An Arctic Odyssey

Training the next generation of climate scientists in Greenland

On a chilly summer day, Alex Stendahl ’19 crouches at the shore of a pond in Kangerlussuaq, a small town at the tip of a fjord in western Greenland. She cups her hand, scoops up a spider, and deftly drops it into a glass vial.

The Dartmouth undergraduate stalks and studies spiders, and also what spiders eat—mosquitoes—as part of her research into how climate change is affecting the insect population in Greenland.

“A warmer world for mosquitoes. What does that mean for the predators of the mosquitoes?” Stendahl asks. “What does that mean for the predators of the predators of the mosquitoes?”

Alex Stendahl works in the field and the lab in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

Alex Stendahl ’19 searches for spiders near a pond in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Later, she transfers insects she has trapped to jars in her lab in the international science support facility.

Alex Stendahl ’19 searches for spiders near a pond in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Later, she transfers insects she has trapped to jars in her lab in the international science support facility.

Stendahl has been catching and counting bugs in Greenland since she was a high school student. Her first trip came about thanks to the Joint Science Education Project (JSEP), a three-week, hands-on summer program for high-schoolers co-led by Dartmouth and the government of Greenland and partially funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Every summer, working with Danish and Greenlandic collaborators, Dartmouth scientists mentor 20 JSEP high school students—five from the U.S., five from Denmark, and 10 from Greenland—based in the tiny, isolated town of Kangerlussuaq, near the edge of the island's ice sheet.

Sharing the tundra with musk oxen, Arctic fox, caribou, Arctic hares, ptarmigan, and, yes, mosquitoes, JSEP students have a chance to learn firsthand from Dartmouth scientists how to conduct research in the Arctic, a place that is changing dramatically as temperatures and sea levels rise. 

“Greenland is at the front line of climate change,” says Ross Virginia, the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science and director of Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies. 

The world’s largest island is giving scientists an advance look at what may happen to other ecosystems around the globe in years to come. That’s why Virginia and his colleagues mentor JSEP students here, helping them conduct experiments with insects, soil, and ice—all harbingers of a changing climate. Working together across cultural boundaries, the young scientists define a problem. They brainstorm an approach. They go into the field and collect information. They bring it back, and they figure out how to communicate and share what they have learned.

Ross Virginia, the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science and director of Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies.

“Greenland is at the front line of climate change.”

—Ross Virginia, the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science and director of Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies.

Ross Virginia, the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science and director of Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies.

JSEP students gather with mentors and teachers during a day on the ice.

Students in the JSEP program gather for a photo on the ice sheet.

Getting to Greenland

Early one morning at the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, N.Y., Virginia; his lab manager, Angela Spickard; Assistant Research Professor Lauren Culler; Rutland, Vt. high school teacher Erica Wallstrom; and Reyn Hutten ’21 shepherd the five American JSEP students—Ermia Butler, Emma Centano, Ella Lubin, Alena Macken, and Michael Martinez—onto a Hercules C-130 cargo plane flown by the Guard for the NSF. 

Passengers on the plane to Greenland.

Scientists and students from Dartmouth and other research institutions travel to Greenland on a C-130 cargo plane.

Scientists and students from Dartmouth and other research institutions travel to Greenland on a C-130 cargo plane.

It’s an adventure, riding in hammock-like seats and wearing earplugs for the noisy seven-hour trip to Greenland. Landing at Kangerlussuaq’s small airport in time for a pizza dinner, the teenagers head to the hostel they’ll share with Danish and Greenlandic students.

Map of Greenland showing Kangerlussuaq, Point 660, and EastGRIP

Dartmouth scientists bunk nearby at the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS) facility, a boxy red building in the center of the village, home to about 500 residents. KISS also houses scientists from other institutions around the world and is the gateway to the ice sheet for many scientists.

People walk into the science support facility.

Dartmouth scientists arrive at the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support facility for summer fieldwork and teaching.

Dartmouth scientists arrive at the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support facility for summer fieldwork and teaching.

The JSEP team is greeted at KISS by Stendahl and three other Dartmouth researchers who are already at work. Matthew Ayres, a professor of biological sciences and associate director of the Institute of Arctic Studies, studies the ecology of climate change. Hunter Snyder and Melissa DeSiervo are JSEP fellows and PhD candidates in the Ecology, Evolution, Ecosystems, and Society Program (EEES) at the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.

