Back to Greenland

Matt Rutherford returns to Greenland for the next step in his Arctic sailing adventure and research.

It's good to be back in Greenland. Last year we left Ault our 42 foot research schooner in Sisimiut which is just north of the Arctic Circle. Believe it or not with a population of 6,000 people Sisimiut is the second largest "city" in Greenland. Last year when we left Annapolis we weren't planning on keeping our boat in the Arctic, but it takes a while to get to northern Greenland and then you have to do the research. By the time we wrapped up our research projects it was too late in the season to sail back south to Annapolis, so we had to find a place to haul out. When we first came to the boatyard in Sisimiut they told us they didn't have any room to store our boat for the winter on land, they said "come back tomorrow". When we came back they took a backhoe and used it to destroy an old 50 foot fishing boat, that's how they made room for our vessel.

I don't like being away from my boat for eight days let alone eight months. Not to mention there was no communication from the boat yard. Well there was a little, they sent me an email telling me how much money I owed them but once I paid them they went silent. I must have sent ten emails asking about my boat with no reply. When I saw Ault for the first time in eight months I would have hugged the entire vessel if my arms were long enough. Once the initial joy had passed it was time to assess the damage.

Water had gotten into my rudder somehow and during the extreme cold of the winter had expanded and popped part of my rudder off. The bracket that holds the alternator onto my engine block cracked in half (don’t know how that happened). My ship’s batteries were all shot (they weren’t in the best shape to begin with). All in all, damage was minimal.

On one hand this last winter was very nice. Nicole and I live on Ault, when we left our boat in Greenland we were basically homeless. Friends of ours, Pat and Amy Teeling, sailed to the Bahamas and let us stay in their house in Annapolis for free (as long as we covered the utilities). They really helped us out. On the other hand Ocean Research Project has been struggling.

Every single grant proposal we wrote we failed to get. Failing to get a grant is nothing new, it happens all the time, but normally we get at least one grant. This year we got nothing. I’ve never let a lack of funding stop me in the past, so why let it stop me now?

Part of the reason we have struggled with funding is because our primary research is geophysical data collection. Small non-profits don’t normally do geophysics; it’s usually done on large research vessels by PHDs. Their funding usually comes from the National Science Foundation or NOAA. NSF and NOAA doesn’t fund small non-profits, they fund universities and large institutes. Usually small non-profits do research related to a particular species, counting seal colonies, collecting polar bear droppings to be analyzed, etc. It’s not normal for a small non-profit to be doing this type of research. We can’t understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic without geophysical data. Sea level rise will affect a huge variety of marine species, but hydrography is still a hard sell.

On the up side, we now have a $25,000 sonar system that will allow us to map the sea floor down to 6,000 feet. We can lower our (RBR) CTD (salinity, temperature and depth probe) twice as deep, down to 3,000 feet and we have added another scientific project with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Even though we have struggled with funding we have seriously upgraded our ability to do professional climate change research. To hell with the funding, the research is what really matters.

We are doing four scientific projects in the Arctic this year:

1.) Our primary scientific objective is with NASA scientists who are part of the Ocean Melting Greenland program (NASA’S OMG). There is a warmer saltier water column, deep in the water, some 200-300 meters down, which is coming up from the Atlantic and eating Greenland’s Glaciers from underneath (last year we found this warmer water in a variety of locations). If you were to melt all of the glaciers on earth outside of Greenland and Antarctica you would add a half meter of sea level raise. If you melt Greenland you add 7 meters (21 feet) of sea level rise. Since the Arctic is melting faster than the Antarctic the Greenland Ice Cap will be the first thing that will seriously increase our sea levels. Sea level rise isn’t just about our tides rising higher, it will increase sea surge. It’s the increase of sea surge that will beat and batter our coastal cities. This project will happen way, way north near Qaanaaq (Inglefield Fjord), one of the last parts of West Greenland that hasn’t been detailed yet. It’s possible that this is where the majority of the warmer saltier water column terminates. We will find out soon.

2.) Our second project is with the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center. When researching ocean acidification most people look at the level of pH. As we burn fossil fuels it releases CO2 into our atmosphere. Around 30% of that CO2 gets absorbed by our oceans. The CO2, once in the water, becomes pCO2 (some call it xCO2). The CO2 in the water is lowering the pH making the water more acidic. Most scientists have looked at the pH instead of the amount of CO2 in the water because CO2 sensors are ungodly expensive. Our partner Dr. Miller at the Smithsonian has invented a CO2 sensor that is a fraction of the traditional cost. Not just are we collecting Arctic ocean acidification data and helping to trouble shoot this new device but next year we will be installing these CO2 sensors on citizen scientist’s sailboats.

3.) During our third project we will be deploying sensors built by RBR that can detect minute differences of pressure in the water. Every time a glacier calves an iceberg it makes a wave. These sensors can detect the waves and count them. This mean that RBR’s sensors will be able to count the amount of times a glacier calves over the period of time that the sensors are deployed. Typically if you wanted to understand how many times a glacier is calving you would have to stand there 24/7 and count it out as it happens. To be able to get an accurate idea of the rate of glacial calving is crucial to understanding the speed of its melt and ultimately the health of the glacier.

4.) There are five major gyres in our earth’s oceans. These gyres are where the “garbage patches” are, the accumulation zones where plastic trash gathers. Last year we did the first ever micro plastics trawls in Baffin Bay (or anywhere else in the Arctic). There is a small gyre (I believe) in the northern central region of Baffin Bay. We will trawl this accumulation zone to better understand the amount of micro plastics making its way up from the Atlantic into the Arctic Ocean. It should be interesting it see what we find. Even though we have struggled with funding we still have put together one hell of a scientific research expedition. The obstacles we face only make us stronger. There is no limit to our determination. With the help of Nicole (the beautiful) and our crew (Dana and Alex) we will be successful. There is no stopping us. It’s by endurance we concur.

Fortitudine Vincinimus

(This is the first blog of our 2016 Greenland Climate project. You can follow the expedition at You can also make a donation on the website, even a small donation can make a big difference!)