Tag Archives: Glaciology

North to Alaska

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).

Hitting the road from Fairbanks to McCarthy, and aiming for the mountains.


The drive to McCarthy took 11 hours, but it was broken up with regular stops.




The Trans-Alaska pipeline crosses the entire state, north to south, from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, stretching over 1,200km.


Not a popular decision. In reality, the salmon at this point have traveled so far inland from the sea (to reach spawning grounds) that they have lost much of their mass, and are not suitable for consumption.




Hanging out under bridges.




Home for the next 10 days





McCarthy’s old hardware store, now operated as the Wrangle Mountain Center, was our base for the summer school.



Tools of the trade. An unconventional poster session.



Friday night softball in McCarthy.


Passing Kennicott mill, where ore from the surrounding copper mines was processed in the early 1900s.


Mike in action. The expanse of what looks like gravel in the background is actually the lower reaches of the Kennicott glacier; the ridges are composed predominately of ice, coated with a thin layer of debris. The material comes from the lateral moraines of numerous tributary glaciers that have merged with the main trunk of the Kennicott, higher up the valley.




Footprint of a moulin. Debris carried downwards by water is deposited at the bottom of the moulin. When the overlying snow and ice melts (and the moulin collapses), the ice covered by this material melts slower than the surrounding exposed ice, resulting in these ridges.




Glaciologists in their natural environment.


Lunch time






Holding court


Descending into a temporarily empty lake basin. This lake, along the margin of the Root glacier, can fill or drain in a day; the water flowing through subglacial channels.





What lies beneath a glacier?



The blue room. I spent longer crouched in a subglacial river than is probably recommended, but it was a hard place to leave.





Having seen all there is to see on the surface of a glacier, Colin decides to check out a moulin (not really; don’t do this).





Outlets were a commodity when power was available.


A group of us took advantage of the landing strip in McCarthy, and arranged a flight over the surrounding glaciers and mountains.





The debris covered terminus of the Kennicott glacier. The village of Kennicott can be seen along the right margin.


Further up the Kennicott, medial moraines are visible as dark bands on the surface, and are formed by the merging of several tributary glaciers (and their lateral moraines).





Medial moraines and incredibly blue melt water pools.


Glacial ogives.




Rock glacier.


Trail run up to the old Bonanza copper mine, in the mountains above McCarthy (phone pictures).




A very fuzzy picture of a black bear encountered during the run.


Fire and ice.



Obligatory moose, with calf (I was driving at the time).

Notes from Nordic

The winter snowpack was still hiding crevasses. Where it had melted, large swaths of cracked and yawning ice had been exposed, hinting at what may lie beneath the snow cover.

One day earlier, July  8th, Valentina Radic and I had left Vancouver, aiming for the town of Golden, near British Columbia’s eastern border. Our route brought us on a nine hour drive, passing from the Coastal Mountains, through the vast Interior Plateau, and into the Selkirk range near the edge of the Rockies.

Golden was to be the staging point for this summer’s field campaign. The plan was to install a weather and glacier monitoring station on Nordic Glacier.  The station was to observe the melt rate of the surface of the glacier, and to record any meteorological varibles that may affect melting (see The Project).

Nordic was selected as its meltwater drains into the Columbia river. This is the largest river in the the Pacific Northwest, and the forth largest in the United States. It stretches for 2,000km, through BC and seven US states, with a drainage basin the size of France.  Its waters are used for irrigation and hydroelectric power production, with 14 dams on the main stem, and more on its tributaries.  I had encountered the Columbia before, but much further downstream in the state of Washington, while rock climbing (see Vantage Point).

On arriving in Golden, we drove straight to the home of our hosts for the night, Tannis and Steve. When initially planning this trip, we had intended to camp once we got into the mountains, but Tannis and Steve kindly offered us the use of their backcounty ski lodge (Sorcerer Lodge) which is located in the same valley as Nordic.  Operating in the area for over twenty years, they have seen firsthand the changes undergone by the glacier. It was inspiring to see the interest and enthusiasm (and knowledge) that they showed for the project, and was a reminder that this research wasn’t just an academic exercise. Joining us in Golden were Brian Menounus and Federico Ponce, two researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia. With our team of four assembled, we stocked up on some soon to be burned calories (with excellent burgers in Golden), and bedded down for an early departure.

