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Echoes of Greenland
by Eve Lamborn

Editor’s Note: The world’s oceans are rising every year, and scientists are watching polar ice sheets carefully. Perhaps melting caused by global warming is contributing to the increase in water level. Come along with University of Kansas student Eve Lamborn now, as she recounts her Fantastic Journey to Greenland last summer with KU scientists who used radar to measure the ice.

It was early June and I was shivering. Though I was wearing my winter coat, the brisk wind set my teeth chattering. The cold was forgotten as a sharp crack echoed across the boulder field where I was perched – and was followed by a deep boom.

The wind I felt was blowing off the Greenland ice sheet. I was 56 kilometers (35 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, watching chunks of ice fall off a glacier. I could see a crack that had been slowly widening for the last half an hour across the face of the glacier, a tantalizing hint that a giant piece of ice was going to give way. I just knew that it was going to fall any second. Of course, I had been thinking that for 30 minutes now.

As I sat there listening to the wind and counting the minutes, small pieces of ice dropped into the water. Then, without warning, a huge piece split off and thundered down. The chunk broke apart as it fell, and the impact sent a wave of water and projectiles hurtling into the air. The reverberations echoed across the rocks.

That piece, which could have smashed a large house, was a tiny fraction of the ice sheet, which is 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) thick in some places and covers 80 percent of Greenland.

Last summer, I was in Greenland (the world’s largest island) on the ultimate field trip. Scientists at the University of Kansas, where I go to school, have developed two types of airborne radar to measure Greenland’s polar ice sheet. Every summer, they travel into the field to operate their radar and gather data, and I got to tag along as the science reporter.

They are studying polar ice because they think that global warming is making the ice melt more than usual, causing the ocean level to rise. Their research is funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

KU scientists led by Prasad Gogineni have developed a radar that measures the thickness of the ice. KU scientist Pannirselvam Kanagaratnam has developed one that maps layers formed by snowfall, which helps determine if snow is accumulating on the ice. Using these two tools, we hope to make useful discoveries.

The plane we flew in, a P-3 Orion, is a former submarine hunter used by the United States Navy and later purchased by NASA. Instead of torpedoes, the bomb bay underneath the plane carries scientific equipment. Instead of flying over oceans searching for enemy subs, the plane flies over ice gathering scientific data.

The inside of the plane was filled with lasers, global positioning systems, radar equipment, and computers. This was no regular airplane!

I received a safety briefing before my first flight. Pilot Chris Pali showed me how to operate the emergency escape hatch, breathing systems, escape rope, and life rafts. He explained how to use the rescue flares and signal mirror. Should we be stranded on the ice, everyone on board had a winter survival kit, complete with parka and boots.

I got to sit in the cockpit for a premium view of the spectacular scenery. Sometimes the ice looked soft and hazy, like waves on the water, and other times it was jagged and sharp. Sometimes we were so far out on the ice that it stretched to the horizon like a huge, frozen ocean. Other times we skimmed over glaciers that were dropping icebergs into the sea. The ice was so white, it hurt my eyes.

During the first flight, I wasn’t prepared for the bumpiness. I felt like I was on an amusement park ride as I tried to take pictures while the plane pitched and rocked.

The town we stayed in, Kangerlussuaq, is the home of Greenland’s major international airport, and that’s about it. There aren’t many people in Greenland, but there are caribou, musk ox, and lots of mosquitoes. Instead of grass, tundra covers the ground, and we were so far north that it didn’t even get dark at night.

The natives of Greenland are the Inuit people, and they speak Greenlandic. I learned that I already knew two words in their language: kayak and igloo.

The scientists took their data home to begin analyzing it, trying to understand how the ice is changing so that they can predict what it might do in the future. I was sad to leave the pristine wilderness and rugged hills behind when I returned home, but it was nice to watch a sunset again.

(word help) Tundra – A treeless area between the icecaps and the tree line of the Artic region, having permanently frozen subsoil that supports some low-growing vegetation

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Last modified: February 27, 2003