Sunday, 26 July 2015

Tsanteleina-Soches part 2. or - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the cable tie

A second visit to the Tsanteleina Glacier last week and there are many things that I could talk about, relevant issues about ice that is disappearing underfoot, melt channels that are multiplying dramatically in the response to a very welcomed high pressure 'heat wave' over much of Europe in the last month.

A small version of the many supraglacial melt channels on the glacier

A view down-glacier where the edge of the snow is very slushy and flowing quickly away

Perhaps I could discuss the general annoyance at losing personal equipment, super unstable tripods not really standing up as hoped or the fact that the Kovacs ice drill is the most poorly designed piece of equipment that one (or sometimes two) person(s) could ever hope for, particularly when hands are readily cooled by those lovely katabatic winds.

no..... none of that comes close to the positive outlook I have to share about my one fundamental ,supreme piece of equipment, without which my fieldwork on the Tsanteleina-Soches so far may have left me rather saddened....

YES, the cable tie... tie-wrap, hose-tie, zip tie or even zap-strap if you prefer... arguably the best invention in the history of the cosmos.  If I could travel back to 1950's America and hug inventor Maurus C. Logan I would!

After we had misplaced or tripod bracket for the dataloggers last month our faithful friend cable tie was happy to jump to our aid.  After timelapse cameras decided to film the floor for the last 3 weeks a daisy-chained nylon cable construction was ready to assist.

At least 10 cable ties here!

To maintain the measurement accuracy of our ablation stake measurements (to measure melt of the glacier), those beautiful cable ties kindly held individual 1 metre pieces together to reduce wind effects when melt out occurred.

considering only 1 of 12 T-logger stations survived the last month standing after the snow disappeared to reveal a less smooth ice surface, cable-tying small boulders around the legs of the tripod should hopefully help to keep them upright until next month's field visit.

It COULD work :)

And when my crampons sadly became damaged and left me a little teary, you can guess which magical item saved the day... day after day!

It was put forward by Penny, a friend and fellow glaciologist at the University of Edinburgh that Duct tape is a glaciologist's best friend in the field (her blog here).... and while I was once a believer, I think my 1000x assortment of Clas Ohlson miracles keep my science going far better!

Probably some cable ties in this snow pit too :)

So for your ice-lovers out there, whether you are hiking, climbing, skiing or establishing a network of detailed meteorological observations, buy some cable ties..... do it NOW!  GO!!!!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Tsanteleina-Soches (a.k.a Project carry-lots-of-stuff) - Part 1

If I had to use one word to describe my recent fieldwork to Italian Alps it would be:


After much reading on man-hauling sleds in excess of 100kg across the Antarctic Plateau or the Greenland Ice Sheet I thought shifting half a dozen steel tripods and logger boxes up some moderate glacier slopes would be a breeze!  I have never been more wrong.  In fairness, some of the slopes were a tad more than moderate, and the snow conditions were such that snow-shoes were over-kill and without all energy was zapped from your legs by the snow.

Nevertheless, me and my crack team of Chilean experts: Flavia Burger and Oscar Espinoza, were up to the task and formed what I believe to be the first British-Chilean Olympic snow sled team.

With Oscar harnessed to the sled arms and myself with a rope improvised to the back of my climbing harness we pushed on for 20, 50 or 100 steps at a time before an intermission of heavy panting and sweating... 'breathtaking' scenery.   Fair to say we earned the several mountains of food our chef cooked us back at the refuge.... an army of us probably would struggle to finish the resultant quantity if I'm honest... though it was powerful fuel for our early 9:30 bedtime.... starting the process again the next morning, and the next.

The field season was an 85% success in my view.  15/17 stations were set up and 1/4 of stakes drilled.  The main issue arised from the time of year and the general weather conditions.  Because the snow cover, rapidly melting away when the sun eventually made an appearance, only extended to the front of the glacier (being mid-June) and required a 2 hour steep walk with back-packs- bordering on the comical -loaded with equipment.

Glacier hides away over the crest.. the walk takes around 2 hours from the Refuge dey Fond

One day I was a Chilean ice-cream salesman with a logger box strapped to my chest, the next I was broadcasting a new Italian radio station from a 3m weather station tripod sticking of my bag or a 2m sled making me look like a fieldwork turtle.  I particularly welcome fellow glaciologists and their own accounts/pictures of funny equipment carrying.  My own personal account below.