Line of action. Morning of departure for the mountains, with Steve (pictured) assisting with the logistics of the helicopter transport. (Click on images to expand)


Loading the helicopter.


Ascending the valley towards the mountains.

Our flight to the glacier the following morning went smoothly, with Steve lending us his experience with helicopter transports. Valentina and I went in on the first run to scan for a suitable site for the station, and to get dropped off on the glacier with the main equipment for the station. Brian and Federico were to travel in on the second run to bring equipment to the lodge.

After several months of looking at Nordic in photographs and maps, seeing it grow larger through the window of the helicopter, I felt excited and nervous. As we drew closer however, I was concerned to see the extent of the snow cover in the area we had been planning to deploy. Working on a ‘dry’ section of a glacier (where there is no snow) has the major advantage  of being able to see the location of the crevasses. Not only is this much safer, it allows you to move and work more efficiently, as precautions such as being roped together are not necessary. We had hoped that the winter snow pack would have melted from our site by the time we arrived, but it appeared that, for this season, we were a little early.

Initial fly over of the glacier to select a suitable site. It became apparent at this point that there was still significant snow cover.

We landed on the glacier, and unloaded our equipment with the engines still running. As soon as we were clear of the downwash from the departing helicopter, we roped up and started surveying the area for the flattest spot for our station, probing the snow as we moved to check for crevasses. After the helicopter returned to deposit the larger pieces of equipment, we flew down as far as the lodge to  meet with Brian and Federico. With conditions the way they were, we decided we would hike up to the glacier together, and find the safest route to the site.

Traversing the moraine at the beginning of the hike to the glacier. Smoke from forest fires further down the valley can be seen hanging in the background.


Nordic Glacier. After descending the moraine, our route crossed the river, and followed the base of the mountain on the left side of the image as far as the patch of rust coloured rock to the left of the upper lake. This marks the beginning of the ‘Wedding Band’, which we ascended up to the left to gain access on to the glacier.

Each day, our hike to the glacier would begin with crossing the lateral moraine that separated the lodge from the main valley. From there, we would descend and traverse the valley to the other side, crossing the river to do so. The river crossing was a glacier monitoring exercise in itself. As the river’s source is the melt water draining from the glacier, there was a distinct daily pattern in the strength and level of the flow. In the morning, when there had been little melting during the colder night temperatures, the water level would be well below my knee. Returning in the evening, after a day of warm temperatures and sunshine, the flow would be much stronger, pulling at already tired legs. As you’d imagine, the water was pretty cold, and it was incredible to feel how quickly your heat could be drained away.

Approaching the crossing. The river is fed directly by melt water from the glacier, meaning its temperature is very cold, and its flow varies greatly with the time of day.




Rock Ptarmigan. I came across quite a few of these, usually only noticing them when I was within a couple of meters, and they would burst from behind a rock , freaking me and themselves out.


The Wedding Band.



Ascending alongside the glacier, significant crevasses were visible in the ice where the snow cover had melted.


Setting out on the glacier towards the site where we had deposited our equipment by helicopter.


Probing for crevasses on the snow covered sections of the glacier (Photo by Valentina Radic).


Installing the station came together relatively quickly. Although the glacier is a very different working environment to the lab or test field, I really felt the benefit of all the trial runs and lab assemblies. The station was constructed, wired, and operating after one, albeit long day, and it was fantastic to have the additional manpower of Brian and Federico, who obliged me with some serious ice drilling. A second day was spent testing to see how the data and power system was performing, and also securing the various components of the station in preparation for two months on the side of a mountain.

A combination of steam drilling (above) and augering (below) was used to bore holes into the ice for mounting some of the sensors.


Mounting and wiring the sensors on the main ‘quadpod’ (Photo by Federico Ponce).


