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Arctic Pups at Play


This morning I went out with our deputy scientific leader Lars again, who was out to count musk oxen – and to check up on these characters. As we approached the Arctic fox breeding den – a maze of underground tunnels, with numerous exits – these two youngsters were already keeping a curious lookout. This is their summer fur, they will be white in winter.

The team counted four pups earlier in the season, but there only seem to be two around at the moment. The others may have died, if there hasn\’t been enough food around to feed everybody. Or they could be keeping a low profile. Once upon a time – in fact even through the first half of the 20th century – trappers used to come here in winter to get them for their spectacular fur. Fortunately, the only humans who pass here nowadays are scientists at the station – and the odd journalist, “mostly harmless”. They weren’t bothered by our presence and soon came closer for a look.


There was no sign of the parents. Apparently they’re rarely seen around the den. If they were and started to bark at us, we would back off, I’m told.

Lars checks up on activity at the dens in the monitoring area. This involves sniffing the hole (!) checking for fur and scanning for droppings in the surrounding areas. All the info gets entered in detail into a hand-held mini-computer with gps and shifting maps.

There were a lot of yellow flowers around. These, I’m told, need plenty of nutrients. My expert tells me an abundance of yellow flowers is one sign of a fox den near, because our little furry friends fertilize the surrounding area! I’m lucky I got such a good look, some of the people who’ve been here a few weeks haven’t had a glimpse of the Arctic foxes.

We were also counting musk oxen. After seeing 6 fairly close to the station yesterday, today’s were few and far between, and high up on the mountainsides. Their exact location is registered. Lars also notes age and sex. This sounds like a difficult task, but the size is one indicator, and the horns another. Males have horns with a broader base (they charge each other and fight at times), the two halves grown closer together in older beasts. The females have softer curly hair between the horns (true, honest!).

Some we saw seemed to be enjoying the coolness on the remaining patches of snow. A lot of them are melting fast in this strong round-the-clock sunlight. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky today. Lars pointed out some melting snow areas which used to stay white all summer long a couple of years ago.

The most striking feathered visitor at the moment is the long-tailed skua, although, as attentive readers will remember, there are few nesting pairs partly because of a lack of tasty lemmings. We here their distinctive call in the air frequently, and sometimes come across them resting on a rock.

Date

July 18, 2009 | 6:44 am

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The Arctic “Beastie” – The Musk Ox

We had a special highlight in the camp today. Six musk oxen came in to graze just on the other side of the river. They are amazing creatures, huge bundles of fur on thin-looking white legs, curved horns. They only occur naturally in Eastern Greenland and a part of Canada, but some populations have been reintroduced in other Arctic areas.

The weather is holding. There was more cloud about today, but still relatively warm. I was glad of the wind that came up in the afternoon, which keeps the mosquitos at bay a little. They can be pretty unbearable out on the wet tundra, where I spent most of today.

First I joined Lars, who was doing some of the regular plant monitoring for the Zackenberg BioBasis programme. The aim of these programmes is to monitor the ecosystem over 50 years to provide a long-term series of background ecosystem data from a high Arctic area. The plant section involves noting the species on designated plots and keeping track of their development, i.e. when do they bloom, seed etc., which is likely to change with predicted Arctic warming. There are also some plots with miniature “greenhouses” around them, to simulate the effect of a warmer climate.

Later I joined Jannek, who had drawn the short straw, it seems, and had to cover today\’s section of the “lemming transect”. This means walking up and down a wide area searching for the remains of the winter nests of lemmings, to assess the state of the population. Lemmings are a type of Arctic rodent, “they look like chubby hamsters”, says Jannek. So far, no nests have been found this season, but there is still a lot of ground to cover. One factor influencing this could be the lack of snow this past winter. More about other possible reasons and implications another time.

One of the main reasons for the interest of the ornithologists here, though, seems to be that lemmings are the favourite food of long-tailed Skuas, a type of Arctic bird, which have not been nesting here in numbers this year, presumably because of a lack of nourishment.

This afternoon we got radio messages to stay clear of the runway, which is also the main path out of the station, as the little plane is flying in supplies of diesel from Daneborg, the Sirius Patrol station 25km away, where the ships bring in the supplies. We have power from a generator until 11 at night. Tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, we\’ll be trying to find out how the musk ox population is faring and checking up on some Arctic foxes and their pups.

Date

July 17, 2009 | 12:10 pm

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Zackenberg Preliminaries


Zackenberg Station feels more like a camp, ten blue huts and some tent-like shelters in a wide valley, with snow-topped mountains behind and the water of the Young Sound fjord below. It is equipped with everything the scientists need for their “High Arctic research”, including wet and dry labs and all sorts of electronic monitoring equipment, but it remains a camp in a very remote area. It was set up 1995-96 and officially opened in ’97. It’s still small and exclusive, for a maximum of 25 people. There are only 13 of us right now, including the two “logisticians” Phillip and “Tower” and the cook, Lone.

The dirt runway can only take the Twin Otter or helicopters. At the moment, starting mid-July, there’s a plane once a week, as this is the high season. Up to last year, there was only one a fortnight. The station is only staffed in summer, June to September, as a rule.