A return visit in around 10 days from now will aid in finishing the setup and drilling some ablation stakes - previously halted by time constraints and super-dense and wet snow.  A visit to our two full weather stations, 'Eddy' (named for the Eddy Covariance instrument attached -the star trek style thing) and 'Juan' (named because it was the first generic Spanish name that came to me) should hopefully provide an initial insight into meteorological conditions for the glacier..... finger crossed for good data! :)

Massive thanks to my fantastic field help Flavia and Oscar (and for the photos!).

Friday, 5 June 2015

Fieldwork round 2

Sometime since my travels to the colder side of things, and Svalbard, sadly seems like a distant memory.  Suddenly its June and temperatures have been far above my comfort zone…. +20°C!!!  From my parent’s spot in Northern France I stare at my trusty plastic Maplin weather station, mounted to the side of the house (kitted out with cup anemometer and all!) and contemplate the fieldwork for the summer ahead. 

Super hi tech weather station, sat on the side of my parent's house in France

Next week, Italian Alps season 2 begins, with a whole new glacier and its own challenges.  My project continues to investigate the effectiveness of simple assumptions about the temperature of the air above glacier ice, but this time without the metres of rock debris sitting on top (I do miss the crunch of the ice beneath crampons!).  The site in mind is the Glacier di Tsanteleina-Soches, a tiny 2.7km2 valley glacier in the Grande-Sassiere cluster, just the west of the Gran Paradiso National park at the limit of the Val di Rhemes.  This small site comes with a fair elevation range from ~2800-3450 metres above sea level and an area which can be well covered by monitoring equipment, a little more sophisticated than my Maplin setup in France.  I spend a few hours scanning around a digitalglobe Foundation image, the same as that used by Google Earth, though a more updated and high resolution version, in order to pick out sizeable crevasses that may a problem for me.  Taken in early September, 2014, the satellite image with the least amount of snow cover (~50% of the glacier) allows large crevassing to be detected at high stress zones which likely will be hidden by snow come next week’s trip.  It will be important to be roped up and navigate partly with GPS and generally hope that weather stations don’t decide to make a rapid exit from my survey down a frosty chasm, though the safety issues of this trip make me think strongly about other parts of the world. 

Digital globe imagery of the Tsanteleina Glacier and the surrounding area.  The thick black line is the interpreted outline of the glacier.  Top-right insert gives location of glacier within Western Europe.  Bottom-right insert shows debris on the lower tongue of glacier (image credit: Kirril Makarov).  Main imagery courtesy of the DigitalGlobe Foundation.  

The relative peace of my short holiday last week without phone, without internet and without email (which folks in academia love so) left me with some time for reading outside of journal articles and landed Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ aptly named book, ‘Cold’ on my lap.  Whilst enhancing my desire for a nice long ski-pulka trip across Antarctica, it emphasises the real mellow nature of my PhD excursions, Arctic or Alpine.  My hikes across ice with a DGPS or rifle in hand are most certainly a step up in risk assessment rating from a manager of a pillow factory, but its likelihood x severity ratings (including shooting oneself in the arse with a Ruger or racing an avalanche or polar bear down a steep hill) pale in comparison with some of Sir Ran’s adventures across treacherous crevasse fields or ice floes. 

My interests have most certainly been more directed to the glaciers and the ice rather than the mountains.  Their beauty is unparalleled for sure, ranging from Mont Blanc, glistenening above the masses in Chamonix, to my favourite friend, Hiorthfjellet, greeting my walk in to Longyearbyen every morning, but their high risk or over-popularity doesn’t interest me so.  The National Geographic article about the loss of life up on Everest and documentaries such as The Summit on the loss of life on K2 reinforce that this extreme is not for me.  

Yet, as recent tragedies of Nepal and its 7.8 (and successive 7.3) magnitude earthquake revealed, even in the valleys are immense dangers of the natural landscape realised.  A saddening tale of Langtang village close to the Lirung Glacier which was completely destroyed by landslides triggered by the quake.  I was not one involved in work in this region, though devastating reports from those who are echoed a sense of loss that normally feels distant through the news reports and less personal.  The scale of things in the Himalaya are certainly unmatched in the European Alps, though dangers above glaciers from falling ice or rock debris are commonplace (memories of evacuating our hotel in Italy return : see here). 

