State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

On the Heels of History

Robert Peary dressed in the pelts of the northern inuit. Several of Peary & Henson’s expeditions were to Greenland, where in a 1891 expedition, eighteen years before the pinnacle attainment of the North Pole, Peary proved that Greenland was in fact an island.

April 6th 2012 – it is tempting to look back and compare any undertaking in this region of the globe to this same date in 1909 when Robert E. Peary and Matthew A. Henson became the first men to reach the North Pole. How can we compare the intrepid spirit that drove the exploration by Peary and Henson to the carefully planned science missions in the polar regions today?

Perhaps the most natural connection is through the hand of fate and the crush of nature. Carefully planned and painstakingly executed missions can be quickly altered or shut down by either of these variables. Peary and Henson focused on being the first to attain geographic locations and develop an understanding of the northern regions of the planet. They made several attempts to attain the pole and were shut out by fate and nature in each earlier attempt. IceBridge has laid the same careful plans with backup missions and alternative flight scenarios but this all comes to a crashing halt when the hand of fate intervenes and knocks out an engine — #3 is down.

Matther Henson
Matthew Henson, Robert Peary’s co-explorer to the North Pole.

A downed engine flying in icy conditions is not to be taken lightly. It requires a return to the “mothership,” or Wallops flight facility in Virginia, to swap out the engine. Sounds simple, but as fate would have it we are simultaneously faced with the “crush of nature.” Storms moving through in series. Small breaks of weather here in Greenland would be enough to gamble on with a fully operational plane, but losing an engine reduces the payload by 40,000 lbs. 40,000 lbs. is a fair amount of fuel and will require a stop in Goose Bay Labrador for refueling. This means the weather must also be clear and ice free for a landing and take off when the plane arrives there. The flight time will be extended as the plane will travel at a reduced speed and lower elevation to reduce fuel consumption and overall strain on the plane.

Over the last two days all of the required conditions occurred in one 45-minute window, and the crew was prepared to slide through that narrow gap. We await news to hear of their arrival in Wallops, the assessment of the repair, and the possible date of return. Some days we think that things have changed a lot in the last 100 years, other days we realize that some things will never change.

3 engine takeoff
NASA IceBridge’s P3 takes off with number three engine immobile.
Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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