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Creation is where vision and reality meet

Well before we crossed the Arctic Circle and faced low temperatures and deep snow, there was a vision: a Greenland crossing, on skis; a science agenda; self-supported, with a sled; self-flown, in a tiny airplane.

I knew about sleds and skis; I knew a bit about Greenland. But all the scientists I knew were comfortably lodged in their offices and laboratories. Where to find a field scientist willing to put up with 19th century-like traveling conditions?

Over time, I learned that field scientists can have access to considerable resources, especially when it comes to Greenland. The New York National Guard will transport 35,000lb of gear and scientists in a single C130 flight to Summit Station, at the highest point on the Greenland ice sheet. NASA earth scientists can have multi-million dollar budgets or use billion-dollar satellites to do their work. My initial attempts to seek help from NASA scientists high in the hierarchy had the same response SETI has had so far. Silence.

It dawned on me that I might have a better chance with a young and hungry scientist with fire in the belly and not yet connected to big money flows. And presto, there was freshly minted Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj attending the same Wilderness First Response course I was.  She was willing. Bye bye Johnson Space Center Chief Scientist, hello recent Fulbright recipient, Himalaya glaciologist, field scientist Dr. Horodyskyj.


As we defined the science agenda, it became clear that Greenland made no sense – it is already swarming with scientists, thanks to those impressive C130s. We needed a lonely ice sheet. Baffin Island has three large ice caps left behind from the Laurentide ice sheet, which used to cover much of today’s Canada and part of the US. The Penny Ice Cap is the closest of the three, on the southern end of Baffin Island. Steven Harper’s conservative government had throttled science budgets in Baffin for years. Bye bye Greenland, hello Baffin Island.

While we were preparing for the expedition, Ulyana found a then just-published paper pointing at the possibility of a sensor drift on the MODIS spectroradiometer on board the Earth-observing satellite Terra. We now had two science objectives: snow and ice dust and carbon black sampling for melt models; and ground truthing a potentially sick satellite.

Contact with reality shapes and evolves a vision. Reality brings concrete specifics that help realize an abstract vision – with changes. When the proverbial rubber meets the road, the wheel might turn into a ski and the road into a glacier, but we are still moving forward.

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