The completed station, looking northwest. The solar panel can be seen in the left background, which recharges the batteries housed in the yellow case.  The rain gauge and the snow/ice level monitor mast is behind the main station. The blue tarp contains the tools and equipment used for the installation, and will be left secured on the glacier until the station is dismantled.


A camera for monitoring the glacier and the station over the season (see A Camera For all Seasons) was installed to the south, with its view similar to the previous image.


The weather during our field work was relatively warm and sunny, and we would notice a significant difference in the surface of the glacier between ascending in the morning and descending in the evening. Crevasses and meltwater streams were appearing as the summer melt season kicked in.



Mohammed Ali once said, ‘it isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.’ In this case, it was the mosquito inside your mosquito net. We carried out our field work during the buggiest few days of a particularly buggy season, and these mosquitoes couldn’t believe their luck when they saw us coming. I’ve spent time in the Amazon jungle, and this was comparable. Once on the ice however, the buzzing clouds would disappear, and we could work in peace.

My buzzing hat. The locals were out in force to welcome us (Photo by Federico Ponce).


Each evening, with duties on the glacier finished, we would begin our return hike back to the lodge. Despite being tired, this was always my favourite part of the day.  No longer focusing on tasks that needed to be done, I could better appreciate the surroundings, particularly in the hour around sunset when everything would be painted gold and blue. To work in such an environment is a privilege, and time needed to be taken to set aside concerns and stresses, and simply take note of where we were.

Sunset on Nordic mountain.


Emerging stars.


On the morning of departure, we flew over the glacier to get our last view of the station for the next two months. I will return at the beginning of September to see how well it survived, to dismantle and transport it back to Vancouver, and to start working on what its data can tell us.

The station through a telephoto lens, as seen from the lodge on the morning of departure.
Flying over the moraine.
Station from above as we flew out.


Passing through the Selkirk range (images above and below) on the flight back to golden.


Returning to base.


We tackled the drive back to Vancouver on the day we flew down, utilising several food/coffee/ice cream stops to keep sleep and the 35°C of the Interior Plateau at bay. Arriving back to the city, I was tired but content that the work had gone well, and looking forward to taking it easy for a few days before preparing for my next trip (Alaska). Calling into the lab to drop off a couple of items before going home, I was greeted by a delivery of 4 large boxes; the starting components for next year’s stations. It was time to get some sleep.


The beginnings of next year’s field campaign.



Up Next: I’ve just returned from a glaciology summer school in Alaska; photo-journal coming in the next couple of days.

To the Mountains

It’s finally time to head to the hills.

Since I arrived in Canada six months ago, the majority of my focus has been geared towards the next 8 days. Early tomorrow morning, we leave Vancouver, and aim towards Nordic Mountain. We will first travel to the town of Golden, where we will stay over night, and then load up the helicopter for the flight to the glacier.

Report to follow.

Large items were shipped out in advance last week.
The lab, earlier today.
My own bags, ready for an early morning departure.

A Camera for All Seasons

As part of my upcoming glacier field work, it was decided that a camera would be a useful addition to the station, which will be installed and left unmanned for 2-3 months (see The Project) . The camera will be used to take pictures of the station and the surrounding site, so that I’ll have a record of what was happening throughout the study period. So, as an example, I can look at the pictures  from a period with some interesting data and see what the weather was like, or as another example, what type of bear it was that destroyed my equipment.

The following is a DIY post on building a type of ‘nature’ camera. If anyone is actually interested in building something like this and requires more information, feel free to contact me.

Having priced commercially available units at round $2,500, and not being overly impressed with the camera hardware being used, I decided to build my own rig. My design was strongly influenced by that of another rig built by a researcher in my department, Camilo Rada. Here is the basic outline:

  • Use a good quality DSLR camera (I’m using a Canon T3i).
  • Use a high capacity battery that will supply sufficient power to the camera to operate over several months.
  • Use a timer to control when power is supplied to the camera and when and how often pictures are taken.
  • House everything in a weatherproof container.


Collection of the main components used, including a Pelican case, Canon DSLR (T3i), camera battery with dc cable input, high capacity (10Ah) battery, DC timer switch, 2.5mm stereo plug, various connectors and wires. The cost of all materials came in a little under CAD$1000.

