Tag Archives: Research

Seasons of Ice: Part 1 Spring

As Irish skiers go, I’m pretty average, which is to say, I’m a bad skier. I can survival ski down most things, but the grace and elegance that the residents of my current home display on the slopes still eludes me. The benefits of learning to ski before developing risk awareness is all too apparent.

This was on mind when talking over the phone with Ben Pelto (University of Northern British Columbia). Those of you who have read other posts on this blog will know that Ben and I regularly work together during our summer fieldwork campaigns on the glaciers of BC (see On Conrad Glacier: Part 1 and Part 2). It was January, and we were discussing plans for a spring trip to the mountains, specifically Conrad Glacier, to observe how the winter had treated the glacier, and to scout out locations for the coming summer’s deployment of my weather stations. We were also planning to perform scans of the glacier using a ground penetrating radar (GPR), which would provide us with information on how thick the ice is, and the general shape of the underlying bed. This would all require some serious skiing.

Three months later, I am on a familiar road. With skis and camping gear in the back, I’m winding my way along the 750 odd kilometers from Vancouver to Golden, in eastern BC. Tonight, I’m meeting Ben and his sister, Jill, before an early morning helicopter flight to the ice.

 

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Stopping off at Roger’s Pass, en route to Golden.

 

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Morning of departure at the Alpine Heli base, with Jill and Ben.

 

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Happy for our mechanical problems to happen on the ground.

 

After a brief delay to fix a clogged spark plug, we were in the skies above the Purcell Mountains, in good flying weather. It was my first time taking this journey in what were essentially winter conditions, and I was glued to the window as we maneuvered between the snow-covered peaks. We landed on the west flank of Conrad Glacier at 2,300m. Our campsite overlooked the jagged crevasses of the icefall that lay above our summer field sites. We dug out level platforms in the snow for our tents, and built up walls on the upper side to keep out the cold, downhill ‘katabatic’ winds that can develop on glaciers at night. In the front vestibules, we dug out lower platforms for storing gear, and putting on our boots in the mornings. Finally, we dug out a table and benches, and pitched a tarp over it to serve as our kitchen.

 

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Home.

 

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Our mess tent. The option to get out of the elements for awhile to cook and eat can make all the difference.

 

One of the main goals for this trip was to get an idea of how much snow the glacier had received over the winter, and how much water this snow will produce if it melts in the  summer. To this end, we needed to take regular measurements across the glacier of the depth of this season’s snow, and its density. After setting camp on the first day, we skied down to the terminus of the glacier, and took a series of these measurements as we moved back up the slope. The weather was mild, and we were surprised to find a well developed melt water stream this early in the season, carving a channel into the surface snow. In the weeks preceding our trip, we had been keeping an eye on data from snow sensors located on mountains in this region. The early onset of spring was resulting in some significant snow melt, and the question on our minds was whether 2016 would prove to be as detrimental to the glaciers in this region as the record losses of 2015.

Late in the afternoon, with the weather beginning to turn, we pushed back to the shelter of our camp. After a warm meal, we watched the skies clear and felt the temperatures drop as the indigo twilight turned into a star filled mountain night.

 

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Ben and Jill, ascending past an icefall on the glacier.

 

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Ben, probing the snow depth to determine how much the glacier had received over the winter.

 

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A well developed melt stream (supraglacial channel) was a surprise find this early in the year.

 

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Returning to camp just as the weather began to close in.

 

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Nights fall on our Conrad spring camp.

 

Day two saw the beginning of our radar campaign. Our objective was to ascend to the upper plateau of Conrad, taking measurements along the way. The GPR system consists of a transmitter, and a receiver, each mounted on skis, with antenna extending out in between. The transmitter sends out a pulse of energy that passes down through the ice, and reflects off the bedrock underneath. The reflected energy is detected by the receiver, and the time taken by the pulse to travel to the bed and back tells us how thick the ice is. That’s the theory. The practical involves hauling this system over large swaths of the glacier, up steep slopes and icefalls, and around crevasses, trying to keep the system in line as much as possible. The relatively mild temperatures and strong sunshine made the hauling difficult, with the sleds prone to digging into the soft snow and tipping over. Despite this, we managed to cover significant ground with the radar, completing day trips of over 20km in some cases. Descending with the GPR was always an interesting experience, generally completed at the end of the day when we were returning to camp with already tired legs. We needed to act as brakes to stop the system from torpedoing down the mountain, requiring us to snowplow in our skis for kilometers downhill at a time, quad muscles screaming.

