Polar Technology Conference

March 24, 2010


The white radome on top of the Tucker's cab is an Iridium OpenPort transceiver. Providing medium-high speed data communications without an antenna, the OpenPort is proving to be useful in the polar field. Photo: Jay Burnside

If you’re in the Boulder area tomorrow and Friday and want to brush up on the latest in technology developments in polar research, drop by the sixth annual Polar Technology Conference at the Millennium Harvest House.  The meeting, established by SRI International and Stanford University, provides a space for those in the know to exchange information. Scientists discuss their coming research support needs, and experts share technology strategies that have worked in the harsh polar environment—as well as potential solutions in development.

Presentations range from (our SRI colleague) Roy Stehle’s update on Iridium OpenPort technology; to Tracy Dahl’s report on the Clean Snowmobile Challenge, for which he acted as judge again last week; to (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) Frank Rack’s coverage of over-ice surveys and scientific drilling in Antarctica.

Given the attendees list, you’re bound to learn something during the breaks as well.


GrIT Details: Shakedown, Tune-up, Training

March 22, 2010

GrIT team at the transition preparing for the GPR shake down run. Kevin Emery and Allan Delaney stow gear on the Nansen sled. The GPR can be seen attached to the front of the Tucker. Brad Johnson, in the brown jacket at right, talks with Greenland Contractor personnel. Photo: Robin Davies.

Up at Thule Air Base in Greenland, the Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) team last week continued to hustle toward a mid-April launch for Summit Station.   

The GPR team—expert Allan Delaney, CRREL’s Jen Mercer, Tucker operator/mechanic Robin Davies, and mountaineer Kevin Emery—departed on Saturday morning for an outing to ensure readiness for the 10-14 day GPR run scheduled to begin early this week.  (The GPR team will use the specialized radar equipment to detect and document crevasses in the ice edge, the first 60 or so miles of the route to Summit Station. The information will help the GrIT team make a safe approach on to the ice sheet.)   

Jen Mercer (standing) and David Wantuch check out the transition between land and ice. Photo: Robin Davies.

Weather on Saturday favored the traverse, as it was “clear with a little bit of wind,” PFS GrIT project manager Allen Cornelison wrote on Sunday. “Temperature was about -12F.  The GPR party traveled in the survey configuration with Kevin following behind the Tucker in a snowmachine. They were able to make contact with Hilltop [Thule’s communications center], with us and with our Telemed contractor [which provides remote medical support].”   

“The team used GPR to about three miles past the transition. The best traveling speed is about 3MPH so a somewhat arduous process,” Cornelison continued.  “Especially for Kevin I would think but he was born to be outside. . . .The GPR team came back last night (Saturday) and we were all like a bunch of penguins gathering in our hut discussing the day’s exciting activities. Then it was time to go to the TOW (Top Of the World) for a beer and pizza.”   

Robin Davies provided this summary: “The shake down went very well with very few niggles* to work out.  The weather wasn’t bad but the wind did get up a bit with a little ground drift. It was cozy in the Tucker but quite cold for Kevin on the skidoo. The GPR gear worked well.”   

Tuckered: the GPR team returns to Thule on Saturday. The GPR is shown out in front, leading the way. Photo: Robin Davies.

As the GPR team explored the transition, additional GrIT personnel continued preparing for the traverse to Summit:  they worked on the rigs—the Tucker and the gigantor Case Quadtrac—to install communications and global positioning system instruments, the latter so we will be able to track GrIT’s progress during the ride to Summit. They also finished instrumenting the sleds for mobility testing, which begins this week out at the transition. For this effort, CRREL’s Jim Lever will lead a team in a suite of experiments to see if they can generate a higher temperature at the snow/sled interface and/or find a specific configuration of sleds and cargo to improve mobility.  

Thermocouples installed on the high-molecular-weight plastic material shipped to Thule for sled mobility tests. Photo: David Wantuch

Earlier in the week, Kevin Emery provided hands-on rope skills training. The GPR shakedown team’s exploration over the weekend revealed crevasses suitable for safety training, so the GrIT team will suit up and explore crevasse rescue techniques this week as well.  

