Bright sunshine and frost in Polar Bear Country. Blog 13 from NE Grønland
Bright sunshine and -20 to -25 degrees Celsius – this is what we’ve been so very fortunate to experience every day since our arrival at Zackenberg. Today, we have been here a little over a week’s time. Currently, the sun rises around 4 AM and sets close to 11 PM giving us plenty of daylight to work long days in the field. But somehow the days seem to go by in an instant! The first couple of days went with most researchers unpacking, assembling and setting up equipment; a never ending process. In addition, there’s been the obligatory “Polar Bear Safety” movie screening in the mess hall – accompanied with rifle training.
Here at Zackenberg in the national park in Northeast Greenland you are required to carry a rifle at any time you leave the station. Obviously, you hope to never have to use it – but should an emergency arise in bear country you are of course much safer when carrying a rifle (if you know how to use it!). For now we are 14 researchers in total – coming from Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Italy and with such diverse backgrounds as engineering, physical geography, glaciology and biology.
I belong to the small group of biologists and although I’m Danish I currently live and work in Canada. I’m here to measure trace gas efflux (CO2, CH4 and N2O) from semi desert, heath and snow bed ecosystems - as well as drill into the frozen soil and permafrost to retrieve soil samples for carbon, nutrient and microbial diversity and isotope analyses back home. Some of my research interests deal with seasonal changes in soil microbial activity and community diversity as well as differences with soil depth – into the permafrost. For a long time census was that during the long and cold arctic winters ‘nothing’ happened. It was simply too cold for biological activity – whether it be microbial respiration or plant photosynthesis. Within the last decade, we have grown more knowledgeable in this regard – and winter is now viewed as a significant part of the annual carbon balance in the Arctic. Soil microbial activity may be low – but the longevity of winter in northern latitudes makes for a sizeable cumulative contribution on an annual timescale. My work deals with ecosystem gas exchange and potential changes in rate and microbial substrate use in a changing climate.
For the past week I’ve been working in the semi desert site – attempting to locate the various experimental plots underneath 40 cm of snow. It’s not easy when everything looks white on the surface! I have now marked the different plots with colour coded flags – which seems to blend nicely with the background landscape. Today, we were two guys setting out to locate the heath site which has been buried underneath at least 1.5 meters of snow. Quite the challenge – but with the use of differential GPS and many hours of digging down through the snow we succeeded. Tomorrow it is time to locate the plots in the snow bed community – also hiding below 1.5 meters of snow.
I haven’t shaved in weeks and I haven’t showered in 5 days – but that really doesn’t matter here. The temperature is so cold that the only food you can bring with you in the field is chocolate and nuts – unless you don’t mind eating your lunch completely frozen. But as long as the sun is shining you can’t ask for better conditions when doing arctic field work. This is just perfect!
Casper Tai Christiansen
PhD Candidate, Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Read more about the new Greenlandic-Canadian-Danish research partnership's first joint field campaign.