 

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Ascending Conrad towards the upper icefall, with the GPR in tow.

 

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Myself and Ben hauling the GPR across the stunning upper plateau of Conrad (Pic: Jill Pelto).

 

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Shared slopes. We came across these wolverine tracks in the snow at 2,900m.

 

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Cloud streams across the faces of the surrounding peaks.

 

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Probing the snow depth as we moved up the glacier (Pic: Ben Pelto).

 

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Completing a GPR survey on the glacier close to camp.

 

Our days on the glacier continued with combined snow depth/density measurements and GPR surveys. Working on the upper plateau of Conrad, the expanse of mountainous terrain around us was astounding. On every degree of the compass, snow covered peaks jostled for space on the horizon, like some jagged, storm blown ocean. A thought that keeps returning to me when working in these places, is what a privilege it is to be afforded such isolation and space in what is an increasingly crowded world. No traffic, sirens, voices, bleeping phones, or engines (apart from the occasional helicopter). To have access to the culture and community that living in a society provides is a great thing, but I am grateful for these opportunities to exist in solitude with nothing but survival and science to drive us on.

On one of our last days on the upper section of the glacier, we continued to record snow depth values to well over 3,000m elevation, and decided to push on  to climb the summit of Mount Conrad; the peak which had loomed over us as we worked. We ascended on skies to within 50m or so of the 3,290 summit, before shedding our gear and scrambling the rock and snow of the final section. We climbed in beautiful weather (as had been the case for most of the trip; very unusual for Conrad), and our view from the summit was unimpeded in all directions. Turning from the summit, my thoughts were now fully occupied by the ski descent necessary to get off the mountain. The conversation I had had with Ben in January regarding my ski experience was echoing in my head as I clipped into my skis, and double checked my bindings. This was steep for me, but hesitating or leaning back would be the wrong option. I watched Ben and Jill drop in, took a solid breath, and followed.

 

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Ben, checking some gear, on the ascent of Mount Conrad.

 

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On the summit, looking south into Bugaboo Provincial Park; a climbing mecca I had visited a year previously.

 

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My view from the top, prior to our ski descent.

 

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On a very fun section of the descent back to camp. The beautifully symmetrical ski tracks are not mine (Pic: Ben Pelto).

 

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Below the tumbled walls of one of the icefalls we passed through on the return to camp.

 

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Light from a low sun highlights the textures of the glacier.

 

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Back at camp after another rewarding day.

 

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Ski boots that aren’t your own can be unforgiving on long touring days, but it was little to complain about.

 

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Looking north down the valley as the day ends.

 

Our spring visit to Conrad had been very successful, with a wealth of snow and ice thickness data recorded over much of the glacier. Throughout our travels , I had been scouting for potential sites for installing the weather stations in the summer; just two short months away. One would be deployed in a similar location to last year; lower on the glacier in the ablation zone (the area on a glacier where more ice/snow is lost than gained from year to year). The other would be a more ambitious venture. The upper plateau at 3,000m would provide a unique and intriguing location to gain information on the glacier’s weather and melt relationships. It would also present a much harsher environment to operate in. Would we get a decent enough weather window to allow us to install the equipment (several days work), and if so, could the system withstand a season in tough and, as of yet, untested conditions? We would find out soon enough.

 

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The moon sets behind Conrad as another day begins.

 

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‘What are men to rocks and mountains’? Ascending a western branch of the glacier.