Robin Davies (left) and Brad Johnson practice self-rescue techniques using prusik knots. Photo: Dave Wantuch

This recap skips myriad details involved with staging a traverse across Greenland’s ice sheet. Between outfitting the wannigan with supplies, food, and gear, completing a load of paperwork for permitting, and testing and retesting every system the GrIT team will rely on for safety and “comfort” out on the ice sheet, GrIT’s presence is obvious at the Thule Air Base. Fortunately, the community has been generous in their enthusiastic support of the GrIT project. “The Danish and Greenlandic people who work here in Thule are extremely helpful and seem truly interested in our project,” writes Cornelison.  

With the GPR team scheduled to leave Tuesday for a 10-14 day exploration of the ice margin, and sled configuration testing literally heating up at the transition, this promises to be a banner week for the GrIT project. We’ll let you know what we hear.  

Even the local wildlife (for example, this arctic hare) is interested in GrIT.

*Niggle:  (Noun) A minor concern. Used mainly in Great Britain.

Polar Careers: Tracy Dahl, Polar Field Services’ Renewable Energy Specialist

January 12, 2010

Self portrait: Tracy Dahl documents a rare sunny day on the Alaskan tundra. All photos courtesy Tracy Dahl.

Like many who work at the poles, Polar Field Services’  (PFS) Tracy Dahl has taken a circuitous path to arrive at his current position. As PFS’s technical specialist in renewable energy, Dahl has circled the globe, consulted myriad experts and books, designed and built renewable energy contraptions in his work shop and then installed them in the world’s harshest outdoor laboratories.

The Fossil Fuel Dilemma

Throughout his career, he’s been driven by a passion to help ease human reliance on fossil fuels, which he blames for creating a major disconnect between humans and the environment. But rather than bemoan the status quo (a fossil fuel economy), Dahl strives to change it—one photo voltaic array at a time.

“Renewable energy is about manipulating the environment, or at least learning how to harvest it,” says Dahl. “It’s about learning how to adapt to the environment and use what the world has to offer in a benign way, rather than imposing a resource-intensive system upon it.”

Dahl spends much of the field season in Alaska and Greenland installing generators that run off of wind and sun in remote study plots. These systems allow scientists to  run long-term mechanical equipment without contributing to pollution. This keeps their sites clean and, given the longevity of the systems, cuts down on the number of trips scientists need to make to their plots. This reduces emissions and saves money.

Home Life

At home, Dahl strives to live a low-impact life. He grows his own food at his off-the-grid abode in southern Colorado’s mountains at 8,200 feet, works from a home office, rarely drives and powers his life with energy from the sun.

“I checked my carbon footprint online, and my house was nothing, driving was minimal,” says Dahl. “But when I do commute, I go a long way.”

He says he’s never felt compelled to conform to social norms and has been happier pursuing his own interests. These include collecting rainwater to irrigate high-alpine gardens, building the straw-bale home he shares with his wife, Amy, or camping on the ice or tundra.

"Why I Work." Dahl says of his wife Amy (here with family dog, Lars): "Not only is Amy far more photogenic than I, she is also a former PFS employee and polar explorer. She's wisely decided to hang up her mukluks to concentrate on developing our homestead."

Life Choices

His passion for finding renewable energy solutions has led the wanderlust traveller on an adventurous path with stints as a motorcycle mechanic and jobs in remote field camps in Antarctica and the Arctic. As he’s carved out a niche, he’s also learned essential survival skills like how to stay warm and well fed in temperatures that plunge below zero degrees. Forgoing the comforts of fossil fuels does not mean suffering, says Dahl.

“Independence is important to me,” says Dahl. “I have always felt like I should be able to take care of myself. I like that I can go into a polar environment and not just survive but live comfortably.”

Heading South

Dahl got his start at the South Pole in 1994 when he was hired as a snowmobile mechanic at a research station in Antarctica. Although he had only ridden a snowmobile once previously, his experience as a motorcycle mechanic convinced the hiring manager Dahl could do the job. After several seasons, Dahl worked his way up to running the Mechanical Equipment Center until he was offered a job as the first antarctic renewable energy specialist in the 1999/2000 season. It was a dream assignment.

