A long day of traveling which started at 9AM ET at the Hanover Inn bus stop, and ended at 930AM Greenland time at the Kangerlussuaq Science Station. Today’s lesson for me was in political geography. I already had a pretty good understanding of the natural geography between Hanover, NH and Greenland, and that map-based knowledge argued that the best way to fly to Kangerlussuaq would be NNE out of Boston, perhaps stopping at Goose Bay, Labrador on the way. Not enough people from the US travel that way for flight service, so something less direct would be needed. My next guess was Iceland. Close neighbors with Greenland, also settled by the Norse during the Medieval Warm Period (though, unlike Greenland, continuously inhabited by Europeans). There are regular flights to Keflavik airport (near Rekjavik, Iceland) from Boston, and there must be flights from Rekjavik to Kangerlussuaq. Nope… not often anyway. Our connection through Rekjavik continued on to Copenhagen, Denmark – the seat of the historical colonial power of both Iceland and Greenland. From Copenhagen not only is there a flight, but it’s an Airbus 330 – an absolutely enormous plane with seating 8 abreast, and a capacity in the vicinity of 400 passengers. We flew back, over Iceland, and once again over Greenland to arrive at Kangerlussuaq. Perhaps my long itinerary gave me too long to think about this, but it seems that the flight options are actually quite parallel to lines of power, political directive, and international relationships. Physically speaking, Greenland remains connected to the rest of the world very much through Copenhagen. I had to go there for access, traveling nearly three times the straight line distance to Kangerlussuaq.
One upside to the odd flight situation is that we got to do the last leg at apparent warp speed due to some high latitude oddly shaped time zone math. We took off in Copenhagen around 9:30AM local time and landed at 9:35AM local time in Kangerlussuaq… four hours and change later.
The flight we came in on appeared to be about 10% Greenlanders, 60% tourists, and 30% folks who may have either been working or tourists, but did not exude the camera-ready, gawking look of the true tourist species. Coupled with the tourist brochures in the seatback in front of me, my early conclusion was that the tourism marketing efforts of the Greenlandic government must be paying big dividends. After landing, and over the course of the rest of the day, tourists continue to come and go from Kangerlussuaq in great numbers. It’s a serious operation, Airbus and Boeing jets come and go every hour or so. DC-7s and other smaller turboprops distribute the tourists to other areas of Greenland. My understanding of the situation developed, though, as I realized that, of the droves arriving at the airport, there are NONE visible walking about town. As fast as the crowds arrive, they are whisked away in converted Mercedes trucks to all-inclusive resort facilities, or connected onto other flights. Planes touch down from Air Berlin, Aeroflot, Finlandair, Air Greenland, and the 109th Airlift, yet there does not appear to be a local job for so much as a taxi driver to take them to their accommodations. Later we drive by a resort. Hundreds of tourists cooped into a small area like so many cattle in a Nebraska feedlot, being fed imported food, served by imported labor, and buying imported souvenirs. Precious few dollars, it appears, are staying in the community. We don’t yet know how much money is collected in permits, and I haven’t seen who drives the Mercedes trucks or staffs other services, but I am intrigued enough to do some more looking. The model here is already quite different from my past experiences in Alaskan and Canadian bush towns. The problem for the Greenlandic tourism industry appears as though it may not be related to attracting tourists, but rather retaining the money they spend.
Under challenge from Matt that the ice edge was too far to reach by bicycle, there was only one logical thing to do in the afternoon. Bike to the ice edge! Now going for a bike ride isn’t exactly part of any experimental plan, and sounds a lot like recreation (it is) but doing an informal look about when getting to a new place really is a valuable part of the setup for a good field experiment. I’ll chock it up to 25% work anyhow. The Kangerlussuaq International Science Support station (KISS) had bikes available so I checked myself out for four hours and headed East. Reasoning that I needed to be back before my 6pm self imposed curfew, I decided I would turn at 1.5 hrs, ensuring that Greenland Search and Rescue would not be getting an unneeded call. Unfortunately this ended up meaning I turned around about a mile and a half from the ice, after doing the last major hill climb to boot. Alas. Mark one down for Matt. The ride was beautiful though and gave me time to make a couple informal observations in my oxygen deprived state. Shrubs seemed to be doing better closer to the ice edge, and soil/sediment makeup seemed to be of finer particles closer to the ice edge. Both opposite of my expectation, which will require further investigation in a more oxygenated state. The ride back was much more downhill than I expected, and only took 50 minutes. I should have gone a bit more.
I headed back in to find Matt and Meredith studiously working away in the KISS lounge area; Meredith reading papers and Matt catching up on email and doing some checking on a proposal. Not excited about the entrée at the kantina we decided to head to the airport restaurant, where surprise! The entrée was the same. Ohh well. We ordered some fish and chips instead. Speaking of fish, dinner discussion turned to the fish fossils which can be found in the raised delta area at the head of the fjord, deposited during the ice retreat at the end of the last ice age, and an after dinner activity was hatched.
Meredith explained that the fossils are actually found in the loose silt and clay deposits, within small “cementations”. Apparently the presence of a bivalve (clam) or fish somehow induces the deposition of calcium carbonate which binds the sediment into a small rocklike formation around the fossil. These cementations are eroding out of the delta here and there, providing us the opportunity to collect them, and carefully split them open to see what may be preserved within. The results? Amazing! We found a few almost perfectly preserved fish skeletons, with the original cartilage tissue not entirely mineralized yet. Identifying these fossils may actually provide clues to the ocean conditions at this location around the time that the ice was retreating. A significant science question centers around whether the ice retreated before or after the warm west Greenland current began. In other words, was the ocean current startup a cause or an effect of ice retreat. This is of interest because this warm current has been pushing further up the coast in recent years and is implicated in the rapid retreat of Jakobshavn Glacier in recent years. Knowing how the interactions between the ice retreat and current changes occurred in the past could shed light on what is happening in our near future. If the fish, which would have been fossilized as the ice was retreating, are still cold water fish, that would might indicate that the current had not yet warmed while the ice retreat was already well underway. If they are warmer water fish, it might indicate the opposite. Carbon dating the fish could help even more.
After getting back and splitting open our fossils, the three inept paleontologists, particularly me, provided fanciful conjectures as to the species of the fish. Deciding we needed some more reliable information, and not having a fish expert or paleontologist readily available, I turned to “the Google” which provided linkage to a paper detailing the 269 fish species found in Greenlandic waters in modern times. One of the fish fossils we found is something like a Herring, Anchovy, Smelt, Salmon, or other long skinny fish. Basically it could be nearly anything… more is expertise definitely needed for ID. The other, however, has very, very few (like 2-4) possible matches… it looks much more like a bluegill for those familiar with New England freshwater fish species… spiny dorsal fin, oval shape. Some of the fish in the running are Norwegian Redfish, and the Rabbitfish. A bit more Googling might actually get us a reasonably certain ID on this one, but we’ll save that for tomorrow.