Summit Station Birkie Fever

March 2, 2010

Photo finish: Ken Keenan, left, and Sonja Wolter stretch for the first place finish at the Summit Birkebeiner. Photo: Christina Hammock

As the photo above shows, Summit Station hosted its own edge-of-your-seat winter games last weekend. Our phase III crew preparing the NSF’s research outpost for the coming research season paused on Saturday to hold Summit’s version of the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. 

“Race day conditions were –56F with a wind chill of -92F,” wrote station manager Ken Keenan in his weekly report. The skiers raced to the end of the Summit skiway and back again, a distance of about six kilometers. Though this is substantially shy of 50 km trail the classic American Birkebeiner offers in Wisconsin, with the cold and Summit’s elevation, it was still something. 

The numbers on their jerseys refer to Summit's actual elevation and the ambient temperature. But which is which? Photo: Christina Hammock

 Here’s a recap filed by NOAA science technician and Summit Birkie racer Sonja Wolter: 

“Trail Report:
The weather remained stable for the Summit Birkebeiner with temps reaching into the mid minus 50s the night before and cooling off to the high minus 50s by race time.   All trails were groomed and reset in August and the skiing was as good as it gets around here for this time of year.  The base depth was about 10,000 feet and was very hard, cold, and stable. . . . 

 Trail Elevation:
The total elevation gain for the Summit Birkie 5.4 km Classic Course from the start line at the Big House to the finish line at the Big House was about two meters. 

The two top finishers, Ken and Sonja, battled it out over the grueling course, ending in a photo finish tie with a new Summit Birkie Classic record time of 1:13:27. 

Said Sonja of her primary competitor, ‘Ken gave every single ounce of human courage and determination.  Simply put, he is the Sistine Chapel of cross-country skiing.’ 

Ken responded graciously, saying, ‘Sonja gave 110% the entire race.  She was really single-sticking out there!’” 

At the rest stop, Christina Hammock offers Ken hot chocolate and bananas. Photo: Sonja Wolter

At the rest stop, Christina Hammock offers Ken hot chocolate and bananas. Photo: Sonja Wolter

Here, Ken kicks it up about 3 km into the race. Photo: Sonja Wolter

Sonja shows impressive form. Photo: Ken Keenan

Birkie Fever!


Summit Station Staff Turnover

February 11, 2010
The Sun Rises, the Snow Flies

Summiteers practice snow sampling in a one-meter pit. Some experiments require pristine samples, and so staff wear clean suits and masks. L-R: Summit science manager Katrine Gorham, and Phase III science technicians Sonja Wolters and Christina Hammock. Photos provided by Katrine Gorham

For almost a week now, Summit has been in transition–the staff of five that saw the National Science Foundation’s science facility through the winter night has been slowly handing the job over to the team that will guide it through the spring dawn.  

Actually, there’s nothing slow about this transition. Summiteers have about two weeks to explain and learn everything about running the station. Ongoing technical activities in support of continuous measurements keep two of the five personnel busy full-time collecting air and snow samples, monitoring instruments, measuring snow accumulation, launching ozonesonde balloons, etc. Infrastructure upkeep is another big effort:  for example, it takes a lot of effort and a giant pink pig to make water at the station, believe it or not. There are safety and environmental concerns, and communications concerns as well. So the turnover period is packed with show and tell and do. 

The new team practices on the Iridium phone. Pictured L-R: Sonja Wolters (NOAA science technician), Ken Keenan (manager), Luke Nordby (mechanic), and Geoff Miller (equipment operator). Photo: Katrine Gorham

People arriving at Summit usually huff a bit for a day or two adjusting to the climate.  The station sits at ~10,000 feet and atmospheric conditions can make it feel even higher.

