Under the Midnight Sun
A writer and a photographer follow Dartmouth scientists around Greenland
As a writer for Dartmouth’s Office of Communications, I get a lot of plum assignments. So does photographer Robert Gill. But this adventure—following a group of College faculty mentoring undergraduate and high school students in Greenland—was the first time I ever reported for work north of the Arctic Circle. Our mission: to document a summer session run by the Joint Science Education Program, or JSEP, which literally goes to the ends of the Earth to educate the next generation of climate change researchers.
The quickest and, for scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), least expensive way to get to Greenland is hitching a ride on a C-130 transport plane flown out of Scotia, N.Y., flown by the National Guard. Bad news: There are no window seats. Human cargo is strapped into plastic benches running parallel to the sides of the plane.
But here’s the good news. Human cargo also gets to visit the cockpit.
Majestic from the air, on the ground the town of Kangerlussuaq is a no-frills former U.S. air base on the alluvial plain of the meltwater-fed Watson River. The islanders who depend on each other in this harsh climate are friendly and welcoming to strangers. A few hundred year-round residents work at the airport or in the fledgling tourist trade or for scientific research groups. Some people, including native Inuit, still hunt and fish for their meals. In addition to the airport, which has a restaurant (I recommend the smoked salmon sandwich on thin, dark Danish bread), there’s a small museum, school, church, post office, municipal building, bar, convenience store, and bowling alley (alas, closed when we were there). Storekeepers in and near the airport sell locally made goods, including caribou-horn jewelry and luxurious, cashmere-like yarn spun from musk ox fur.
Just beyond the “downtown” cluster of pre-fab steel buildings, you can drive, bike or hike through flower-dotted tundra that leads to roaring waterfalls flowing from ancient ice. The landscape is both bleak and beautiful, and, were it not for Robert’s drone skills, it would be nearly impossible for a camera to do justice to the sweeping grandeur.
At first glance, some of the most idiosyncratic spots are easy to miss. A few spindly pine trees, totally out of place on the tundra, were planted as an experiment and then apparently forgotten by the town.
A makeshift golf course (no manicured fairways or greens here) sprouts a few miles away from a real quicksand plain. Farther up the road, hidden beyond a confluence of rivers, there’s “Jerry’s Rock,” named by Professor Ross Virginia in honor of the Grateful Dead’s late lead guitarist and vocalist, Jerry Garcia. A passionate Deadhead, Virginia says he’s spent many happy hours on that rock talking with students about life’s ups and downs.
Buggy and raw in the summer, frigid in the winter, Kanger, as scientists like to call it, is a tough place to do field work. In the winter, snowmobiles and dogsleds are locally favored modes of transportation. There’s a sled dog kennel at the edge of town. Polar bears have recently shown up closer to civilization than normal, making camping out more dangerous than it used to be. Food is expensive, and fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce. Equipment and nonperishables have to be shipped in containers and stored in a warehouse near the airstrip. Lab manager Angie Spickard is forever ferrying stuff to the labs at the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support building, known as KISS.
KISS temporarily houses researchers from all over the world, usually two to a spartan room, with cots for beds. The two staffers from Polar Field Services, the contractor supporting NSF scientists in the Arctic, are skilled and friendly problem solvers. Since the sun never sets in July, people come and go from the field at all hours.
Coming and going can itself be daunting. Setting out one day in an NSF truck on rocky dirt roads to take drone pictures of scenic waterfalls, Robert and I heard what seemed like an explosion behind us.
A shattered tire. Using only nine digits (he’d cut one badly just before leaving for Greenland), Robert changed it while I used a satellite phone to call back to base and let our colleagues know we’d be late. (We were at least an hour from KISS, and cell service is pretty much nonexistent in this area.) We set out again, only to have a front tire blow up. Here’s how Robert felt about that.
Another satellite phone call, this time to summon help. Ross Virginia, Hunter Snyder, and Lauren Culler showed up an hour later in a pick-up truck.
On another day, we tagged along with Ross and Angie Spickard on a soil-research outing. Robert happened to glance out the back window of the truck. “Um,” he said quietly, “The tailgate seems to have flown open.”
AWOL were one of Robert’s cameras and some pricey scientific equipment. Everyone tried to stay cheerful as we backtracked, looking for the lost cargo. “Yes!” Ross yelled as we spotted one of the boxes on the side of the road, not far from an area said to be dotted with land mines left over from World War II. We skidded to a halt and scooped up the wayward cargo. But the other box, with the most precious contents, seemed lost, until, as we arrived back at KISS, it shone bright orange in the evening sun near the front door. Some Samaritan had apparently found and returned it. Here’s how Ross felt about that.
Summer tourists board vans in hopes of seeing musk oxen, but the animals are elusive. No sightings for us, sadly, but on postcards the musk ox resembles Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. The meat, braised by a skillful chef (in our case, Dartmouth graduate student Hunter Snyder), tastes like Sunday pot roast.
More exotica one Sunday, at a lakeside buffet restaurant where, after days of pasta and cheese, we feasted on musk ox tartare, snow crab, tiny shrimp, smoked haddock, reindeer sausage, and whale blubber nuggets. I liked everything but that last item, inedible as a pencil eraser.
As a sun-starved Vermonter, I loved the constant daylight. But sleeping in a place that never gets dark takes getting used to. Bedroom blinds don’t block out all the light, and somehow knowing that the sun is still out makes it seem too early—whatever the clock says—to hit the sack. So, you stay up later and later and work harder and harder.
But it’s really hard to keep pace with tireless Dartmouth researchers. They spend long days at their field sites and put in late nights in their labs. We followed them just about everywhere as they swept the edges of ponds for mosquitoes, tended traps, inspected vegetation, and watered experimental soil plots.
We also kicked back one night in a one-of-a-kind bar, straight out of Star Wars, featuring pizza, Thai food, English soccer banners, a neon spotlit disco dance corner, and $9 beers.
For all its challenges, Kangerlussuaq is a reporter’s and photographer’s paradise. Where else can you bike from an airport to an ice sheet? Or scramble through tick-free tundra carpeted in pale lichen, low-growing willow, and angelica, an herb used in teas? (I brought some home, a tasty teatime memento.) Where else can you see cavorting caribou?
Everywhere you go in this part of the world, you see visible, tangible signs of a changing climate. It’s not just a newspaper headline. It’s in front of your face. Greenland’s warmer and wetter than it used to be. Good news, maybe, for the population explosion of mosquitoes looking, always, for blood.
Not so good for other animals, including us. That’s why I’m glad to have spent 10 days at the head of Greenland’s longest fjord, helping Dartmouth scientists explain what’s happening, faster than many people realize, on a fragile frontier.