Day 19–Up In The Air

June 1, 2010 8:00pm

Through the day, planes left their mark in the sky

N67°06.340 W45°24.721 Elevation 7171 feet

Some things changed today. For one, we crossed the Arctic line as we push further North on our journey. We are now officially in the Arctic. But a striking difference came in the way of the sky; more specifically, the air traffic, up above. We are evidently coming upon a latitude commonly used by transatlantic carriers. And today’s beautiful deep blue sky was scarred for much of the day by the multiple crisscrossing of contrails left by jets coming to and from Europe to North America. This, as is traveling through Greenland, was new to me. I expected, of course, to see traffic above. After all, it was partly from the many transatlantic flights that I have taken over the years that I first mused over crossing this white continent, staring out of the porthole from 30,000 feet, and seduced by this giant white mass. But from my many trips to the Arctic and Antarctica, I have been conditioned to associate the ice with clean skies.

Both polar regions are off the map in terms of regular commercial flight plan. In fact you generally don’t see bugs or birds, and the sky tends to be populated only by the sun and the moon, the clouds and the stars.
But the air space above Greenland is busy! I assume the routes above us, in the southern part of the continent, serve mainly the east coast of the US and Canada; longer flights pick a more northern bearing. My guess is: we will see more!

Traveling below, the visual spectrum is cleanly divided between the white of the ice, and the blue of the sky. From this uncluttered view, you can clearly make out the time patterns of these flights: those leaving in clusters from the various airlines: at 7AM, or 10:15 and then at 1PM. With all flights getting their takeoff intervals on the runway, you can see sets of planes crossing the sky, as if in a race. Some have two jet engines, leaving two sets of trails; others have four. And then come those planes that don’t seem to fit within any other cluster; individualists or, more realistically, the delayed flights!

There is plenty to contemplate when the winds are low, and travel is slow.

Since we missed a travel day yesterday, I woke up periodically through the night to check for conditions. First at midnight; then at three AM; and again at five. By then there was just enough to get going, and I woke Eric up. It was C-O-L-D getting out of the sleeping bag! Still, we packed the camp and were on our way. By midmorning, while the weather was superb, the winds were marginal, and the softening ice made for sluggish conditions. We opted to lengthen the lines of the kites, in order to generate more pull. Eric went to 50 meters on the 14, and I went to 75 meters on the 12. With such length, traveling downwind, everything moves slowly. And it is easy to fall in a contemplative trance to the up and down rhythm of the sails, looping back and forth in an attempt to generate power.

Though I’ll admit that the planes made for an aesthetically pleasing distraction with all those white trails graphically slashing the blue sky, my first thought was: what a massive, wasteful quantity of pollution! All these planes burn close to a gallon of petrol per second, as they leave proof in their wake in the form of those frozen vapors. Clearly we cannot do without air travel, but we must make a priority to develop clean burning properties for these crafts. It was symbolic to be watching these planes while on the very ice sheet that is endangered, partly because of them. In some ways, it felt like witnessing a form of rape, or plunder.

Then I thought of all these passengers up there, as I have been so many times; standing in line; taking their shoes off through security; packed like sardines in overbooked planes. And then I got to appreciate again where I am: immersed in this vast and powerful frozen world, inhaling fresh air, in complete communion with the elements. What a privilege!

By 3PM, the wind died entirely. We set up camp and waited, but it was not to be. Still we exceeded our quota for the day: we covered 79.4 km. We need to make 70 km per day in order to complete the expedition by our plane pick-up… in 23 days.

One Response to “Day 19–Up In The Air”

  1. Sheila Anderson says:

    Sebastian, I am a first cousin of Priscilla Copeland and have been followng your missions for several years. You are a brave man who has a very important message about what we are doing to our world. Thank you for your hard work and dedication. I wish you continued success in getting the word out. Be safe!

Leave a Reply