Dangers will likely be minimal this coming summer, though nothing shall ever be said too soon.  I’m looking forward to getting out there and collecting more data this year surrounded by another fantastic landscape, though I’ll always be dreaming that I’m somewhere a little more…. Extreme.  It’s possible that I'll provide some worthy scientific insight into a glacier that has nothing published about it, but unlikely that I’ll get a world record out of it J  Suggestions welcome!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

My Arctic Love

As a rather lazy man these days, I've been strongly neglecting my blog page, partly due to my inability to write worth a dam, but I've also been waiting to actually find something to write about.

After spending the last 5 weeks among snowy valleys, tidewater glaciers and a lot of like-minded folks, I still feel that I have very little to write.  And this stems only in part to my crappy writing style, but more so that it is difficult to put into words what Svalbard means to me.

The Norwegian Arctic Archipelago lies ~1500km north of TromsΓΈ in the Barents Sea and for the last 5 weeks and on previous occasions has been my home.  And I use 'home' not just as my location for more than a few days, but as somewhere which keeps bringing me back and somewhere that I feel genuinely attached to.  I often contemplate what it is that appeals so heavily to me.  I contemplate this on the 30 minute walk from the main town of Longyearbyen up to the old mining barracks where many of the students live... a journey which sees some pipes sticking out of the ground, a reasonable amount of traffic (some teenagers revving their snowscooters) and an occasional foul odour which lingers around the Gym Hall (I don't think it's people in Gym).  I further contemplate this when half of my daily energy, which is sapped due to the general lack of sun associated with time of year and cloud cover, is consumed by planning a simple trip up to a local peak due to acquiring a group size reasonable enough equipped with rifles, crampons, avalanche gear etc etc.

Yet when it all comes together when you reach a peak, the sun lifts itself above the valley and throws some much needed vitamin D your way!  When you take a scooter ride with many great friends to a glacier that you visited during summer.  It now looks completely different, and yet so familiar that you forget that you are currently standing on sea ice where previously you needed a boat to get the same view.  Or perhaps its the ability to abseil into the base of a glacier through a network of stunning tunnels which were successively carved deeper year by year from highly velocity melt water during the summer.

As I often like, I want to share some photos of said experiences as no one wants to read about cool things when you can see them.. Unfortunately the total number of pictures taken by me is == 0.  Thus I hope to rely upon a few borrowed (and credited) pictures of others whom I was generally with at the time and hope they don't mind too much.
First weekend - -22C, 25m/s wind, let's do the macarana (Photo -Mariana Esteves)

Igloo above an ice cave on Longyearbreen, I would totally live here (Photo - Saskia Gindraux)

Longyearbreen ice cave- interesting features eating my arm (photo -Jessica Scheick)

Scooter trip to ScottTurnerbreen during the first week (Photo - Noel Fitzpatrick)

Chilling above Gruve 2, some nice stars (Photo - Andi Alex)

My first northern lights, so awesome (Photo - Andi Alex)

Return of the Tunabreen... so good to be back, I was even considered a responsible person and thus awarded a bright orange jacket! :) (Photo - Michele Petrini)

Sad to now be sat in an empty room with bags yet again packed to leave behind my homely arctic island... until next time.

But to all those who have shared good times, good trips and good elevator parties with me over my time here, I say thank you, take care and ha det bra.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My new career 'posing' as a modeller

Holy crap... I've been in Newcastle almost a year now already!!... and a helluva good time it's been all in all.  But a year which has felt faster than Pine Island Glacier ( I know... what a sucky glaciologist reference to a fast flowing glacier), but as I am already officially into my second year of my PhD it gets you thinking about what has already been achieved and what milestones there are ahead... and what better time to reflect than a lazy afternoon on New Years Eve?

Back at my postgraduate induction to the conveyor belt that is the university system, a talk was given by a third year PhD student in engineering who spoke of the various moments where a big ?? comes into your thoughts of your PhD project.. why am I doing this?  Is it important?  Is there any point?  And surely enough, these questions are commonplace in my mind as I stare at a spreadsheet full of numbers or a Matlab script that is underlined in copious amounts of red squiggles that I don't fully comprehend just yet.
A great example of what a PhD is summed up by a few simple diagrams in blog post by Matt Might that I saw earlier this year here: 

The blip that is PhD research.. Sourced from above link

A small blip in the mad world that is research.... but something which contributes at least a little way.. and for me that little piece of a contribution is enough to make me work at these next two years of my life and whatever is beyond it.

