Undergraduate helps study Greenland glaciers
Interview by John Heaney
It’s cold, desolate, frozen and has a population of less than 60,000 people, so it’s fairly easy to understand why Greenland isn’t a typical summer destination for college students. But when Erin Johnson was presented with an opportunity to spend almost six weeks of her summer studying glaciers there, she had no reservations. Johnson, a UM senior majoring in geology, joined UM Associate Professor Joel Harper and a team of six others in their journey to research the hydrology of glaciers.
Here, she discusses, among other things, flying to Greenland on a C-130 cargo plane, taking a 19-hour hike and getting one wicked sunburn.
How did you land this job?
I had previously been talking to Joel about doing REU Svalbard, which is undergraduate research in Norway funded by the National Science Foundation, looking at old glacial deposits. I didn’t get it, and I asked him to let me know if he heard of any other jobs. One day he asked me to come into his office because he had a job, and he asked, “You want to go to Greenland?” And I said, “Sure.”
Harper said some people were surprised that an undergrad was studying in Greenland. Can you talk about how valuable the opportunity was?
It was an incredible opportunity. I never thought I’d be able to go to a different country and study, let alone Greenland. It really opened my eyes. I had never taken a glaciology course or anything like that, so I got to learn copious amounts of information. It was a little bit overwhelming sometimes, but then I’d catch up and get to learn more about different scientific methods and how this sort of research is done. It was incredible.
What was the purpose of the trip to Greenland? What was the focus of the team’s research?
The whole idea is to see how glaciers move over bedrock and how the hydrology works under the glacier. They are planning to do three years of research, and last summer was a test run to make sure that everything goes well. They were using a new drill that Neil Humphrey – a professor from (the University of) Wyoming – designed, so he wanted to make sure that the whole design worked and that it could actually drill deep. I think they want to drill to around 1,500 meters deep, and we got to 700. That was a pretty big feat. I think they were pretty stoked about the outcomes.
Why get involved? What drew you to it?
First off, it was a great opportunity to go to Greenland and do research over there. But I’m also pretty interested in glaciers, climate change and all that kind of science. Growing up in Alaska, I got to be around glaciers, and I’ve seen them recede through my lifespan. I think it’s an up-and-coming, interesting topic.
How did you get to Greenland, and what were your initial thoughts when you got there?
We flew from Missoula to Albany, N.Y. Then we flew an Air National Guard C-130 prop plane from there to Greenland, and we took a stop in Canada. The plane ride was super cool. Joel had told me that it was going to be really loud and kind of uncomfortable, but just being in the plane and having so many new things around me … I thought, “This is so cool!” And then, since I was jazzed about the trip, when we landed, I was like, “This is sweet!”
What was the landscape like?
My freshman year I did a river trip up in the Arctic with my family, and we got to see the Coastal Plains. Greenland looked very similar. There weren’t any trees, and there is tundra everywhere.
What were some of your responsibilities?
My job was camp manager, so I just made sure that camp was OK. I had to make sure that things were put away, that the tents weren’t going to fly off, that kind of stuff. I would usually leave the drill site early with someone else to cook dinner. I also got to work with everyone with their research. And I thought that was a really good opportunity for me because I got to do a variety of jobs. Claire Landowski, a grad student from the University of Wyoming, had to work with water testing and radon, and I got to do that, plus work with a GPS, the drill and do radar, so I thought that I got the best job. It was really well-rounded.
What was the camp like and what did you eat?
We each had a three-person tent, and there was a main cook tent, where we got to eat, read and hang out. So there were nine tents in total. We had two Coleman stoves to cook on, and we basically had the same food every week. We had artichoke and potato night, curry night, burrito night, marinara night, pesto night, soup night and some others.
Where did you get all of the supplies?
We were in Albany for a couple of days, and we figured out a menu of what we were going to have. We went to a bunch of different grocery stores and got all of our food. We packed it all in Rubbermaid containers and zip-tied them shut, and flew them over on the cargo plane. It was pretty incredible how much food we had. I think it was 20 Rubbermaids. It was crazy.
Is there anything you wish you had brought with you that you didn’t?
Yes. More chocolate or more treats.
What were some of the most exciting parts of your summer in Greenland?
Claire and I got to go on a long walk. We left at 7:30 in the morning, and we ended up coming back at 2:30 the next morning. We hiked to the terminus of the glacier to take water and ice samples of outlet streams. That was probably one of the coolest experiences I had there because we saw so much country and saw the sun rise – well, get a little higher and a little lower – and we saw musk ox and caribou. It was a really cool experience.
What kind of research did you do on that particular hike?
We took water, ice and sediment samples from little outlet streams. We took samples and ran them through a radon detector. Claire was studying radon in the water, and she wanted to see whether the water was sitting on bedrock for a long period of time or if it was quickly getting flushed out. There were few traces of radon in the water, so that made the outcome lean toward the fact that the water was just going right through.
So what did you learn from your experience in Greenland?
I learned so much: how to work the drill, test water samples for radon, take radar and how to take GPS coordinates for stakes to get a strain grid on our specific area, which was fun. I also learned Greenland is a beautiful, awesome place and you need to wear sunblock. I wore SPF 50+ sunblock every day and still got blisters. I got sunkissed.
Do you want to go back?
I’d love to.
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