8/16/09 - The Night

Shortly after the previous entry Mike and I did become slightly anxious and went outside to stand around uselessly. Steve and Megan appeared shortly thereafter with Tracer #6 in hand - history had been made.

I've been sleeping warm in shorts, fuzzy socks, a fleece sweatshirt and a sleeping bag. This is a good time for me since I can't remember the last time I used a tent prior to this trip (or a non-garbage-bag sleeping bag, for that matter).


After porridge, raisins, and bread with rhubarb jam for breakfast (I was able to eat this morning and am, in all other respects, healthy again), Jemma, Steve, and I took a trip down to the flats to make another retrieval.

Jemma waded out through the quicksand (sinking to her waist again, but struggling free) and returned the Tracer from a far sand bar, raising our success rate to 40% (of the 50% which made it through).

With the Tracer

In the physics department we like to joke that while it can cost millions of dollars to set up an experimental physicist, it only takes a pencil to get a theorist running. Likewise, there are flow charts in computer science and mathematics departments showing, variously, Coffee/Caffeine being converted to theorems. Out here one of the fuel sources is wine and beer.
The afternoon saw me heading up towards the glacier to try to find out whether or not the remaining Tracers had got hung up near the "portal" or were still stuck inside.

A walk up and over the ridge from camp brought me to the top of a scree slope descending to the waters below, where they swarm out of the glacier's interior.

The drainage system of a glacier evolves throughout the summer from a series of cracks into full-size rivers such as this. As you trace the network backwards, the over-weight of the ice increases to the point where it's next to impossible for them to form, forcing the glacier to float upwards on a thin layer of highly-pressurised water (or so some have hypothesised).

I move higher and can hear three of the Tracers calling out from inside the ice: I begin to suspect that they haven't even made it away the injection moulin. Maybe they'll get flushed out later. If not, their batteries will run out in a few days, and the glacier will grind them to dust during the winter.

It's ironic that studying the environment frequently seems to involve committing "environmental sins". Much of our understanding of glacial drainage networks comes from dye and gas traces. The dyes can be carcinogenic and the gases used have potent greenhouse effects.

I continue along the glacier a while before climbing upwards. Cresting the mountain, the ice cap spreads out before me to the horizon. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Looking out at it, there are tears on my face. I could go forward and try to explore this, though it would be infinitely dangerous, but it is is always changing. In the face of continuous change, is there even meaning to the idea of exploration? Perhaps this is where exploration and adventure diverge. But, even so, my adventures often end on mountain tops. There it is definitive: when you reach the top it is time to go home. But here, looking out, there's only the feeling that you could keep going, and that you never can. I'm also struck by the sensation of how few people have seen this, and that I might never again do so. And that, if I have children, perhaps it will not be here for them to see, having been killed off.

This is also, in a very real sense, the beginning of the end of the journey. Months ago, I was invited to help out on the project and bring things here to test. And now, here I am.

A cold wind blows and I remember I'm due back at camp soon to watch for the next Tracer improvement, so I turn my back to the ice and look out over the "green" part of Greenland a moment before heading back.

Everything's silent as I descend, except for the occasional, surprisingly loud grunt of an unseen musk ox. Camp is a small island of tents (just to the left of the center lake).
Jemma, Mike, and I wait around in the sampling tent for a number of hours, but nothing appears. Eventually, Steve and Megan return from town with beer and food, so Mike and I head up for supper. This transfer involves Mike explaining to Steve that he's accidentally dropped the video camera into a moulin. Steve smiles, takes a swig of his beer, and says it's alright. It reminds me of the time I lost $600 worth of sensors in Alaska. Both were experiences of scale - $600 to a college student is a small fortune, to a field-science grant, it's a small sum.

Supper is rice and chili con carne. The Scottish divers have come up and we have a great time with them. It's the Edinburgh crew's last night up here and, after supper, we sit in the tent and pass a computer around, choosing songs, till the early hours of the morning. Around 12:50AM or so, Doug comes in to ask what star is above the horizon. I pull open the computer program I tried to use in Bristol and, we discover it's Jupiter. I take a peak outside myself and, sure enough, there it is big, bright, and beautiful hanging low over the horizon to the south while the sunset lingers in the west. This is the second time I've seen Jupiter in the sky with my naked eyes and known it for what it was (the other time being on a drive through the North during a planetary alignment).

At 1:00AM, Steve, Megan, and Jemma come bursting into the tent filled with excitement - the Tracers we dropped in 8km up have come out! This is quite a milestone for the project and calls for more music and celebration.
Around two or so, I start to feel tired and maybe a little out of place (although my DJ selections have been commended, especially "You're So Vain"), so I head off to bed where it gets so cold I have to pull my extra fleece (I only have two) into the bag with me - a sharp contrast to my earlier comments.

Check if this is a private message just for Richard:

Mom - Monday, August 24, 2009 at 08:30:37 (PDT)
"You're So Vain" is good running music. So what was the actual temperature besides cold?