For this transition period, after the first calm (and cold) day or two, the wind picked up, and when we talked with Russ Howes yesterday (our Summit maintenance lead is checking a few things and helping with the transition), he reported 30-40 knot winds had been blowing for the past three or so days. There’s a lot of snow in the air, which means there’ll be a lot of shoveling to come. “But, on the plus side, when the wind picks up it typically gets warmer,” Katrine wrote in an email.

Wind storms can make a science technician's job a bit of a challenge. Here, the technicians carry snow samples back to the Green House.


February 2, 2010

Those who live at Greenland’s Summit Station spend months without the sun in the winter, so it comes as no surprise that the first sunrise following the winter solstice is much anticipated. This year the Naval Observatory predicted the sun would crest the horizon on January 28, and Karl Newyear, station manager, was there to document it.

January 28, 2010: Almost the first sunrise: hints of the sun pushed through the clouds, but Newyear only got a peek.

January 29, 2010: First actual sunrise. No need for sunscreen, but the crew at Summit got a full frontal from the sun.

January 29, 2010: Self Portrait. Karl Newyear captures the bright light and the mandatory big sunglasses required with the sun's welcome arrival.

There Comes the Sun

January 26, 2010

Crescent Moon over Summit Station. Photo: Bill McCormick

January 25, 2010

Kip Rithner wrote:

Hello Summiteers,
Exciting times! I hope everyone’s doing well on the world’s roof—I imagine you’re looking forward to sunshine and getting out of Summit after the Phase III team arrives around February 2.

Speaking of sun, I hope you’ll keep the field notes blog in mind when you enjoy the sunrise on January 27th. I’d love to post a picture of you enjoying the spectacle. This time always makes me think of the Beatles song. What do you think of?

Summit manager wrote:

Hi Kip,

Yes, we’ll surely be taking photos if the weather allows.  Here’s the forecast that we just received:

“Thursday:  Cloudy and maybe light snow at times. Still risk of fog and southwesterly winds about 05-15kt and temperatures unchanged or slightly warmer.”

Karl Newyear
Summit Station Manager
Winter 2009-10 Phase II

Kip Rithner wrote:

Booooo!  Maybe it’ll clear a bit, though.

Summit Manager wrote:

Hi Kip,

This is the best forecast we’ve seen in weeks!

Around Summit Station

January 11, 2010

Deep freeze: Mark Melcon (CMDR) works on the cargo berm. The sky has been getting lighter since the winter solstice on December 21. Photo: Karl Newyear

The new year brought a brighter sky to Summit Station. As station manager Karl Newyear wrote last week, ” Things are moving along here at Summit.  The workload doesn’t vary much from day to day but the increasing daylight makes it feel like progress.  The next crew is scheduled to arrive here [around 2 February] so yes, like the physical horizon, this time horizon is starting to come into view.”

Inside the Temporary Atmospheric Watch Observatory (TAWO). Why so dressed up? "On this particular day Glenn had only about 10 minutes' work inside TAWO and so he left his outdoor clothing on. The science technicians check the operation of the various instruments daily and ensure the data looks good," Karl wrote. Karl joined Glenn on his rounds to observe (for safety reasons) while Glenn cleared rime from meteorological instruments mounted on a 50-meter tower outside. Photo: Karl Newyear

There's always something to do at Summit. Here, Karl (left) and CMDR install some shelves in a barn-like building originally used to test the WAIS drill now working its way down to bedrock in West Antarctica. Photo: Katie Koster

Of course, today, Karl’s weekly report tells a different story. “The weather this week has been, in a word, windy.  A storm system slowly moved across our area bringing a low barometric reading of 650 mb and winds of over 20 knots sustained for 4 days, 30 knots for 2 days, and topping out over 40 knots for nearly 12 hours.  We are currently experiencing reduced winds, though it’s unclear whether this is temporary or a trend. . . . Blowing snow and generally poor visibility have prevented us from enjoying the increasing daylight around mid-day which occurred earlier in the week, prior to the storm’s arrival.” 

The wind storms have played havoc with the landscape around the station, creating huge drifts that reform the minute the staff put down their shovels. For now, Summiteers are letting the wind win the battle.

