Don's Diary

July 28, 2000


Finish my last administrative commitments before leaving England for five weeks of airborne research. We are investigating the glaciers of the Canadian Arctic and how the ice caps are changing with global warming.

Hurry home, take the children to swimming lessons, then struggle to find all my cold-weather gear in corners of the attic. Manage to locate snow boots.


Drop into department to pick up electronic items. Most of our equipment has been freighted ahead - always a worry until it is recovered at our destination.

Relax on the plane for a few hours and enjoy the beautiful views of icebergs off east Greenland on our way to Ottawa - though most people seem to be watching the film.


Quick sightseeing trip in Ottawa before going on by air to Resolute Bay, far above the Arctic Circle. Everything is snow-covered, even the runway. It is about -30x C and windy as we step out of the plane. For the next month, we will fly alone in a chartered twin-engined aircraft, with our ice-penetrating radar system secured inside.


Setting up computers in the laboratory of the polar continental shelf programme. Plan the tracks we will fly to measure the thickness of the ice caps.


Ready to begin flying, but the weather-satellite images indicate that the ice cap on neighbouring Devon Island is covered in cloud. We wait on standby with weather checks every two hours. At 5pm the pilots call off flying.


The sun is shining and the wind has died down. The weather-satellite data suggest improvement, and we fly out of Resolute to the ice cap. Our equipment is tested for the first time this year over ice - we check that our new antenna system, tucked away under the plane's wings, is functioning. We can see the glacier bed on the computer monitor in the aircraft, the radio waves reflected from about 700m beneath the ice surface. Back in the lab after five hours of flying, we study the results. I am pleased. The data are good, and so far we are measuring up to the large research council grant that is helping us to do this survey.


Flying again, first over the ice cap and then over open sea-water within the pack ice. This is an important step, as we calibrate our radar over water. Suddenly, the pilot tells us to look left and there, in the open water between ice floes, are four Beluga whales, white and clearly recognisable in the dark water.

We break to refuel at a small Inuit village, one of the most northern settlements in the Arctic. Another five hours of data acquisition, noise and vibration in the small aircraft, and then back to base.

Email home telling the children about the whales and my wife about the glaciers.

Julian Dowdeswell is professor of physical geography, University of Bristol.

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