August 15, 2009

Reflections on an ice-cold summer

Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science at City College

We are back from the cold desert of ice where lakes and streams of meltwater create suggestive oases.

The experiment was successful and we collected all the data we wanted to, and more. It was harder than I thought to deploy the boat and prepare it every time for each experiment. However, we made it with a lot of patience, physical strength and keeping up the good mood. The weather helped in the sense that it was relatively pleasant during the day, with warm temperatures (around 32-34 F) that allowed us to take off some of our layers and walk around with light clothes. At nighttime it was colder. We had a few nights when the wind was blowing hard on our tents. ‘The sleeping bag is your best friend,’ one of the team members told me and it is very well true. You think to the moment when you will lay down in a warmer envelope, to rest from the walking, jumping, carrying equipment, digging holes. And the sleeping bags are indeed your best friends. We were warm and comfortable in there, lying over the double layer of pads to insulate from the ice. Getting out of the bag was not the most pleasant feeling.

One of the things that will stay within my head is the feeling of alert and peace when, at night, I was hearing the sound of the strong wind on the tent, the cracking of the ice and the flowing of the water. One night, I remember, I dreamt that the tent was flying away and I was inside. We generally went to sleep very late (around midnight or later), because the light was so beautiful and unique that we wanted to absorb that beauty, put it on pictures, movies, and most of it, living it.

On the day before leaving, we decided to push the boat at the edge. We attached it to the back of an inflatable boat and one of our team member, Mark ( a professional writer and adventurer) started paddling on lake Ivan (we named the lake after Ivan Lorgere, a French scientist and friend of mine who recently lost his life on the Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris). We were communicating with Mark via walkie talkie and I was warming up some tea in the kitchen tent when Nick yelled ‘Marco, come here ! Mark says the boat just sank ….’. At that point I was fatalist and said to myself ‘Whataver it is going to be, we had a great experiment.’ Mark came back with our boat two feet underwater and all instruments soaked. Somehow, the GPS was still working! All other instruments were not but the boat engines worked after switching the batteries. After that, I realized that our experiment was at the end and I could relax. (Note: Later, after drying out, the spectrometer also worked!)

We left the day after, in a hurry, as we saw a huge storm coming toward us and we did not want to risk to get stuck on the ice for many more days (the helicopter cannot pick us up if there is a storm, because of the low visibility). We packed everything, took pictures for the magazine for which some of the team members were working and flew back to the land. The day was long: packing everything, loading and unloading the helicopter , moving everything to the new apartments. We went straight to the Hotel where they serve a 60$ dinner buffet (overpriced) and sat, overdressed and sun burnt and without a real shower for a week (for those interested we used to wash ourselves using the lake water but the feeling and the comfort is not exactly the same as a nice shower in your Manhattan apartment), among the tourists (well dressed and relaxed) for our first dinner on a table that was not made of warm soups, beans and rice. And of course there was beer and wine (not Italian, though !). That was reinvigorating!

While flying back over the Ice Sheet I asked myself if I would have ever returned again. The answer was yes and I am sure this will happen. I also decided to start exploring other glaciers. This whole experience was an epiphany for me as a scientist and I learned many lessons. We planned the experiment for many months; we had to put together the money, budget everything; get the ideas for solving little things that, if unsolved, become big troubles; get ready for the trip; test the equipment and the software; and as much as possible get ready for unforeseen circumstances. This would not have happened without the crucial support of all people involved and those financing our activity (the World Wildlife Foundation,WWF; NASA and the City University of New York). In particular, Nick Steiner dedicated himself to this project as much as I did and he played a key role in the success of the experiment. We were able to achieve our scientific goal and this is our greatest reward. On the other hand, as scientist loving the nature and the frozen world in particular, I will always remember the starless bright night over the ice sheet and the sound of the ice cracking around us.