Abstract photo of the surface of the Western Greenland Ice Sheet which shows cryoconite holes. Cryoconite is granular sediment found on glacier surfaces comprising both mineral and biological material.

    In Greenland there are no railroads or inland waterways and very few roads. There are 90 miles worth of roads in total, only 40 miles of them paved. There are 75 cities and settlements that are spread out mostly along coastal areas that are only accessible by boat, dog sled, or helicopter. According to Greenland's official tourism site, Greenland is the world's biggest island with a total land area of 2.16 million square kilometers or 836,330 square miles. Maine in comparison, according to it's government website, has 90,000 square kilometers or 33,215 square miles and 488 cities and towns. According to the Maine Department of Transportation, today there are over 21,000 miles of roads in the state, most of them paved. The Maine Forest Service reports that the state has an estimated 17.52 million acres of forest land covering 89 percent of the land area. The Qinngua Valley, located in southern Greenland, is home to the only natural forest here.

    Roads are only found within towns not between them and most of them in town roads are paved here in Ilulissat. Roads are pretty narrow in spots.

    An area of the town of Ilulissat from above.

    The Western Greenland Ice Sheet covers 80% of this island country and as such, it determines everything about settlement, employment, life, and travel. Today Dr. Das, PASSCAL polar engineer Kirsten Arnell, and I worked on the ice sheet placing seismic tremor array stations according to specific GPSA Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system used to track the location or position of objects on the Earth’s surface. coordinates.

    A cache of equipment and gear awaiting our team's morning approach looks tiny against the vast surface of the ice sheet.

    Have Some Wind

    Get out the goggles. It's going to be that kind of day. Dr. Sarah Das

    There are two specific things that stand out in my mind when I think of the first time traveling to and landing on the ice sheet. The first was the sound of my heartbeat sitting in the front seat of the A-Star helicopter as it was about to take off down the short runway of the Ilulissat Airport. In all of my travels around this globe I have never had the opportunity and although I have experienced plenty of nerve wrenching experiences abroad, it never goes away when faced with something new. I was struck by the smoothness of the ascent and in awe when I saw the first glimpses of the environment from above. It was jaw dropping to say the least and a wave of gratitude for life and this program washed over me in that moment for sure. The second thing that stood out in my mind was the moment we were touching down and seeing the wind and sun blowing snow and reflecting light everywhere. My eyes quickly landed on the cache of boxes left from the other team's previous session (our team has been split into two shifts on alternating days due to limited helicopter space), complete with large snowdrifts covering everything. What I heard first upon landing came through the headset from our researcher Dr. Das stating matter of factly, "Get out the goggles. It's going to be that kind of day." She was not kidding. The wind was the first obstacle to get the mind around.
    We had been trained that the first order of business upon landing was to cover every part of skin showing to avoid frostbite. Moving around posed difficult with the weight of base layers, fleece, outer shell, heavy parka, thick socks, snow pants, work gloves inside of heavier gloves, climbing harness (crevasse safety protocol), one hat, three hoods, annnd the goggles. It definitely took some time in the first hour to get used to it and was a total workout in itself. Kirsten and Dr. Das, both seasoned professionals, modeled how the day would go immediately, getting down to business and giving me the first of the tasks that I would be part of for the entire day.

    Installing Stations

    Wind and blowing snow mess with the camera while trying to take a picture of MEVO boxes. The snow often stole the show in regards to focusing.

