Published October 5, 2022
After months of preparations, UB glaciologists Jessica Mejia and Courtney Shafer landed on Helheim Glacier in southeast Greenland in early September.
Fog delayed their arrival by helicopter. Blistering winds in the forecast forced them to shorten their trip. Scarce resources for scientists on Greenland, a continuation of effects from the pandemic, caused other changes in plans.
But in the end, the pair — working alongside a mountaineering guide, a polar bear safety expert, and colleagues from other universities — was able to collect valuable data for a project that explores how water flows through and underneath Helheim Glacier.
From the moment the scientists set foot on the ice, the expedition was an unforgettable experience.
“You can just see so far. Miles and miles and miles. And it really strikes you how small you are, how big the ice sheet actually is, and how far away you are from anybody else,” says Mejia, a postdoctoral researcher in geology. “You’re really out there alone.”
“It was a very beautiful landscape. The ice sheet itself, it just looked like a desert, an icy desert,” says Shafer, a PhD student in geology. It was her first time working in Greenland.
Both Mejia and Shafer are members of the Glacier Modeling Lab led by Kristin Poinar, assistant professor of geology, College of Arts and Sciences, and a core faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute, who is co-leading the Helheim Glacier project. The study is funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
“We know glaciers are melting and that they’re losing mass rapidly and will continue to into the future. That is not the question in glaciology anymore,” Mejia says. “We know it’s happening, so we need to define the rate that glaciers are losing mass. Glacial hydrology affects how fast glaciers slide toward the ocean and lose ice, so it impacts sea level rise.”
Each day, the scientists cooked breakfast in a kitchen tent before heading out onto the ice to set up experiments. Coffee, brewed in a French press, was a crucial part of the morning routine — starting with melting snow to make water.
“The rule is always to start hot water for coffee, whoever wakes up first,” Mejia says.
“Definitely caffeine,” Shafer says of daily activities.
She notes the team ate well. Oatmeal, pancakes, rice with chickpeas, and polenta with pesto were all on the menu, along with many, many protein bars for snacks.
On cloudless nights, the researchers emerged from their tents to view the lights of the aurora borealis swirling above the ice sheet, lime green in a dark, lonely sky.
“It was incredible to see,” Shafer says.
“There was nothing like seeing it on the ice sheet,” Mejia says. “There was no light for miles, and it’s so flat, so you see the entire sky. It was amazing.”
And in between, during daylight hours, the researchers made the best of the short time they had on the ice sheet.
The team that traveled to Helheim Glacier included Mejia and Shafer from UB; Winnie Chu, TJ Young and Renee Clavette from Georgia Institute of Technology; Colin Meyer, Aleah Sommer and Ilyse Horlings from Dartmouth University; Mike Coyle at the Colorado Mountain School; and Richard Mansfield with the British Association of Mountain Guides. Chu, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech, and Meyer, assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth, are co-leading the study with Poinar.
Just outside their carefully selected camp site, the scientists installed radar equipment that will monitor Helheim Glacier’s firn aquifer — a layer of water embedded in the ice — for months to come.
Shafer used seismoelectric equipment to take additional measurements, imaging the top and bottom of the aquifer via seismic pulses created by striking a large mallet on the ice sheet or embedding and lighting explosives about a meter below the surface.
Mejia, who worked with Poinar to help select the study site and coordinate many details of the expedition, had hoped to place GPS stations on either side of large cracks in the glacier called crevasses. As water from the aquifer pours into these fissures, the weight of the water causes the cracks to grow wider at the top and deeper at the bottom. The GPS devices would have helped to measure this phenomenon.
“The main question we’re trying to answer through data collection and modeling work is to see if water from the firn aquifer is draining into crevasses and allowing the crevasses to fracture and penetrate all the way down to the glacier bed,” Mejia says. “If it does go to the bed, it will affect how fast the glacier is sliding and sending ice into the sea.”
But GPS stations are large, with multiple batteries, and poor weather prevented the team from bringing this cargo to camp. Transporting the equipment would have necessitated a helicopter technique called sling loading that requires better conditions.
They’ll try again next year.
Mejia notes that while planning is a crucial part of working in extreme environments, so is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
“In glaciology, all data is super valuable and impressive because you’re dealing with harsh conditions. We knew that there were risks going in, and we’re happy that we got some data and got the radar equipment installed,” Mejia says. “We did everything that we could while we were there, and we’re definitely going back next summer.”