This is a piece about field work I did in Svalbard in 2010. I’m not sure it really belongs here, but I hope it is interesting to read about what Arctic fieldwork is really like. I have been tremendously lucky to have had several opportunities to work in the Arctic, but as I hope this makes clear, it’s quite often a big slog with uncertain outcomes.
The sun rises early in March in Svalbard but it is not yet hitting the town, we are before the Solfest in Longyearbyen, and I am lying in bed alternately wishing I could sleep longer and being hugely excited at the prospect of getting out in the field again. With the light comes the cold, it is -26C outside with a fresh wind and some light snow falling, not brilliant weather for fieldwork. I am 12 weeks pregnant and the nausea comes early and remains all day but I hope the cold dry air on the glacier will help. In spite of that, I know my fieldwork opportunities will likely significantly reduce when the baby arrives so I’m determined to do one last big trip.
Down at UNIS (the university centre on Svalbard), our boxes are already packed with equipment, we just need to get them on the sledges, pick up our snowscooters and go. This is prime fieldwork and study time and the logistics centre is bustling with students, excited to be out on their first trip, and the long-termers getting ready to set up experiments. I’ve already got my scooter gear sorted out, huge padded suit, enormous padded boots, crash helmet, thin woollen undergloves, leather gauntlets, neoprene face mask. It feels a bit ridiculous inside but I know I’ll need it later on the scooter and the glacier.
Packing a sledge is an artform, one which, over the course of the week, I will gradually start to master, but for now I’m pretty useless and just try and hold stuff when asked and keep out the way while my colleague C gets on with showing me how it’s done.
Finally, we’re off, later, as usual, than we’d wanted, but all the kit is with us and we’re making good time. Our route intially lies up Adventdalen (named for the old whaler Adventure which explored this area). In summer this is a more-or less impassable morass of braided streams, gravel, mud and silt, glacially scoured rocks brought down by an ever shifting river. When the cold comes, and the river and the soil freeze, and then the snow falls, this is the main highway out of town.
We follow a long straight line of multiple overlaid scooter trails; riding a scooter is like riding a motorbike, fast, loud and exciting. I get up to 80km/h on the straight, in spite of towing a trailer, and wonder vaguely if the foetus can feel the vibrations. I thank UNIS silently for having such good kit, the heated handlebars of the scooter are essential, and in spite of the boots my feet are already getting chilly, I remember to wiggle my toes to keep them warm and, as we peel away from the main trails and slowly motor up ever narrower valleys and gullies, I lift my goggles momentarily to allow the frozen condensation on the inside to clear.
We are heading to Tellbreen (breen meaning the glacier in Norwegian, the “tell” in question being, I suspect, William Tell), a small and rather unimportant glacier about an hour and a half from Longyearbyen. A number of small and unrelated projects are going on there this year and there is a weather station lower down that we will be using. We will be working very high up on the glacier near the col at the top where the glacier divides in two. It falls fairly steeply down from this point and I struggle to get the scooter with the trailer up. I realise too late I haven’t given it enough power and there is a slow inevitable deceleration as the scooter digs itself into the soft snow. Fresh soft snow on a slope is the hardest for a scooter to deal with and I have just made the classic mistake. I determine not to make it worse and wait for my colleague C to return with the spade. You don’t drive anywhere in Svalbard without a spade. It’s not a bad dig-in and within half an hour we’re finally at the top of the glacier.
C and a student came out in late Autumn and put two tarpaulins on the glacier surface. These will be the baselines for our experiments. Their positions marked with 2m long bamboo canes. Very little of the canes are showing through the snow and it takes us a while to locate them. The wind is getting fresher and blowing snow through the pass, we are in an incredibly exposed position and I am even more thankful for UNIS equipment. Our first task is to dig a work trench. This will give us protection from the wind but will also be where we stick our temperature sensors into the snow. We will be placing two large water canisters in the snow pack and letting the water, with a dye added, drip through the snow and refreeze. At the second site the canister will be directly on the glacier surface. The temperature sensors will record the effect the water has on the snow temperature at different depths. At the end of the experiments we will dig through the snow to find the ice, record how far it has run and how thick it is. The dye will tell us on which day the water ran through.
It sounds like a simple and very esoteric set of experiments, but it is actually intended to help us shed light on a very difficult problem. Most of the glaciers in the Arctic melt, at least partly, in summer, but the water does not run off, it refreezes in the snow or on the surface of the glacier, forming superimposed ice. It is almost impossible to distinguish superimposed ice from normal glacier ice remotely so while we can measure melt directly by satellite, we have little idea how much of it remains on the glacier and how much is lost to the ocean. The GRACE and GOCE missions give us another way to measure mass loss over large regions but for climate models like the one I run in Denmark, where we make future projections of glaciated regions, we still need to factor this in. The work C and I are engaged in is aimed at developing an approximation we can put into the model to take this into account. In Antarctica the problem doesn’t occur as most of the glaciers there don’t melt.
We have brought a snow blower with us to plough the snow away and it is making short work of the trench, there is still a lot of digging to do though, and I reflect that whenever I am in the Arctic I seem to find myself doing a lot of digging either for latrine pits, to examine glacier sediments or to clear snow. At the Greenland ice core sites high up on the ice sheet, famously the first thing you’re given when you arrive is a spade.
I try and cut some blocks of snow to use as a wall against the wind but the snow is too soft and my efforts are only partly successful. Thankfully though, C had thought to bring some wide boards and we use these to cover the trench so we can work sheltered from the howling wind. It has taken us almost all day to dig the trench and the hole for the first water canister. Now it’s starting to get dark and we really need to leave before driving down the glacier gets too hazardous. We hurriedly stick the sensors in the snow pack, I’ll have to measure the spacings accurately tomorrow, fill the canister with dye and warm(ish) water and open the tap to a dripping position. As the wind gets even stronger we cover over the trench as far as we can, gather our stuff, shouting at each other to be heard over the wind and get out of there.
By the time we’re off the glacier it’s almost completely dark and I am grateful for the strong headlights on the scooter, even so it’s a much slower trip back as we carefully try to avoid the rocks and hard ice chunks that litter the track. I am exhausted with the work and the fatigue of early pregnancy, but high as a kite with the successful completion of the work we’ve managed today – I wasn’t sure we’d manage as much as we did. Tomorrow we do the second experiment, but for now it’s time for a beer (for C) and an orange juice a big plate of chips and a hamburger in the pub for me. I had barely managed to eat anything all day, it’s too cold and I simply wasn’t hungry enough to attempt it. I am extremely thirsty, the work was physical and sweaty, but in the cold you don’t feel the thirst, and I always forget to drink.
I fall into bed at 10pm, ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
To be continued….