Do you want ice with that?

By Martin Neville

Friday, January 25, 2013

 

Do you want ice with that?

Joseph Pearce at work.

WIGHT LIVING AFTER more than four months in the deep freeze of the Arctic Circle, Joe Pearce came in from the cold with a single desire — to see the sun rise above the horizon.

Joe, 23, lived in near darkness for four months after his arrival on the frozen shores of Greenland’s west coast last September, just as the sun set for the final time in 2012.

Stars shone bright during the day and Joe, who joined an expedition investigating the colossal Greenland ice sheet, worked by light from the moon, the Northern Lights and the planet Jupiter, blazing overhead.

Joe, a physical geography graduate now studying for his masters at the University of Aberystwyth, helped scientists, led by top glaciologist, Dr Alun Hubbard, in studying the sheet of frozen water. It is around six times the size of Britain and nearly two miles deep in places.

Based on the floating laboratory SV Gambo — Dr Hubbard’s 1970s sailing boat, refitted for science and ice — they focused on the Store glacier, one of the largest in western Greenland.

Dr Hubbard has been taking his 47ft boat to Greenland since 2007 to study the behaviour of the glaciers that drain ice from the vast ice sheet.

The team has profiled the glacier’s bulk beneath the water and, with the help of cameras, charted its response to changing sea temperatures.

Store rises 100 metres out of the sea but there’s another 500 metres under the water.

During the expedition, researchers risked their lives by climbing over dangerous ice and suffered temperatures of -30C, plus wind chill.

But the biggest threat came from massive tidal surges, created as huge icebergs broke away from the main glacier and plunged into the ocean.

The ice is fighting a losing battle on its edges, as warm ocean water eats into it, with mini-bergs breaking off the weakened front.

The glacier is highly active, calving a huge "mega-berg" about once a fortnight.

A single iceberg that floated away from the glacier this summer had one million cubic metres of ice.

It has been suggested one such mega-berg from Store was responsible for the sinking of the Titanic.

Joe, a former Cowes High School pupil, said: "The comparatively warm seas melt the underside of the ice front, making it fall apart at the edges.

"These break-ups were sudden, loud and violent. If the glacier suddenly calves, releasing a new iceberg, the resulting wave could easily swamp the boat."

Around the team were icebergs the size of housing blocks creaking and cracking.

One morning, they woke up to find they were drifting miles from their last position. A huge tsunami had struck in the night and the research boat — tiny compared to the ice fortress towering over them — had broken from its anchorage.

Joe, a keen sailor, navigated the boat through blocks of ice the size of washing machines, as they bumped into the steel hull.

"It was like trying to sail across the M25," he recalled.

Meanwhile, back home, his parents were full of worry, exacerbated by watching BBC’s Operation Iceberg, which showed Dr Hubbard installing devices on ice pinnacles, and abseiling into huge crevasses.

Dad, Nigel, said: "Joe told us not to watch the programmes because it would only make us worry but I felt we had to.

"It was hard to watch but at least, we could see what he was getting up to. We were always worrying."

On Christmas Day, Jo had a reminder of home: his mum had wrapped a Seven Wonders of the IW tea towel for him.

He said: "On Christmas Eve, I made the whole crew a roast dinner. It was quite a challenge, given we only had a two-ring stove and a small oven."

Joe helped the scientists collect data from weather and tidal stations, time-lapse cameras, GPS and other equipment on the glacier, to show the changes in the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic Ocean.

Joe said: "The state of the Arctic ice and its oceans are significant."

If the whole Greenland ice cap melted, it could cause global sea level change of six metres and the influx of water into the North Atlantic could change global weather, he explained.

Temperature shifts in the Arctic Ocean are said to be linked to this summer’s drought in the US and the record levels of rainfall in England.

Away from work, Joe fished for cod, halibut and wolf fish, which has powerful jaws.

Solar panels and a small wind turbine provided limited power onboard ship while a small generator was occasionally used to charge batteries for the weather stations.

Joe said: "Every couple of days we would have to check the nearest GPS base station and the weather stations. From mid-October, the ice sheet was too thick to move the boat safely so we could only check the nearest stations to us by walking across the sea ice, with a kayak for safety, in case we fell through."

There was no sound except for the cracking and thumping of icebergs, he added: "The mountains appear no higher than St Boniface Down but then you look on the map and find they’re more than 2,000 metres high.

"Sailing up the fjords, the gigantic icebergs were unbelievable and the fingers of glaciers coming down the mountains were breathtaking."

He added: "I would love to go back there some day. The experience has changed me as a person."

Reporter: martinn@iwcpmail.co.uk

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