Svalbard Part 2: Balancing Act

The Earth has approximately 170,000 glaciers, located in a range of environments from Alaska to Argentina, Nepal to New Zealand. Almost all of them are shrinking.

The measure of the growth or shrinkage of a glacier is known as its mass balance, and this was the area of focus during my first week here in Svalbard.  As part of the glaciology program I’m involved in, we traveled to one of the local glaciers to examine the layers of snow on its surface, and to hopefully explore some of its inner workings. Named (somewhat ironically) after a local coal mining manager in the early 1900’s,  Scott Turnerbreen is located in a valley to the south east of Longyearbyen.

En route to the Scott Turnerbreen glacier


Glaciers are formed where snow is able to build up over time, and gradually get squeezed or compressed into ice by the weight of the snow on top. The growth of a glacier is essentially a balance between how much goes in i.e. snow, and how much goes out i.e. melting. If more snow and ice is added to a glacier than is melted, the glacier grows; if more ice melts than is replaced by snow, the glacier shrinks. Think of it as a bank account; lodge more money than you withdraw, and your account grows, and vice versa. Warmer climate conditions have increased melt rates on glaciers, removing ice faster than it can be replaced by snowfall.


Digging a snowpit to examine the layers of snow


Measuring the density of the snowpack


We built the deluxe snowpit model, including a lunch seat.


On Scott Turnerbreen, we carried out a number of surveys of the snowpack. Firstly, we used snow probes (basically long tubular measuring sticks) to determine the depth and pattern of snow accumulation over the surface. We then dug a series of snowpits to examine the thickness and density of layers in the snow, and to look for evidence of a recent ‘warm’ weather spell. That was, of course, until getting completely distracted by a passing group of dog sleds. When in the Arctic.

Approaching dog teams






Our attention then turned from the surface of the glacier to deeper into its core. In order to gain access to the inner glacier, we descended down through a presently dry meltwater channel. Like a scene from a Jules Verne novel, we traveled through a subsurface tunnel of ice with incredible formations and patterns.  This was a brief visit, but I’m hoping to return to these passages while I’m here, and spend a little time to get some images that do them justice.

Tunnel to the inside of a glacier






Traveling through a meltwater channel inside the glacier



Crevasses or cracks on the glacier surface can collect dust or sediment. The dark coloured bands in this image may represent old crevasses which have closed and been buried deeper into the glacier, leaving behind a layer of dust in the ice.



In the heart of a glacier


Up next: Exploring the surrounding mountains in the search for sun.

10 thoughts on “Svalbard Part 2: Balancing Act”

  1. Hi Noel,
    Many thanks for letting us share in your journey to the heart of the
    glacier. It certainly brings Jules Vernes to life ! Just one question.
    How come when the rest of the team are digging and working , you always seem to be either taking photos or eating sandwiches !
    The folks back home.

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