Part one: Anchorage

Gulfstream-V in Anchorage, June 2011

This adventure is phase 4 of the research project that was designed to study the distributions of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere in 2009-2011. The scientific part of it will be covered elsewhere; here we will only take note of the travel part of it, for the project covered more ground (or, rather, water) than many people do in their entire life and the places we visited may be of interest to those who have not had such a unique opportunity.

For the third time since January 2009 we have installed the instrumentation on the aircraft, packed our bags, kissed our loved ones and left on a 24-day long voyage spanning the Earth nearly from pole to pole, traversing the Pacific in a Gulfstream-V jet modified for scientific research.

The first flight of the 3rd pole-to-pole expedition is taking us to Anchorage, Alaska. Along the way we see the Canadian forests snow free for the first time: green, vast expanses without the limit stretch before us, rolling hills cut deeply with infrequent steep banks of large rivers, and even more rarely speckled with traces of human habitation. Hundreds of lakes and mossy swamps pass under the wings of our Gulfstream, bringing to my mind the amazing contrast of the ease with which we are covering thousands of miles over the terrain that would be absolutely horrendous to traverse by foot. I have done the latter in the past, and have a great deal of respect for the Northern forests and moss bogs. But that is a story for another time. For now we are heading from Boulder, Colorado to Edmonton, where we make a low approach over the runway and, passing through the streaking rain, continue on to Watson Lake. We repeat the low approach at Watson Lake after the pilots complete a procedure turn at some 2,000 feet over the forest. The lakes are beautiful, and the airport radio is about the same as usual: “Out for a few minutes… back with you now. Cleared for low approach… are you sure you are not landing?..” – some regret heard in the voice of the man attending to the airfield. Watson Lake is a small place.

Sunset over Cook Inlet
Sunset over Cook Inlet

This time it is mid June and Anchorage is different from what we have seen on the first two trips. First off, it is green: the trees, shrubs and grass are all reaching out to the sun, bathed by nearly daily rain showers. The seagulls are noisier than ever, the mosquitoes are coming out of hiding and the tourists are seen everywhere on the streets of Anchorage.

The number of people on the streets of Anchorage took us by surprise. The Snow City Cafe that we frequented during our previous stays is packed starting at 8 am, and even at 7 am when we show up there is a line forming. While generally this is no big surprise, Snow City is super popular all the time but this was like a rock concert. People are everywhere: at the souvenir shops, in the streets, on bicycles, on the pebble beaches and even on lawns and flower beds, taking pictures. The local economy for sure is getting a boost but for us, more traffic and being late here and there because of the crowds were the most noticeable changes from the quieter winter, fall and spring times of the past missions.

Our work remained more or less the same, and the highly experienced crew pulled off the research flight to the North Pole with ease. Regrettably, I did not get to go, we had too much competition for seats on the airplane, otherwise you’d be in for a treat of a write-up: where else do you get to fly in a jet aircraft at 500 ft above the Arctic ocean and sea ice? This is what the guys and gals did on this Polar flight, and the data collected were unprecedented. However, there were no polar bear sightings and there was some fog and low clouds to the West of Barrow from sea surface to at least 5,000 feet, plus they got stuck at 28,000 feet for an hour on the way up to 43,000 feet because of the air traffic conflicts. Oh well. Interestingly, there was a vast open water region West of Barrow and snow cover was very small for the season, according to the crew reports.

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