 

Up Next: Part 2 Summer

On Conrad Glacier: Part 2, and life since

There’s a buzzing coming from somewhere. I switch off my two-way radio, expecting that to be the culprit, but the sound continues. We’re on the glacier, in the middle of dismantling the second weather station, with cloud rolling in around us. I’m still looking to find the source of the noise, when I feel the hair on my arms start to rise.

Static. A build up of electrical charge induced by the clouds above. A precursor to a lightning strike. The noise is me; I’m buzzing, along with the metallic objects strewn around us. Stepping away from any potential lightning conductors, and slipping off my climbing harness with all its dangling metal, we wait for the clouds to pass us by.

 

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Stopping to take in the view at Roger’s Pass, on the road to Golden, BC.

 

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve sat down to write here, and a brief update was needed to bring things up to speed. Eight months have passed since our run in with the electrical storm on Conrad glacier, and much has happened in the interim. Conferences, comprehensive exams, trips home, film competitions.  More importantly, 2015 was confirmed as the warmest year on record; taking the mantle from the previous record holder, 2014. Months before this was confirmed however, the evidence was showing itself to us in the mountains.

 

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Low cloud and convective storms delayed our flight into the mountains by a couple of days.

 

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Unloading the helicopter after touching down. Our campsite was on a nunatak (rocky outcrop surrounded by ice) on the west edge of Conrad Glacier. (Photo credit: M.Mortezapour)

 

We had returned to Conrad Glacier in early September to dismantle the weather stations that had been in place all summer (see On Conrad Glacier: Part 1). They had been simultaneously recording the weather conditions and rate of ice melt over the season, in a hope to better understand what was powering the melt. Our party of 5 consisted of Ben Pelto, Brian Menounos, and Marzieh Mortezapour from UNBC, Clemens Schannwell (a visiting grad student from the University of Birmingham), and myself. The glacier greeted us with its usual box of atmospheric treats, alternating between showers of snow, hail, and rain, and the ever present katabatic wind. Camp was set on the rocky margins of the glacier, from where we would set out each morning to work on the stations and take measurements of how the glacier had responded to the summer.

 

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Our autumn campsite.

 

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Blue dawn.

 

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The Mess tent.

 

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Cold breakfast. Brian, Ben, Clemens, and Marzieh getting fueled up for the day.

 

I was delighted and greatly relieved to find both my stations operating when we reached them. As had been the case the previous year, I had no way to check on them over the two months since they had been installed on the mountain, and like an anxious parent, I’d had them on mind for much of this time. The data from Conrad (which is still being analysed), along with the observations by Ben on a series of glaciers in BC (and those from glaciologists throughout the region) told the story of what was the worst year for glacier loss since monitoring began.

 

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Reunion. Station 1, still working away after two hard months in the elements.

 

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The team, taking a moment to absorb a brief dose of sunshine.

 

The footage from the time lapse camera I had installed gives a clear impression of the speed of the melt, while only accounting for a portion (54 days) of what was a long melt season. The significant ice loss of summer 2015 made the Canadian news stations, with the footage appearing in CBC’s ‘The National‘, and on Global News television.

 

The end of the 2015 field season marked the beginning of preparations for my proposal defense, and is my main excuse for being absent from here for so long. Essentially, this process involves defining the final goals of your PhD, and convincing your supervisor and a panel of professors that you and your research are up to scratch, and that the project is worthwhile and moving in the right direction. Since getting over this hurdle, I’ve been working on my first paper, looking at the relationships between weather and melt on Nordic Glacier (see Notes from Nordic), and had a surprisingly successful entry into the NSERC Science Action film competition.

But the calendar, as always, has flicked around rapidly, and I am again preparing for the summer’s field campaign; complete with new challenges and objectives. All going to plan, this may well be the last campaign of my PhD. I hope to start posting frequently again, and to give brief updates on the science, why it’s relevant, and the life behind it.

 

Up Next: I’ve just returned from some spring field work on Conrad Glacier; spectacular conditions and views, but with ominous signs for the melt season ahead. Report coming soon.