The most important component of the build is the power system. I replaced the standard camera battery with a commercially available battery adapter, which is normally used to power a camera directly from a mains socket. I wired this adapter into a DC timer, which is essentially a switch which opens and closes the power circuit at user defined times. The other end of the timer was then wired to a high capacity (10 Ah) 7.4V lithium polymer battery, originally designed for use in remote controlled aircraft.

Adapted camera battery pack. This will be connected, through a timer, to a higher capacity battery.


The timer (bottom right) is wired between the camera battery (on left) and the larger battery (below). It can be programmed to allow power to flow to the camera at specific times.


As the camera will be left to operate by itself, an automatic way of firing the shutter (taking the picture) is needed. I modified a standard 2.5mm stereo plug by shorting the outer contact (outer ring) with the inner contact (inner ring)by removing the black plastic cover and soldering the corresponding connectors together (and removing the middle connector). This plug is then inserted into the remote control port of the camera, and tells the camera that the shutter trigger is being pressed.



Testing which connectors need to be shorted to fire the shutter.







The timer is programmed to allow power through to the camera from the battery at set intervals, and the power switch on the camera itself is set to on. When power reaches the camera at the set times, the modified plug tells the camera that the shutter button is being pressed, and a picture is taken. After a minute, the timer shuts off power supply until the next programmed time. As for the camera settings, the mode is set to automatic (Program or P in the case of this model) so that the aperture and shutter speed will be selected automatically by the camera to suit the light conditions. The camera should be focused by the user during set up to suit the required view, and then the focus should be set to manual to prevent the camera from changing the focus during operation.



Testing the power and timer set up.


In order to weatherproof the camera rig, and keep it protected, I housed the equipment in a Pelican case. Firstly, I cut foam to fit the various components so that they are held securely in place. As a camera will not work very well in a completely opaque box, I created a window. I cut out a section of the side wall, using a drill and knife initially for the rough cut, and then a file to smooth the edges. I fitted a piece of clear acrylic for the window; I chose transparent acrylic rather than glass as it is easier to cut and is less likely to scratch or break . I bought acrylic that had a protective removable plastic covering (like cling film) which I left on until the end of building so as to avoided scratches. Basically, I treated the window like I would a lens.  I used a silicone glue to attach the acrylic to the box, and left it to cure for 24 hours.

Pelican case, with foam cut out to fit camera etc.


Won’t be able to see much through that.














Completed camera rig


I test ran the camera on the roof of the Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences Department here at UBC over the course of a few days, and it performed well. At the glacier, I will install the camera box in an additional wooden shelter (which I’m currently building), in order to keep it in a steady position, and to provide additional protection from anything that might damage or obscure the window. It will be set up to take images every three hours, and will hopefully provide reference and context for our data.

Testing on the roof of my department at UBC.
Daytime image from test run of camera, looking east from UBC.
Nighttime image from test run.


Update (July 4th 2014):

Yesterday, I built the aforementioned wooden shelter for the camera. This will act as a mount for the camera, protect the window from damage, dirt, and droplet build up, and reduce excessive heating from the sun. It was constructed using two 1″x8″x8′ pieces of cedar, some U-bolts, and assorted screws. I’m not a carpenter, and this was just a design that I thought up to solve a problem; there are probably far more elegant solutions! Below are some images from the build.



















White paint will help reflect sunlight (reduce heating), and protect the wood.

The Project

So a brief explanation as to why I’m here is required.

I’ve come to Vancouver to start a research project examining the relationships between the atmosphere and glaciers. I had been working as a research meteorologist for Met Éireann (Irish national weather service), when the opportunity arose to  take up a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Evening view looking north over UBC, Vancouver.
The Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, UBC (snowfall is actually a relatively rare occurrence in urban Vancouver).

In a nutshell, my project aims to examine all the ways in which energy enters and exits the surface of a glacier, and how the balance between incoming and outgoing energy affects the melting or cooling of a glacier’s snow and ice.  On a broader scale, my hope is to put this work towards improving our understanding of how glaciers will respond to changes in our climate. The initial plan is to install a weather station on a glacier in the Selkirk mountains in British Columbia, beginning this summer.