Abundant Resources

“The first year I went to Antarctica, I got off the plane, and there was a brilliant sun in the sky reflecting off the brilliant snow,” says Dahl. “The wind was howling, and I thought, ‘why aren’t there solar panels and wind turbines everywhere? What is wrong with this picture?'”

Back then, polar researchers only had a choice of what size engine generator they wanted for their field sites. Dahl found it incongruous to use expensive fossil fuel (in some places the cost of hauling in fuel translates into roughly $25 per gallon) that had to be stored and polluted the environment.

“It just didn’t make sense, and the more I saw it, the more it drove me crazy,” he says.

Arctic Bound

After a year doing renewable energy in Antarctica, Dahl decided to freelance and join his former colleagues at Polar Field Services. For the next three seasons he and Amy did stints with the company, and Dahl decided to join PFS full time in 2003.

The first year of contracting with PFS was the most challenging. It began with Dahl and Amy running the two-person Raven Camp in Greenland during the summer and then spending the winter at Summit—for a total of 13 months on the ice. Summit was “like a mission to Mars,” says Dahl.

“You are completely out there on your own,” he says. “You are completely dependent on mechanical life support. If the generators go down you better be good at fixing them.”

Cabin Fever

At Summit, the couple holed up for the winter with several others, braving the dark and cold while they kept the station functional. The irony, he noted, was being trapped indoors with his wife and three others for nine months, when all of them had equally self-reliant personalities.

“Polar programs tend to attract people who are outdoorsy, rugged individualists. Then you get gigs like that where you are stuck inside with others all winter,” says Dahl. “It is psychologically challenging to say the least.”

New Technologies

Still, he appreciated the experience enough to sign on, and today Dahl’s job entails designing, building, and installing power systems that won’t pollute the pristine environment they’re built for.

Dahl built and installed this solar and wind-powered power station at Imnavait Creek.

But don’t expect to hear him bragging about his accomplishments, even though system designs have been published in trade journals.

“The field of polar renewable energy is very, very small,” says Dahl. “Sure I have had a modest influence, but it is less because of any engineering brilliance and more so because I write. I document what I do. I have written a lot more words on the subject than most of my peers.”

(Learn more about polar renewable energy technology at www.polarpower.org.)

In The Beginning

Dahl’s interesting career path is all the more unusual considering he was an English major who graduated from college 12 years after matriculating. Rather than study renewable energy in school (“30 years ago there weren’t schools that specialized in this; everyone was self-taught”), Dahl studied literature while working as a motorcycle mechanic to pay his bills. However, his fascination with renewable energy had begun long before he went to college.

“I was interested since I first heard about it as a little kid,” says Dahl. “Solar panels that produce electricity without moving parts? How cool is that? I guess I started off nerdy.”

Then his interest evolved.

“I wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere and renewable energy was an obvious application for that. I had a keen interest and background in renewables before I stepped foot in Antarctica.”

Challenges for Polar Renewables

Dahl's field camp in nice weather, Alaska, 2007.

Adopting renewable technology came slowly and required the support of researchers and the National Science Foundation, which today funds significant renewable energy development projects.

Renewable energy has become more widespread and attitudes toward it have become measurably more accepting, says Dahl. Yet the technology is not without problems. At both poles, a seasonal dichotomy provides a fantastic solar resource in the summer and no solar resource in the winter.

“That’s a problem to overcome,” says Dahl. “So you need a back up. Wind is an option. Hydroelectric is problematic because the water freezes in the winter.” Often the best solution is a hybrid approach utilizing renewable energy as the primary power source with an engine generator or other “on-demand” power source for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Cost  Benefit Analysis

And initial infrastructure costs can sometimes seem prohibitive. Yet when compared to regular fuel costs, renewables are more cost-effective in the long-run, says Dahl.