On Conrad Glacier: Part 1

High on a mountain glacier, sheltering from a thunderstorm. With hail and wind buffeting the blue plastic tarp I’m clutching on to, and lightning cracking above, I realise that the boxes I’m sitting on contain several large high capacity batteries. My science teachers would be proud.

Four months earlier, I had returned to Vancouver from Svalbard, and an arctic winter that I will never forget. Touching down in YVR airport though, my mind was already on the list of ideas and tasks that would need to be tackled before fieldwork in July. My field campaign on Nordic Glacier last summer (see Notes from Nordic and Return to the Field) had been successful, but this season would present a whole host of new challenges. New glacier, new sensors, new objectives.

The overall goal of my project remains the same; to measure the weather conditions over a glacier surface, and to better understand how these conditions affect melt rates. One of the main differences for this year was that two stations would be installed on the glacier rather than one. The idea behind this is to see how weather and energy patterns vary across different points on the surface of the glacier, and how this in turn affects melting. This would mean a doubling of the number of sensors that would need to be prepared and tested.

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Test set up of the two stations for the 2015 field campaign, on the grounds of the University of British Columbia (UBC).

 

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Feeling like a roadie: some of the gear that makes up one station.

 

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One of the (mostly) complete stations, in testing at UBC.

 

One of the more challenging aspects of last year’s campaign was ensuring the station remained powered throughout the summer. The nature of mountain weather means that persistent cloud can prevent a solar power system from providing enough energy to the sensors. In addition to doubling the number of stations this year, each station was fitted with a new, power hungry system for measuring turbulent air flow (an important mechanism for transferring heat between the atmosphere and glacier). The upshot is that a total of 12 large boat batteries and 4 solar panels are required this time in the hope of keeping everything beeping and recording over the season.

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Each station was fitted with two 140W solar panels.

 

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Modifying the Pelican cases. Each of these cases will house 3 large batteries for powering the stations.

 

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Packing up in the lab, on the night before departure.

 

This year’s destination is Conrad Glacier, in  the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. I had visited Conrad at the end of last season to scout it out as a potential research site. Aside from its scientific merits, it is a beautiful part of the world; flanked by snow covered peaks, with forested valleys below and miles without engines. Named after Conrad Kain, a pioneering Austrian mountaineer who unlocked several first ascents  in this area, the glacier is one of many in this region at risk of total disappearance.  A recent study has forecast a 70% loss of BC’s glaciers this century, with almost total deglaciation in this region. Apart from global consequences to sea level rise, the loss of a glacier is the loss of a large water reservoir, putting pressure on ecosystems and communities (who use the water for drinking, irrigation, and hydro-power) during dry periods like we’ve had here this summer.

Being just a short journey south from last year’s glacier (Nordic), we would again base ourselves in the town of Golden prior to our flight into the mountains. After spending a day on the always spectacular drive from Vancouver to Golden, Valentina and I met up with Ben, a glaciologist from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) who would be joining us. Over some excellent burgers, we also had the chance to catch up with Tannis and Steve, friends of ours who run a ski lodge in the area, and have been consistently helpful. The plan for the next day was to drive to a staging area in the foothills to the south of Golden, and get all our gear into the mountains in as few chopper loads as possible (with thanks as always to Steve for his expertise on this).

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A van-load of science: hitting the road for Golden, BC.

 

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At the staging site, waiting for the helicopter to take us to the glacier, with Steve, Ben, and Valentina.

 

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Still waiting

 

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Summer snow storm, clearing over Conrad Glacier

 

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Directing in the first sling load for station 1 (photo credit: Ben Pelto)

 

Three helicopter flights (and some delays) later, all crew and equipment were accounted for on Conrad. Our campsite was just off the ice itself, on a rocky outcrop overlooking the glacier. The first evening was a battle against the weather to get tents set up in between heavy showers and gusty winds. Dinner was a simple affair, with everyone retiring to their sleeping bags early; sleep coming to the sound of fluttering tent fabric.

After breakfast the next morning, we set about finding the best route from camp on to the glacier; navigating the broken and crevassed ice along the glacier margin. Two locations had been selected for station 1 and 2 not far from camp. Each station would take about two days to install, with some additional time to prepare and secure everything for a season in the mountains.

