The base camp at the lip of the ice sheet is so remote that it
takes the team 60 minutes by helicopter to reach it from Ilulissat,
a town of 4,000 that is the third-largest settlement on
At a base camp miles from the western coast of
Greenland—north of the Arctic Circle at the margin of an ice
sheet that consumes more than 80 percent of the island—UB
geologist Jason Briner is conducting climate change research that
will help answer pressing questions about rising sea levels.
And he’s making pizza.
“Helicopter charters are a fortune,” he said.
“It would cost $5,000 dollars to deliver a pizza this far
Even if free delivery were an option, it’s unlikely Briner
would take anyone up on the offer. His dedication to research and
devotion to teaching are not the only reasons he has made an annual
summer trip to Greenland since 2008. He’s scheduled to leave
for this year’s trip on Aug. 7.
“It’s wonderful bringing students up there,”
he said. “I can teach them the etiquette of living outdoors,
as well as how to appreciate everything that’s
Working in such a remote part of the world requires knowledge of
survival strategies, but Briner brings verve to his base-camp
living approach. His pizza illustrates a demand for creativity.
That’s why he’s unwilling to accept prosaic cheese and
pepperoni, and chooses to pick mushrooms from the tundra landscape
to top what’s being prepared in his tent.
Collecting the meal’s finishing touches, Briner exercises
his influence in the kitchen, but does so while walking in one of
the few places on the planet that remains uninfluenced by humanity.
It is true wilderness.
“One of the reasons I entered this field is because I love
the outdoors,” said Briner. “Out here, I can see nature
in its prime. It’s peaceful, yet still filled with powerful
forces of nature. Greenland is beautiful.”
That beauty is realized within Greenland’s unusual
geography. The island, the world’s largest, sits like a
massive cap—with only a suggestion of a rising crown and just
a sliver of a brim—between the Arctic and North Atlantic
oceans. Although Greenland is covered mostly by ice, that coastal
brim is ice-free. The majority of the island’s population is
settled there, living in brightly colored gable-roofed houses
situated on forgiving spots of a gently sloping rocky coastline
dissected by narrow bodies of water carved by ancient forces.
Briner’s team flies into a town called Ilulissat. Only
4,000 people live there, yet it’s the third-largest
settlement on the island. From Ilulissat, the team takes a
60-minute helicopter flight to a strategic, preselected location at
the lip of the ice sheet.
“That’s where we camp out,” Briner said.
“We’ll be deeply involved in our research at that
location before a helicopter arrives a few weeks later to resupply
our food, take the samples we’ve collected and fly us to a
Briner’s easy manner makes everything sound simple. But
the work is difficult and the task before his team is
“This is a huge mass of ice, [more than 677,000 square
miles]” he said. “There have been no people there to
monitor it through time; there has been no instrumentation to
monitor what has happened through time. We have data that shows the
overall volume of ice is getting smaller, yet we also know that as
most parts shrink, some parts might be growing.”
Collaboration is critical
Briner is one the two people in UB’s geology department
who comprise the climate change group. He hopes the group can
expand in the future.
His colleague, Beata Csatho, is a glaciologist who studies ice
physics and ice flow to determine how the overall health of
glaciers and ice sheets changes over time. Castho relies on remote
data collection and satellite information.
“That information is current, collected in the last couple
decades,” Briner said.
Csatho’s work can be seen as contemporary observation and
research, while Briner’s work in paleoclimatology uses
various geological techniques, such as studying landforms and
applying radio carbon dating, to reconstruct the past changes in
the ice sheets to determine when those changes took place.
“We try to put these two traditionally different
disciplines of science together to see if we can learn something
new. And we’ve done that,” said Briner. “Bea can
look at the spatial pattern of how the ice sheet is changing today
and I can look at the history of ice sheet to determine if similar
pattern occurred in the past. Doing so allows us to bridge the gap
between the geologic studies that I do and the contemporary studies
that Bea does.”
The two are working on their second National Science Foundation
(NSF) grant, titled “The response of the Greenland Ice Sheet
to Holocene climate change: Testing ice sheet models and forcing
mechanisms of ice change margin.” The grant is awarded
through the Geography and Spatial Sciences Program of the NSF,
which encourages the integration of geographers and spatial
scientists in interdisciplinary research.
This year’s trip is another opportunity to study
earth’s history in an attempt to help inform the
“Depending on how things line up, how the answers from
looking at the past versus looking at the present come together, we
might be able to help in the prediction phase: to see what areas
are indeed most susceptible to global warming,” he said.