Monday, 16 November 2015

- 1060 km north of the Arctic Circle.

Kullorsuaq is among the most isolated and poorest communities in Greenland. Over 1000 km above the polar circle, lost in the far north ice desert, it's hard to belive that this community has been continuously growing (yes !) to the present day - to almost half hundred inhabitants.

Kullorsuaq (old Kuvdlorssuaq) is located in the Qaasuitsup region, in northwestern Greenland, on an island at the southern end of Melville Bay.

Coordinates: 74°34′ N, 57°13′ W
Population: ~ 450

The church.

School youths.

Football with nearby communities is a must, weather allowing.

The settlement was founded in 1928 and became a trading station, growing in size after World War II when hunters from several small villages around moved into larger settlements.
Today, Kullorsuaq remains one of the most traditional villages in Greenland.

Fishing and hunting – including the fur seal, narwhal and walrus – still are the primary occupations in the region. The fish processing plant for Upernavik Seafood (a subsidiary of Royal Greenland) and the Pilersuisoq general store are the only organized employers in the settlement.

Pilersuisoq store. The shop is red, the church is white, the school is blue. Strong colors are easy to notice in the distance over the white snow.

Kullorsuaq helipad allows year-round connection to and from the remoteness of its high arctic location.

The name of the settlement means "Big Thumb"; the Devil's Thumb is a pinnacle-shaped rock in the center of the island, not far from the settlement.

Life in Kullorsuaq runs according to the glace cycles and the polar night. Between December and Mars, people live in total darkness, except for the moon and stars if the skies are clear; temperature can fall down to -35ºC, the sea is frozen and no ship can reach the village. The sunny months are also the best for fishing, and warmer days up to 5ºC allow for the melting of the ice and the arrival of ships with provisions and a few tourists.

Watercolour by Maria Coryell-Martin, 2013

Midnight sun in Kullorsuaq

Friday, 6 November 2015

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter - a passionate arctic novel

I should have read this book when I was a kid, at the age when I read about Byrd in Antarctica or Darwin in South America. But Christiane Ritter is adult - serious and authentic - in this report of her foolish adventurous stay in the freezing subpolar desert: it's finely written with precious and stunning descriptions, sometimes as if she is doing fascinated paintings, or poems. The book had great success when it was published and is a classic of Arctic literature.

The year is 1930, between the two wars, and then Europe was confused, depressed, unpleasant and dangerous. The crash and the long American depression put an end to the brief democratic years, and dictators went sprawling. Christiane Ritter, a 36-year-old Austrian housewife, was invited by her husband, a fur trapper in Northern Spitsbergen - the largest island of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago - to visit him for a whole year, so she can update long overdue readings and sleep to her content.

Gråhuken (Grey Hook), by the Woodfjord, is the location of the cabin where she lived.

The invitation was tempting, yet the desolation of the long Arctic night could frighten: Christiane was to live in a tiny and rough wood hut, on the shore of the Woodfjord, at about 80° northern latitude, under -40º C up to -15º C in the Summer. Only a long journey on the rugged ice may allow contact with other hunters huts - often deserted but still cozy.

Christiane will suffer moments of deep solitude, enclosed in the small cabin during long and windy storms, or wandering the Arctic night without horizons or references; on the other hand, she will live the experience of floating in an unreal world, with fantastic luminescence through blackness, starry skies never before seen, and when fairylike boreal aurora lights up, an intense feast for all senses.

- White shadows -

"The world is in deep twilight, a perpetual twilight from which it can no longer emerge. There is no wind, and a transparent mist carries the waves of the last dying light. Everything, near and far, is unreal, without spatial dimension. The frozen mountains soar up into the dark grey sky like white shadows. Weightlessly, they seem to sway.

With a soft musical note, the dark water nestles in the round white bays and in the river estuaries, and glides in the calm obscurity over to the broad sea, which in the distance seems to melt into the grey of the sky.

The scene has nothing earthly in it. Withdrawn, it seems to lead its own contained life. It is like the dream of a world that is visible before it takes shape as a reality."