A large hurdle of my PhD so far has been learning to make my computer do the work and let me put my feet up (i,e. running numerical model simulations).  Albeit with a lot of help and the framework of a working model already existing, I have managed to make my PC tell me a series of numbers and make pretty(ish) graphs from numbers I put in and conditions I set... then I go and watch the Hobbit or some crap film in the cinema, leaving a note for no-one to turn off the PC in my absence (mostly me doing it accidentally) and return to find the computer to have given me a series of results... some good, others..less so.

Model Running... Don't Touch!  :)
Modelled (blue) vs measured (red) melt at individual stations... some irregularities at some stations due to averages from short periods of measurement, prone to error.  

So here I am after nearly a year, with a great data set and a generally successful field season on the Miage Glacier in Italy (even considering the misfortune of Septembers field trip), some results to show, some lessons learnt, decent portions of time staring a screen with a blank expression and an almost complete energy balance melt model to run with different simulations of temperature distribution....   For where I am at the first year hurdle things are looking pretty darn good....

Every IS coming up Milhouse!

 ...still plenty of things to go wrong between now and a viva... but that's 2015's problem!

Just thought I'd share a few highlights from my year (despite Facebook's pressure to publish its auto-moments of 2014... and me agreeing to get it off my timeline)..

Happy New Year all

April fieldwork, lovely conditions and me making a first attempt at skiing :)

Being part of Mark's Grand Alpine Tour and doing some surveying of landslides...  some a tad risky in hindsight 
'Lovely' weather hikes in Svalbard 

And some funny ping-pong and cycling moments of course :)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Lessons from 'cursed' fieldwork

A pretty fantastic summer has come to end... though i'm a little late with reluctantly welcoming the autumn.  The summer months have been a wonderful mixture of Alpine adventure as part of the RGS Land Rover Grant and some PhD research at the foot of the impressive Mt Blanc Massif (and the associated sights that come with it).  After having just finished my fieldwork for the first year on the Miage debris-covered Glacier, it makes you reflective on what problems can occur during glaciological fieldwork, how important it can be and how annoyed it can make you.

Fieldwork last week consisted of 4 days of back-breaking transportation of tripods, weather stations and dataloggers over 10.5km squared of loose and slippery debris.  The following are the primary things that went wrong for us:

1. Stolen timelapse camera

To monitor the retreat of the snowline on the upper part of the glacier for running a distributed energy balance model, an expensive Harbortronics camera was mounted on the opposing valley and 'secured' to a large un-movable boulder (for me) sticking out from the ground.  As the camera was placed somewhere off-track and out of sight, the return to the site with a GPS in hand was almost necessary to get to the spot exactly after a 300-400m climb from the main route past the glacier.  To my surprise the boulder to which it was attached was smashed and the no trace of the camera was left.

- Important?
The data would have been useful and informative, though not crucial to my project... just an expensive camera

-Level of anger?
HULK SMASH (sad that nothing is safe, not even for research)

2. Flat tyre

A nice rental of a Skoda Superb (it was good... superb?? not sure) from Geneva airport gave us the space we needed to wedge all of our equipment in and return it to our storage location in Courmayeur.  Following a fantastic pizza from our usual favourite in the town, our journey back to the valley was met with an unfortunate hole in the road and a completely flat tyre.  Due to the inability to remove new car tyres without better tools and likely a health and safety concern, we were surprised to find a spare tyre hole with a lack of a tyre and just some puncture 'goo' not to dissimilar to what you put in your bike tyre to prevent punctures.... unsurprisingly it didn't work, though was designed as a 10 minute assistance anyway.

The hassle to fix this was more of a cost to time (we lost our ride up the valley) and left us a man down for a while.

-Level of anger?
**it happens.  It was already 10pm when it happened, we just wanted to go to sleep... :)

3. Pro-glacial station somewhere in the Med.

Following 82mm+ rainfall during ~24th August (I wasn't there at this time) a major flood and the drainage of the ice-contact Lake Miage occurred (see below).  The destruction to the area beyond the main portal (exit) of water from the sub-glacial system was incredible, with new water routes carved into part of the glacier and much of the original river walls.  Unfortunately we were operating a pro-glacial station to measure changes in water depth and electro-conductivity of the material held in the melt water.  Again following our GPS led to an unhappy result.... our GPS informed us a further 5m forward would bring us to our location.... down a steep bank into the now-centre of the river.  Now these GPS units have a variable accuracy and would sometimes position us somewhere between the original pro-glacial station and Texas.. but it was clear to see that it wasn't here anymore.