    Seismic tremor array systems have individual stations that are set up according to carefully spaced GPSA Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system used to track the location or position of objects on the Earth’s surface. positions. Each station includes an orange MEVO box, seismic sensor, and solar panel attached to a GPSA Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system used to track the location or position of objects on the Earth’s surface. antenna. Our goal was to install four stations in one day. That goal was somewhat constrained by what we could take with us flying around the array area. The distance between stations were roughly a quarter mile. Each array includes nine stations. My job was to assist in the drilling of jiffy holes into the ice sheet about four feet, and next kovacs holes another four or five more feet to stabilize the sensor that needed to be buried. The sensor collects the actual data and the kovacs hole and pole the sensor is connected to roots it into the ice sheet. The Jiffy Drill is familiar to me thanks to numerous days I have spent ice fishing with friends on Maine lakes in the winter. Drilling with wind and the five million pounds of clothing on made for a great workout and feeling the burn of it as I sit here this morning typing this journal. Digging snow out of the hole by laying on the ice and reaching arm down as far as possible achieved this with average results at times making it necessary to re-drill. Lowering the sensor carefully in the hole and orientating it towards true north because when the scientists retrieve data from sensor, they need to know direction in order to analyze the data well. At the same time as the drilling and ice and snow removal was going on, our engineering friend Kirsten was busy attaching cables, hooking up the solar panels, GPSA Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system used to track the location or position of objects on the Earth’s surface., and making sure data was coming through. I watched her calmly taking notes on a piece of paper while the wind blew around her mercilessly like it was nothing. She typed the data into her laptop with gloves on. This is what she is used to working in as someone who has a dedicated career that puts her in polar regions. Meanwhile my job included using a screwdriver to bang against cold metal to get it unstuck while changing out drills a few thousand times and then filling the hole up with finely powdered snow on top of the placed sensor. Next came repacking everything up, carrying drills and Kirsten's boxes (containing tools, etc) back to helicopter, and jumping to the next station. Our best time of the day on an install was under an hour, which given the wind, wasn't too shabby.

    For The Visually Minded

    If you had issues following anything above, or if you are a student and stopped paying attention after the first line of the section above, here is a photographic guide to installing a seismic array station on an ice sheet.

    While connecting MEVO box to sensors and GPS antenna, drill two holes. The first with a Jiffy Drill and second with a Kovacs drill to support seismic sensors.

    Make sure the hole is cleared of excess snow. Glacier ice is blue because the red (long wavelengths) part of white light is absorbed by ice and the blue (short wavelengths) light is transmitted and scattered. The longer the path light travels in ice, the more blue it appears.

    Polar field engineer, Kirsten Arnell checks SOH (State of Health), or the effectiveness and functionality of electronics as they are installed.

    Seismic sensors are lowered into drilled hole. Photo by Dr. Sarah Das.

    Sensor is oriented towards true north to allow scientists directional reference point. Photo by Dr. Sarah Das

    Hole is filled, box is sealed with cables in place and attached to bamboo to prevent too much movement while it collects data over the summer. Photo by Kirstten Arnell

    Helicopter pilot, Victor Berglind helps team pack up gear to head to the next station setup.


    The physicality of working in the field in polar science is tremendous. Being smart and alright in cold and harsh conditions are requirements for this career for sure. Being able to lift and carry heavy things over distance and dealing with a variety of uncomfortable things like jammed fingers that come along working with cold equipment, drills, and assembly of all kinds are non-negotiable. It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock n' roll in polar science folks.

    Student Corner

    Team Sunshine House complete a successful day on the Western Greenland Ice Sheet.

    What questions do you have for engineer and scientist Kirsten Arnell about working on an ice sheet whether in the Arctic or Antarctic?

    Weather Summary
    Wind everywhere.


    Pat Ladd

    What will the data collected tell the scientists? The winds must dictate when you can and can not fly were you ever grounded? What do their homes use for heat sources?

    Erin Towns

    Scientists are hoping to learn more about how water under the ice influences the speed of the ice sheet. Winds do dictate when we can fly, however, cloudy weather has grounded us numerous times since we got here. Every night the team has to wait to hear from the pilot who checks with a national weather center and other pilots and then based on his answer work and rework plans for the day and week. Constant adaptation plans. I have seen a lot of oil delivery trucks around.

    Leah B.

    is that the same plane you have been on the whole trip? why do they use solar power?

    Erin Towns

    The team used the same helicopter for the entire trip. They use solar power to power the equipment that collects the data.