- The shining rhythm of the spheres -

"It is as though we are on another planet, somewhere else in universal space, where in nameless peace bright mountains rest and the light speaks with a mute eloquence.

We go out into he bright land. In the valley the wind howls, over the plain the snow is driven like a glistening river, but calm and unmoved the mountains soar into the star-glittering heavens.

Bright veils detach themselves from the sky. As though stirred by the gentlest breath of wind they float in ever bright and broader waves across the whole heaven. We watch the shining rhythm of the spheres until the veils disappear, and come to ourselves, small beings struggling forward mute and heavy through the storm on the earth."

- Dissolving in moonlight -

"It is full moon. No central European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It as though we were dissolving in moonlight, as though the moonlight were eating us up. It makes no difference when we go back into the hut under the snow after a moonlight trip. The light seems to follow us everywhere. One's entire counsciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself.

... what I would like best of all is to stand all day on the shore, where in the water the rocking ice floes catch and break the light and throw it back to the moon."

- A red desert -

"I can scarcely believe my eyes. A radiant red dawn illuminates a land that is itself red. Red is the sea, red the rocks, red the beach, and the square driftwood hut is tinged with red.

(...) meantime Karl, who does not allow himself to be bewildered either by colours or by geological images, has been in the pink hut, making some glaring red cocoa. "I had to make the cocoa so thick," he says apologetically, "so that you would not see how red and sandy the water was that I had to make it with".

[ In the Woodjefjord there is a vulcanic area covered by red sandstone mud rich in iron ]

Perhaps the psychological dimension is missing, and entering deeper into human feelings and relations - there were three sleeping in the cabin, the couple and a younger hunter, a friend of her husband. But Christiane Ritter devoted herself totally to the emptiness of the irresistible surrounding world, and as her husband, she preferred the contemplative silence - this is the testimony that she left in her book.

A Woman in the Polar night
Christiane Ritter
Greystone Books, UApress Alaska

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Sermiligaaq, on the east coast of Greenland, the door to the Knud Rasmussen glacier

The Ammassalik Fjord area in East Greenland is not only one of the most stunning Arctic sceneries but also the location of several fascinating settlements.
I have told here in U.T. about Tasiilaq, the main town, Kulusuk, Kuummiuut. And north of Kuummiuut, on its own fiord, Sermiligaaq comes next.

The village of Sermiligaaq may be the smallest in Ammassalik  - but it is the door to spectacular inland glaciers.

Sermiligaaq, meaning "the beautiful glacier fiord", is situated on a peninsula facing the fiord of the same name, about 100 km north of Tasiilaq.

Population:  ~ 220
Coordinates: 65°54′ N, 36°22′ W
                 - just north of the arctic circle

The little group of colourful wooden houses lies on the southern slope of a large rocky promontory.

Houses are scattered uphill and linked by wooden staircases and boardwalks - no roads here, of course.

Red and blue are the dominant colours, with a few houses in yellow and green.

Sermiligaaq has a small store, a school and a community center. Because of the area's incredible beauty, several tour operators offer kayak tours of the bay.

With just over 200 inhabitants, this is still an active hunting and fishing village. As the settlement does not have a production facility, fishing and catch is sent to the factory in the nearby Kuummiut.

The Fiord and the Glaciers

At the bottom of the deep Sermiligaaq Fjord, two glaciers calve into its waters: the large Knud Rasmussen, and the smaller Karale glacier (top right).

Both can also be seen in this aerial view.

The water in the Sermiligaaq Fiord is coloured by the sediment from the activity of the glaciers, a characteristic milky-blue colour.

The Knud Rasmussen glacier

About 3 km long, with a 1000 m wide and 40 m high water front.

Arctic lovers on kayaks often visit the Knud Rasmussen.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The legendary latitude 80º N :
six locations on land.

This time Utima Thule will be travelling on a parallel to the equator, 80º to the North. From East to West, from Arctic Canada to Arctic Siberia.