We newcomers had our essential safety briefing with Phillip, our logistician, first thing this morning: radio use, flare pistols and how to use a rifle (!) Phillip is clearly a man who knows how to look after himself, looks tough and wiry, always has a knife in his belt and is clearly a good shot. In his black gear, including “Zero” (Zackenberg Station Logo) T-shirt and tammy, he could belong to some crack army unit (or a James Bond film) and he gives you the impression he is not a man to be trifled with. Still, he’s very patient with a visiting journo who has never fired a weapon in her life.

No, I’m not thinking of applying for the army or even our local “Schuetzenverein” (German traditional local hunting and shooting clubs) after this, but we are advised it’s a good idea to know how to fire a flare pistol and a rifle, in case of emergency (polar bears or musk oxen, plenty of the latter around here, although so far I’ve only seen the droppings and the fluff from their coats, but then I’ve only been here a day).

I was quite surprised by this, only ever having been in places where weapons are only handed out to people with licenses and training. Things are different in Greenland. Even Lone, our new cook, had to have a go with the gun (fresh meat for the kitchen?!).


I’m sure the guys all ducked for cover when I made my attempts, and I don’t think the polar bears or musk oxen have much to worry about on my account. The weather is still incredibly good, bright sunshine around the clock and clear blue skies, fresh cool Arctic air. I headed out towards the “climate station” this afternoon (took the radio, declined the rifle), where Julie Falk from Copenhagen was trying to fix the Co2 monitor. I’m really impressed at her technical know-how.


She tells me she has no choice, in this remote location, but is frustrated about the problems of getting spare parts. We also had a look at the methane measuring station. Zackenberg came up with some headline-making results about methane emissions in the Arctic. Terrestrial wetland emissions are the largest single source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The Zackenberg data provides hourly methane flux measurements from this high Arctic setting, into the late autumn and early winter, which means during the onset of soil freezing.

The scientists found out that the emissions fall to a low steady level after the growing season, but then increase significantly during the “freeze-in” period. Basically, the findings from here suggest that this could help explain the seasonal distribution of methane emissions from high latitudes, which had been puzzling scientists before. The methane is measured in glass traps which normally open and close automatically regularly and are linked to methane monitors.


Unfortunately, there’s a technical problem at the moment, but Julie was able to offload the data already logged there onto her laptop for the Zackenberg BASIC data base. More about that tomorrow, when I’ll be talking to our scientific leader Lars. If D. is reading this, remember you asked if this expedition would be very “physical”? Well so far everything here is being done on foot, with the ornithologists walking 25 km sometimes. So I think the answer is yes, and my trusty hiking boots are getting a good work-out.

Date

July 17, 2009 | 9:01 am

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Summer Ice

I have the opportunity to send some of these promised pics, so here they come.

Date

July 17, 2009 | 8:01 am

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Arctic Summer

The plane from Akureyri to Constable Point was a Dash, a bit bigger than the Twin Otter that was to bring us on to Zackenberg, there were about 14 people on it. In addition to the eight of us going on to Zackenberg, there were two parties of geologists. The American beside me described himself as a “mountain-builder”, then went on to explain he was studying the composition and age of mountains. He drew my attention to an interesting theory his colleague is working on, that the increase in speed at which some glaciers are moving is responsible for the “ice quakes” we’ve been hearing about recently. Will have to follow that one up later.

The other lads from Cambridge, UK, were going to be helicopter-dropped somewhere in the middle of nowhere to set up camp for three weeks looking at sediment – research they sell to the oil industry. Again, we come to the Arctic warming up and the international interest in getting at possibly hidden natural resources.

The weather was cloudy when we left, but cleared by the time we got near Constable Point, so we got some reasonable views. But the best was yet to come. We shifted to the Twin Otter – two logisticians, those are the people who do all the technical running of the station, a new cook to join the existing one, the two Finnish insect specialists I met last night, an ornithologist, and an expert on lemmings, and me of course. The weekly charter to Zackenberg also brings the food supplies in, so the long-term residents look forward to fresh supplies.

The plane flies low, and our flight path went along the eastern coastline. Some perfect Arctic summer weather with sunshine and blue skies gave us beautiful views of sea ice, solid in places, at various stages of breaking up elsewhere, spreading in patterns with blue ocean in between and little ice-bergs, dazzling white above and greenish-turquoise on the edges just under water. The mountains on land are at different stages of emerging from their winter white. There\’s a mixture of rugged browns, sometimes an initial tinge of green, and glacier white. I have beautiful photos, I promise, but we have to be sparing with them until I’ve left Zackenberg and reached a place with an internet connection.

Zackenberg station took me by surprise, suddenly we were there and rapidly approaching a collection of wooden huts and containers and some tent-like structures. The snow in the valley has melted completely, just some white on the hill-tops, so it reminded me of Switzerland rather than the white snowy Arctic of previous trips. Well, it is summer. And now I know what’s attracting those entomologists. Two surprisingly warm weeks have brought the mozzies out in force.

Date

July 15, 2009 | 2:53 pm

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