We were up there with a few different goals. One was to study the numerous tiny ice caps on the interior plateaux of the island and determine how long ago they formed. They're disappearing rapidly, with some that were studied in the 1970s already completely gone. Another goal was to study the regional patterns of bedrock erosion by past ice sheets. At another location, we planned to collect mats of vegetation preserved in frozen sands. This vegetation is from the last interglacial (roughly 100,000 years ago) and will give us some perspective on how the plant community differed from what that of 50 years ago and that of today. Then farther south, I'm working on understanding changes in ice sheet behavior and erosion over the past 2.5 million years by studying glacial sediments preserved in coastal cliffs. It was an ambitions field season.
First was a few weeks working between Pond Inlet and the Barnes Ice Cap:
Our transportation for the first few weeks: ice cap to ice cap, fiord to fiord, hilltop to hilltop. Too bad helicopters are useless when it's foggy.
Giff, my advisor, collecting dead moss from an area exposed by the melting of a small ice cap sometime in the past couple years. Radiocarbon dating of this moss will tell us when this particular ice cap formed, likely 500-800 years ago.
Looking south along the margin of the Barnes Ice Cap. This dirty ice is the last remnant of the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet that once stretched from the Arctic Ocean to Iowa.
Subglacially-precipitated carbonate deposits just melting out from beneath the Barnes Ice Cap. These have not previously been documented anywhere in the Canadian Arctic. They will provide a very unique means of exploring past subglacial processes beneath the Laurentide Ice Sheet.
A very unexpected find. They were left by an expedition in the early 1990s led by Mike Moe that completed a ski and bike traverse of central Baffin Island. Tragically, all four members of the party was killed when a surfacing Bowhead whale overturned the boat that picked them up at the end of their journey.
Then fog stranded us at one of our camps for 4 days longer than planned. Without any more work to do, we found other uses for the rocks. I think we had 60 sculptures by the time the helicopter finally was able to get in.
At our next camp, we were again stranded for 4 days longer than planned by foul weather. The cook tent saw a lot of sitting and reading.
Finally the helicopter picked us up, only to have mechanical issues on the way out. Chance to the pilot: "Are you trained to do these sorts of repairs?" Pilot: "Yeah, we get training on this sort of thing every year. Can you hold your thumb over this hole as soon as I pull out this bolt? I only have one extra quart of oil, so try not to let too much leak out, eh?"
Then I flew south to Iqaluit, met my friend Keith from the University of Minnesota, Morris, and flew back north to Qikiqtarjuaq to spend a few weeks working along the sea cliffs 60 km north on the Qivitu Peninsula.
Digging on the cliffs. These sediments were deposited 2 million years ago as ice advanced to the coast. From these deposits, we are learning about how the behavior of these early ice sheets compared to more recently-formed ice sheets. Glacial deposits spanning this time interval are only known to exist at two localities in the entire eastern Canadian Arctic.
Soon after we arrived we started seeing polar bears. Not just one or two, but 4-5 per day. A few rudely awakened us one night by setting off the trip wire alarm we had around our camp. Soon after we retreated to the cabins hidden in the fog at the end of this point. There are two bears sneaking about in that fog; they are the white spot just left of the center of the photo). That night, another bear decided there was something tasty in our cabin and went one of the walls, tearing off the plywood and leaving a gaping hole. Fortunately, he only got into the entryway and not the main room.
After that night, we retreated back to town. There were too many bears for us to safely work just as a pair, so we took a few shorter trips back up with a couple Inuit guides.
A nice section of the cliffs. The sands in the middle of the exposure were deposited in a shallow marine environment ~500 thousand years ago. The bouldery layer at the top was deposited as ice advanced into this shallow marine environment.
This is Allen's cabin. A bear had broken into the entryway, smashing the door in half and tearing up everything inside. It's not a good sign when your very experienced guide is visibly shaken by the bears.
Keith and I ended up heading home a few days early because of logistical challenges and big waves that prevented us from getting to the cliffs. The day after we left, the town decided to start having two polar bear monitors on patrol 24 hours a day. As far as I know, they've never had to do this before. Things are definitely changing on Baffin. Ice caps are losing 1-2 m of ice per year, a pretty astounding rate of melt. There were all-time record high temperatures in Pond Inlet while we were there, and kids were swimming in the fiord. Convective thunderstorms are becoming more and more frequent. 40 years ago, the Inuit in this region thought that there was one thunder that slowly circled the world because thunderstorms were so rare. We had thunderstorms on at least six days. And the sea ice is melting out astoundingly early. 30 years ago, getting around by boat was often very challenging due to sea and pack ice until mid-July at the earliest. This year, the ice was completely gone by early June, and because of this, bears were coming back on land much earlier than normal.
Working in the Arctic is always an eye-opening experience, whether it's the geology, culture, or environmental changes. And as always, I think we came back with more questions than answers, so we'll continue working on trying to understand more about the glacial and climatic history of the region, which will help put contemporary changes into a broader context.