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Girl Power in Greenland: Four Women ‘Winter Over’ in the Arctic

By Colleen Heck

map of Greenland showing Summit Camp locationMost people would think twice about leaving their house if the temperature was below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Every day during the winter of 2006-2007, however, four women stepped out of their heated house into minus 80 degree temperatures onto the Greenland ice sheet – all in the name of science.

Sonja Wolter, a researcher with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), and Kathy Young, Shannon Zellerhoff, and Andrea Isgro braved the barren climate surrounding the Greenland Environmental Observatory for more than three months last winter. They took measurements of snow accumulation and air samples, and launched ozonesondes, among other things, relating to Arctic environment and climate. You can view data collected at the Observatory.

Oh, and it was completely dark 24/7 for more than two of those months.

The four researchers pose in front of their air transportation to the Greenland station.

Leaving Summit last February. From left: Sonja Wolter, Andrea Isgro, Kathy Young, and Shannon Zellerhoff. Photo by Pat Smith.

The Greenland Environmental Observatory Summit station (GEOSummit) has been in operation since 1988 and was originally designed for drilling ice cores.  Between 1988 and 1993, a 3,053-meter ice core was drilled which allowed researchers to analyze the climate of the past 110,000 years.

Currently operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with contributions from other organizations such as NOAA, Summit station has evolved from a single building to a self-sufficient camp, housing 35 to 40 scientists during the summer months.  Because the station is now home to experiments that continue year-round, it has been staffed by a small group throughout the harsh winter months since 1997; last year was the first, however, in which an all-women crew “manned” the station.

A Long Way Away

As if spending the winter on a sheet of ice was not challenging enough, the trip just to get to GEOSummit presented quite a task in itself.  The journey began on October 29, 2006, with a 10-hour flight to Copenhagen, Denmark, and then it was onto Kangerlussauq, Greenland.  Once in “Kanger,” the women underwent fire safety training before they were supposed to catch a Twin Otter to take them to Summit.  The weather apparently had other plans, because high winds delayed them in Kanger for three days; due to waning daylight hours as winter approached, there was only a small flight window each day.

As if to warn them how remote a location they were headed to, they flew over only ice for three and a half hours in the tiny Twin Otter.  Picture flying from Washington, D.C., to Miami and seeing nothing but a vast frozen expanse – it’s a bit scary, right?  Harder yet would be knowing that once you got there, you would be surrounded by total darkness.  In fact, Wolter remembers, the sun set just two weeks after they got there and didn’t rise again until late January.

Research ongoing at Summit during the winter is divided into three phases: Phase I from August to November, Phase II from November to February, and Phase III from February to May.

Once the crew arrived at Summit, they spent a week with the outgoing Phase 1 crew who had been there since August.  After they had completed training with the Phase 1 crew, the last flight to or from Summit for the next three months took off, leaving the women completely isolated from civilization for the winter.

Science on the Ice

Three team members launch an ozonsone in darkness

Launching an ozonesonde in December. Photo by Kathy Young.

While they were stationed at Summit, the women’s primary job was to take measurements and observations for ongoing experiments.  Sonja Wolter and Andrea Isgro were the primary researchers on the expedition, while Kathy Young was the station manager and Shannon Zellerhoff was the mechanic.

Every day, Wolter and Isgro would venture out into the sub-freezing temperatures to clean off instruments and make sure none of them had frozen over.  In addition, each week, Wolter launched an ozonesonde, or a balloon that travels upwards through the atmosphere and records the ozone levels as it rises.  Remarkably, the training on how to launch an ozonesonde was the only training Wolter had to go through before leaving for Summit, as most of the training occurred at the station.

As part of their other duties, the women took air and snow samples regularly and measured snow accumulation in the ‘bamboo forest,’ a set of approximately 100 bamboo poles set up outside the station.  The women skied out to the poles and measured each one with a measuring tape.  Skiing to work – sounds easy, right?  But in -70F temperatures, it quickly becomes a more daunting task.

These ladies were no strangers to cold though.  While on the phone with the Danish Polar Center, the women added up the collective amount of “ice time” they had spent in the Polar Regions and found that together, they had spent six years in the Arctic and 12 years in the Antarctic. 

Life on the Ice

Since they had each other, the women did not have a hard time adjusting to the remoteness.  “This is your daily life all of a sudden,” said Wolter, when asked about the isolation. “We got along really well, so it wasn’t bad at all.”   In addition, the station is equipped with 24-hour phone and internet via satellite, so they were able to talk to their families and keep up with current events.

GEOsummit has two buildings with living quarters – the “Big House” and the “Green House.”  During summer months, the Big House is used for gatherings and meals, and a chef is part of the staff.  The researchers live in tents that are specially designed to keep in the heat produced by the sun.  During the winter, however, when the sun never rises, the crew is forced to sleep inside.

The women lived in the Green House, which has a small kitchen but is primarily bedrooms, so they only spent nights there.  The majority of their time was spent in the Big House, which has the communications equipment as well as a large kitchen and living room. 

So what is a person to do to keep herself occupied in the middle of nowhere for three months?  For one, the women had weekly sewing sessions (their “Stitch and, well, Complain” sessions), watched quite a few movies and threw parties for each holiday.  They had a full Thanksgiving dinner, constructed a bamboo Christmas tree, complete with lights and garland, threw a New Year’s party and fashion show, and even made an outdoor hot tub from melted snow for the winter solstice.  Needless to say, the hot tub “didn’t stay warm for very long” Wolter said.

Overall, last winter was fairly tame according to Wolter.  They had their share of setbacks, but nothing the women couldn’t get through together.  “After the fact, I learned of some skeptics who didn’t think four women could pull it off,” she said.

Clearly, they did.  

Women in Science

Sonja Wolter hadn’t considered a degree in science until she took a geology class her freshman year of college and found she enjoyed it.  She went on to receive her bachelor of science in geology and obtained a teaching certificate in Earth science.  She recently received her masters of science in environmental education and works at ESRL as a Logistics Coordinator for the Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases Group.  Besides wintering at Summit, Wolter has spent time in Antarctica as a general assistant, maintenance helper and winter lab manager at the South Pole and Palmer Station.   

When asked about her fellow women scientists, Wolter explained that Isgro has traversed the Antarctic twice as a cook, as well as spending a nine-month winter at Summit, and was back at Summit this past summer.   Also, Zellerhoff is a power plant mechanic who used to fish in the Bering Sea; and Young “has probably been at Summit Camp more than anyone at all…period.” 


The mission of the Earth System Research Laboratory's Global Monitoring Division is to observe and understand, through accurate, long-term records of atmospheric gases, aerosol particles, and solar radiation, the Earth's atmospheric system controlling climate forcing, ozone depletion and baseline air quality, in order to develop products that will advance global and regional environmental information and services



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