Monday, 21 April 2014

Reflections on fieldwork and testing

It's amazing how, if you live in the city, no one casually says hello in the street or smiles without knowing you.

However, if you venture out into the countryside, you get casual greetings here, there and everywhere... particularly in England... but not only England.

This weekend, I got bored of Newcastle for the day and took the train out to Hadrian's Wall, a 73 mile long, 2/3 metre wide Roman construction designed for Emperor Hadrian's back garden because he didn't like his neighbours.

During my spontaneous trip I experienced variations in the amount of people passing the other direction, larger amounts of day trippers nearer the car parks and points of interest (the weather was good enough to give me sunburn).  I was interested to see that if there were more 5/6 people in quick succession passing by, the politeness disappears, and city life resumes.  This kind of makes sense when we consider how strange we would be to greet each passer by in such a way that quickly ('hi, heya, howdy-doo, great day eh? hey, good day, jolly good!).  I'm curious at what stage we resort to this pleasantry and when we decide there are too many people to be pleasing everyone?

The reason this springs to mind is that during the summer near (and on) the glacier, there will likely be a ****-ton of tourists.  Does this rule apply to the Italians and internationals in the valley? (most likely), do I need to explain to everyone the reason i'm walking around with radiation shields (radiation? RADIATION!?).  I'm aware it is a likelihood and it may very well be annoying.  Hopefully I can at least use some of the public services to good use that didn't exist in the April venture... such as a coach along the road which runs by the tongue of the glacier (snowmobile was more fun) and campsites in the valley... maybe I can even con some tourists with large backpacks to carry stuff for me?

The week in Italy was truly great and I managed, with the help of several people to get a total of 6 stations measuring air temperature installed at various locations on the glacier. More equipment was stashed at an upper station for ease of transportation in June, but while utilising its ability to log local temperature information until that time.  So at the upper most station where the tributaries of the other glaciers meet the Miage (see below), I established a measure of the near surface vertical temperature profile at 1, 1.5 and 2 metres over a quickly diminishing snow cover.  This will hopefully give a lovely transition between an unstable boundary layer (where surface temperature is lower than the overlying air) and a stable layer (which follows the more traditional decrease of temperature with increasing elevation).  However in June, this multiple height set up will be partly disassembled leaving the 2m measure and transporting the remaining sensors further up glacier.
This highest station was approximately 2400 metres above sea level (masl).  The highest station is set to be 2700masl.  higher than this, and the gradient increases too greatly and the inclines are characterised by risky ice falls which couldn't support stations anyway.  Higher up upon the glacier, the ice from the falls of the Mont Blanc and Dome glaciers crack and the rocks fall almost continuously (mostly in small pieces).  It reminds you how active and dangerous this region can be.  Most stations are situated in suitable and reasonably safe places, though one or two occupy areas which in 2012 was subject to a significant blowout of ice from the tributaries (picture from Fondazione Montagna Sicura).

So the stations will range from numbers 1-14 with two full weather stations and one off-glacier station (OG) designed to test the temperature changes independent of the potential cooling affect of glacier ice (even if buried under debris).

Currently it looks something like this, if I were to take a lovely aerial image from 2012 and put some inaccurate dots in paint (I'm too lazy for ArcMap today):

Though the GPSs have done a bit of a lousy job at positioning us where we should be (think my paint image is better).  This can be reasonably confirmed by ArcMap software (GIS) which shows that the coordinates given puts an off glacier station ON the glacier.  The limitation of satellite coverage in the afternoon in the upper parts of the glacier gives slightly more inaccurate readings anyway.

"anybody out there?"

I feel that after all the testing of sensors in the TomCave, the measures of temperature were reasonably accurate... but another test was conducted using all the sensors that were left in Italy from last year as well... and the results... not bad.. though a bit more messy.

The test ~700 metres from the tongue of the glacier was a good idea to test the other sensors, but also under conditions more accurate to that on the glacier, such as multiple reflections from high albedo surfaces such as snow and at similar elevations.  While one temperature sensor was giving a few too many large errors (several lines in the upper graph show comparison with it), the others were recording mostly reasonable differences in temperature and times where errors are higher can be understood better and can benefit analysis when looking at the final dataset.  The sensor with the largest error was also set up at TT10 (upper glacier) to give it a further test.

camping is booked for June.... can't wait... shame that for now, I have to stay in England with it's walls :)

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Miage, April 2014


Awesome week of fieldwork!  This time last week, I was just approaching the mountains after a dull AutoRoute drive through France for the previous 6 hours, not fully prepared for the wonderful sights of Courmayeur, Val Veny and the Miage Glacier.

