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Pathology in the field and intelligent “toy boats”

The ecological monitoring programme here is absolutely huge. They monitor more than 1500 physical and biological parameters, collecting a huge amount of data, which is all made available to anyone working on any of the aspects involved. The idea is to get as wide and complete a picture as possible of a high Arctic ecosystem against the background of a changing climate.

There is not much they don’t monitor here. Rocks on hilltops are marked with paint and the state of the paint checked to see the effect of wind abrasion. There are cameras and sensors installed in almost inaccessible places. And the team needs to know everything about all the creatures on their “census list”. So when Lars and I came across the remains of a deceased musk-ox on our walk (did I already say our scientific chief could win any Scottish hill-running race?) to count the living population, he had to get the surgical implements out of his pack and record the details.

In the cold Arctic climate, dead creatures are well preserved for a long time – apart from the meat, which provides a feast for foxes, birds and the odd Arctic wolf. Whenever a musk ox carcass is found, it is marked and registered. Our fellow (yes, Lars can tell, see above) had not been discovered previously. The site was slightly smelly, but not too bad.

This was my chance to get a very close look at the anatomy of a musk ox. They have beautiful fur (they leave fluffy samples all over Zackenberg valley) and surprisingly fine white teeth that would delight any dentist. The skeleton (well cleaned by the foxes) shows their extremely strong neck – they fight each other with their heads. Lars extracted a piece of skin with hair from the head, which still had tissue on it. He thinks it’s a bit tough for scavengers. Then he got out his knife and sawed through a bone to check the state of the bone marrow.

The samples are examined by specialists back in Denmark. Lars wasn’t able to say anything about the cause or exact time of death. (Maybe I’ve been reading too many murder mysteries). The Arctic wolf is the only predator that would be strong enough to take a musk ox. But there is no evidence that wolfie was the culprit here. Maybe our fluffy skeleton just died of completely “natural” causes.

Back at the station, Julie and Tower (our 2nd logistician, named for his height – 2 metres) were down at the river Zackenbergelven, apparently playing with a remote-controlled boat, Actually, they are measuring the flow, sediment and nutrient content. They do this by means of a small, yellow boat attached to an overhead wire. They move it a little at a time and Julie gets the measurements taken by its sensors on her hand-held device.

The river is flowing very fast now, with glacier and snow melt. This means we can’t cross it, which has to be done in a rubber dingy attached to a stronger set of overhead cables. You have to pull yourself across in the boat. I’m told it requires considerable skill and strength not to fall in, which is a dangerous business with the cold and the current. “We would have to come and rescue you Irene”, says Philip, “and we are very busy at the moment”. Do I sense a lack of confidence in my muscle-power?


July 20, 2009 | 10:51 am



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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.


July 18, 2009 | 6:44 am




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.


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.


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.


July 17, 2009 | 8:01 am



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