Unusual warmth over Greenland and melting on the surface of its ice sheet have recently made news. For example, a study published this week found cumulative melting over the ice sheet through the first week of August had already exceeded 2010’s record for the entire melt season (since 1979). But less attention has been paid to the effects the warmth has had on scientists conducting research there.
Almost everyone who travels to U.S. and European camps on Greenland’s ice sheet and all of the fool, fuel, and other supplies for the camps arrive on a ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules transports flown by the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing.
The 109th is also the major “airline” and cargo hauler for the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Greenland’s warmth this year has affected the 109th’s operations since April, says Lt. Col. Paul Bernasconi, chief of the Wing’s Greenland operations.
Ski-equipped airplanes are the only practical way to deliver large numbers of people and everything needed to keep them alive as well as the tools and materials needed for their work to the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.
Workers at camps use heavy equipment to groom the skyways the airplanes land on. But when temperatures are warm enough for the snow to warm up and begin to melt the airplanes can’t take off.
Bernasconi says problems with warmth normally don’t occur until July when most flights have to be scheduled for early morning. “But this year the warmer temperatures began in April and we’ve been flying earlier since then.”
In July, the 109th had to wait as long as five days at times for temperatures to fall enough to fly to the Summit and NEEM camps and be able to take off again.
Another problem this year is that cracks have formed in the Raven Skiway, which is on the ice sheet just south of the Arctic Circle at the site of a Cold War Distant Early Warning Line radar station.
The 109th normally does all of its training and required crew check rides there before heading south to Antarctica for November into February “research season”. With Raven out of service, the 109th has been using the skiways at Summit and NEEM for training.
Bernasconi says the 109th is coping with this summer’s flight restrictions with closer coordination among weather forecasters, staff at the camps who monitor skiway conditions, the contractor that operates the camps, and the 109th staff at it’s Greenland base in Kangerlaussac.
If an LC-130 can’t take off otherwise the pilot has the option of using the airplane’s Assisted Takeoff Rockets (ATO) attached to the sides under the wings.
But, that’s an option everyone prefers not to use. “So far this year we haven’t used ATO,” Bernasconi says.
Disruption of scientists’ flights is just one effect the warm temperatures have had on Greenland. More generally, the warmth has altered living conditions NOAA said in its July State of the Climate Report: “The melting at the lower elevations in Greenland impacted population centers and infrastructure. The runoff flooded rivers, taking out structures and roads in and around Kangerlussuaq, a key transportation hub.”
CWG’s Jason Samenow contributed to this report