In Focus: An Interview with Greenland Expert, Dr Sarah Aciego

Posted June 10, 2015 by Nellie Huang in In Focus

I was recently introduced to a new adventure travel company, Big Chill Adventures.  The company is the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Aciegoa renowned glaciochemist who has pioneered isotope dating of ice cores at the University of Michigan and her professional photographer mother, Mindy Cambiar. Aciego has led multiple scientific expeditions to Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, and her research has resulted in 20+ publications on ice and climate.

Intrigued by her background and story, I sat down with Dr. Aciego to find out more about her love affair with Greenland and how it all began.

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How did you get the idea of starting Big Chill Adventures?

I know it’s weird, but I travel a lot with my mother. She’s been our official photographer for a couple of expeditions; we work so hard at collecting samples we have a hard time documenting at the same time. We’ve also traveled for fun and we know each other pretty well on the road. So when we were in Greenland, we started talking about how incredible it would be to bring people to the places that I like to go for research. Right up to the ice face, to the incredible blues of the supra glacial lakes that ultimately drive the ecosystems (and subsequently the economy) of Greenland, Alaska, Canada…. When you are searching for the best sampling spot, sometimes you find something else, like the places that Muscox like to rub their bellies to relieve the burden of their winter underfur. Or remote ice caves with ptarmigan clucking in front.

Anyway, we talked about it for a year, trying to bring people closer to places that seem inaccessible, to talk as much (or as little) science as the audience wants to hear. Because I’m a little rugged and push myself physically but my mom, Mindy, is older (and wiser) and a little slower, we felt like we were a good combination to provide an opportunity for a range of physical fitness. Additionally, because Mindy is a photographer and I’ve spent so much time with her and other newbies to the field environment, we’re incredibly patient – if someone wants to walk all the way, be still in the moment, or wait for the perfect shot while perched on the top of the 1984 Toyota 4WD, it is okay.


Tell me about your background.

I grew up in a town of 300 people in rural NH (one room school house), and went to undergrad at Cornell University in the College of Engineering. It was there that I caught the Geology bug – I realized I could be stuck at a desk designing bridges or outside investigating how the Earth works, peaking under the hood of a volcano or glacier to see what made it tick. I was lucky to be part of a Geology department at Cornell that encouraged field work in remote locations and I was able to spend 8 weeks in Argentina for intensive geology field courses before graduating and moving on to UC Berkeley for my PhD.

As a graduate student at Berkeley, I combined my love of geochemistry with two field sites: the volcanoes of Hawaii and the glaciers of Antarctica. In order to collect samples for my graduate work, I camped for > 2 months on a glacier in East Antarctica, and trundled through the rainforests and deserts of the Big Island of Hawaii.

After graduate school, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the prestigious Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich, where I worked on developing new geochemical techniques to investigate dust found within ice cores collected from the high ice plateaus of Greenland and Antarctica. This work became the basis for my current research and ultimately led to my being offered a tenure-track position at the University of Michigan.

For the last five years I have developed new research directions that have led to field work in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, Greenland and Antarctica. I teach undergraduate students and mentor graduate students (two of which are defending their PhD’s this week!). One of my favorite aspects of my job is experiential learning: bringing people to places to see things that are in textbooks: touching ice that is almost a million years old, walking on lava that erupted only recently. And seeing how communities develop around the natural world. Humans exploit natural resources, but we also adapt and I want to bring cultures together to see how normal it is to navigate icebergs and yet still check the news on your smart phone.


How does your background make your tours unique?

Scientifically, I can answer the “why” and “how” questions: why is the lake that color?, why are there so many fish around the icebergs? how do supra glacial lakes form? How will climate change this landscape, what will be revealed? If you go deeper into the ice cave, why does it get bluer?

In addition, my experience in planning expeditions to these locations means that I know the destinations intimately and I’ve developed local connections that allow us to travel off the beaten path. Outside of the 40 person bus. Our experience in these locations allows us to provide not just a destination, but also the knowledge of when you will need your wellies and when you will need your parka.

What have the challenges been?

Honestly, the biggest challenge is stuffing everything that I want to do into less than 2 weeks. I’m used to planning multi-month field seasons where you have the opportunity to see changing seasons and with that changes in snow, ice, wildlife and human activities. So trying to capture the breadth of a destination in less than two weeks is difficult.


Why are you doing this?

Ultimately, we are doing this because we like people. We like to interact with people who are curious about the world, that read “Furthest North” or “Motorcycle Diaries” and want to see whales frolicking in fjords or jungles fed by snowcapped volcanic peaks. I am doing this because these kinds of experiences aren’t only for students in their 20’s or expert outdoorsmen, these locations can be accessible and edifying to anyone.

What is the most rewarding thing about it?

This will sound cheesy, but for me it is about building memories. Spending some physical capital to hike around the corner and up the hill and get to the place where the ice intersects the ground, and realize that the maps don’t lie – the ice covers the whole continent except for a small strip of land. That the crazy shapes that ice cubes make in your glass are found in icebergs that are the size of a small town. When the people I’ve brought to these places still talk about those experiences with awe 1, 2, 5 years later, it is incredibly rewarding.

About Big Chill Adventures:

Big Chill Adventures was started by Sarah Aciego and her mother Mindy Cambiar. Professor Aciego has led multiple scientific expeditions to Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, and her research has resulted in 20+ publications on ice and climate. Mindy Cambiar is a graduate of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography’s Summer and Advanced Intensive Programs and Professional Studies Program and published photographer. Their work together has documented the interaction of scientists and their environment on these expeditions.  Their specialized expertise and intimate knowledge of some of the most beautiful, and forbidding, landscapes provide an opportunity for an extraordinary Greenland experience.

Its inaugural tour of West Greenland is a 12-day/11-night photo-hiking adventure departing August 5, 2015 is a magnificent introduction to calving glaciers, palatial icebergs, dogsledding, indigenous life, arctic wildlife, and touring fjords by helicopter. Guided by Aciego and Cambiar, this West Greenland journey begins with an excursion to Eqi Sermi, known as the “calving glacier”.  An early morning boat ride from Ilulissat to the face of the glacier takes several hours and includes opportunities to spot whales. Back at Port Victor, an afternoon visit to a nearby lagoon and moraine is followed by an exciting morning hike in search of a community of arctic foxes.




About the Author

Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of WildJunket. As a professional travel writer with a special interest in offbeat destinations, she has written for numerous publications including CNN, International Business Times, BBC, Wend, and Lonely Planet. In her quest for adventure, she’s climbed an active volcano in Guatemala, swam with sea lions in the Galapagos, played with lemurs in Madagascar and cruised alongside penguins in Antarctica.

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