“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Up next: Exploring the surrounding mountains in the search for sun.
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.
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.
At the beginning of August, I was fortunate enough to take part in the International Glaciology Summer School, in beautiful Alaska. The school is run every two years, directed by Regine Hock of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and brings together students and instructors from all over the world. Based in the Wrangell mountains, in the old mining village of McCarthy, the school provides an opportunity to learn from experts in a range of fields within glaciology, and perhaps more importantly, provides a platform to engage with and get to know others embarking on research in the science. The 10 days of the course were some of the most enjoyable of my academic career, and I left inspired by the enthusiasm and curiosity of my peers.
Below are images from some of the activities that took place outside of the classroom (click on images to enlarge).