Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge
After being snow-burned from the Himalayas and spending 912 hours in Sri Lanka, I embarked on an expedition to Alaska - wow! My dream trip was finally becoming a reality and my mind whireld with excitement. I soon forgot that I was tired from my previous expedition, as it was my dream to volunteer for Earthwatch and visit one of the remotest parts of the world.
As one of four chosen from HSBC, I took part in a unique project on the Bearing glacier. Our team researched and collected data from one of the largest glaciers in the world, and in the process had some of the best experiences you can dream of. My final destination was Cordova, Alaska and with a few others I researched global warming, measuring environmental conditions as well as cataloging ancient landscapes that the glaciers had moved or destroyed as part of their normal surging process.
Cordova is as small fishing village with a colourful history in copper mining and salmon fishing. Here we met our 4th colleague from New York (Nicole Rousseau) after she spotted me wearing the Earthwatch shirt. From Cordova all of us had to take a small, single engine Cessna plane to our base camp across the lake from the Bearing glacier.
This was the first time I had flown in such a small plane. The pilot was really nice and he was kind enough to take us on a small tour through the history of SE Alaska. We flew over old copper mines and an abandoned railroad track and engine. I saw, for the first time, a Grizzly bear with two cubs. After an exciting one hour flight we landed on a rough air strip which was really only a dry patch of land.
We were greeted by the principal investigators, Prof. Palmer Bailey and Prof. Jay Fleisher. It was really exiting for me because I was the first Sri Lankan ever to come to the Alaska Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camp and walk on the Bearing glacier.
My first observation was that I was in the most extreme and remote part of the world close to the Arctic Circle and surrounded by pure wilderness and ice. I was also sitting in a high-tech camp with satellite mobile phones, solar panels, satellite dish antennas and wind powered turbine engines with laptops and GPS's, and a standby helicopter. Almost everyone possessed a professional DSLR or a high-end digital camera.
I was in a remote base camp run by the Alaska BLM, consisting of several weather port structures (canvas arched metal framing wooden floors with hinged doors) on the shores of Lake Vitus. From the camp there is a clear view of the calving Bearing ice front and scattered icebergs. I had never seen icebergs before, some as large as my house floating in front our camp on Lake Vitus.
The following morning I woke up to the cry of mew gulls, and luckily the weather was clear. It was a beautiful day and Lake Vitus shone like a mirror. One of the most interesting things were the special suits we had to wear when crossing the icy waters each day by boat. Each of us was given a bright red Mustang survival suit which protected us from the ice water in case we fell in, acting as a flotation device to keep you us from getting hypothermia... plus it made us look like we were astronauts flying to the moon.
Stepping Out on Ice
It was absolute bliss to step onto the surface of the ice - different form any part of the world. It looked like the moon, except there were no craters and gravity was not at zero. But the land and surface were so different from anything I had ever seen before. We were basically standing on miles of moving ice.
A glacier reflects 90 per cent of the sun's rays and so it was extremely bright in which case one could be snow-blinded ( I know, I know, first snow-burned, then snow-blinded!) . We were given explanations on what a Lacuna and Moulin was on a glacier. Out first task was to make measurements by drilling in the ice and document waypoints with a GPS. My first day was additionally exciting when I spotted two seals on Lake Vitus.
The teams were divided into two groups and headed by the PIs. I joined Dr Bailey and proceeded to the satellite camp (Weeping Peat Island) which was located about half day's journey by boat and hiking. The satellite camp sounds high-tech, but it wasn't as high-tech as the base camp, apart from the laptops, GPS, satellite phones and sample testing equipment.
The majority of tasks involved assisting and collecting data for documentation. Most of the time the weather was inhospitable and everyone would pray for sunlight, but when there was sunlight the mosquitoes and bugs started to descend on us! Speaking of bugs and mosquitoes - there are zillions around to keep you occupied and entertained throughout the day.
While we were in Alaska, it was daylight 24 hours. If one stood looking at sunrise, a few hours later, you could stand in the same position and see the sun set! Your view of the Earth's orbit of the sun is uninterrupted - this in itself is a phenomenon. The 21 of June was the longest day on the northern hemisphere. Both teams were at the base camp and few of us did a small tour of the gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean by boat.
Something amusing I observed were birds named Ptarmigans. They look like chickens and made the funniest sound I ever heard - at times the calls were hilarious. The surrounds of base camp were small shrub-like plants called Alders.
I observed and took part in a variety of tasks and various research methods were used:
1. Topographic surveying with alidade and rod.
2. Glacier surface gradient surveys
3. Handheld GPS and Differential GPS Systems (DGPS)
4. Note taking and data logging
5. Bathymetric surveys
6. Water measurements
7. Cave measurements
8. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys.
I feel so fortunate to have seen and experienced what only few people on our diverse and mysterious planet get to experience. It is even more exciting to share this knowledge and experience with everyone I know. In addition, I believe that each person that I share this experience with will look and contribute to nature more positively in the future.
By HSBC volunteer Pradip Elmo Francis