    Tiana A

    How long are you on the ice sheet for?

    Erin Towns

    Out of a total of 10 planned days on the ice sheet, the team was able to work for a total of 6 days. The other days we could not fly due to weather conditions that made it dangerous for helicopter travel.

    Ansley W

    What was the hardest thing about be coming a scientist? What is the most complicated device that is used?


    how is your body holding up with the wind speeds and cold also how have the shots been of the ice and the info on the studdies

    Erin Towns

    I learned that complexity of devices working together (or the different parts of the stations we were setting up working together), is varied and a lot of factors play into making things complex. The team spent a lot of time figuring out how much ice would potentially melt by the end of summer to indicate the depth of the holes we were drilling. This is based on estimates. Weather can be unpredictable. A device can at any time short out, or stop collecting data for a number of reasons. You never know. I think if you want a career with reliable and consistent outcomes and not a lot of planning and re-planning, or adaptation, perhaps polar science isn't the best choice.

    Melanie S

    are the speed limits there really slow and whats the longest time you've been out on the ice sheet?

    Erin Towns

    Speed limits are comparable to those of Auburn Maine, slower in the middle of town, a bit speedier out on the road to the airport. 25mph in town, 40-50mph on outer road.

    Mikaila Marks

    As both an engineer and scientist, were there any times while going down your career path you had doubts about it? Or have you always felt like you were destined to do this as your career?

    Shawn H

    Why are there so few paved roads? And what was it like, having nothing but the sun to orient yourself?

    Erin Towns

    There are few paved roads due to the constantly changing terrain and traditional and contemporary modes of transportation in a snow covered environment. We also had GPS to orient us :)

    Madisyn S

    were you nervous to be on the ice?

    Erin Towns

    I was only nervous the first day touching down when the wind was blowing strong across the ice. It was surreal. We made sure all exposed skin was covered to avoid any frostbite.

    Kasey S.

    Have you ever had to take your gloves off while working with machines/equipment?

    Erin Towns

    I was told to keep my gloves on as much as possible, and from conversations I had with both of my partners, there are some days or regions in the South Pole, and northern Arctic, that if you take that glove off, the possibility of frostbite increases significantly. It is no joke. The team members always were also warning me about touching metal with bare skin working in these conditions. Not advisable.

    Rylee C

    Does all the preparation and work to get the equipment set up excite you, or does it feel like a task???

    Erin Towns

    The set up involves a lot of hard work drilling holes in the ice with a large ice auger. It is hard to drill down 5 feet. Makes everything vibrate from head to toe including the brain. lol. I never felt like it was a task, however, I am new to this and never had done it before. It does take a toll on the body.

    Avery O.

    How cold is it up on that glacier? how many holes have you drilled?

    Erin Towns

    It was in the negative numbers when the wind was blowing. Above slightly when sun was out and at one point it was so hot due to the son that I had my hat off at times.
    The team needed to drill 27 stations for 3 arrays.

    Lila D

    Was it hard to get to the ice sheet? Was it as cold as you thought it would be?

    Erin Towns

    It was not hard to get to the ice sheet. It involved a helicopter ride of about 35 minutes. It was actually warmer than I thought it would be.

    Jenny C.

    How long has she been a scientist/ engineer? Would younger her ever think this is what she would end up doing for a living?

    Nissi Nwaozuzu

    I think it's fantastic that Kirsten Arnell can work so calmly in such harsh conditions.

    It must be not easy to concentrate on taking notes and typing data into a laptop while the wind blows around so fiercely.

    I'm also impressed by the team's ability to install a seismic array station in under an hour.

    That seems like an excellent time considering the difficult conditions.

    Do you think you can learn any lessons from Kirsten Arnell's experience working in the field of polar science?

    What do you think she would say is the most important thing to remember when working in such harsh conditions?

    Erin Towns

    Kirsten is top notch and an incredible polar engineer. The lessons she taught me about working in polar environments were about patience, having a sense of humor, and staying calm and consistent.