The town of Kangerlussuaq seen from above.

The town of Kangerlussuaq (“big fjord” in Greenlandic) sits at the head of the island’s longest fjord. It was the site of a U.S. Air Force base during World War II.

The town of Kangerlussuaq (“big fjord” in Greenlandic) sits at the head of the island’s longest fjord. It was the site of a U.S. Air Force base during World War II.

What the Tundra Tells Us

After spending a day getting acquainted, the JSEP students slather themselves with insect repellent and don head nets, fleece, and rain gear—July in Greenland resembles early spring in New England—to hike up Black Ridge Mountain, behind the KISS building. Spread out over the summit, Dartmouth scientists demonstrate their fieldwork. Virginia and Spickard stand near a deflation patch—a brown spot devoid of visible vegetation.

“We’re trying to understand soils,” Virginia says. “We’re all worried about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is the driver of global warming. There’s twice as much carbon in soils as there is in the atmosphere. Twice as much. And most of that carbon in soils is in the Arctic.” He and Spickard hand out the metal T-bars they use to probe where active soil meets permafrost, the layer that remains frozen throughout the year. To find that boundary, a few students start muscling the bars into the tundra.

Students stand in a circle before starting their research.

Students in the JSEP program get ready for a day of work in the field.

JSEP students look at the edge of the ice sheet.

Students and scientists approach the edge of the ice sheet.

A student and teacher examine rocks.

Miila Lennert, a Greenlandic teacher with JSEP (far right) helps students collect and analyze rocks as part of a geomorphology project.

A collection of rocks.

Students in the JSEP program get ready for a day of work in the field.

Students and scientists approach the edge of the ice sheet.

A student and teacher examine rocks.

Miila Lennert, a Greenlandic teacher with JSEP (far right) helps students collect and analyze rocks as part of a geomorphology project.

A collection of rocks.

“In the Arctic, as soils began to thaw and become more biologically active, there’s the potential for large amounts of greenhouse gases to be emitted,” Virginia tells the students. To make matters worse, he says, “the ice itself is getting darker and absorbing more sunlight, as black carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels accumulates on its surface, and dark-colored microorganisms now grow where meltwater occurs.”

“We’re trying to understand whether these eroded areas are going to stay the way they are,” says Spickard. “They were formed back in the Little Ice Age, about 500 years ago.” 

A graduate student and JSEP students stand on a rock.

Hunter Snyder, center, a JSEP Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in ecology, evolution, ecosystems, and society, talks to JSEP students about his research on fisheries in Greenland.

Hunter Snyder, center, a JSEP Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in ecology, evolution, ecosystems, and society, talks to JSEP students about his research on fisheries in Greenland.

Perched on a nearby knoll, Snyder offers a different research path. An environmental social scientist, he collects data and surveys opinions about Greenland’s fisheries, which could become increasingly important to the seacoast economy if the island becomes independent from Denmark. (Greenland has self-rule, but is still a territory of Denmark, a constitutional monarchy.) “We can make rules about how many fish can be caught in Greenland, but if people don’t follow those rules, we need to understand why,” Snyder says. “That’s what people like me are interested in finding out.”

“The Small Things That Run the World”

Down the hill from Ross and Spickard, DeSiervo, Stendhal, and Ayres suggest studying Greenland’s increasingly abundant mosquito population. “Why are they important to this ecosystem?” DeSiervo asks, “and how are they impacted by climate change? 

“Here’s one of our traps,” she says, holding up a cylinder that emits carbon dioxide. “The mosquitoes are attracted to the CO₂ and then get sucked in.”  

Although they’re already scratching bites from voracious Arctic mosquitoes (which can penetrate even thick wool socks), a group of students decide to tag along, in the coming days, with Culler, DeSiervo, and Stendhal as they head to ponds to harvest traps and sweep the ground for insects. 

A student examines a jar filled with mosquitoes.

Alex Stendahl ’19 examines mosquitoes that were caught in traps and brought back to the lab in Kangerlussuaq.

Melissa DeSiervo shows JSEP teacher Miila Lennert a jar of mosquitoes that will be used in lab experiments that examine the insects’ reproductive cycle.

Melissa DeSiervo shows JSEP teacher Miila Lennert a jar of mosquitoes that will be used in lab experiments that examine the insects’ reproductive cycle.

A net used to capture bugs for research.

A net used to capture bugs for research.

Melissa DeSiervo works at the edge of a pond.