“Renewable energy offers an operational cost stability you can’t get with fossil fuel with its fluctuating prices,” he says. “Extractive energy sources, be they coal, natural gas or petroleum, can be owned and the supply controlled. That is perhaps the main impediment to large-scale renewable energy development. The powers that be are reluctant to give up such a great business position, regardless of the now clearly identified cost to the environment. Nobody owns the wind, nobody owns the sun, and so your energy source is free. You just have to pay for the infrastructure required to harvest this environmental energy.”

You also have to train technicians to maintain the sometimes quite complex hybrid systems that are bruised and battered by the elements during extreme, long winters.

“There are obstacles in the way, sure, but they can be overcome,” says Dahl.

Creature Comforts

Along the way, Dahl is determined to enjoy himself. That means preparing for long trips in the field so he is comfortable, warm, and dry. Dahl sums up his job requirements as: 33% technical expertise, 33% writing, and 33% field savvy.

“You better have everything pretty well planned out because when you get dropped off by the bush plane, you’ve got what you’ve got,” says Dahl. “I’ve made enough mistakes now that I know how to do it right. That’s how you learn. Make enough mistakes and have enough miserable camping experiences where you know how not to repeat those.”

Dahl's work takes him to beautiful places, like this spot in Alaska.

As for why this lifestyle so appeals to him, Dahl turns more philosophical.

“Why would someone want to go backpacking and then climb a 14,000 foot mountain?” he asks. “For most people that would be hard to understand but for me that’s where I am supposed to be.”

It’s not always easy, he says.

“There are times I am out in the field and am being sucked dry by mosquitoes or sitting out a blizzard and it’s terrible,” says Dahl. “But by and large, I am a person who is far more comfortable in the wilderness than I am in the city. So you find something that resonates and works for you, and so, why not?  Due to the communications revolution, functionally it makes no difference whether I’m sitting in a cubicle in Denver or working from my solar-powered mountaintop home in southern Colorado (“PFS-South,” Dahl jokes). Given the choice, I’m going for the mountain top.”  —Rachel Walker

The (Glacial) View From Within

December 22, 2009

Before Dr. Alberto Behar of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory tossed an enclosed camera into the gaping hole that bored into Jakobshavn Glacier last summer, he took a moment to listen to the roar of the river plunging into the ice.

“It sounds like a jet engine,” said Behar last week from the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco. “If you fall in there, forget about it. You’re not going home.”

Scientists lower a probe into a moulin in the Pakisoq region in western Greenland. All photos courtesy NASA

While a human would be hard pressed to survive a “dip” in a moulin—a narrow, tubular shaft in a glacier that guides water from the surface to the glacial base—Behar and co-investigator Dr. Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado, Boulder, are hoping to design a high-tech, video and camera-equipped probe that will. Specifically, they recently completed the fourth field season of a NASA-funded study on moulins.

Their team is developing a tool to measure the depth of moulins and, ideally, track the path of water from the surface to the ocean. The best-case scenario would be if one of the probes dropped into a moulin emerged later in the ocean and “could tell us where it had been,” said Behar in the press conference.

Behar and Steffan call their tools “expendable rovers.” The size of a pocket book, these solar-powered systems are modeled after the Antarctic Ice Borehole Probe, which studied ice streams in West Antarctica, the Amery ice shelf in East Antarctica and the Rutford ice stream in West Antarctica.

The Greenland version is modified specifically to explore the moulin environment. It consists of two high-resolution charge-coupled device cameras (a side-viewing digital camera and a downward-viewing video camera), lights, associated electronics and an inclinometer that measures the tilt of the moulin chute.

A watertight probe can withstand the immense water pressure in a moulin.

Images are sent in real time through a tether one kilometer long (about 3,300 feet) to a receiving station at the surface. The station has a video display, computer and digital tape recording devices.

Earlier this year, working in bitter cold, slushy, windy conditions (minus 10 degrees Celsius, or 14 degrees Fahrenheit), the scientists deployed the probe in two locations of a moulin. Once the probe descended to 110 meters (361 feet), it encountered horizontally flowing water and debris about one to two meters (3.3 to 6.6 feet) deep.

In this particular moulin, the water flows out in well-developed channels to the edge of the ice sheet. At the time of the experiment, the scientists measured the water flow rate of the surface melt rivers feeding the moulin at approximately 15 cubic meters a second (about 238,000 gallons a minute).

