The sound of the helicopter is earsplitting and the rotor wind is so strong that the only thing you can do is crouch over the luggage and try to prevent it from flying away. Away like the helicopter. Once it has left the silence is overwhelming. I look at my field partner. Now it is only her, the sedimentologist, and me, the palaeontologist, for the next five weeks, alone in the wilderness of northern Greenland, the first two women ever to set up a camp here. We have a hammer and a .44 Magnum each, and a rifle to share.
We are here to give colour to one of the few grey spots remaining on the geological map of the world. A few hours later two orange tents, a radio mast, and a trip-wire alarm warning against polar bears change the scenery. The colourful tents make us feel better in the vast expanse of grey rock, plants, ice, and water. Even the few birds are grey. The white polar bears keep out of sight. On the radio, base camp wishes us goodnight.
* * *
The outcrops in the riverbanks are our main targets. Only a few metres high but tilted continuously so kilometres of stratigraphy can be logged based on the profiles. A convincing boundary marks our starting point. Sandstone, storm sandbeds, siderite horizons, conglomerates — the sedimentologist is happy. She is sharpening her pencil and drawing logs. I look desperately at all the sand. Where has all the ancient life gone?
She continues with minute precision. My eyes scan the ground. I know the shapes I am looking for, but all I find are trace fossils. No body fossils. Lunch is a welcoming break, but soon it feels better to work and keep warm. There is snow in the air. The only convincing fossil shapes I identify are in the snow-filled clouds. We work till late in the 24 hours of daylight. Life feels less complicated when we are tucked into our sleeping bags.
And then it is as if a little fairy hears my wishes. One day the ground is scattered with siderite nodules full of inoceramids. No one was expecting them but here they are, popping right out of the ground. I keep on smiling and soon the sedimentologist is also convinced that these beautifully preserved bivalves are all you can wish for, if you want to date Late Cretaceous sediments.
Bivalves are normally not very useful for biostratigraphy due to their low preservation potential, adaptive morphology, and local distributions. However, the inoceramids are extremely valuable for stratigraphic purposes with their easily fossilized calcitic valves, rapid evolutionary changes, and wide geographical distribution in a variety of facies. In the Late Cretaceous they display a speciation rate of 0.2 to 0.5 species per Ma. Back home in the tent, the literature provides me with names of all our finds. So many new stories can be told. These sediments are some of the important pieces missing in the Mesozoic puzzle of the Arctic. Having identified the zonal markers, the age of each interval we’re logging can be identified. Calibration and correlation to other outcrops is now possible and we can start colouring in the last areas on the geological map with sedimentological and stratigraphical certainty. This is big news for understanding the geology of the Arctic. That night we deserve dessert.
Days go on and the sample bags get filled. We collect, draw, discuss, take pictures, and fill the diaries with field notes. For every ammonite we find, we collect ten inoceramids. Our only breaks are when the snowstorms rage and we are forced to stay in our sleeping bags for long days.
Then one day we spy a female polar bear with two small cubs. For minutes we look at one another, then we fire warning shots and they decide to take off. They will guard the fossils until next time we come. It is, after all, their country.
We are being evacuated now.