We were going to the Arctic by ship to take advantage of the best weather it had to offer for the summer 2014 field season. As we waited in Reykjavik with our equipment, our ship - the last sailing vessel built of wood with ice plating for navigating Arctic waters - was traveling from Denmark to Iceland. It was called the Activ, and it was an old-fashioned schooner with three masts and fourteen sails. On the way to its destination, the ship had to cross the rough waters of the Denmark Strait, where we had to endure three days of seasickness.
The fjords along the coast were carved over thousands of years by the expansion and retreat of the ice sheet. Because they were flooded by the sea when the ice retreated, for us they were a valuable inlet to the Greenlandic interior. We got there by motor boat, hoping to collect rock samples for cosmogenic dating. As the ice sheet receded, boulders were no longer covered by ice that had shielded them from bombardment by cosmic rays. When these particles from space blasted into the rock, specific isotopes were produced in the minerals (Beryllium-10; 10Be), and as time passed they accumulated. Today, scientists can determine how long the rock has been ice-free by measuring the quantity of Beryllium in a sample. In that way, they can infer the position of the ice sheet at a given time.
One morning, at the break of dawn, the water was calm yet we heard splashing by the side of the boat. A few minutes later, we left the galley and went up on deck for a day’s work. Suddenly, we noticed that the motor craft was torn and deflated with the emergency kit missing (it had included flares and chocolate, among other things). A polar bear was on the coast tearing through the kit. As we watched, the bear decided he wanted more. He dove back into the frigid water and swam towards us. In a panic we lifted the motor boats, loaded some rifles and carefully watched the bear try to get on board. The bear circled the boat again and again, like a shark. He was attempting to grab on a ridge along the boat when we decided to fire some warning shots. The polar bear quickly fled to the coast where he would remain all day, preventing us from going out and taking more samples.
The samples will become data, and the data will implemented in models. It is a long process which will ultimately improve how ice sheet models behave. The models must accurately simulate ice retreat to remain consistent with cosmogenic dates. They must unload adequate amounts of ice for the Earth to deform and sea level to change, to coincide with the observations from isolation basins. This procedure will retune and calibrate Greenland ice sheet models, revise their simulations of climate forcing, and increase our level of confidence in our model predictions. It began on a ship navigating never-before sampled areas of Greenland, and it ends as ones and zeros on a super computer. The aim: to better understand how the Greenland ice sheet responded to past climate change, to better predict how it might respond to a warmer future.
More photographs from the Arctic:
Jonas Bergsøe (Captain)