“This was very interesting and is evidence that we need an integrative plan on how to study these in a more sustainable way,” said Behar. “We need to get multi-year funding.”

Alberto Behar on the edge of a moulin in 2006.

Behar and Stefan have been developing a moulin probe since 2006, and Behar offered the following synopsis for each year of field work in the Pakisoq region.

  • 2006 The team used an ice borehole camera that shot an image about 100 meters down a Moulin. However, the camera was heavy and proved to be difficult to work with.
  • 2007 The team returned with a Sony HD video recording camera in a watertight Lexan enclosure. They sent the camera into the Moulin, but the images were hard to interpret. “It was a lot like fishing,” said Behar. “We found the crevasses are much more complex than we had thought.”
  • 2008 The team developed a simple device with a tracker GPS modem that had temperature sensors and could measure the pressure. They expected it to follow the water pathway, emerge and call home. They never heard from it again.
  • 2009 The team developed a live video feed camera system with a fiber optic cable. The camera transmitted images to special glasses (Behar calls them “Blade Runner-esque”), and the viewer could watch the camera’s progress.

“This was an exciting, important first look into a place that’s not well understood but could have an important role in understanding the dynamics of this region,” said Behar. “We’re excited by the possibilities this technology holds, not only for future studies of Earth’s icy regions, but also for future missions to explore extreme ice and liquid environments on other planets, such as the Martian polar ice caps and Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

Next year, University of Colorado scientists will use ground-penetrating radar to accurately measure the glacial ice thickness at this location. These data will help scientists better interpret their findings and plan future tests.

Scientists expect moulins to shed light on complex glacial dynamics, which are not well understood and are responding rapidly to climate change. Previous NASA measurements in the Pakisoq region using global positioning system data show the ice there moves an average of about 20 centimeters (8 inches) a day, accelerating to about 35 centimeters (14 inches) a day during the summer melt. Scientists suspect the moulins may affect—directly or indirectly—that rate of advance.

In Greenland, the surface of the ice sheet moves at varying speeds, on both seasonal and shorter-term time scales. Seasonally, glacial water penetrates to the glacier bed through significant thicknesses of cold ice. However, early in the melt season and at other times, there can be periods when water flows rapidly into glacial drainage systems, resulting in sudden new flows of water out of the glaciers. In the middle of the melt season, surface melting resumes after periods of cold weather, which can partially close sub-glacial channels.

Polar Careers: Bjorn Johns, UNAVCO’s Polar Services Manager

December 1, 2009

Bjorn Johns, Polar Services Manager at UNAVCO, has always loved the Arctic. Pictured here backpacking in Svalbard, Norway. All photos courtesy Bjorn Johns

At Work

When Bjorn Johns, 45, joined the Boulder-based UNAVCO in 1993, the adventurous explorer did not anticipate he’d found his professional calling. To be sure, the freshly-minted engineer had recently graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the position at the non-profit organization, which supports scientific research around the globe using high-precision GPS technology, promised to send him to exotic locales to set up remote measuring stations. But the fieldwork was “logistically challenging, and not necessarily intellectually challenging,” says Johns, who then held the position of field engineer.

Bjorn Johns surveys the McCall Glacier.

But a year after starting with UNAVCO, he landed the opportunity of a lifetime. UNAVCO was awarded a subcontract in Antarctica and selected three employees to spend the months of November 1994 – February 1995 on the ice. It was a dream assignment for the son of a Norwegian mother who had spent many formative years in his early childhood in the Scandinavian town of Nesna, just south of the Arctic Circle.

“That made the connection for me that there are potential professional opportunities that could combine my engineering with my passion,” says Johns.

Prior to that, Johns said he expected his career to consist of “working in reasonably sterile cubeland doing exciting engineering work.”

Career Before the Poles

And for a while, he proved himself right. After graduating from U.C. Davis with mechanical and aeronautical engineering undergraduate degrees and spending a year as a ski bum in Truckee, Calif., Johns began working as a civilian for the U.S. Navy in Alameda. His routine quickly evolved to support a weekend warrior mountain habit; Johns spent Friday nights racing to the Sierra from the San Francisco Bay area, and then fighting traffic at the weekend’s conclusion in order to show up at work on time by Monday.

