Dr Rob Storrar
This summer I travelled to Svalbard: an archipelago of Islands associated with Norway but sitting on their own way out in the Arctic Ocean. I was there on a project that aimed to investigate how liquid water travels beneath glaciers, which becomes increasingly important as the climate warms. The project is called TREBLE (TRacing Eskers Beneath gLaciErs) and was jointly funded by the EU, Sheffield Hallam University, Queens University Belfast, and Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland. This post is an account of the challenges faced whilst doing fieldwork in remote places.
The contrivances of airline timings meant that it took us two whole days to get to Svalbard, despite the fact that it is only ~4.5 hours of flying from the UK. Nevertheless, we landed in Longyearbyen excited to make our way to camp and get on with the project. It turns out this excitement was rather premature. Our project relied on two pieces of equipment: a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to survey underneath the glacier, and a drone to survey the glacier surface. Our first job was to find the GPR which had been shipped over separately. Having located it at the port we went back to the hotel. Being conscientious scientists, we planned to test the equipment before travelling on to camp. That is where the fun began.
The first test was the drone. It got up into the air with no problem, but very soon we encountered the first challenge with working at this location. We were about 78° north: 1,250 km from the geographic North Pole, 1,700 km from the magnetic North Pole and 1,700 km from the Geomagnetic North Pole (actually almost due west of us!). Confusing to anybody, let alone a drone. Relative to where we were, these different measures of north were quite a long way from each other. This meant that the drone’s on-board compass and GPS were sometimes, well, confused. Our first glimpse of this came when testing the drone. When not touching the controller, the drone should hover. Instead, the first thing it did was start flying, at speed, straight towards a mountain! Fortunately this was intermittent but it gave us our first glimpse into the difficulties that one can come across in these environments.
Hørbyebreen (pronounced Herby Brain), the glacier we studied on Svalbard. Note the locations of the magnetic, geographic and geomagnetic North Poles, which played havoc with our drone.
The next piece of kit to test was the GPR, which we hadn’t seen for a few weeks since shipping it out ahead of us. On unpacking it we soon found another challenge. The GPR consists of a long antenna, which is dragged along the ground behind you, and a control unit that is strapped to your chest. The control unit has two buttons: an on-off button, and a button that controls everything else. It was, of course, the second button that had been sheared off completely in transit. Due to go out to the site the following day, with no GPR and a temperamental drone, these were beginning to feel like desperate times. After some consideration, we tried gluing the switch back on. Obviously, this didn’t work. The next idea was to carefully remove the switch, so that we could operate it manually from a loose wire. This took some persuasion: first with a large kitchen knife, then a Swiss Army knife, then, finally, a hacksaw blade. Sawing into several thousand pounds worth of radar equipment is not something I had envisaged, but can now add to my CV. Somehow, this bodge job actually worked, and so we were able to go to bed relieved and with the prospect of at least doing some science.
Attacking the radar unit with a hacksaw blade (having previously attacked it with knives).
So the next day we boarded a tourist boat that would take us near to camp. En route we saw a Polar Bear and two cubs, across the fjord from our camp. Fortunately this turned out to be our only bear sighting; nevertheless we still had to lug round Second World War rifles wherever we went. Slightly heavy but very awkward to carry. From the tourist boat we were met by some Czech colleagues who took us over to their camp, situated in Petuniabukta (Petunia Bay), an incredible setting on the beach in a calm fjord, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, where we were to spend the next six nights.
Home from home
Actually, nights is something of a misnomer, as it never actually got dark. The first evening we were treated to an impromptu party courtesy of the Poles whose camp was next door. Piwo and wodka meant that our planned 4am start the following day was not realised. Czech-Polish-English guitar sing-alongs on the beach at midnight was an unexpected, surreal, but very pleasant start to the trip. We learned that in Svalbard, time is irrelevant. People were leaving to do a day’s work at 9pm, returning in the morning and going to sleep. For a brief 6 day trip, this was a strange way of life to adjust to.
First night celebrations
We got up bright and early at noon the following day to start to our research on the first day in the field. Unfortunately the weather was rather grim – persistent mizzle is close to the technical term. It is a hard 3-4 hour walk over rough terrain to the glacier, which was made all the more difficult by the heavy kit we were transporting, and the infernally uncomfortable rifles. Finally arriving at the glacier was a good feeling, and we got straight to work with the radar. The bodged fix to the switch worked fine for a couple of hours, allowing us to gather some useful data, but (perhaps inevitably), the mizzle got into the control unit and it didn’t work again for the rest of the trip. We returned at midnight, utterly exhausted, slightly downhearted that the GPR had given up, but happy to have some data. We were extremely pleased to return to find freshly made pizza and freshly baked cake! Utterly remarkable given the situation.
A soggy and gruelling walk in to the glacier (which is hiding in the cloud)
Using the GPR to survey beneath the glacier
The next day was glorious, but we were broken. Typical that if we had waited until this day to go out, the GPR probably wouldn’t have broken, but there you go – you can’t predict these things. An amble up the mountain near to camp was all we could manage.
The next two days were rained off, allowing us time to recover and devise a plan for the rest of the research, which was to collect a large amount of drone imagery that we could stitch together into a 3D model. The resident Czech meteorologist suggested that there may be a weather window one morning, but that rain would be coming in at lunchtime. We decided to aim for a 4am start. This may sound familiar, but I am pleased to report that this time we were away by 5am! We got to the glacier in perfect conditions at 8.30, gathered a large amount of excellent data, and left at lunchtime, just as it started to rain. Success!
3D model of the glacier. The blue squares show where the drone images were taken from.
Preparing to leave on the last morning, the weather took a turn for the worse and it started to snow, with a brisk wind coming in from the NE. An exciting Zodiac ride to a research boat later, we were on the way back. Feeling a mixture of exhaustion, elation at returning with some data, and regret at having to leave such a beautiful place, we arrived back to Longyearbyen for the long journey home.
The Arctic has just experienced two extremely warm summers and is changing dramatically before our eyes. Its glaciers are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for climate change: a particularly appropriate analogy for Svalbard, which has been extensively mined for coal. The future looks like it will hold even more change.