Category Archives: Travel

Faith and Fire: Ethiopia’s Meskel Festival

Today, I was invited to a celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox festival of Meskel, with members of the Ethiopian ex-pat community here in Vancouver. Click on images to view in full resolution.



Viewing the past through the eyes of the future; a young boy records the festivities on his tablet.





A burning beat. According to the beliefs of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, the bonfire represents the fire lit by Queen Helena in the 4th century; the smoke from which she followed to find the burial place of the cross used to crucify Jesus.






Svalbard Part 6: Stories in the Ice

“There is no such thing as ‘just’ ice.” Not to a glaciologist anyway.

Professor Doug Benn is recounting to us his reply to a reviewer who questioned his use of the term ‘refrozen water ice’. While this may sound superfluous, the many variations in density, temperature, content, layering, and colour of glacier ice can tell us a lot about its history, and potentially, about it’s future.


Prepping the Ground penetrating radar (GPR) on Longyearbreen. GPR is used in glaciology to look at the thickness and structure of a glacier. The GPR is towed across the surface, emitting pulses of energy which pass through the ice. These pulses bounce of the rock underneath the glacier, and are reflected back to the GPR, like an echo when you shout in a valley. The time it takes for this echo to travel back to the GPR tells us how far it has travelled, and hence, how thick the ice is. GPR can also be used to see if there are regions in the glacier that are ‘warm’ i.e. at its melting point, by reflecting off liquid water. The presence of these warm sections in a glacier can tell us about the glacier’s present and past; how it moves, how it used to move, and how its behaviour has changed with time.


Examining the internal layering and structure of the ice on Larsbreen.




The network of tunnels visible here are formed by the movement of air bubbles in between ice crystals as freezing takes place.


A ship frozen in the sea ice, on the way to Tunabreen


Arriving at the calving front of Tunabreen. Calving is the processes by which chunks of ice break off at the end or ‘terminus’ of a glacier, forming icebergs. We were there during winter, when the sea was frozen. The sea ice acts as a temporary barrier to the glacier, slowing its forward movement, and preventing calving.


Tunabreen is a surge type glacier, meaning that its rate of flow or speed is not constant. Instead, the glacier may move very slowly or remain still for several years, before going through a period of faster flow, known as a surge.


A glacier prayer



Departing Tunabreen


Surge front of Paulabreen


The dark banding visible at the front of Paulabreen is evidence of its surging past. When the glacier was flowing more rapidly, large crevasses (cracks) opened up at the surface and spread downwards. Debris and dust fell into these cracks, and when the crevasses closed again as the glacier flow changed, dark vertical bands of debris mark their former location.






Better to light a candle: an arctic storm led to a power cut on the night before the final exam, leading to some creative lighting.



Morning view after an overnight snow storm


One last venture into the mountains before leaving the Arctic.



Summit ridge of Trollsteinen






Parting gift from Svalbard: dancing aurora on the flight south to Oslo



Glaciology PhDs: amazing experiences, zero glamour. Overnighting at Oslo Airport.




Flying over the enormous glaciers on the west coast of Greenland on my way back to Vancouver, and getting re-inspired for the next adventure.


Svalbard Part 5: The beauty of the North

Some shots from a landscape that I hope we can continue to be inspired by. Click on the images to see them in high resolution. They still won’t do the place justice, but it’s a start.






Triple point




Frozen air












Polar bear tracks









































Svalbard Part 3: In search of Sun

The Sun has been absent since I’ve arrived here in Longyearbyen. The islands are deep inside the Arctic Circle; the line of latitude north of which it is possible to have 24 hour nights in winter. But Spring is fast approaching.

When a ray of sunlight was spotted hitting the mountain tops on the other side of the fjord, it was decided that a group of us would aim to get as much elevation as possible over the weekend, and try to catch some elusive light. Temperatures would remain well below -20°C over the two days, so warm clothes and moving fast would be essential.

Saturday morning saw us hiking up to Sverdruphamaren; an elevated plateau to the west of Longyearbyen. There is a real sense of wilderness here, and the view is an expanse of white peaks, sea ice, and reindeer. The sun however, remained just below the higher mountains to the south.

Setting out from Longyearbyen on Saturday morning






Ice mascara


The Svalbard Cold Feet Dance


Some opted just to get their feet off the ground altogether.


Chasing the sun across Svalbard’s wilderness


Returning back across the plateau after a cold but beautiful day


On Sunday morning, we aimed higher, and set out for Trollsteinen; the peak behind which the Sun had hidden from us the previous day. With temperatures at sea level forecast to be around -30°C, we knew we were in for a cold summit. Our route would bring us south of Longyearbyen, up the glacier of Larsbreen, before ascending onto the main ridge of the mountain. The winds were calm, and the skies were perfectly clear, promising excellent views, and potentially some vitamin D.

Heading south, with Longyearbyen in the distance


Lone hiker on Larsbreen


Beginning to ascend towards the ridge


The Sun! The end of polar night, as viewed from the main ridge of Trollsteinen







The Sun is literally days away from reappearing here in the valley, and the community of Longyearbyen will mark its return this weekend with a festival in its honour. It’s certainly something worth celebrating, but I’ll still be happy to experience a few more Svalbard nights.

The Aurora over Longyearbyen


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.

Svalbard Part 1: Arrival in the Arctic

It’s a matter of latitude. 78° 13′ N; approximately twelve degrees, or 1,334 kilometers north of the Arctic circle. This is the realm of twenty four hour nights and days, of the Aurora Borealis, of polar bears, of windswept landscapes of snow, sea ice, mountains, and glaciers. It’s a part of the world I’ve wanted to experience since I was a kid, and it’s the place I’m going to for the next six weeks.

My destination is Svalbard; an archipelago of islands in the Arctic Ocean. I’m taking part in a glaciology program run by the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), which is located in the regional capital of Longyearbyen. Sixty percent of Svalbard’s surface is covered by glaciers, making it an ideal location to study their processes.

The first leg of my journey takes me from Vancouver to Oslo, where I have an overnight stay before my flight to Longyearbyen. The stopover gives me a chance to join up with a friend who is also taking part in the glaciology program. I met the aptly named Aurora last summer in Alaska (see North to Alaska), and catching up over some much need food that night, we’re both equally excited about the trip ahead. The next morning, we soak up the last sunrise we’ll see for a few weeks, and board our flight to the Arctic.

Touchdown at Longyearbyen Airport, Svalbard.


Arriving in Longyearbyen just after 1pm, the usual bustle for hand luggage when the plane stops takes on a more practical air. Down jackets, balaclavas, and mittens are being pulled on before the exit door is opened. Stepping out into the blue semi-darkness, we are greeted by a biting wind that draws streams of fine snow across the tarmac. It’s already below -20°C, and I couldn’t be happier.

The following are just some initial shots from my first few days here, including some from the training we underwent. As always, images can be clicked on to view in full size. More updates coming soon.

Protect our glaciers. Rifle handling is an important component of the safety training at UNIS, but is very rarely drawn upon. Temperatures on this evening were around -25°C, adding the additional challenges to target practice of bulky gloves and shivering.




Flare testing


Snowmobile training




Dog team


Reindeer calf




Mountains and sea ice






A wild day


Shelter in a storm