Producer's Blog: Extreme shooting in Greenland

Behind the scenes of a "TechKnow" shoot at one of the most remote places on Earth.

Greenland is a place of extremes.

Take for example, the simple task of getting around. There are only 90 miles of roads in this country, the largest island in the world. In Kangerlussuaq, we managed to drive on half of them when we took what is supposed to be the longest road in Greenland—the Route 660, a 45-mile icy road that ends at the inland ice sheet covering 80 percent of the country. So most people get around on foot in town, snowmobile or even good old fashioned dog-sleds.

We went there to tag along with one of NASA’s airborne missions to record changes to the land and sea ice here. It turned out to be an amazing opportunity to see science at work in one of the most remote places on earth.

Producer Joanne Shen on location in Greenland.

For the scientists who work on Operation IceBridge, every morning begins with a 6 a.m. trip to the local meteorologist’s office. Their evening meeting to discuss the next day’s mission starts with a weather forecast given by senior scientist John Sonntag. They plan each day’s eight-hour mission based on where the winds are most favorable, because if a mission ends up getting aborted mid-flight due to weather, they still have to fly around to burn off enough fuel. And that would certainly be a waste—not only of taxpayer dollars but of the precious time they have been allotted each year to fly these missions.

So they fly six days a week in a noisy, sometimes freezing P-3, an old military plane. There are few windows on this aircraft so those already prone to air sickness are at a disadvantage. I was the sole person that needed a barf bag on the day we flew with them. Not that anyone batted an eye. It’s par for the course and everyone made me feel like I had earned my stripes.

But there are significant upsides to this kind of flight as well. First of all, there are no stern flight attendants giving you the evil eye for not fastening your seat belt. In fact, the norm is to be able to walk around and even hang out in the cockpit with the pilots.

Researchers on board NASA's Operation IceBridge often have to defrost their equipment using a standard hair dryer.

We were lucky enough to witness one of their most scenic missions, a zig-zag route over an area known as the Southeast glaciers. With a cruising altitude of only 1,500 feet over the glaciers, the pilots skillfully maneuver between mountain tops. Looking through the windows at mountains passing by, I felt like I was in James Bond movie.

Eating in Kangerlussuaq is a bit less glamorous. Before we left, I stocked up on meals-ready-to-eat such as beef jerky and dried oatmeal. These came in handy but by Day three I was craving something that didn’t need to be rehydrated.

We hit the one supermarket in town and the prices, well, were what you’d expect for a country this far off the beaten path. The total came out to be about $150 for a case of bottled water, milk, some cheese and crackers, a carton of eggs (they come in packs of 10 here, not a dozen) and a miniature watermelon. Our sound recordist, Kelly, managed to whip this up into a lovely brunch for us.

Being deprived of some of the creature comforts of home—while finding some new ones—is part of the adventure. As a field producer, it’s extremely gratifying to be able to experience just a little bit of what life’s like for other folks—in this case, the life of a scientist in the Arctic.


Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.


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