Arctic OutpostBy Luise Woelflein; photos by Esther Horvath
Every spring, a dozen or so scientists arrive at Station Nord near the North Pole to study changes in the Earth’s climate. The small military and science research base can feel very isolated. But two dogs make great company for the visiting scientists—and for six soldiers who live there all year long.
Tucked near the tip of northeastern Greenland, Station Nord is 1,000 miles above the Arctic Circle and only about 575 miles from the North Pole. It can feel like a million miles from anywhere! (See map below.) Food, fuel, and other supplies arrive on big military planes. To get to the station, most of the scientists fly to the nearest town, which is on an island about 450 miles away. Then they hire a small plane to fly themselves and their gear to the remote spot in Greenland.
Place of Extremes
Summer is the mildest time to be at Station Nord, so it’s the season when most scientists visit. The snow melts, and the sun is up all the time! But even in summer’s endless light, the temperature usually ranges from 30° to 40° F, and it can get very windy.
During the winter, conditions are much harsher. The average high temperature in the winter months is below zero! Storms with winds over 45 miles per hour are common and can create wind chill temperatures of -50° F or colder. And then there’s the light issue. The sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for almost four months. That means it’s only twilight at the brightest time of “day” during much of that time. And for two of those months, it’s totally dark all the time.
What the Soldiers Do
Greenland is part of Denmark, and the government of Denmark operates Station Nord. Six Danish soldiers make the station their year-round home. Each spends a little over two years living there. The soldiers maintain a weather station, take care of the buildings, refuel the planes, and help out other soldiers who patrol northeastern Greenland by dogsled. They also move a lot of snow. Station Nord’s near-constant winds pile up snow everywhere. The soldiers keep the runway clear and make sure the buildings don’t get buried. In summer, they help all the scientists who come there to work. Thanks to these soldiers, scientists from all over the world can fly in and have a well-supported base for their Arctic research.
What the Scientists Do
Because of climate change, the Arctic is warming rapidly. The area of the ocean that stays covered by ice in the summer is shrinking. And the remaining layer of sea ice is getting thinner. The scientists who use Station Nord are trying to better understand these changes by studying everything from pollution in the atmosphere above Greenland to how much light the snow reflects. Their research may also help predict changes that will happen to the rest of the Earth as a result of climate change.
Station Nord’s location and runway make it a particularly good place to study the thickness of summer sea ice. That’s because the best way to measure the ice in the summer is by using a special torpedo-shaped sensor that’s pulled by an airplane. The plane has to fly really low so that the sensor, which hangs below the plane on a cable, flies just 70 feet above the ice. Because of the runway, scientists can bring the plane to Station Nord and then fly it over the ocean day after day when the weather is good.
Time for a Pet. Dogs Trille (left) and Gris Gris (right) love to be petted. The dogs roam freely except when planes land and take off. Then they’re chained up (circle) so they don’t wander onto the runway.
When Pigs Fly! A balloon, nicknamed Miss Piggy, helps scientists measure conditions above the Earth, including air pollution levels and the sun’s radiation.
Snow Picnic. Scientists break for lunch on the sea ice next to an iceberg. They have to eat fast so their food doesn’t get cold!
Flight Prep. The Alfred Wegener Institute’s Polar 5 research plane sits ready for its next flight over the sea ice while a scientist double-checks the paperwork indoors.
More About the Dogs
Only two dogs at a time live at Station Nord. They are always Greenland dogs, a type of husky that’s bred to pull sleds. The dogs are strong and can stand the cold really well. They spend their lives outside, even sleeping and eating there. They have doghouses to go in, but most of the time they wander around Station Nord and the surrounding area.
One of the dogs’ most important jobs is watching for polar bears. Polar bears roam the shores in northern Greenland and could harm or even kill people. By keeping an eye out for polar bears and making a deep “woof” sound if they’re near, the dogs help everyone stay safe.
For most of the year, the six soldiers at Station Nord have only each other for company. They have no television, no cell phones, and no Internet. Their only contact with friends and family is through a satellite phone they all share. Life in winter might get pretty lonely for them if it weren’t for the two dogs that also live there.
Whenever soldiers head outside, one or both dogs are often there to greet them. The dogs wag their tails, cozy up for a pet, and follow the soldiers around. The dogs love the attention, and their company helps the soldiers, too. Because the dogs are always so happy, they can’t help but make the soldiers happy. And that’s a really good thing in this far-flung outpost!
Polar Guard on Duty. Scientists doing a 24-hour study out on the ice pitched a big tent to rest in. They took Trille to the site, too. Her job? Watch for polar bears!
Drool On! Homemade donuts are a special treat at Station Nord. But the “no junk food for dogs” policy means a hungry dog watching from outside the window can only dream of getting one!
Doggy Pedicure. Even at an outpost, dogs have to keep their nails clipped. The dogs don’t really like it, but getting cuddled by a soldier makes the process a lot better.