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In north Greenland, the science is done for the season. It had taken the team of scientists nine days to reach the site–a 370-kilometer slog, dragging thousands of kilograms of equipment, fuel, and food and using two snowcats, three snowmobiles, and a Toyota Land Cruiser outfitted with tracks. Their trip was plagued by delays: at one point, a blizzard had them hunkering down for days; at another, two of the Land Cruiser’s tracks broke. After more than four weeks in the field, the scientists waited to be evacuated. Though it was only August, dangerous weather loomed, and they were anxious to get home and analyze data they’d gathered during their weeks of work.

But first they had to get off the ice sheet. On a sunny afternoon–with temperatures reaching -4 ºC–a ski-equipped cargo plane made a soft touchdown. After disembarking, the pilot, in his olive-green jumpsuit and wraparound sunglasses, kicked worriedly at a new layer of snow.

Three hours later, the nine scientists and crew members had boarded the cargo plane. The plane labored up and down the snowy runway. But just as the pilot had feared, the snow was too soft for the plane to reach takeoff speed. Departure would need to wait 12 hours, until 4:00 a.m., the coldest time of day. At the appointed hour, they tried again. This time, ice was frozen to the bottom of the plane’s front ski. The pilot’s efforts to shake it loose, using hydraulics to move the ski up and down against the snow, broke a pin that held the hydraulics in place. Another plane needed to deliver the replacement parts.

Finally, around 11:00 p.m. that night, a second cargo plane landed. It was nearly 20 ºC below zero. A crew from the second plane sprinted across the ice, fixed the ski, and took off again with a rocket-assisted flourish. And finally, the original plane followed suit, skating quickly across the icy surface. Amid the roar of side-mounted rocket motors, the researchers and the crew made it aloft at 2:30 a.m., a day and a half after their first try. Fortunately, the ice sheet was frozen solid. For now.

David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.

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Credit: David Talbot

Tagged: Energy

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