Facing down Greenland's katabatic winds

At the end of the month, I'm going up to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, for a small conference. While there, I'll be Couchsurfing with Benjamin Linhoff, a Ph.D. student in a joint MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute program. Ben just spent the summer living and working out of a tent on the ice sheet in Greenland, where he was part of a team collecting data about what happens to that critical ice pack during the melting season.

He's got a neat blog about the experience that I've been poking though. If you're interested in what scientists are really like, or what actually happens during the long process of field work, I'd recommend checking it out. It's a great opportunity to catch a behind-the-scenes peak at science sans-montage.

In this excerpt, Ben talks about the Piteraq—high-speed, katabatic winds common to places like Antarctica and Greenland. Essentially, katabatic winds happen when dense, cold air moves down a steep slope under the force of gravity. They are, apparently, pretty damn epic.

We’re learning all about katabatic winds. There is an almost constant high pressure system over the Greenland Ice sheet and when low pressure storms move up the coast, katabatic winds blow relentlessly from the high to low pressure systems. The sound of tents flapping is the new soundtrack of camp. We have to yell in the mess tent to be heard. Whoever is unfortunate enough to sit on the windward side has to put up with the tent collapsing down on them while eating dinner. It’s like someone is kicking the back of your chair and yelling while your trying to have a conversation.

Gone are the days when I’d play guitar in the mess tent after dinner. The wind makes it almost too stressful to read a book. Anything that isn’t in a latched container or held down by a rock has the potential to take flight and whiz through camp at approximately two thousand miles per hour. I have a newfound distain for plastic bags, blue plastic tarps and anything made of Styrofoam. Gusts of wind set these things to flight, rip them apart and take forever to track down and pick up the pieces. As we practice leave no trace camping, we’ve spent a lot of time hiking after wayward trash. Of course there’s the dust too. After a heavy day of wind, everything is covered in sand and grit. It flosses our teeth, coats our hair, and our clothes are hopelessly dirty.

Photo of midnight on the Greenland ice sheet by Ben Linhoff

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