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.
Waiting at the gate at Anchorage Airport, my phone beeps to life. I had spent the last two weeks in Alaska, without phone or internet coverage, and was looking forward to having a little time off back in Vancouver before the end of the summer. My phone disagrees.
A few short days later, I’m sitting behind the wheel of a pick up truck on the road to Golden, and Nordic glacier (see Notes from Nordic). 740km of driving solo in one afternoon was certainly a first for me. This isn’t surprising when you consider that I come from a country that can be crossed three and a half times in that distance. It is quite a road though; the landscape constantly evolving between mountains, forests, and arid plains. Back at the airport, I had received a backlog of emails advising me that a research team from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) were planning to travel to Nordic earlier than expected. Before leaving for Alaska, the plan had been to return to the glacier in mid September in order to dismantle and collect my equipment. Now, if I wanted to get back to my station this season, I needed to be on the helicopter flight tomorrow morning.
I made it into Golden after dark, with the silent flashes of distant thunderstorms hinting at what the weather would have in store for us. Once again, I was being hosted by Tannis and Steve (of Sorcerer Lodge), and was grateful for a place to sleep that night. A short drive to the helicopter early the next morning, and we were on our way back into the mountains. We were a group of five; Rob Vogt and Ben Pelto from UNBC, Bob Sawyer, Steve, and myself.
The last I had seen of my station had been in early July as we were flying out after installing the equipment. Thoughts of failed power systems, wiring mistakes, and crevasses opening underneath had been frequently on my mind in the intervening period. They were certainly on my mind that morning as Steve and I hiked up to the glacier. Ascending a ridge of ice, I could see emerging above me the rotating propeller of the wind sensor on the top of the station. So, it was still standing at least. As we approached closer, I could hear the low hum of one of the sensors, meaning power was still being supplied. So far so good. A quick check of the data logger (device for storing the measurements from the sensors) showed no obvious gaps in the data. More serious investigation would be left for the lab back in Vancouver, but I was delighted with that much.
When designing each aspect of the station (see The Project), the fact that the glacier surface would be constantly melting and changing was always kept in mind. Seeing the change in reality, however, after such a short period of time was still a shock. Equipment that I had installed while crouched on my knees was now towering above me, stranded high on 4 meter poles that had been fully submerged in the ice 48 days previously.
It took a day and a half to dismantle the station, and to pack everything up for transport out by helicopter. It would have taken significantly longer without Steve’s assistance throughout. With the last minute nature of this trip, I had thought that I would be tackling the station on my own, and I would probably be still up there trying to extract frozen pipes had that been the case.
I had been really curious (and nervous) to see how the camera had performed over the summer (see A Camera for all Seasons). For one reason, it would be a really useful source of information when it came to examining the data. Also, as I had built it, I would have no one to blame but myself if it hadn’t worked. Opening the case back in the lodge that night, the camera passed the first test; it switched on. Quickly checking through the pictures, the most recent image had been taken just a few minutes earlier as I was taking off my boots. Overall, the camera performed well, with just one day where it failed to shoot (looking into that). I’ve stitched the images together into the short timelapse video below, to give an idea of the changes taking place.
(Best viewed in full screen and HD)
On the third day, I joined Rob, Bob, and Ben (seriously), and assisted with their work on the glacier. In order to monitor the loss or gain of ice over the glacier surface (known as it’s mass balance), a common method is to drill a series of stakes along the central line of the glacier (usually every 100 meters of elevation). These ‘ablation’ stakes are inserted deep into the snow or ice, with just their tops emerging. The stakes are visited at the same time the following year, and the change in the level of the glacier surface relative to the stake is measured. We spent most of the day installing stakes, and also a sensor in one of the streams emerging from the base of the glacier, to monitor temperature changes of the melt water.
I had agreed to stay on after the work on Nordic, and to assist Ben and Bob with an ablation stake campaign on Conrad Glacier. I was also interested in assessing Conrad (also in the Selkirk mountains) as a potential location for installing a station next summer. Between flying down from Nordic and setting out for Conrad, we had a couple of enforced rest days. Low cloud meant that visibility was too poor for the helicopter, so we hung out in Golden, and Steve took us around some of the local mountain bike trails.
A window of clear skies two days later gave us a few hours to fly to Conrad, and set up camp. The following are some images from our time there, and of the work we were involved in.
I really enjoyed my time on Conrad. With my own project wrapped up on Nordic, I was better able to connect with the landscapes around me. This was wilderness; rock, ice, water, and weather, with little to distract from it. With night temperatures below zero, and winds that spoke of snow, it was clear that the summer was ending, and it was a beautiful location to bid it farewell for this year. The last day was an epic. We rose at 6 to piercing blue skies, and spent the morning installing the remaining stakes higher up on the glacier. We returned to break up camp, and were picked up by helicopter at 3. It was 5:30 before I was pulling out of Golden, with the drive back to Vancouver ahead of me. Arriving at the University shortly after 3am, I unloaded the equipment as quickly as possible, and was thankful that my running in and out of the building with expensive equipment did not alert the suspicions of security.
The main purpose of the field work was to obtain data. So in some ways, the work is really only beginning, and will continue throughout the winter, in the office and the lab. This summer’s campaign was just the first of several before the research questions of my PhD can, hopefully, be answered. However, a PhD can be filled with lots of missteps and wrong turns, so it’s important to recognise and appreciate when things go well. A solid first step. One down.