So, what’s required for the design?

  1. The station needs to have sensors to measure each of the variables relevant to glacier energy balance. These include air temperature and humidity, radiation (for example, the incoming energy from sunlight), wind speed, and the transfer of heat and moisture by local air currents or ‘eddies’.
  2. It needs to be robust and reliable enough to operate in a remote mountain environment, unsupervised for several months.
  3. It needs to have its own independent power source.



Initial design and set up stage. Despite extensive testing, no interesting weather was detected in the lab.


The first step was to assemble and test all of the individual components in the lab, and to set up a method to automatically record and save the measurements made by each sensor. The lab is where you want to make your mistakes, and where you want things to go wrong.  The more problems that present themselves in the warm, dry lab, the fewer that will come as a surprise when you’re struggling with cold fingers on the side of a mountain, or worse, when you’re already hundreds of kilometers away, oblivious to the fact that your PhD is falling into a metaphorical or very literal crevasse.

With things up and running in the lab, thoughts turned to how all the components will be brought together and mounted on the glacier, and on how to reliably power the station in such a remote setting. The plan is to rig the sensors on to a wide, stable tripod, with power provided from two marine batteries (like rugged car batteries for boats). The batteries will be recharged using a solar panel mounted nearby.


From sketches, to nuts and bolts.

A test rig has been put together, and is now running at an outdoor site on campus. The main issues I’ll be keeping an eye on during this test include insuring the system records all the data it’s supposed to, when it’s supposed to, that the data makes sense and the sensors aren’t interfering with each other, and that a few cloudy days don’t cause my power system to flat line. Below are some images of the sensors I’m using and what they are for. For anyone interested, I intend to go into a little more detail on the science behind the project in future posts. I’m no expert though, so it should all be fairly readable!


Above and below views of the four component radiometer. This sensor measures incoming short and long wave radiation (from the sun, clouds etc) using the two instruments on top, and also outgoing short and long wave radiation reflected or emitted by the glacier using the bottom facing instruments. The balance of incoming and outgoing radiation is one of the most important controls of glacier surface energy.


The sensors for measuring air temperature and humidity are housed in beehive-like enclosures known as radiation shields. These white shields protect the sensors from direct heating by the sun or excessive cooling at night (which would cause inaccurate readings), while still allowing the air to flow past the sensor and be measured.


The snow depth sensor (also known as a sonic ranger) measures the time it takes for a sound wave to travel from the sensor down to the surface and back. Changes in the length of time taken equate to changes in the height of the snow/ice surface. In this study, it will be used to measure the rate of surface melting on the glacier, and it will be mounted on a separate fixed mast to the other sensors.


The wind sensor measures wind speed by the rate at which the propeller at the front is rotated by the wind, and the wind direction by which way the wind turns the sensor (it is designed so that the propeller end will always turn to face the direction of the oncoming wind).


This is a combined sensor which measures both the movement of air (wind), and its water content. The two claw-like structures make up the wind sensor, which is known as a 3D sonic anemometer. It measures wind speed or air movement in three dimensions. The two lenses in between this sensor make up the gas analyser, which uses an infrared beam to estimate the water content of the air flowing past. This sensor will be used to observe the the air currents or eddies which can transport heat and water to and from a glacier surface. These measurements are one of the more unique aspects of this project, know as the eddy covariance technique, and will be explained in greater detail in future posts.


The brains of the operation: the data logger (top right) has been programmed to communicate with each sensor, telling it how and when to take measurements, and saving the data produced. The white box to its left controls how power from the solar panel (below) recharges the batteries.


All going to plan, we will travel to the glacier and install the weather station this July. There will be some modifications and additions leading up to this, including a new custom made 4 legged ‘tripod’ (quadpod?), and a timelapse camera system which I will be building in the meantime. Many more hours in the lab and office will be required to get everything ready, but from this campus, reminders for why we are doing this are never far away.

Looking north from UBC campus towards the peaks of Tetrahedron Provincial Park.