of ice, where land ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet is transported into the oceans or sea ice pack depending on location and time of year. As the ice gets forced into these channels and around bends, it cracks, making crevasses, similar looking to crocodile skin (or the skin on your elbow) at times.

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Crevassed land ice in the foreground and Greenland mountains behind. Photo credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

These glaciers have carved out deep channels and fjords in the bedrock over time, making for awe-inspiring views and terrain, especially when you are flying in the P-3 plane at just 1500 feet. There were many times where I would look out the window and see mountains reaching high above us as we flew over the glaciers deep in the fjord valleys and other times where it felt as it we were just skimming the tops of the mountains. This is not something that normally happens on commercial airline flights and is not for the faint of heart, but it is spectacular to behold, and I felt truly lucky to be able to witness this magnificent place.

As we flew out of the fjord to where both land ice and land meets sea, I instantly became overjoyed to view the sea ice (go Team Sea Ice!): all thicknesses, broken up, ridged, consolidated and flooded along with numerous leads and icebergs, which are land ice deposited into the ocean from the glaciers. Sea ice on a land ice flight? I think I could get used to this.

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An iceberg surrounded by sea ice. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert
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Sea ice floes, openings, and leads. Photo credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert
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Where sea ice meets Greenland’s cliffs and mountains. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

As we crossed the fjords and the sea ice, we noticed multiple polar bear tracks in the snow (likened to a “polar bear highway”), and multiple holes in the sea ice where seals will come out for air and rest. A few people even claimed they saw a polar bear running on the sea ice after being startled by our plane flying over, but I didn’t see it and I am skeptical. Another highlight of this flight was flying past Greenland’s tallest mountain, Gunnbjorn, which rises 12,000 feet, and the “Grand Canyon of Greenland” – the one not covered by kilometers of ice in the center of the ice sheet that data from a previous IceBridge campaign had recently discovered. Needless to say, I was glued to my window for the majority of this flight. These pictures just don’t do them justice.

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Flying in a fjord valley with the mountains above us. Credit: NASA/Linette Boisvert

Although this flight did not convert me to Team Land Ice, it did reiterate to me that all ice types matter, especially in the broader context of climate change, and it is the main reason for the IceBridge field campaign: to repeatedly gather data of both land and sea ice to determine where, how, and why both ice types are changing. Specifically, melting land ice flows into the ocean and contributes to global sea level rise, whereas the loss of sea ice affects ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns both locally and globally, reminding us that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

This piece was originally published on the NASA Earth Expeditions blog.


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