Published April 23, 2014
Here is what you bring with you on a three-week research expedition to Greenland, a place where summer temperatures often dip below freezing and the nearest towns are hundreds of miles away:
Maps. GPS devices. An inflatable raft. A generator and jerry cans of gasoline. To cook, you bring a kitchen tent, lighters and a kerosene stove. You pack pots, pans, pasta, hot sauce, rice, dehydrated beans, cheese, oatmeal, nuts, onions and, most crucially, coffee.
You bring a laptop and satellite phones. You carry bug spray. You wear a fleece jacket, rubber boots and long underwear beneath waterproof nylon pants. You bring hammers, tool boxes filled with chisels and various types of tubing. You pack a sledgehammer for breaking ice and a shovel for bathroom trips.
You lug all of this equipment with you onto a helicopter. The ride is intense, with several people crammed into a tiny space. The propellers thrum noisily.
Then, the copter lands and you step out into a world so stark and beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s real.
“Suddenly, your life becomes much simpler,” says UB Associate Professor of Geology Jason Briner, a veteran of these northern research trips. “That’s one of the things that’s so inviting about the Arctic. The science we do is cool, of course, but part of it is just about being in an expansive landscape where people don’t travel all the time.”
Briner brings students to Greenland, Alaska or Baffin Island about twice a year to ply the land for clues about the history of climate change. The work addresses one of the field’s enduring mysteries: how quickly glaciers can grow and melt [see “Ice Science,” below].
Life in the field is full of the unexpected, the unforeseen. Briner once emerged from the kitchen tent to find a polar bear some 100 yards away; the team warded the animal off with flares. Other days, white-outs swallow the camp, or mosquitoes and flies go on the attack.
Then there are moments of absolute wonder: long hikes that open onto views of blue glaciers; a sky clear as glass; an eagle wheeling around your boat. Briner recounts the distant boom of ice cracking and falling into fjords. In the darkness of night, he says, it sounds like thunder.