U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Woods is a Meteorology and Oceanography Officer (METOC) currently teaching in the Oceanography Department at the United States Naval Academy (USNA). He is part of the Sea Ice Thickness Observation team currently participating in NASAs Operation Ice Bridge 2011.
We woke up to some horrible news about the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan and threatened the Hawaiian islands and United States West Coast. I taught the Intro to Oceanography course at USNA, and two of the core objectives are introducing the student’s to earthquakes and tsunamis.
I hope that all those I taught were able to follow what was going on with a better understanding of the physical scientific processes that were taking place. The video and destruction are frightening to watch and my prayers are with the Japanese people to give them strength during these difficult times.
Since the P-3 did not arrive until Monday, we took the opportunity to take in some of the sights around base. Thule Air Base is the U.S. military’s northernmost installation, located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We were issued arctic gear the day before, which consists of a VERY warm down parka, and other essential clothing that you need to survive the minus 5 degree Fahrenheit air temperatures and even colder wind chills.
Unfortunately, the base issued a weather warning when we woke up, which meant no off-base travel was authorized. However, after lunch, the weather warning was lifted. Before you are allowed to travel off-base, you must check out a radio, and fill out a trip plan with your personal info and return time.
There was quite the character in there signing out the radios. He was a emergency management worker from Denmark, telling us about recent polar bear sightings and the possibility of finding some Inuit Seal hunters in nearby Dundas Village. He was joking (we think) about which of us could run faster, stating that whoever was slowest should be a distraction to the hungry polar bear, and the faster runner should survive!
We took a taxi (more about them later) to the edge of Northstar Bay and began our trek across the sea ice toward Dundas Village. The village looked only a mile or so away; however, all features seem closer than they really are here due to an extraordinary clear atmosphere. It is quite the optical illusion. We got varying reports from folks how long it would take us to walk across the ice, about one to two hours.
So off we went.
The wind was only about 10 or 15 knots, but right in our faces, which made any exposed skin very uncomfortable. We had our facemasks pulled up, covering every last portion as we followed recent dog sled tracks toward the hunting village. When we arrived after about 45 minutes, it was eerily quiet, as we hadn’t noticed any motion during our walk across the frozen bay. There were no signs of recent activity, except for LOTS of dog droppings and a polar bear paw with its fur and claws ripped from it. We found it odd that just this one paw was left behind with no other sign of anything. We took a few photos and put it back where we found it.
We explored the dozen or so huts, and decided to climb the small incline past the village to see what was on the other side. What a sight! Another frozen body of water was in front of us, but this time three large icebergs were within walking distance.
We decided to hike out to the nearest one and got some good photos climbing to the top. At this point we were outside for about two and half hours, and we graciously took the offer of a Danish couple, who was out for a sightseeing drive, for a ride back to base. They were very pleasant, and shared all sorts of neat information about what it is like to live in Greenland. He was a firefighter and EMT, and has been here for more than three years. She has been here just over a year and was a physical therapist on base. They brought us up towards the BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System; more on this in a later post) and to some great vantage points overlooking the Wolstenholme Fjord.
This is the only place in the world where four glaciers flow into one fjord. It was an amazing view! On the way back to base, we stopped in one of the many survival huts to take a look around. These are all over the roads in case of a sudden storm that can create impassable white-out conditions.
It was an exciting day, filled with adventures that you just cannot experience anywhere else on Earth!