Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Exploring the FOXX Moulin on the Greenland Ice Sheet

Matt exiting the FOXX Moulin
“Hey David, hope you are doing well! It looks like Will Gadd can't make it to Greenland in October, so I have an opening on the team to explore moulins on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Any chance you might be interested and available for a little under three weeks?”

That was in August. And the answer was yes, of course!

A few weeks and multiple doctor's appointments later to obtain clearance with the National Science Foundation’s arctic program, and after scraping together camping gear rated for the -20s° F (mind you, I live in Texas), I found myself on a flight to Copenhagen. After a bit of sightseeing and sampling the local craft beer, I met up with my friends Jason Gulley and Matt Covington, the two glaciologists whose climate research this trip was in support of. Together, we continued our passage on Air Greenland’s only airbus, headed to Kangerlussuaq, and eventually connecting to Ilulissat.

Ilulissat, a small town in western Greenland by Disko Bay, is home to the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During our first night there, we were greeted by a spectacular aurora borealis display. A few days were spent assembling gear from both local research stashes and what we had brought with us, and figuring out how to not exceed the weight limit for our helicopter ride onto the ice.

Icebergs in Disko Bay, seen from Ilulissat
Our research site, the FOXX moulin, was about 30 km inland from the coast. Negating any statistical likelihood, the surface temperatures were still above freezing when we arrived, and moving around on the ice even for the shortest distance required donning spikes or crampons on our boots. Fascinated by the ingenuity of the techniques used to stake down our tents, I followed Jason around carrying a running generator while he drilled half-meter deep holes into the ice to drop bamboo sticks into that would serve as tent stakes.

The next morning saw our first approach with rigging gear to the moulin. But what's a moulin, you ask? Essentially a vertical shaft created by melt water on a glacier or body of ice, funneling that water down to the bottom of the glacier, where it creates channels draining into the ocean. Similar in all aspects to how a vertical cave gets formed in bedrock, it just gets carved into the ice in a much shorter time span. Wikipedia has more details, and the illustration you can zoom into on this ESA blog post is also quite good.

Wind blowing recent snow off the ice, past our three personal tents and our mess tent
Soon after our arrival, the temperatures on the ice dropped well below freezing, and the weather varied between sun, snow storms, high winds blowing the snow off the ice again and into our faces, and anything in between. Loud cracks could be heard occasionally at any time of day, reminding us that the body of ice actually moves and is a (slow, but) dynamic beast, as was also illustrated by the fractures that could be seen all over the ice.

All in all, we spent a good week on the ice, exploring the moulin using a mix of mountaineering and caving techniques. Our little tent city was pitched a short hike away from the moulin, and we went on daily trips to survey it for a total of about 80 meters down to the water table. Time was also spent on creating photo and video documentation of the moulin, and illustrating Jason and Matt’s research goals and findings.

Other than being delayed by a day and a half as a result of inclement weather (an eventuality well within the margins of what we were prepared to deal with), our return to civilization was uneventful, and was celebrated with musk ox burgers and pints of Ilulissat’s local micro-brews.

Jason's Instagram account, and Will’s videos and documentation of their earlier expedition onto the ice sheet, offer some stunning images of what it’s like out there