Journey to the End of the Earth

Master’s student Sandra Cronauer recounts the thrills and hardships of living in an Arctic research camp

 Sandra Cronauer, a UB master’s student in geology.

Sandra Cronauer, UB master’s student in geology

Research at the Top of the World

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By Charlotte Hsu

To study the history of glaciers, you have to go where the ice is, and for Sandra Cronauer, a UB master’s student in geology, that means the Arctic.

Cronauer spent the past two summers in field camps in Greenland, where she worked with Associate Professor Jason Briner and fellow graduate students to gather fossils, lake mud and other geologic samples in an effort to learn how ancient glaciers reacted to climate change. Their discoveries could help us understand how rising temperatures will impact ice on Earth today.

In a diary covering both trips, Cronauer documented her life in the Arctic—the joys, the hazards, the blisters, the bugs, the moments of loneliness and the absolute wonder at being somewhere so isolated and strange.

Diary Entrees

Aug. 6, 2012

  • Tomorrow I fly to Greenland for my graduate program at UB. I have a lot of fears about losing my things on the plane, not being able to print the boarding pass, not getting my financial aid on time, dying on a helicopter flight gone wrong, not being warm enough, not being strong enough, not being smart enough.

Aug. 8, 2012

  • Flying to Greenland. What an experience! Towering ridges rising from a white vastness with patterns sketched in, showing the flow. Landslides staining the headwalls of cirques and the Randkluft¹/bergschrunds² visible with clarity and resolution despite the distance … and then the white, blinding vastness again.

Aug. 9, 2012

  • I think my nose might be sunburned … Jason’s right. That sun is nuts! It never goes down.

Aug. 15, 2012

  • Today started out rainy + gray then by midday it was sunny + beautiful + we were on our way to our next campsite. It is beautiful here and I wish I could share it with all of my friends. The distant booms of ice falling into the fjord are sporadic and tantalize the ear + the imagination. We sat up by the margin + had a few beers. It was amazing :) I think I’m really starting to get the hang of this stuff. Buffalo is looking like a great life choice after all. We saw a gorgeous sundog³ over our lake + I have high hopes for tomorrow.

July 21, 2013

  • Just massacred about a dozen flies that were buzzing around my tent. Tired + homesick for Alex.
  • Saw three musk-ox skulls today
  • So much to do + I will excel at it all! Or at least try to.

July 24, 2013

  • Big round moon in the sky + fish jumping in the lake.

July 26, 2013

  • Today we will be attempting to not get stuck in tidal flats … ugh. It’s been hard to get up in the morning because of the rain. I think I should get going. Jason let us sleep in today since tide is high @ 2:00ish + we will head out around 1ish … I think? Need to take cosmo samples⁴ near the margin for deglaciation. Maybe I’ll start kissing the rocks for good luck.
  • There are good field days + bad field days.
  • Bad field days are full of rain + bugs + mud + cold.
  • Pain in your knees.
  • Cold rain that seeps up your underarms + into your marrow.
  • Nose raw + running from a relentless wind.
  • Good days make all of it worth it. Those are the ones where you cruise along an ice margin with sections like broken blue glass in a fjord + watch an eagle wheel around your boat while you ride the tide home.

July 28, 2013

  • Long day! My knee keeps getting worse. I didn’t tell Jason or Sam how close I think I got to blowing it out a few times. Tomorrow we will hike all our stuff back down again. Did a 15K or something today! That’s a lot considering tundra, relief + heavy s**t on our backs. Dreading getting the boat back to camp but hoping we’ll get an early start + get it over with quickly tomorrow morning. Can’t wait to shower!!! And wash all my clothes … might see if there is a laundromat in Ilulissat. Need to make a list of things to do for Ilulissat! Ahhh!