The week was a clear contrast between long days of hard work and physical exhaustion (at least on my part) and more chilled days where we recovered our feet from 12hours or more of climbing, walking, standing and ,of course, skiing in rigid plastic boots and organised ourselves for further fieldwork.. all under the comfort of warm spring sunshine.

The first day was occupied with obtaining our rented skis which the gentlemen at the rental shop seemed to have trouble correctly sorting the bindings (I grew to hate the delicate precision of attaching my feet into those bindings!).  Secondly, we had to venture to the storage of more temperature loggers stored at the Fondazione Montanga Sicura above La Palud where our hotel was.  By the time we had lunch at 2pm, we thought we really should do some work... and with temperature loggers programmed by an incredibly slow notebook laptop, we drove ourselves to the Brenva Glacier road and attached our feet to some nice lightweight 600 euro skis.  With skins on our skis and with the snowsled in tow, we hauled the tripods, radiation shields and temperature loggers several kilometres to a suitable site to again test the temeprature readings under snow conditions (more on that next time) before beating the sunset back to the town.

The second day was dominated by a reasonable amount of rain and poor visibility as we had seen on the forecast, and therefore was a day we had set aside for other work and prepping for the rest of the week.  However, what we hadn't fully accounted for was the increased instability of the rock face above the small town of La Palud where we stayed, and the whole place had to be evacuated that morning.  Realising that equipment had to be stored at the Fondazione for summer, it was a slight race against time, in the opposite direction to traffic to store this equipment before the town was blocked to almost all access! It felt a little like a scene from a movie at one stage... Unfortunately, the siren didn't sound as they promised...that would have added to the Hollywood feel.

Wednesday was our first day onto the glacier, although with some effort.  We managed to elect the help of local restaurants and businesses in the valley who operated snowmobiles to transport food and equipment to ski lift areas in the valley en route to the glacier (Val Veny).  Then we collected the equipment from Monday's adventure and pulled the snow sled up some even greater inclines.  Some more locals helped with another old skidoo (snowmobile) which I jumped on eagerly and held onto the snowsled which raced behind us and almost ripped my arm from its socket.  Only until the route became much thinner and steep sided and the skidoo went over with me and the driver on it.  He spoke no English, and I, no Italian beyond the very basics... but we organised ourselves to lift the heavy skidoo, dig it out of the snow and turn it around.  After waiting for the rest of the party, we stashed the sled, took a tripod each and climbed the 200m moraine to get the first real glimpse of the full glacier!  After installing 3 stations on the lower glacier I undertook my first proper downhill skiing session through the forest at the tongue of the glacier... not the easiest experience and after several struggling attempts to mess with my bindings I was tired and ready for a pizza!  We got back to the Brenva road at 9pm, 12 hours after leaving.

The following day was the largest ascent, utilizing the local snowmobiles once more as far as possible, collecting the remaining equipment we stashed the previous day and getting onto the glacier from the far west side of the tongue past the Lac du Combal.  I realised quickly that I was the best at going uphill.... downhill, lets not talk about that so much.  With 3 more stations installed, the ski downglacier commenced.  The parts where I could stop myself were reasonably good fun I must admit, the steeper parts... less fun for me.  I donned my climbing helmet due to the covered debris which i would likely fall onto at some stage in my downhill venture.  But the whole experience was fantastic and great to witness some snow on the glacier before the melt fully encapsulates the surface and the full display of debris becomes apparent.

The final day was an organisation of the notes made, pictures taken and packing and cleaning the van before returning back to the UK + relaxing in the sun with a beer and messing with the time lapse equipment (non of this on the glacier just yet).

I will most definitely share a greater level of detail of the 'science' in a post soon, but for now:


The massively retreated Brenva Glacier, visibly restricted to a fair sized ice fall, with the debris it initially deposited acting as a nice little obstacle to climb before entering the valley toward the Miage.

Snowsled pulling toward the calibration site on the first day (~4pm).