A mosquito bites a person's arm.

A mosquito draws blood.

Alex Stendahl ’19 examines mosquitoes that were caught in traps and brought back to the lab in Kangerlussuaq.

Melissa DeSiervo shows JSEP teacher Miila Lennert a jar of mosquitoes that will be used in lab experiments that examine the insects’ reproductive cycle.

Melissa DeSiervo shows JSEP teacher Miila Lennert a jar of mosquitoes that will be used in lab experiments that examine the insects’ reproductive cycle.

A net used to capture bugs for research.

Melissa DeSiervo works at the edge of a pond.

A mosquito draws blood.

In 10 years of field research in Greenland, Culler has found that, as the climate changes, mosquitoes are emerging earlier in the spring and maturing faster. For now, she says, they are reproducing fast enough to sustain their population. And that’s important to Greenland’s ecosystem, because they play a role in pollination and are also food for other organisms. But mosquitoes could be in trouble, Culler says, because some of the ponds where they lay their eggs are disappearing, and their blood meals, such as caribou and musk oxen, are scarce in the vast tundra landscape and under threat from environmental change. 

“I always argue that it’s the small things, the little things we don’t see right away, that actually run the world,” she says.

Professor Lauren Culler writes in a notebook while doing research in the field.

“I always argue that it’s the small things, the little things we don’t see right away, that actually run the world.”

—Lauren Culler, research assistant professor of environmental studies

Professor Lauren Culler writes in a notebook while doing research in the field.

Ice Trekking

Soils. Check. Mosquitoes. Check. Next on the summer school lesson plan: ice. One sunny day, the JSEP teams pile into vans and head over rocky roads for Point 660, at the edge of Greenland’s ice sheet. Students navigate the choppy, frozen surface as Erica Wallstrom, their teacher, keeps close watch. “What I love about this location for the students is you can really see the cross section between ice and minerals and biology,” she says. “All these forces of nature have shaped our world, pretty much throughout the planet, but here you can really see it in action.” 

“It’s also humbling,” says Michael Martinez, a JSEP student from Roxbury, Mass. “Standing out here, you remember how tiny you are in the big scheme of things, but you also feel more connected to the Earth.”

JSEP students measure the depth of permafrost on the ice sheet at Point 660.

JSEP students measure the depth of permafrost on the ice sheet at Point 660.

Later in the month, the students and teachers take a U.S. Air National Guard plane to the East Greenland Ice Core Project (EastGRIP), an international ice coring site. Sleeping in tents at night, they spend their days learning how to measure albedo—the amount of sunlight reflected off the ice back into the atmosphere. 

Joining JSEP at EastGRIP are Cameron Planck and Austin Lines, two graduate students at Thayer School of Engineering, and post-doc Kaitlin Keegan, also from Thayer. Scientists drill day and night, harvesting cores of ice to find clues about Earth’s distant past—relics of ancient dust, sea salts, volcanic ash, soot from forest fires, and samples of ancient air. 

Planck normally studies sea ice in Alaska, so for him, EastGRIP is a new experience. “The researchers, mostly from Denmark, take you down into these big tunnels they’ve built,” he says. “There’s a production line, drilling, pulling up the 6-to-8-foot core, and chopping it into sections. It’s really something to see. The students love it.”

Austin Lines (second from left), works with JSEP students.

Austin Lines (second from left), works with JSEP students. (Photo by Cameron Planck)

JSEP students take measurements in an ice cave. (Photo by Cameron Planck)

“FrostyBoy,” as researchers refer to this driverless, solar-powered machine, helps in gathering data from below the surface of the ice sheet. (Photo by Austin Lines)

Austin Lines (left) works with JSEP students. (Photo by Cameron Planck)

JSEP students take measurements in an ice cave. (Photo by Cameron Planck.

“FrostyBoy,” as researchers refer to this driverless, solar-powered machine, helps in gathering data from below the surface of the ice sheet. (Photo by Austin Lines)

“An ice sheet is roughly 2 miles thick, and those layers tell the climate story over the last 100,000 years, with the most recent chapters being at the surface,” says Professor of Engineering Mary Albert, also executive director of the U.S. Ice Drilling Program Office. “You can’t predict the future of climate change without a firm understanding of how processes work, and we are getting that from past evidence—which helps us model what lies ahead.” 

