Kangerlussuaq: Off to the Races!

April 12, 2010

Morning meeting: Mark Begnaud and Kathy Young discuss the day's tasking in Kangerlussuaq. Photo: Kyli Olson

The main NSF logistics operation in Greenland resumed last week with the arrival of the Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing to Kangerlussuaq, bringing research teams, CH2M HILL Polar Services staff, and Kellyville radar site technicians to the world’s largest island.

“There were 20 some people on last week’s flight, which is a big opening,” wrote PFS’ Kyli Olson, on hand to help with opening. “We’re all off to the races!”

Working closely together: Kathy Young and Mark Begnaud. Kathy, long the operations manager at Summit Station, this year will helm the hub in Kangerlussuaq; Mark comes out of retirement to help her get underway. PFS staffers Drew Abbott and Silver Williams arrived to prepare for Raven Camp put-in later this month. These two will spend the season—another one!–operating the ANG’s Greenland training facility. “Drew and Silver are bright and chipper as always,” Kyli reported. “They immediately started unpacking the Raven shelves and said that the August pack- up is still fresh in their minds so things are coming together quickly.” 

PFS’ Russ Howes, expert on all things mechanical, is giving the Raven Camp equipment a good once-over before installing a rebuilt engine in Blue, a well-used truck in the Kanger fleet. Mimi Fujino is also on hand inspecting the Kangerlussuaq inventory while Kyli pulls gear for research groups who will soon fly north.

Last but never least, Ed Stockard, PFS cargo expert and warehouse roustabout, has returned to the hub. “The first night we arrived, the auroras were the best I’ve ever seen,” Kyli said. “Beautiful pinks and greens…so close I felt like I could touch them. They rippled through the sky like an elaborate ribbon dance!”

What a nice welcome. “Even Ed said that they were the best he’s seen in 12 years up here,” Kyli continued. “You’ll have to ask him for photos.”

You know we will.

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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


Greenland’s Summit Camp in the Winter

November 23, 2009

Summit Camp science technician Katie Koster hauls 130-lb. fuel tanks in preparation for winter in Greenland. Koster is one of five people (four Polar Field Services, one NOAA) holding down the fort at Summit Camp. Photo: Andy Clarke

The biggest challenge to spending a winter at Greenland’s Summit Station isn’t the isolation, the dark, or even the cold. Rather the largest difficulty with living at and operating the station through the Winter Solstice and beyond is willing one’s fingers and brain to fire on all cylinders working outside in temperatures that range between -25ºC and -70ºC.

Life In The Far North

Check out the 2007 POLAR-PALOOZA video above with PFS’ Kathy Young for a good overview of life at Summit Camp during the summer. Although it was shot two years ago (before CH2M HILL purchased VECO), daily life remains remarkably similar.  Remove most of the people, the sunlight and knock the temperatures into the negative 20s and below, and you can imagine Summit in the winter.

This season’s five-person crew arrived Nov. 4 to operate Summit Station through the winter months, taking over for the five-person crew that tended the station after it closed for the season in late August. On Nov. 14, the team observed the last official sunrise/sunset until January 29, 2010.  They inhabit winterized buildings, share meal and housekeeping duties, and have about 300 movies to watch during downtime.

Game and movie room at Summit Camp's Big House. Photo: Karl Newyear

Clearly the team is there for much more than downtime. As manager Karl Newyear notes, they come for the self-reliance and the sense of adventure. “It’s intriguing to me that humans can adapt to places as inhospitable to life as the top of the icecap,” he says.  But mostly they come because they’ve been hired to maintain the infrastructure needed to support almost 30 year-round science experiments housed at the station.

Meet The Crew

Mindng the Summit. The crew from left to right: Glenn Grant, Shane Brazzel, Karl Newyear (front), Katie Koster, Mark Melcon (aka Commander).

Fortunately, members of the experienced winter crew are well-suited to extreme temperatures. This rugged and hearty team brings collective polar experience to the job. Camp Manager Newyear spent 10 years as a marine projects coordinator in Antarctica. A logistics specialist with a Ph.D. in oceanography, Newyear lives in Parker, CO., when he’s not on ice.

"Business casual" means something different in Greenland. Karl Newyear in front of Summit Camp's Green House.

Mechanic Shane Brazzel comes to Greenland from Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, where he was a heavy equipment mechanic and on the construction crew. The dirt-bike-loving Californian works nine hours a day, seven days a week checking the generators, monitoring mechanical systems, operating and maintaining station vehicles (snowmobiles, Cat 933 track-loader, and Cat D-6 tractor), and making water by dumping buckets of snow into the melter.

Mark Melcon (aka Commander) is a polar legend with about 20 deployments to Antarctica, eight to Greenland, and one to Alaska. After spending last summer on the Summit construction crew, he’s back for the winter and maintaining his own personal brutal work schedule: rise at 4 a.m., begin working around 7:30 and average about nine hours a day.

Glenn Grant, science technician, is in Greenland for the first time after spending more than a decade in Antarctica. Since 1995, he has worked at Antarctic research stations at Palmer, McMurdo, and the South Pole, on both south polar research ships (Nathanel B. Palmer, Laurence M. Gould), and logged six winter seasons. When not in a polar region, he maintains residence in Port Townsend, WA, and works on other science projects, including some at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center, in the Bahamas, and aboard the NOAA research vessel RAINIER.

Glenn launches a weather balloon, one of the many responsibilities of the winter crew at Summit. Photo: Karl Newyear

Rounding out the team is NOAA science technician Katie Koster, who also spent her early fall working at Summit, thus adding an element of continuity and familiarity between the Phase I crew (which has scattered around the globe) and the current crew. Katie, a meteorologist, has observed weather at New Hampshire’s Mount Washington as well as at the South Pole (and she’s also a seasoned Summiteer, having worked the 2008 summer and phase I winter as well). An accomplished cyclist and runner, Katie also has been an ice hockey referee.

General Lifestyle

All in a day's work: Katie and Glenn head off to monitor science experiments for absent researchers. Photo: Karl Newyear

All adventurers, the self-selective staff in the far north say spending the winter in Greenland gives them the unique experiences of living in clean air without light pollution, having unrivaled views of the stars and aurora borealis.

With Internet access and routine communication with Polar Field Service staff  as well as colleagues in Kangerlussuaq, they aren’t entirely isolated. And despite the cold, they spend much of their time outside doing physical work. Those seeking an extra adrenaline rush can use one of the three spinning cycles, the rowing machine, free weights, or the rock-climbing practice board, and staffers have been known to strap cross-country skis (or snow kites) on.

Wind-affected snow surrounds Summit Camp in the winter. Photo: Bill McCormick

About Summit Camp

Located at the peak of the Greenland ice cap at 72°34’44.10″N 38°27’34.56″W. Summit is a scientific research station sponsored by the National Science Foundation, operated by CH2M Hill Polar Services (CPS) with research guidance from the Summit Science Coordination Office.