Sunrise, Sunset

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Barring the presence of a secret Russian submarine, I believe myself to have been the northernmost person on Earth at the time this was taken.

In the background of the photos included in this post, chunks of sea ice are distinguishable. These are a fair distance away and rise probably 20 feet into the air. I have heard stories about times when the wind blows strongly against the shore piling ice high, covering the area where I am seen standing.

Interesting to learn about are polynyas, open areas of water occurring in what would normally be ice covered areas. Ice bridges are one of the causes of polynyas, and two of these often occur near (relatively) to Alert. Ice Arches and Cathedrals and The Effects of Ice Arches are two interesting links.  The first shows the arches in the Nares Strait and the second explains the ramifications of such events in more detail.

October 13, the sun rose and set for the last time until February 27. To mark this occasion the station held a Sunset Ceremony Friday, October 14. This consisted of an immense bonfire and hot chocolate by the sea. Although the sun had officially set, light levels certainly remained suitable for work a while longer. It was at least another two weeks before a headlamp was needed to perform my outdoor duties.  I have learned about the different names used to categorize levels of sunlight. For further information check out Time and Date – Alert.

Above Horizon:                0˚-180˚                  Day

Below Horizon:                 0˚-6˚                      Civil Twilight

6˚-12˚                    Nautical Twilight

12˚-18˚                  Astronomical Twilight

18˚+                       Night

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The GAW lab operator, Melody and me.

At 82°30’05” North, Alert does not see a full 24 hours of night. December 21, the equinox, will have a full 5 hours and 55 minutes of astronomical twilight, the remaining hours being night.  As far as I have seen, the two are difficult to differentiate unless the sky is devoid of clouds and the moon is hidden. A full 24 hours of astronomical night occurs above 84° 34′ in latitude. Also interesting to learn was that the Arctic Circle marks the point above which there occur annually at least 24 continuous hours of sun above the horizon and 24 hours below. According to McGill the Arctic Circle is currently shifting North at a rate of 15 m a year due to slight variations in the planet’s tilt.

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This is the medical “BV”, a transport vehicle.

Flight

As previously mentioned, I flew to Alert on a C-130 Hercules plane – a wonderful experience. Recently though that trip was outdone. We were offered a day trip and flight to Greenland. Our ride was a C-17 Globemaster, the largest plane used by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

 

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The Nares Strait with Greenland to the left and Canada (Ellesmere Island) to the right.

 

 

The time in Thule was fun; however, the highlights were the flights. A C-17 differs significantly from a passenger plane. Flip-down seats run along the walls of a cavernous and in our case completely empty, cargo hold. I am certain it could fit a full length school bus. On both legs of the journey I had a chance to sit in “first class”, i.e. the cockpit. Two seats directly behind the pilots are provided with 180˚ views and the chance to see and hear the pilots at work.

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Greenland Ice Cap in the foreground, the Nares Strait and Canada behind.

The Nares strait runs between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Our flight took us this way, giving stunning views of to the right, Canada, and to the left, Greenland. We crossed the southern extents of polar ice cap to more open waters filled with innumerable icebergs. Sometimes the ocean was held back by soaring cliffs and at other times its fjords stretched deep inland. According to a quick internet search, Greenland’s ice cap contains almost 7 percent of the world’s freshwater. This is more than 100 times the amount in the Great Lakes. The white of the ice cap stretched off to the eastern horizon. Underneath us it reached the ocean through fjords and at other times extended unbroken out over the water to where one could see hundreds of recently calved icebergs.

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Flying low through a fjord past a glacier tongue.

Snow

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Cabin on a lake. In the foreground is comparatively lush growth. The white flecks in the brown are Arctic Cotton Grass.

When I first arrived most of the ground was covered by snow. In a couple of weeks it was mostly gone, barren tundra stretching all about. A couple of weeks ago, we had three straight days of snow. It was the best kind, with large fluffy flakes that fell thickly and softly. I felt as though it should be Christmas. Driving was suddenly quite different. The line between earth and sky was barely distinguishable. Had I been turned upside down I would have been hard put to distinguish a difference. Most excitingly, I was able to get out and ski. Slipping into sturdy three-pin bindings three of us spent an afternoon touring the area.

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The GAW Lab can be seen behind me.

Another afternoon was spent on a hike to an ice cave. Really more of a snow-turned-ice cave, it is the remnant of snow in a deep gully formed by glacial runoff. When the spring melt comes, the base is washed out leaving a series of channels. Our hike also took us by some beautiful fresh water lakes. These are almost exclusively replenished by the annual snow melt. The land up here is bare shale sparsely covered with plant matter. On our hikes, the surface underfoot is either snow or terrain similar to the scree slopes of the Rockies.

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Looking back down the gully we hiked to get to the ice cave.
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Ice cave. The arch is at least 20 feet high.

The Lab. Part I

The World Meteorological Organization runs a number of programs including the Global Atmosphere Watch. GAW is a global network of partners collecting data to be used in the study of the atmosphere. As a contributor, Canada runs monitoring programs across the country; the northernmost lab is here in Alert. Officially titled the “Dr. Neil Trivett Global Atmosphere Watch Observatory,” it is run by an operator and their assistant (myself). Key responsibilities include collecting samples, changing filters, monitoring equipment and troubleshooting. The lab facilitates data collection for many different monitoring programs. Although measured here, much of this data is relayed south for further analysis. Research groups from all over are involved, including Japan, California, Toronto and Germany.

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The lab seen from the south-east through blowing snow.

There is a wing of the main living complex dedicated to Environment Canada’s needs. This is where we have our office and where much of the paperwork is completed. It is from here that Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we head approximately 7 km due south of the station to the lab. As the road heads inland it rises over a series of shelves left by retreating glaciers. We park our trucks at an old building and walk the last 500 metres so as to prevent the contamination of samples with vehicle exhaust. The lab is situated to the south of station since prevailing south winds reduce local pollution.

As I mentioned earlier, we alternate days at the lab with days in the office. Tuesdays and Thursdays are typically spent completing paper work but may include trips to the lab if there are equipment related problems. In a later post I will describe the activities performed each day.

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View north-east from the lab’s roof.

Departure

September 6th I arrived very early to board a C-130 Hercules to AFB Thule. There was constantly some part of the plane at which to marvel: inner workings, paratrooper doors, rear drop-down ramp… The flight into Greenland was amazing, glimpsing glaciers and fjords and when we landed, clear blue icebergs in the bay.

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Fjords: Flying over what I think is Baffin Island.
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Thule: Some icebergs are faintly visible.

CFS Alert itself is stationed on a rise overlooking a normally ice-covered bay. The station covers a large area; however, because there are very few landmarks, things appear quite close together. All of the living quarters are connected in one large complex. One could easily live solely indoors if they so chose.

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The view from our shared ‘living room’.

As I walked through the main doors, I was welcomed by the applause of station members gathered to greet new arrivals. I was finally there, the ‘northern-most inhabited place on earth’. I(t) felt pretty cool. Two weeks in, it still feels surreal to look out across the ocean with nothing between me and the North Pole save some ice, water, and perhaps a fish or two.

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A view of the entire station.  The runway is behind the buildings.

More astounding really, is the ease with which we got here. Alert is almost exactly 1800 km north of the Arctic Circle, and only 817 km from the Pole. Flights are frequently delayed due to poor weather, but in reality it is just a short jaunt compared to journeys of the past. HMS Alert, the station’s namesake, saw many more hardships during its exploration of the north. Next post, I hope to introduce the GAW Lab.  Thanks for reading.