Living Aloft

Thanks to an infinitely gracious person, I was able to “do science” during my scouting trip to Greenland.

For some, it may be enough to see a great picture of Pluto. For scientists, there is a lot more to know. Curiosity extends to invisible wavelengths, and to dynamic processes going back to the origin of the planet. They are not necessarily looking for sensational findings – although that helps get funding from government and public sources – as much as they seek understanding and insight.
As soon as we look beyond the surface, Nature, as we call it, looks unbelievably complex. Science’s triumph is to be able to find regularities in that complexity, and to express them in beautiful conciseness. When we understand the Navier-Stokes equations, or the Maxwell equations, or thermodynamic cycles, or even Laplace and Fourier transforms, it is as if blinders had come off our eyes. We never…

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On the Ice Fields

Living Aloft

We are on the Schweizerland glaciers, hiking along, deep in the rhythm of the hike. Most of our attention is focused on keeping our rope tight, so that a fall into a crevasse would be arrested instantly.
During breaks, while me colleagues eat and rest, I collect my first two snow samples. Twice, I fill a ziplock bag with surface snow from a square I have drawn next to me, awkwardly, with an ice axe. At the end of the day, I will melt the snow and filter it to capture the dust and black carbon  it contains. Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of organic compounds, such as forest fires. Black carbon and dust travel along local and planetary wind highways to land on snow and ice and change their reflectivity and heat absorption rates – and, therefore, their melting rate. Scientists are keenly interested in understanding how…

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Onto the Glaciers

Living Aloft

The boat recedes into the distance, taking our injured ice team member away. We stand on the beach surrounded by tall peaks in all directions. North along the beach we hike, among stranded Mars rover-sized icebergs, and reach our entry point into the Schweizerland glacier system – a very long terminal moraine left behind as the glacier pulls back.


As we trek towards the glacier, to our right, a loud stream carries the melt from the glacier. It has cut a handsome waterfall through a layer of softer rock. We climb and admire the waterfall from above, standing on hard, deep purple rocks. As we approach the ice, we run into “quicksand” pits – a mix of water and glacier flour – where our legs sink to the knees and come back repainted in gray. All around us, bright moss puts a green splash on this white, gray, brown, and…

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I’m a WHAT?!

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Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful


High Tundra Beach

Living Aloft

Our circadian cycles declare it is time to wake up: Day 2 of our glacier trek is here. The Sun has been flying around the horizon like a butterfly while we were asleep, sometimes hiding behind a tall peak here and there. We carefully disarm the blank and thankfully unfired cartridges on the bear fence, eat breakfast, and quickly lift camp.

We continue down our glacial, U-shaped valley and get closer and closer to where the terminal moraine used to be – now marked by a lake, dammed by a high wall of rocky debris left behind. We climb over the dam and an expansive ocean view greets us.

We stand on the south end of a long sea shore, along one side of a narrow bay. The bay is fenced by tall mountains to the East, across from where we stand. We can see a distant connection to bigger…

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In the Land of Polar Bears and Arctic Foxes, We Are the Zoo Animals

Living Aloft

Island hopping is done: Iceland to Kulusuk, Kulusuk to Greenland. After landing on the East side of Tasiilaq Fjord, we are finally climbing up the hills. A few warm, 40-degree days have unleashed a pesky cloud of mosquitoes. They bite! We don our head nets; We now see the world through a pixelated screen.
We cross the terminus of a small glacier and start walking on dry ice. The crevasses are all clear of snow for everyone to see, so we don’t rope. Meltwater channels noisily feed gurgling moulins all around us. It’s the first time I get to use all these words – terminus, meltwater channels, moulins – while actually looking at the things they refer to. Years of adventure reading turn into tangible reality – at last! A gigantic mouth opens at the top of the glacier. Dark caves give hints of rocks and dusty ice. Water sounds can be…

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We are all discoverers

Living Aloft

We have all made unexpected associations in our heads. Chocolate and peanut butter. Glamour and camping. We have all tried our hand at doing something new. Painted a room an unusual color. Trying a different sport. Discovery is an activity that we are both structured to do and which opens the door to create new life structures – a way to rebuild the airplane in flight, as it were.

Unlike computers thus far, we can reprogram ourselves and pursue new goals with new combinations of skills and tools. With an increasing longevity, we have the opportunity to enjoy discovery and its fruits a lot more than our forebears.

Chocolate and peanut butter may seem like a small thought – until you look at the popularity of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Running off the pavement onto a trail was a small change at the time – until I found myself running 135 miles…

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Iron, Harpoon Tips, and Peary

Living Aloft

For me, Earth’s Poles stand at the edge of space. The atmosphere and the magnetosphere are thinnest there, opening the door to solar winds and awesome northern lights shows. Greenland and its neighborhood are a bridge between the Solar System and ourselves.

Greenland had its own iron age – but unlike a “normal” iron age where you mine iron ore and extract the iron, Greenland’s iron was served ready to use via several huge meteorites from outer space. The Inuit learned to flake the large, alien stones, and to shape small iron tools and hunting implements, well before the Norse brought their “normal” iron along. You could say this is a clear example of an extraterrestrial influence in human development!

Three fragments from a particularly large meteorite, which landed in the Cape York area (a spot at the other end of where I will be in Greenland with respect to the center of…

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Gateway to Greenland

Living Aloft

Reykjavik Airport – Reykjavíkurflugvöllur – is what I call a real airport. City and forest surround the field. You can see all the taxiways and runways. Many small airplanes joyfully flitter around like hummingbirds. The terminals are functional – gateways to adventure rather than shopping emporia.

As for me, it’s hurry up and wait. There are 50km between Keflavik International and the Reykjavyk Airport, and I focus entirely on completing the transfer as fast as possible. “Success”: now I get to wait six hours for my flight to Greenland! Cost of taking an earlier flight: 300 euros. Rental car availability: no. Looks like I get to play Tom Hanks in The Terminal…

And there are no power sockets anywhere to be seen. This power-hungry American wallows in distress at the complete absence of power sockets. I sip off my mobile computers watching battery levels the way a video gamer watches…

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