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Camp, overlooking the glacier on the western nunatak (rock outcrop).

 

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Setting a safety rope for one of the sketchier sections of our route (photo credit: Ben Pelto).

 

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Ben and Valentina drilling holes

 

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The bones of a station.

 

 

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Working my way through the sensors and wiring (photo credit: Ben Pelto).

 

The weather had a constant presence throughout the week, with wind, thunder and snow storms slowing the work somewhat, and making cooking a frigid task at the end of the day. Despite what felt like a cold spell to us, it was clear as soon as we saw the glacier that it was experiencing a warm season. In combination with low snowfall during the winter, warm temperatures had resulted in significant melt across the surface by the time we had arrived. Although close to what would normally be the beginning of the melt season, this year’s snow had already completely melted up to the high regions of the glacier.

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Ben, getting a drink from one of the many melt water streams on the glacier

 

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Wiring the radiometer, which measures the incoming radiation energy from the sun and sky, and the outgoing radiation from the glacier surface.

 

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Setting up the power system for one of the stations.

 

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The brains of the operation. Wiring up the datalogger, which is programmed to store all the data from the station, and to tell the sensors when to take measurements.

 

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Sheltering from another hail storm

 

With the stations coming together, Ben and I ventured higher up the glacier, and spent an afternoon installing ablation stakes. These stakes, installed along the length of the glacier, provided a record of how many meters of ice are lost or gained at the surface each year, and give an indication of the health or mass balance of the glacier (see Svalbard Part 2: Balancing Act). During the week on Conrad, Ben was also involved in carrying out a kinematic survey; using detailed GPS measurements to create a map of the glacier.

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Ben, navigating a crevasse field.

 

Due to weather delays, the final tasks for installing the stations were completed in the last few hours of the trip. With the helicopter due to pick us up that afternoon, I got moving early on the last day,  and headed on to the ice before dawn to shore up the last few pieces of equipment from the elements, and to make sure all the systems were behaving. In the end, two full weather stations were installed, along with a time lapse camera to monitor conditions over the season.

 

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A completed station (solar panels out of shot). This was the lower of the two stations, at around 2,130 meters elevation.

 

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Time lapse camera, for observing the weather conditions on the glacier, and for keeping track of changes to the surface and the stations themselves.

 

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Loading the helicopter for the journey back to civilisation, and a warm shower.

 

It remains to be seen how the the glacier will respond to this year’s melt season, and on a personal level, how all the equipment will perform. A good or bad field campaign will have a major impact on the timeline for my studies and on the goals I hope to achieve.  As our chopper lifted off from our disassembled camp and sped down the valley, I took one last glimpse at the stations and the glacier itself, before my eyes turned to home and my mind to the plan for the next trip.

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The sun dipping below the peaks on the western margin of Conrad Glacier.

 

A Note of Thanks: Just prior to leaving for field work, I received word that I was being awarded the Chih-Chuang and Yien-Ying Wang Hsieh Memorial Scholarship for research in Atmospheric Science. A sincere thank you to the Hsieh family. I was honoured to received it.

 

UP NEXT: The return to Conrad, and what we found.

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.

 

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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.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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A glacier prayer

 

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Departing Tunabreen

 

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Surge front of Paulabreen

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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Morning view after an overnight snow storm

 

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One last venture into the mountains before leaving the Arctic.

 

 

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Summit ridge of Trollsteinen

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Digging a snowpit to examine the layers of snow

 

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Measuring the density of the snowpack

 

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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.

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Approaching dog teams

 

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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.

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Tunnel to the inside of a glacier

 

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Traveling through a meltwater channel inside the glacier

 

 

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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.

 

 

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In the heart of a glacier

 

Up next: Exploring the surrounding mountains in the search for sun.

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.

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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)

 

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Loading the helicopter.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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The Wedding Band.

 

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

 

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

 

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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.

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

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sunset on Nordic mountain.

 

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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.

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

 

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

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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.

 

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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.