Glaciers on the Greenland ice sheet, observed by the IceBridge crew. Photograph: Jeremy Harbeck/Icebridge/NASA
Speaking with one of the scientific researchers mid-flight, I got a very revealing reply. When I asked this researcher about the anthropogenesis of climate change, the tone changed. What had been a comfortable chat became stilted and deliberate. There was a little eye-roll toward my audio recorder. Suddenly my interlocutor, a specialist in ice, got pedantic, telling me that there were others more qualified to speak about rising sea levels. I offered to turn off my recorder. As soon as it was off, the researcher spoke freely and with the confidence of a leading expert in the field. The off-the-record view expressed wasnt simply one of sober agreement with the scientific consensus, but of passionate outrage. Of course climate change is related to human activity! Weve all seen the graphs!
The tonal difference between this off-the-record answer and the taped answer that I should consult someone else told me all I needed to know. Or so I thought the researcher then asked me to turn my recorder back on: there was one addendum, for the record.
Richard Nixon, the researcher said, looking down at the red recording light. Nixon established some good climate policy. Theres a tradition in both parties of doing this work. And, I mean, if Nixon
The researcher laughed a bit, realising how this was sounding. Well, thats what Im hanging my hopes on, anyway.
Over the planes open intercom, there was suddenly, and uncharacteristically, talk of the days headlines. While we were in flight, people around the world were marking Earth Day by demonstrating in support of climate rationality and against the current US regime. On Twitter, #MarchForScience was trending at the exact moment Nasas P-3 was out flying for science. There was even a local protest: American and European scientists took to the street of Kangerlussuaq for a small but high-profile demonstration. While it was happening, one of the engineers piped up on the P-3s intercom.
Anyone else sorry to be missing the march?
But the earnest question was only met with silence and a few jokes. Among the Nasa crew, there had been some talk about trying to do a flyover of the Kangerlussuaq march, to take an aerial photo of it, but the plan was nixed for logistical reasons. The timing was off. The senior crew seemed relieved that it was out of the question.
Later that week, after my second and final flight making a total of 16 hours in the air with Nasa the crew retreated to the barracks for a quick science meeting, beers in hand, followed by a family-style dinner. We dont seem to get enough of each other here, one of the engineers told me, as he poured a glass of wine over ice that the crew had harvested from the front of a glacier the day before. One of the engineers asked a glaciologist about the age of this block of ice, and frowned at the disappointing reply: it probably wasnt more than a few hundred years old.
Well, thats still older than America, right? he said.
Outside, the sky wasnt dark, though it was past 10pm. In a couple of months, there would be sunlight all night. After dinner, one of the crews laser technicians lounged on a couch, playing an acoustic version of the song Angie over and over again, creating a pleasantly mesmerising effect. Two crew members talked of killer methane gas. But most sat around, drinking and telling stories. One of the pilots tried to convince someone he had seen a polar bear from the cockpit that day. These deployments are tiring, someone told me. Bullshitting is critical.
One of the crew spent his off-days on excursions with a camera-equipped drone, and had made spectacular videos of his explorations, which he edited and set to moody Bush tunes. I joined the crew as they gathered around his laptop to watch his latest. There was something moving in seeing these people who had spent all day, and indeed many months and years, flying over ice and obsessing over ice-related data now spending their free time relaxing by watching videos of yet more ice.
As usual, politics soon crept into the picture. The next video that popped up was footage recently shot at the Thule base. The video showed some of this same Nasa crew hiking through an abandoned concrete bunker, a former storage site for US Nike anti-aircraft missiles. Today its just an eerie, rusted, shadow-filled underground space, its floor covered in thick ice. When these images came on the screen, the crew fell quiet, watching themselves, only a week ago, putting on ice skates and doing figure-eights over the ruins of their countrys cold war weapons systems.
An engineer chipped a shard off the frozen block harvested the day before. Perhaps sensing my mood, he dropped it into a glass and poured me some whiskey over ice older than America and said: Well anyway, maybe thisll cheer you up.
Early the next morning, before the crew boarded the P-3 for another eight-hour flight over polar ice, a rare political debate broke out. Four of the crew were discussing the imminent Congressional visit, which prompted one of the veteran pilots to recite, once again, the mission mantra: Stick to science: no politics. But because that approach felt increasingly less plausible in 2017, one of the ice specialists, feeling frustrated, launched into a small speech about how Americans dont take data seriously, and how its going to kill us all. Nobody disagreed. Someone jokingly said: Maybe its best if you dont fly today. To which another added, Yeah, you should stay on the ground and just do push-ups all day.
Finally, John Sonntag who had been too busy reviewing flight plans to hear the chatter stood up and tapped his watch. OK guys, he said. Lets go. Its time to fly.
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