Collecting that evidence is becoming a job for robots as well as people. In Greenland and Antarctica, Lines and another Thayer graduate student, Joshua Elliott, are testing a driverless, solar-powered machine they call “FrostyBoy,” which traverses large areas of ice. Using radar technology, FrostyBoy gathers data from below the surface, measuring, for example, water content. Controlled at long distance by operators texting via satellite phones, robots sharply reduce the time it takes to gather data and also keep people out of harm’s way. (In addition to daunting weather, there are polar bears out there.)

“Right now,” says Lines, “a human either tows instruments on skis over long distances or drives snow machines for nine hours at a stretch.” But snow machines often get stuck, losing traction, and so did the first Thayer-designed ice robots. With Elliott, Lines has redesigned the wheels for better traction. FrostyBoy, they say, will put climate science in high gear.

Lessons Learned

As the time comes to say good bye to Greenland, the JSEP students give some thought to the lessons they will take home with them. 

Ella Lubin sees similarities between the tundra here and in her native Sitka, Alaska, but Greenland’s vast ice sheet is like nothing she has ever seen. “Seeing and learning about climate change as it pertains to places like this is really important to me personally because I know I can bring this back to my community, which is a really small town.”

JSEP student Ella Lubin stands in a doorway.

JSEP student Ella Lubin

JSEP student Ella Lubin

Greenlander Tonya Hall doesn’t need to go far to share what she’s learned this month. She lives in Kangerlussuaq. “Before I came to this program,” she says one morning at breakfast, “I didn’t really think much about glaciers or permafrost.” And yet, shifting permafrost has already made her family’s house less stable on its foundation. “One wall has moved a little bit,” she says, “and other walls are cracking. I am going to tell other people in Greenland that we should all know more about what is going on right here.”

She gets a chance to do that at an “outreach day” when JSEP teams give poster presentations for travelers at the Kangerlussuaq airport. 

Going public with their projects isn’t easy, Virginia says, but it’s a crucial part of the program. “The JSEP kids motivate all of us to put even more energy into our own work here. We all write our scientific papers, and that’s important, but changing the lives of just a few young people each year is the way that we are going to build human capacity to better understand climate change.”

Professor Matt Ayres inspects a plant.

Matt Ayres, a professor of biological sciences, conducts research in the field. “One wonderful feature of the Arctic is that the world is literally and figuratively smaller at the top,” he says.

Matt Ayres, a professor of biological sciences, conducts research in the field. “One wonderful feature of the Arctic is that the world is literally and figuratively smaller at the top,” he says.

Ross’s colleague Matthew Ayres, who studies the interaction of insects, people, and forests in a changing climate, sees JSEP as a model of international collaboration. “One wonderful feature of the Arctic is that the world is literally and figuratively smaller at the top,” says Ayres. “JSEP represents three nations speaking different languages, but we have learned to work together on our shared interests.”

As she gets ready to graduate from Dartmouth and apply to graduate school in Norway, Stendahl looks back on JSEP as a stepping stone to a career in science. “It’s given me a chance, this summer, to see how far I’ve come since I was a high school junior, and to nurture younger minds to become as interested in Arctic research as I am,” she says.

Reyn Hutten stands in the field with tools for her research.

Reyn Hutten ’21

From left, Melissa DeSiervo, Alex Stendahl, and Reyn Hutten

From left, Melissa DeSiervo, Alex Stendahl ’19, and Reyn Hutten ’21

Reyn Hutten stands in the field with tools for her research.

Reyn Hutten ’21

From left, Melissa DeSiervo, Alex Stendahl ’19, and Reyn Hutten ’21

Following in Stendahl’s footsteps over tundra and ice is Reyn Hutten ’21, the newest member of Virginia’s lab. In Greenland, Hutten helps Virginia and Spickard measure carbon and nitrogen content in the soil, adding water to deflation patches to simulate increased precipitation predicted to change growing conditions. Under the midnight sun, at the end of an 18-hour day of checking soil plots and helping Melissa DeSiervo tend mosquito traps, Hutten says she feels physically exhausted but intellectually awakened. 

“Asking questions and finding answers in such a spectacular place—that’s why I love doing science here,” she says. “I can’t wait to come back.”

Charlotte Albright can be reached at charlotte.e.albright@dartmouth.edu

Robert Gill can be reached at robert.gill@dartmouth.edu

Melissa DeSiervo and Alex Stendahl stand on a rock and look out over the ice sheet.