Sunscreen: The Secret to Surviving on an Ice Sheet

On September 14, 2011 by Grad Forum

As graduate students, we all share this singular pursuit, this unabashed chase of scholastic glory. We all enjoy the burden of late nights glazed with copious amounts of caffeine and buoyed by an endless sea of scientific papers. We all enjoy the bucolic wonders of Hanover and the Upper Valley, the unrelenting, yet rewarding, joys of being a graduate student at Dartmouth College. If you’re reading this, I imagine you are, like me, toiling away at some novel and intractable question while balancing the rest of your life. Not easy, but we’re all getting by. So what happens when, in the midst of this sometimes-stultifying stupor, you find yourself on the front-end of a 40-day traverse of the Greenland Ice Sheet?

Buy sunscreen!

That’s what I did when I found myself days away from joining the 2011 Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT). GrIT, conceived primarily as an overland supply run for the year-round science station at Summit Camp located on top of the ice sheet, recently became open to the idea of supporting science. The first leg of the journey is a flight from Baltimore, Maryland, to Thule Air Base on the northwest coast of Greenland. Thule Air Base is the US Armed Forces’ northernmost installation, located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and serves as the home base and garage for GrIT, a joint operation involving the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) and CH2M Hill Polar Services.

Professor Robert Hawley, in the Department of Earth Sciences, originally proposed the idea of pairing science with this traverse. He passed this tremendous field opportunity to two of his current graduate students—Thomas Overly and Gifford Wong (yours truly). This traverse was so tremendous   because it provided a (relatively) comfortable platform on which to perform ground truthing studies, it was an opportunity to revisit science sites along a route that was first visited in the 1950s by Carl Benson, a CRREL-based researcher, and it lead to a wealth of data for his lab group to sift through for the next couple years.

But that’s not all. Nearly everyone enjoys fantastic, and sometimes far-flung, field adventures. For me, the thing that made this past field season so special was the traverse itself. It is the journey that is interesting. I’ve been fortunate to participate in polar science before (McMurdo Station, West Antarctica, Summit Station, and Byrd Surface Camp), but I’ve never had to drive there. I’ve never had to submit myself to 1400 miles worth of ice sheet whimsy. I’ve never had so much of my livelihood rely on what continually seemed like never-long-enough days. And, I’ve never had the fortune to be surrounded by so much serenity. Perhaps my favorite moments, outside of the general tomfoolery that emerges when 6 young-at-heart individuals combine for 40 days of toil and effort, were those spent with my own thoughts as we bounded across the endless ice sheet like a small convoy of ships crossing an endless sea, buoyed by thousands of years worth of snow and ice all waiting to tell their stories.

This story starts out, however, as a pseudo-survival guide for any would-be ice sheet traveler. If you’re contemplating such a trip, I imagine most of the obvious concerns have already been addressed, such as packing a lot of high-calorie food or outfitting yourself with plenty of puffy and warm clothing. Like this summer’s list of things to do in Hanover, I present, in no particular order, my top 5 things to think about when traversing an ice sheet:

1) Be prepared to be cold. Not surprising, but it bears repeating.

2) Be patient. This goes along with the cold component, but hardly anything happens quickly when you’re waddling around in 8 layers of clothing. Seriously.

3) Try not to sweat. This pairs well with the patience thing, for if you do sweat you’ll definitely feel the cold.

4) Eat! You’re essentially stoking your internal caloric heater with food, so eat often. Besides, when else can you indulge in over 4000 calories a day and lose weight!

5) If there’s a plane, get on it. As much as I love the ice sheet, there truly is no place like home. I spent an extra 7 days in Greenland because I did not get on a plane. Silly.

And sunscreen? That ranks right up there with oxygen and a -40 sleeping bag!

by Gifford Wong
PhD Candidate, Earth Sciences

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