“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.
A glacier is more than an ice cube. Rather than being solid, uniform blocks, glaciers can have incredible variations throughout in terms of structure, temperature, and movement. The surface and the base of a glacier can communicate with each other, and the language of this communication is water.
When ice and snow on the surface of a glacier melts, it can produce a lot of water. Streams of this meltwater flow over the surface of a glacier during the warmer months of the year. These streams can cut or ‘erode’ into the glacier, creating paths or channels which the water flows through. Over time, these channels can cut deeper and deeper into the glacier, their roofs closing over to create tunnels through the ice which can bring the meltwater from the surface all the way down to the bottom of the glacier. This is important because increasing the amount of water underneath a glacier can encourage it to slide faster.
During the cold winter months, melt channels are generally dry. We had explored one of these channels previously on Scott Turnerbreen (see Svalbard Part 2: Balancing Act), and decided that some more time under the ice was needed. There had been reports of an excellent ice cave on Larsbreen, a glacier within an hour’s hike of Longyearbyen. So one Tuesday evening, with duties at UNIS finished for the day, Tom, Ellie, Jelte, and myself met on the outskirts of the village, and began the trek to the glacier. Our plan was to explore the cave for a few hours, and then being a bunch of idiots, to stay overnight inside the ice.
(A note on the images: the caves in the glacier were entirely dark, with our headlamps being the only source of light. Therefore, for me, much of the photography was experimental; playing around with shutter speeds, iso settings, and flashes, while avoiding damaging my camera too much when climbing and crawling. As always, click on images to see them in full resolution)
By the light of the moon, we found the entrance to the cave; first squeezing into a tunnel down through the overlying snow to get into the glacier itself. The passage through the ice twisted, widened, and narrowed, like a desert rock canyon; in sections coated in fragile crystal structures, then changing to smooth, swirled patterned walls like polished marble. We followed the channel as far as we could go, descending through a series of levels and passages until we were forced to stop at a major drop; the location of what would have been a waterfall during the melt season. We picked a spot where we could roll out our bags for a few hours, and returned to the surface for some frigid air before sleep. On the way to the surface, I had a ‘how did I get here’ moment; crawling out of a glacier through a snow tunnel in the middle of the night, with a rifle on my back to watch out for polar bears, and being greeted by the northern lights.
Our night in the glacier was a memorable experience, but it felt like the caves had a lot more to show us had we been willing to push a little further. A few days later, we returned to Larsbreen. Armed with ice climbing gear, Tom, Andi, and myself would attempt to work our way down some of the larger drops that had stalled us on the previous visit, and see how deep we could get.
We found the bed of the glacier, and it was an awe inspiring experience to have this entire mass of ice lying above us. My thanks to my like-minded companions on both trips for their company; the highlight of being in such incredible places is to share it with great people.
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.