Greenland Glacier Studied for Insight into Warming Scientists are studying the Greenland glacier to see how quickly it might melt in a warming world. A team camping near a lake on the surface of the glacier cobbled together an impromptu instrument to try to measure how quickly water was rushing out of the lake to the ocean.
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Greenland Glacier Studied for Insight into Warming

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Greenland Glacier Studied for Insight into Warming

Greenland Glacier Studied for Insight into Warming

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We travel now to the glaciers of Greenland for the latest installment of Climate Connections, our yearlong series about climate change with National Geographic: Greenland to the place of particular interest for climate scientists.


Each summer, massive lakes form on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet; most of them end up springing a leak in draining down to bedrock and ultimately out to sea. It's part of a troublesome trend. Greenland is slowly melting as the Earth warms.

BLOCK: NPR's Richard Harris joined scientists who are working in Greenland this summer. He followed them on in an adventure to measure the flow of water from one typical lake.

RICHARD HARRIS: It's not obvious when you look at the modest campsite of tents out on the Greenland ice sheet, but it takes a lot of money and a lot of planning to mount a field expedition to this remote part of the world.

Every hour counts.

Unidentified Man #1: Adjust the GPS and the sonar…

Unidentified Woman #1: Can't you see the…

HARRIS: Over the past few days, four scientists have tended their instruments here and surveyed the nearby lake. It's time to move on to their next camp, but bad news. The helicopter is grounded by rainy weather.

A free day but how do make the most of it? More work sounds like fun. So they dream up a whole new experiment. Why not measure how fast the water is gushing out of the nearby glacial lake? That will help them understand how these features contribute to rising sea levels.

Ms. SARAH DAS (Glaciologist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution): This one, the icebergs.

HARRIS: Sarah Das is a glaciologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She and a colleague, Mark Baine(ph), rummaged through the boxes of equipment they've bought along looking for various spare parts to cobble together. They need to build something that will measure the speed of rushing water.

Mr. MARK BAINE (Glaciologist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution): …make sure there's …

Ms. DAS: Okay.

Mr. BAINE: There's always cable ties.

Ms. DAS: Duct tape.

HARRIS: Mark Bain finds just the thing: It's a gizmo that they had brought along to attach to the bottom of their inflatable boat to measure its speed through the water.

Turns out it was too hard to launch the boat, but at least they can steal this bit of gear for their new experiment.

Ms. DAS: (Unintelligible) man with the drill.

Ms. BAIN: And the screws.

Ms. DAS: And the screws…

HARRIS: Baine attaches the water speed indicator to a spare two-by-four. Next, he attaches rope to the board so they can pull the instrument out into the middle of the rushing stream.

(Soundbite of tool noise)

HARRIS: Once the makeshift device is done, they load it into a sled along with everything else they think they'll need once they get down to the stream. It's an hour's hike from camp.

Mr. BAIN: Hike.

Unidentified Woman #2: Anything else?

Ms. DAS: I'm good.

Mr. BAINE: Okay. Off we go towards the lake.

HARRIS: This is not your usual Sunday outing.

First, we cross the huge field of ice helix, each one a foot or two tall, it's like walking over slippery, oversized egg cartons. But Sarah Das is clearly in her element.

Ms. DAS: In a way, it's a very simple life (unintelligible) here, it's not easy, but everything's here that you need, and nothing's here that you don't need. There are no other distractions, there is no phone calls, there is no e-mail. There's not a lot of drama that's unrelated to the work that you're doing.

HARRIS: Her collaborator in this experiment is Ian Joughin from the University of Washington. This hands-on stuff is relatively new to him. He spent most of his career poring over satellite images of ice sheets from the toasty comfort of his office.

From those pictures, he's learned a lot about how the Greenland ice sheet is slowly flowing to the coast and then off into the sea.

Mr. IAN JOUGHIN (Scientist, University of Washington): It really helps to be able to interpret the space (unintelligible) data by actually being on the ice and seeing all these prophesies in action. The melt, the melt streams and that's really important to try and get the big picture. That's sort of really what we're after is how these lakes and the water flow on the ice sheet are affecting the ice slow.

HARRIS: Do you like being down here?

Mr. JOUGHIN: Oh, I love it. I wouldn't be here if I didn't.

HARRIS: Ian peels off and takes a long detour on the ice, so he will end up on the other side of the stream that's flowing out of the lake. Their experiment will only work if they can string a rope across the torrent in order to position their measuring device in midstream, so someone has to be on the on their thing.

Here we are. We've arrived at the edge of the river. And I'd say it has cut a much bigger channel than while we were here a couple of days ago. It's enormous. Much, much bigger doesn't it?

Mr. JOUGHIN: It does. Although I don't know whether it's just a new perspective of having pure (unintelligible) in my head.

HARRIS: The stream is now about 75 feet wide and Mark can't possibly throw a rope that far. So, plan B. The best hope now would be to tie some fishing line to a ball and throw the ball across the stream. They don't have a ball, but true to the cliche, they do have duct tape. So Mark sets to work making a duct tape ball.

So you played baseball when you're growing up, Mark?

Mr. BAINE: Yeah.

HARRIS: What position?

Mr. BAINE: Ah, second base mostly, which isn't the position you want me playing to be throwing long distances. It's - you knew the outfielders. But hey, check what you can get out here.

HARRIS: Ian makes it to the other side of the stream with graduate student Maya Batya(ph). They waved and popped down on chunks of ice. Their body language loudly declares this is crazy, let's just give up.

But Mark is undaunted. He steps to the edge of the stream, ball in hand.

Mr. BAINE: Ready?

HARRIS: All right, he made it across the river but it rolled in. I don't want to go running after it because they're on an icy slope, and they don't want to lose their footing because that would be bad.

Anything in this river would be taking a one-way trip downstream to a 3,000-foot-deep hole, which leads to the bedrock below so diving catches are definitely out of the question.

Mark winds up to try again.

Mr. BAINE: Here we go. Oh, it's close enough. Ah.

Ms. DAS: They got it.

HARRIS: And Ian grabbed it with the ice ax. Yehey.

Once the fishing line is across the stream, they're in business. They tie a rope to the line, and Ian pulls that across. Now they have a rope bridge of sorts across the stream. And they can use that to guide their impromptu instrument out into the raging water.

Mr. JOUGHIN: The plan is you guys just reel in.

HARRIS: Ian pulls the instrument out into the rapids. The two-by-four bobs furiously, but the instrument screwed to the back does record the water speed.

Mr. JOUGHIN: We got it. We got it.

HARRIS: And Sarah holds it in to the shore.

It's pretty cunning, our little impromptu experiment.

Ms. DAS: Yeah, looks pretty cool. Time 7:01 out of the water.

HARRIS: Dinner time, or at least time to head back to camp. A quick calculation reveals that water is draining out of this lake at the rate of 34 million gallons an hour. Los Angeles doesn't even use that much of water in any given hour.

It's true this lake only drains for a few weeks a year, but the volume of water it produces is simply amazing. And it's not a bad result for a rainy, no-helicopter day out on a Greenland ice.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

BLOCK: Richard Harris gives a visual tour of Greenland's melting ice sheet at There's also coverage of thawing landscapes by National Geographic.

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