The former image of the Miage Lake and two pictures of the drained lake and the crater remaining

Just a small part of the damage caused by the flood and the GPS with location of the station 5m ahead.

The data again was supportive, though not crucial.

-Level of anger?
To be honest... the destructive power of nature was just impressive... it sucks to lose useful data and a good datalogger.... but its hard to argue with this one.

4. Waterproof temperature logger?

One important piece of data since mid-August that is potentially lost derives from a waterlogged temperature logger which was tightly sealed and considered waterproof.  One of the veteran stations from the April set-up had given up on me and became the only casualty of the main dataset this season.

Yes!  Though the data for the rest of the stations is present and still comprises a unprecedented dataset of this nature over a debris-covered glacier to my knowledge.

-Level of anger?
I'm not angry... i'm just disappointed.

5. R.I.P. Camelbak

Following shifting a lot of heavy equipment in my backpack down the glacier, a quick lean against a rock to take the weight of my pack off me with taking it off and putting it back on in struggle resulted in a popped water pack :(

Water is always important...

-Level of anger?
As fed up as anyone with a wet arse and no more drinking water

Ultimately, this felt like a slightly cursed trip to the Alps... but things could have been much worse.  Looking at the wider-picture, it becomes clear that bad things often happen with this type of fieldwork and projects may have to adjust to what is available.... I'm just glad that my hasn't changed too much.

Now on to the data-processing!

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Invasion of the Celts

Holy Celtica!

  The valley below the tongue of Miage Glacier, home to me for the past two weeks is well populated by axe wielding, beard sporting, kilt wearing Celts!  It's a mixture of bizarre and amazing, with some great music and crazy dress codes.  My time on and off glacier has been supported by some bagpipes, violins and drums since Thursday... the fact that my tent has been boxed in by mobile homes and barking dogs is only mildly irritating considering I gain a free festival of music and character from the comfort of my wifi enabled hammock... sweet!  More on this here.

Some cool tree decorations... didn't get a shots of axe wielding Celts though.  

Resting my feet after a solid 2 weeks of glacier trekking feels good, though with plenty of data to organise already.  The main reason the feet have become destroyed from glacier trekking may have something to do with the relentless presence of debris on the surface and rapid change and retreat of it's ice cliffs, where ice exposed to the air at such a low altitude rapidly melts and shifts the pattern of rock and sediment.  The main annoyance is the movement between the upper an lower glacier.  My common description is like the beginning of the second Lord of the Rings installment where Frodo and Sam are attempting to get to Mordor but get lost scrambling around the similar appearance of jagged rocks.  Thankfully access to the upper glacier alone has a wonderful route around the western moraine ridge with a view over the Lago Combal + a lovely 200m climb to the glacier.

Happy to say now that since the beginning of July all my temperature stations and weather stations are in operation even though the 'amazing' GPS locates them somewhere between here and Argentina.  Following this, each station has been neighboured by a 2m PVC pipe from B&Q to act as a measure of melt under the different surface types and elevations up the glacier.  Manually drilling into the ice after digging up nearly 1m of debris at times really makes you appreciate the ability to attach an electric drill to the end of it (as was the case in Svalbard).  The fact that some anonymous undergraduates clearly blunted it through drilling in to debris didn't help progress... but replacing the blades of the drill then made me practically fly into the ice!  thank you Kovacs and your sharp drill heads, you saved me from a midnight ice drilling attempt...

Now I plan to enjoy a more relaxed stroll across the Miage over the next week to monitor my ablation stakes and download station data before I leave.  Accompanying me will be some scary Celts and some weather with mixed feelings.  Funnily enough, I get the strange looks for being geared up with ropes and ice axes, this bald, kilted guy needs to take a look at the blue paint on his face an return to his Celtic horn.

I leave you with a few time lapse images of clouds (used for science purposes... honest) over the lower weather station.

The camera was moved a bit for the last two.... not enough clouds :)