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.

Meskel_2015_umbrellas

 

Meskel_2015_future_view
Viewing the past through the eyes of the future; a young boy records the festivities on his tablet.

 

 

Meskel_2015_kids

 

Meskel_2015_fire_drum_2
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.

 

 

Meskel_2015_rejoice

 

Meskel_2015_drummers

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.

 

Svalbard_gpr_3
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.

 

Svalbard_larsbreen_exposures_5
Examining the internal layering and structure of the ice on Larsbreen.

Svalbard_larsbreen_exposures_6

Svalbard_larsbreen_exposures_2

 

Svalbard_larsbreen_exposures_3
The network of tunnels visible here are formed by the movement of air bubbles in between ice crystals as freezing takes place.

 

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

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_11
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.

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_Calving_front_Nick
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.

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_Glacier_Prayer
A glacier prayer

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_27

Svalbard_Tunabreen_34
Departing Tunabreen

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_13
Surge front of Paulabreen

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_12
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.

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_Aurora

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_24

Svalbard_Paulabreen_25

DSC_1255
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.

 

 

Svalbard_snowy_window
Morning view after an overnight snow storm

 

Svalbard_Trollsteinen2_Conrad
One last venture into the mountains before leaving the Arctic.

 

 

Svalbard_Trollsteinen2_Tom_ridge_ascent
Summit ridge of Trollsteinen

 

 

Svalbard_Trollsteinen2_TJ_summit_descent

 

 

Svalbard_Departure_flight_aurora2
Parting gift from Svalbard: dancing aurora on the flight south to Oslo

 

 

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

 

 

 

Svalbard_Departure_flight_Greenland_west1
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_Departure_flight_Greenland_iceberg

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.

 

Svalbard_hut_mountains_sunlight
.

 

 

 

Svalbard_Triple_Point
Triple point

 

 

 

Svalbard_larsbreen_exposures_10
Frozen air

 

 

 

Svalbard_larsbreen_ice_exposure_1

 

 

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_hut_c2

 

 

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_polar_bear_tracks-2
Polar bear tracks

 

 

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_12

 

 

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_29

 

 

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_9

 

 

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_10

 

 

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_30

 

 

 

Svalbard_Tunabreen_21

 

 

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_8

 

 

 

Svalbard_Paulabreen_18

 

 

 

Svalbard_March7_nightshots_mountains_sea_Aurora

 

 

 

Svalbard_March7_nightshots_mountains_sea

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.

Svalbard_smoke_stack
Setting out from Longyearbyen on Saturday morning

 

Svalbard_starting_uphill

Svalbard_longyearbyen_above-2

Svalbard_Anna_peak

Svalbard_Jelte_Vikram

Svalbard_Jessica_lashes
Ice mascara

 

Svalbard_cold_feet_dance
The Svalbard Cold Feet Dance

 

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

 

Svalbard_reindeer_sunset_Jelte3
Chasing the sun across Svalbard’s wilderness

 

Svalbard_three_silhouette
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.

Svalbard_trollsteinen_setting_out
Heading south, with Longyearbyen in the distance

 

Svalbard_Trollsteinen_lone_hiker
Lone hiker on Larsbreen

 

Svalbard_trollsteinen_ascending
Beginning to ascend towards the ridge

 

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

 

Svalbard_trollsteinen_ridge_Steffi_Jelte

Svalbard_trollsteinen_summit_ridge

Svalbard_trollsteinen_summit_Ollie

Svalbard_Trollsteinen_Summit_sun

 

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.

Svalbard_aurora_27feb_1
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.

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_snowmobiles
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.

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_snowpit_dig
Digging a snowpit to examine the layers of snow

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_snowpit_density
Measuring the density of the snowpack

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_snowpit_lunch
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.

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_dogsleds
Approaching dog teams

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_sled_dog_1

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_sled_dog_2

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_sled_dog3

 

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.

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_cave_entrance2
Tunnel to the inside of a glacier

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_cave_entrance

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_cave_exit

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_cave1
Traveling through a meltwater channel inside the glacier

 

 

Svalbard_scott_turnerbreen_cave_Doug_closed_crevasses
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.

 

 

Svalbard_Scott_Turnerbreen_cave
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.

Svalbard_Touch_Down
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.

Svalbard_Range_lineup
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.

 

Svalbard_range_guns

 

Svalbard_Flare_test
Flare testing

 

DSC_1158
Snowmobile training

 

Svalbard_scene_snowmobiles_heli
Longyearbyen

 

Svalbard_dog_sled
Dog team

 

Svalbard_reindeer_calf_brighter
Reindeer calf

 

Svalbard_reindeer_calf_mountains_brighter

 

Svalbard_sea_ice_mountains
Mountains and sea ice

 

Svalbard_tepee

 

Svalbard_sea_ice_mountains_me

 

DCIM100GOPRO
A wild day

 

Svalbard_storm_building
Shelter in a storm