Feature: Arctic Thaw

Measuring Change

Our Best Flight Yet

by | 5.9.2012 at 5:07pm
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Southwest Glaciers Flight plan. Tasermuit Fjord is at the southern tip of Greenland, and the town of Narsarsuaq far up the fjord.

Evidence of the retreat of glaciers since the last glacial maximum (check), flying over sites of ancient Inuit, Norse and present day settlements (check), and a personal recollection of my own past in this location (check) – yes after reviewing the list ‘Southwest Glaciers 01′ was definitely the best flight – well at least until the next one!

In 1997 I got to spend a summer in Southwest Greenland, with the organization British Schools Exploring Society (BSES). They bring students at the end of high school/start of university to remote areas to spend six weeks on a combination of adventure and science – a great way to kick start a young adult into both a career path and self-discovery. I spent my time in Tasermuit fjord, a 70 km long stretch of water reaching inland from Greenland’s southwestern tip to the ice cap, and bounded by steep ridges the tallest standing over 2000 meters high. I learned about archeology and botany and developed a taste for field science that led fairly directly to my studying geology at university. Fifteens years later that study has brought me back around to Tasermuit fjord, this time having swapped my backpack and Zodiac inflatable boat for a rather large gravimeter and the P3 aeroplane. Tasermuit fjord looks exactly the same. I imagine I do too.

Site of the 'British Schools Exploring Society' 1997 Greenland basecamp on the shores of Tasermuit fjord. (K. Tinto)

The SW Glaciers mission brought me past the site of my 1997 basecamp….and also right past the mouth of the spectacular valley I spent several rainy days walking through. The valley is called Klosterdalen, and the mountain on the right hand is Ketil – a name associated, I am sure, with the Ketilidian orogeny that deformed these rocks in the Paleozoic some 2000–1750 Ma. Norse history would tell us that Ketil was one of Eric the Red’s men, and this was where he chose to settle. While Ketil himself postdated the orogenic event, in one of life’s ironies it appears all those million years later Ketil was responsible for the name given the orogeny and the resulting mountain. Of course the local Greenlandic have their own name for the mountain, Uiluit Qaqa, or “Oyster Mountain”, perhaps for the banks of mussel that become visible at low tide.

The valley of Klosterdalen with Ketil mountain rising to its height of 2010 m in on the right side of the image. (K. Tinto)

These pictures put a human scale on Greenland for me, because I know intimately how it feels to walk through the valleys. It is also a part of Greenland with a very clear human history, with physical evidence of both Inuit and Viking settlements in this region, including the ruins of a Norse settlement at the head of Klosterdalen.

Just around the corner (in our plane anyway – it took about a week to travel by fishing boats when I was here the first time) was the town of Narsarsuaq – an airport town, the site of an old US base and also very close to Erik the Red’s dwelling, the first Norse settlement in Greenland.

So we had some human history, and some personal history, but then we got some glacial history too, showing the retreat of the Greenland glacier from the last glacial maximum. Greenland glaciers offer some classic images of the processes we find described in textbooks.

The U-shaped valley filled with a fjord shows the classical shape of a valley carved by a glacier. (K. Tinto)

The terminal moraines in this picture (the mounds of sediment in front of the ice) show points where the glacier has paused in its retreat, sediments picked up in the moving ice during its advance are piled up at its terminus. (K. Tinto)

A hanging valley, where ice has poured from a smaller tributary into the main glacier when the ice was higher. (K. Tinto)

The dark lines of sediment within this glacier are medial moraines – when small glaciers converge – debris from their sides (lateral moraines) converge, and are carried along within the larger glacier. (K. Tinto)

The contrast in rock colour on this photo shows a 'trim line' marking how high the ice was (and was depositing debris on its sides) in the past. (K. Tinto)

So all in all it was a great flight. Evidence of the retreat of glaciers since the last glacial maximum, flying over sites of ancient Inuit, Norse and present day settlements, and some personal recollections. I would be grounded for the next week by night shifts, but these too were not without some fine sights.

Snow on the P3 during night watch of the gravimeter - you can just pick out the indicator light flickering in the window showing that the gravimeter is staying warm. (K. Tinto)

Clearing snow off the P3 wings in the morning before taking flight. (K. Tinto)

Our last sunrise in Kangerlussuaq – we won’t be seeing another of these, since now we have moved up to Thule and the sun won’t set again until we return to Wallops at the end of the season. (K. Tinto)

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