After three years, he decided something needed to change, applied to graduate school and chose to attend Boulder. Despite Boulder’s prevalence of scientists and institutes that focus on polar regions, Johns wasn’t yet thinking he could pursue a career that would take him to remote ice- and snow-covered landscapes where the wildlife likely outnumbers the people.

Then he got the opportunity to work on the southernmost continent. In Antarctica, Johns met Jocelyn Turnbull (the two would marry in 2001), and he sowed the seeds for his ultimate dream job at UNAVCO: creating and managing a polar component.

Love on the ice: Jocelyn Turnbull and Bjorn Johns.

“At this point, GPS was new and had widespread application for science,” says Johns. “I saw a need for [focused support from UNAVCO] for polar research and precision GPS.”


Johns talked his boss into appointing him head of the UNAVCO Polar Group and began growing the team, which provides GPS equipment and technical support for high-precision geodetic measurement needs in polar research. In 13 years, the group has grown to six dedicated employees and supports roughly 50 projects split evenly between the Arctic and the Antarctic. During the International Polar Year, the team developed a new generation of power and communications systems optimized for easy deployment and reliable, multi-year operation in severe polar environments.

Available as kits to researchers, these systems endure years of harsh weather without requiring regular maintenance, and they provide continuous data recording. The systems weigh 1,000 pounds and use wind and solar power to charge batteries. The science data collected is retrieved via the Iridium satellite system. The system’s efficient design and ability to operate remotely can help scientists collect critical data while minimizing flights (and saving money spent on costly logistics).

The installed UNAVCO power kit only requires maintenance every two years.

Prior to the development of these systems, scientists were responsible for creating their own solutions to operate GPS equipment at remote places in extreme temperatures. Developing these polar kits provided one of the the intellectual challenges that Johns originally sought as he launched his career.

Polar Fascination

Being half Norwegian (his other “half” is Californian), Johns experienced the Arctic at an early age. He describes Nesna as a “small, safe town.”

“In the summer, a bunch of eight-year olds would roam the street until it got around midnight and their parents would finally come looking for them,” he says.

In Nesna, Johns developed an interest in the natural world. He and his friends would explore the nearby mountains, and in the summer, he would take out a boat and explore the water.However, it was his grandfather, Kolbjorn Spilhaug, who inspired him with polar fascination. An officer in the Norwegian army in World War II, Spilhaug fled Norway after the German invasion.

After regrouping with other officers in England, he was deployed to Iceland and Jan Mayen, a strategic island with a critical weather research station. Spilhaug’s squadron trained American GIs in arctic warfare, and developed a tight camaraderie.Following the war, those friends often visited Spilhaug, and their friendship piqued Johns’s curiosity. In addition, his grandfather kept a trove of Arctic memorabilia, including a knife made from a German reconnaissance plane that crashed on Jan Mayen. Pictures of sled dogs in Greenland and aviation books from the period inspired his imagination. When Johns was 18, his mother passed on to him a memoir written by his grandfather recounting his days in the Arctic. The writing brought the Arctic to life for the young man.

Family Life

In the years since joining UNAVCO and growing the Polar Team, Johns has continued to feed his travel bug. He’s visited remote sites at both poles, and continued to pursue his love of the outdoors. From his home base in Boulder, he skis, bicycles, and rock climbs, and Turnbull, a New Zealand-native, shares in his passion.The two recently became parents and their infant son, Cameron, already has a passport and tickets to Chile (Christmas), California, and New Zealand. His car seat fits in the ski sled, and during an early season blizzard in Colorado’s Front Range, Cameron (indirectly) made his first tracks.

Lucky kid! Bjorn's son Cameron skis before he can walk.

“We have been pretty determined from the start to get Cameron out so the outdoors are just a part of his life,” says Johns. “I want him to know how it feels before he is even conscious of it going on.”Still he concedes that the upcoming travels are as much for Johns and Turnbull as they are for their son.”These trips are all about training us,” he says.