July 31, 2013

  • Feel warm with beer, had a pint + a little glass, one at happy hour at the Isfjord + the other at Café Ilulissat. My face is on fire! It’s early for bed (not even 8:00 pm yet) but I’m exhausted. All my clothes are dry for the most part (socks should be done tomorrow morning) so I’m confident about the next 2 weeks supply-wise. We’ll see if we are missing anything. Excited to get my chance at doing research + hope it goes well.

Aug. 2, 2013

  • Got to Qeqertaq no problem. :) Got camp set up no problem, even with big packs. Icebergs breaking are like gunshots.
  • Knee seems OK. Hurt during trek today but I think we did well despite my slow pace. Got 5 samples, though 1 doesn’t count. Learned to use the stove so hopefully I can try to light it tomorrow for breakfast. I think I’ll be much more confident in myself when I’m done here. Need to learn how to take sample pictures. Yikes! Mine are kind of horrible so far.

Aug. 4, 2013

  • Today is a slower day. Leisurely morning + are only looking for deglacial samples. Popped all three layers of my blister, two yesterday + the third this morning.
  • I’m very lucky to be here even if it’s hard.

Aug. 6, 2013

  • Tired … very very tired. Need to break the news to Jason that we’re not going up the massif today. Also need to do a bunch of mapping so I know what the heck is going on. Birds woke me up around 4:30 + made it hard to sleep. I feel bad because I think when I opened my zipper to pee I woke Sam up. It is hard camping so close to another person. You can hear everything. Lack of privacy can be hard after a while.

Aug. 12, 2013

  • The field experience is one that challenges and rewards in equal measure. When you are on the ground you are constantly bombarded with questions + uncertainties + doubts about your knowledge + success. Then, in the air, flying away, you see all of what you have learned, all of what you have accomplished.
  • Most things in the Arctic, you hear before you see. Calving⁵ events, icebergs rolling/breaking, helicopters (your ride back home), streams in the ice beneath your feet.

Aug. 19, 2013

  • Last day in the field! Hope it doesn’t last too long. Just have to get it all done quickly so we can get picked up earlier. Probably not going to happen, but a girl can dream.

Aug. 21, 2013

  • On the plane now, just made the trek to the bathroom. Always feel bad stepping all over people. Can’t wait to be home + for it to be the moment Alex rolls up in his Rav 4. Glad that I got to come this year + feeling like perhaps I’ll come away a better person.
  • Who knows what the future holds … but I’ll be ready for it.
  • 1  Randkluft: a chasm caused by ice breaking away from a mountainside 
    2  Bergschrund: a type of crevasse on a mountain glacier 
    3  Sundog: a halo or spots of light that form around the sun when light reflects off ice crystals in clouds 
    4  Cosmo sample: a piece of rock from a boulder or bedrock surface that is dated using cosmogenic nuclides to determine when it was last covered by ice
    5  Calving: when large pieces of ice snap off of a glacier or ice sheet

What do you need to do research in the Arctic? Below are a few items Cronauer took to Greenland, together with a sampling of objects picked up on-site.

Still life: Douglas Levere

A: Some rocks are for keeps. Cronauer picked this one up as a souvenir.

B: A passport is a must for scientists working abroad. Greenland is an autonomous territory within Denmark.

C: Cronauer’s diary offers up honest reflections about her life in a faraway place.

D: Packaged food is sometimes all there is for sustenance in an Arctic camp, where slow-spoiling onions and potatoes may be the only “fresh” vegetables you eat for weeks.

E: This pink flamingo, which Cronauer brought with her on a whim, became an inside joke as researchers took turns placing it in odd locations around camp.

F: In her field journal, Cronauer scribbled research notes, sketched maps of campsites and compiled to-do lists.

G: A sediment core, a sample of lake-bottom mud, was brought home by the research team for study.

H: Wayfinders, like maps and GPS locators, are vital tools of the geologist’s trade. They guide you to remote research sites—and back to camp.

I: Folding rulers are easy to pack for day hikes. They’re used to measure the height of boulders, the length of sediment cores and other geologic artifacts.

J: Sample bags hold rocks collected for study.