Land at 80ºN. Few places on Earth reach that latitude:
Axel Heiberg Island and Ellesmere Island, in Arctic Canada; northernmost Greenland, east and west; the Norwegian Svalbard IslandsFranz Josef and Severnaya Zemlya archipelagos, on the Siberian Arctic waters.

Flower plants can grow at 80º N, during the precious but short spring-summer months, like these poppies in Svalbard.

Let's start in Axel Heiberg, one of the northernmost islands of the Arctic Archipelago of Canada. The arctic desert terrain was chosen as a good approach to Mars surface and adequate for tests and training in similar conditions. So, NASA installed a base there - the MARS station ("McGill Arctic Research Station"), near the 80º N latitude.

One of he driest regions on Earth - rain is short and occasional.

'Lost Hammer' spring is a case study - methan-eating bacteria can survive there at -60º in extreme hypersaline water and without oxygen !

McGill station, 79º 26' N.


Next, in Ellesmere Island, the largest and northernmost island of the same Canadian Archipelago.

Eureka Sound and the West coast of Ellesmere.

Tanquary Fjord is one of the largest fjords in Ellesmere.

At 80º N, the most remarkable place is probably the station Eureka, a permanent base for military and weather studies founded in 1947.

Eureka station in the distance, on the ice plain.

There have been several generations of buildings. The latest operations centre was completed in 2005.

Let's move eastwards, through Nares Strait. Next stop at Greenland, to meet the Humboldt Glacier (or Sermersuaq, in inuit), the widest tidewater glacier in the Northern Hemisphere:

Its front is 110 km wide, bordering the Kane Basin in North West Greenland.

Reflections in Kane Basin.

Station Nord81º N

Aarhus University Villum, Station Nord

Just 1 degree north of 80º, the danish Station Nord is one of the coldest research stations on earth, on the remote northeast Greenlandic coast:

- 40º C is a 'normal' temperature there.

Now we cross the North Atlantic to the European (Norwegian) Svalbard Archipelago. The 80th parallel hardly touches the northern tip of the islands.

Magdalenefjorden is a short but wide fjord around 79º 30' N, on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island. Arctic cruises frequently visit the spectacular fjord and its glaciers.

The nearest settlement is Ny Ålesund, to the south at 79º N, a station several times highlighted here at U.T.:

But also in Svalbard there is another reddish ground where NASA is testing for the Mars expedition: the Bockfjorden and the surrounding red sandstone mountains.

Bockfjorden, at 80ºN, is an intriguing place where hot meets cold. The ice sheet is gone, dry and cold environment coexist, hot springs still simmer, exhaling gases from Earth's mantle. Shaped by volcanism, ice, and liquid water, the place reminds of how Mars might have once been.

The Sverrefjell volcano created this unique Arctic evironment.

One of several hot thermal sources created by the Sverrefjel.

AMASE expedition testing a robot.

Franz Josef Land

These very very remote islands are mostly north of the 80th parallel, far from the Siberian Arctic coast. Bell island is on the spot, exactly at 80º.

Bell Island has also fascinated arctic explorers and scientists.

Nagurskoye, Alexandra Land island.

This Russian base, at 81º N, was longtime uncared-for, but is presently a beauty among its peers.


Cape Tegettoff, Hall Island, 80º N

There are few spots on the planet more suited to a science fiction movie.


Severnaya Zemlya is still more isolated, south of nowhere. Perfect for some misanthrope to build a hut far from any civilization, up in the Russian high Arctic. Surely there is a station, a meteorological station, at Golomyanniy, 79º 33' N, on Sredniy Island, where Russia is building a larger military base.

The station at Golomyanniy works since 1954.

The chief meteorologist


Surprisingly, animals - some of them quite large ! - live at this latitude:

The pretty arctic fox, Novaya Zemlya.

The edgy and skittish muskox, Ellesmere Island.

The charming but fearsome Polar Bear, Franz Josef Land.

Why not end as I began, with an 80º N arctic flower?