UB ice scientists will travel to Greenland for field work

Animation of gear for a Greenland field work trip being unpacked out of a bag.

Packing for Arctic field work? Here's some of the gear that Caleb Walcott, UB geology PhD student, plans to take to Greenland. Also shown are tools that geologists use to collect rock samples. Items include a warm coat, insulated overalls, a bright hat, sample bags, protective earmuffs, safety glasses, a rock saw, a field journal, a hammer and chisel, a sci-fi novel borrowed from the UB Libraries, pens, a Leatherman multi-tool, mittens, a sleeping pad, down booties and a sleeping bag. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

By Alexis Nicholson

Release Date: July 1, 2022

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Portrait of UB geologist Jason Briner.
“Drilling through a thousand feet of ice sheet to collect just the right sample for our analysis requires overcoming huge technological challenges, and years of planning. ”
Jason Briner, professor of geology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo researchers including geologist Jason Briner will travel to Greenland as part of a project called GreenDrill in late June and early July. Their goal is to gather information that could help them understand the rise of global sea levels better.

GreenDrill is funded by the National Science Foundation to study the Greenland Ice Sheet and the bedrock underneath.

After collecting bedrock samples, the team will send specimens back to New York with the help of the National Guard, including pilots. These aviators practice landing on ice in Greenland, Briner says, so they are well equipped to travel with the samples.

The bedrock holds chemical clues that could help scientists estimate how long Greenland has been covered in ice, and understand how sensitive the ice sheet is to climate change, says Briner, PhD, professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences and one of the co-leaders of GreenDrill.

The project is a partnership between UB, Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Penn State.

Briner’s research excursion to Greenland, originally scheduled for 2021, was postponed due to the pandemic, which forced scientists around the world to delay field work.

But with travel restrictions easing and COVID-19 testing, vaccines and treatments now developed, many disrupted projects are resuming. Separate from Briner, members of the geology department’s Glacier Modeling Lab will head to Helheim Glacier in Greenland this summer. Kristin Poinar, assistant professor of geology and a core faculty member with the UB RENEW Institute, is co-leading that project, and postdoctoral researcher Jessica Mejia and PhD student Courtney Shafer will conduct field work.

Arctic packing list: Satellite phones, dried fruit and drills

From left to right: UB researchers heading to Greenland this year include PhD students Karlee Prince and Caleb Walcott, and master’s student Liza Wilson. Walcott is going as part of the GreenDrill team, and Prince and Wilson for another research project. All are members of Jason Briner’s lab in the Department of Geology. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Briner says there have been years of preparation and planning behind this season’s trip, including finding suitable areas to collect samples using satellite imagery.

For food, the team bought 200 pounds of non-perishable items including pasta, oatmeal, dried fruit, crackers and dehydrated vegetables. The researchers have planned some of their meals beforehand and will cook and eat together in their group tent.

Every day, after waking up at 7, the scientists will gather to eat breakfast, drink coffee and discuss the day’s objectives before setting out to work.

This summer, the GreenDrill team will be stationed in Inglefield Land, an unglaciated region in northern Greenland. Future field work seasons will focus on obtaining bedrock from locations under the ice sheet. 

The scientific equipment that they will use in Greenland includes drills and saws to help collect the samples, satellite phones for communication and GPS devices for navigation. The large drill that will be used to bore through the ice sheet in later field seasons must be transported in parts and assembled in Greenland because of its size.

“In late March we had to ship a bunch of things to Greenland. Equipment had to be sent on a certain kind of airplane,” Briner says. “It is safe to say that the GreenDrill project requires more than double the logistical effort compared to any past Arctic expedition I’ve run. Drilling through a thousand feet of ice sheet to collect just the right sample for our analysis requires overcoming huge technological challenges and years of planning.”

A chance to explore: ‘There is nothing I am not excited about’

Caleb Walcott, a PhD student in UB’s department of geology, is one of the team members who will accompany Briner to Greenland this summer.

Walcott is excited to explore a place he’s never been to.

“There is nothing I am not excited about,” he says. “I am, however, a bit nervous about polar bears and wolves. I just learned recently that there are wolves in this part of Greenland.” (Briner notes that such encounters are rare, and that teams are also prepped with safety training and equipment.)

Walcott’s interest in geology stemmed from his fascination in exploring intriguing places. Now he’ll get to check Greenland off his list of places to visit, and it may earn him bragging rights.

“My grandfather went to Greenland during his Air Force days, but I will be going closer to the North Pole, making me the person in my family who has been the farthest north.”

Walcott hopes to help gather information for his dissertation research, which focuses on how ice sheets have changed over time in response to climate. One of the main questions is he is interested in is if the Greenland Ice Sheet is smaller today than before the last Ice Age.

In anticipation of the chilly weather, Walcott is packing outerwear such as a down jacket and insulated overalls, as well as accessories such as a warm hat and wool socks. He is also bringing a cold-weather sleeping bag to help keep warm.

For whenever he has free time, Walcott plans on having books and playing cards. He’ll have a camera to take pictures of anything he finds interesting. And, last but not least, a variety of candy.

Another Greenland project

By Charlotte Hsu

In addition to Walcott, two other students from Briner’s lab will head to Greenland this summer: Karlee Prince and Liza Wilson. They’ll be among scientists traveling to eastern Greenland for a study that examines the historical size of the ice sheet.

Karlee Prince, PhD student in geology

Q: Have you ever been to Greenland?

Karlee Prince: “No.”

Q: What’s exciting about your upcoming research trip to Greenland?

Karlee Prince: “I’m most excited to see the way that the ice sheet looks. One of the best learning experiences I’ve had was being in Alaska and seeing a glacier there. Seeing the way it’s churning up and depositing debris, seeing the processes in real time with your eyes, changes the way you see your research. I want to see the way the landforms look, the way the moraines look. I can apply that knowledge about what it looks like now to what it might have looked like in the past, and how it used to operate. The fjords — I’m so excited to see the fjords.”

Liza Wilson, master’s student in geology

Q: Have you ever been to Greenland?

Liza Wilson: “Yes, but not for research. I went when I was studying abroad in Denmark. We had a five-day study tour in Kangerlussuaq. I’ve always been fascinated with polar regions since I was a little kid, so when I went on that trip, I said, ‘I’ve got to go back.’ ”

Q: What’s exciting about your upcoming research trip to Greenland?

Liza Wilson: “What’s fascinating to me about polar regions is how extreme they are, and how different they are from whatever I see on a daily basis. Greenland is really interesting because it’s one of the places where you can see the drastic changes caused by climate change. As for the upcoming trip, this is my chance to see how remote field work happens and to learn. And that’s what I’m most excited about.”

Rock sampling tools. A rock saw, chisel and hammer, used for collecting rock samples, sit atop bags for storing and cataloging the samples. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

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chsu22@buffalo.edu
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