As they blow toward the end of their time tending the science experiments continually operating at the National Science Foundation-managed research outpost way out in the middle of Greenland’s ice blanket, the team has started dreaming of the Twin Otter, which will arrive packed with replacement staff and “freshies” (fruits and veggies) in a matter of weeks.  Beyond that Twin Otter: the next adventure (for some) or the homeward journey (for others).

For more on Summit Station, visit

Christmas North of the Arctic Circle

December 17, 2009

Photo: Karl Newyear

Up at Summit, darkness continues to descend as the winter solstice on 21 December marking the shortest day in the northern hemisphere still approaches.  For the crew of five taking care of NSF’s research station on the Greenland ice sheet, the solstice and Christmas holiday a few days later are major bright spots on the calendar.  Here, PFS station manager Karl Newyear offers a glimpse into the strange and familiar world of Summit at Christmas time.

As we enter the middle of December, Christmas preparations are underway at home (not counting the decorations that began showing up in stores before Halloween!), but how are the holidays celebrated in Greenland?  Christianity didn’t arrive on the island until around 1721 when Hans Egede from the joint kingdom of Denmark-Norway arrived and began to convert the native Inuit.  However, here more than many places on Earth the cultural history is closely tied to the annual solar cycle and of course the winter solstice falls just a few days before Christmas.  The gateway city for Summit Station, Kangerlussuaq, is just north of the Arctic Circle and the solstice is one of only a few days in which the Sun doesn’t rise above the horizon.  At Summit Station, however, we are in the middle of 74 consecutive days without direct sunlight.  Therefore, holiday festivities take on added significance to provide some variety and color to our routine.  Christmas also marks the mid-point of our stay on top of the ice cap so we’ve got a number of reasons to mark the date.

Contemporary Greenlandic Christmas traditions are primarily derived from the Scandinavian cultures, which is to say they are very similar to those of the US.  And with Summit’s current residents all hailing from the US, our preparations are familiar with a few accommodations to local conditions.  We can’t go out and cut our own Christmas tree, or even go to the local nursery to buy one.  Instead we’ve got a small artificial tree in our lounge.  We don’t have a fireplace, so we’ve hung our stockings on a world map next to the tree.  We’re still looking for the colored lights to hang outside so that Santa knows where to find us.  Summit Station is only about 1100 miles from his workshop at the North Pole, so we’ll watch for eight tiny reindeer (plus Rudolph) on their training runs.

The nearest church is several hundred miles away, and there aren’t any neighbors that we can sing carols to, so some traditions from home will have to be skipped this year.  And of course science never takes a holiday so we’ll have a few work tasks to complete before enjoying the day.

Happy Holidays to all our friends and families back home!

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

December 7, 2009

Clear skies brought frigid weather to the Greenland ice sheet last week, as temperatures hovered around -50⁰ (and sank below that) at Summit Station. The five staff tending the research outpost during the darkest phase of winter (we introduced you to them here) kept indoors as much as possible, putting the chess board to good use and tending to some newly planted tomatoes in their free time.

We’re told the team is doing well, experienced polar explorers all. As you can see in the following picture, the sky also kept them entertained.

A near-full moon is no match for the aurora borealis, a-light here over Summit Station. Photo: Glenn Grant

A rounded moon is no match for auroras blazing over the Big House, Summit Station. Photo: Glenn Grant

The picture reminds us of a news story we saw a few weeks back.  Alaska Science Forum writer Ned Rozell’s recent story on how solar activity generates auroras includes a comment by a solar expert at University of Alaska.  “’The aurora hasn’t been too exciting lately,’” says Dirk Lummerzheim of the university’s Geophysical Institute.  But experts predict a two-year period of relatively little solar activity may be coming to an end, giving way to sunspots and flares that generate intense auroras. These could be viewable as far south as Seattle. Eyes on the skies, guys!