Calibration test at the bridge just before the small settlement of La Visaille. 

Snowmobile ride back to calibration site 2 days later.

As we stashed the sled (well hidden!).  

Just after the moraine climb on Wednesday, tricky to walk in ski boots, glacier view almost in sight.

The view toward the tongue of the glacier.  Patchy sow and thick debris underneath... interesting skiing.  

More station set up... clearly having fun.  

Next day, western moraine ascent, me up top.  

Toward the upper part of the glacier, heading for highest site we placed until June.  In the distance are the tributaries of the La Tete Caree, Bionassy, Dome and Mont Blanc Glaciers.  

Skiing down glacier :) 

Back to the lower glacier for a data download (we forgot the cable on the previous day), helmet for safety around 'radiation' shields.  

Would like to mention a great thanks to April's wonderful field assistants:

Ingeborg Pay (oh Deer)

Saskia Gindraux

 (Photo not representative of fieldwork Saskia, I just think it's funny :) )

Clare Webster

(At least en route to fieldwork)

And special thanks to:

Dr Philip Deline (Université de Savoie)
Dr Ben Brock (Northumbria University)

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Packing stuff... mostly fun stuff

Only 3 days until an alpine adventure!

Not much left to do, but its been a reasonably busy week gathering all the necessary equipment and gear that I need for next week in Italy.  The main issue being the amount of stuff I'm taking compared to the amount I actually need next week is quite large.  As I will be flying to the field site on successive occasions, I need to take all (or most) of the bulky or heavy items in a lovely two day car journey (incl. stop over and ferry) between Newcastle and Courmayeur on Saturday.

The kit list is made even bigger by the concerns over safety when on the glacier.  Those who remember the crevasse safety course and my beautiful figure 8's from last weeks blog will know that crevassing on part of the glacier is an issue enough to take harnesses and some standard climbing/crevasse rescue gear.  Considering the snow conditions and the current and predicted weather (accessed from the Italian Snow and avalanche forecasts), crevasses on the upper regions of the glacier aren't going to be an issue really, but it's nevertheless better to have the equipment and not need it that vice versa etc etc....

No, the main trouble is the risk of avalanches which is commonplace among skiers and alpine trekkers in such mountainous regions, particularly at this time of year when rising temperatures develop hand in hand with continued solid precipitation (snow).  As a result, the department at Northumbria University has invested in some avalanche safety gear, which typically consists of a transceiver/beacon, the size of a large 90's phone which makes a lot of beeping noises when nearby to someone trapped under avalanche snow,  a trusty extendable prodding stick known better as an avalanche probe and a lightweight pack away snow shovel.. to erm... shovel?
Whilst the risks associated with avalanche dangers are much higher than other glacier related risks for this small trip, all necessary precautions will be taken, summing up the level of risk from forecasts as well as with common sense and observations at the time.  Conditions can change reasonably quickly, which then may boost up the level of danger associated with snow sliding very quickly down a slope!  We all know that weather forecasts aren't 100% accurate... right??  So of course, it makes sense to keep up to date with new forecasts as close to the time as possible when weather predictions are the most accurate, and therefore, the assessment of avalanche risk is as well.

Anyway... back to the original point.... lots of equipment to think about this week.  Though most of it is now in boxes and taped up with labels (such as 'big ass battery' and the like).

It was a fair amount of work to organise all this... so I needed a posing shovel picture.  

Generally, what we have (assuming you can see the numbers) is:

1) The highly untrustworthy 2 metre tripods which I discussed a few weeks back (9 in total in the TomCave)

2) A box full of all safety equipment including crevasse rescue kits, snow anchors, snow avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes as well as spare batteries for all equipment

3) A Kovacs ice drill complete with 6 flights (extensions) and a lovely handle.... fun for all the family

4) A box full of different sized (MET20/MET21) radiation shields to house the temperature sensors

5) All temperature/science equipment for the stations and automatic weather stations (the box underneath has a neat little solar panel to take to Italy (hoping for some sun!)

6) Another new addition to the Northumbria family of toys... A SnowSled expedition Pulka to pull the equipment up to the glacier (I had a quick trial of this one in the office... See below)

7) All the rest of the stuff... GPSs, metal to stabilise tripods, bolts, beer, porn mags, man stuff! (joking about 2 of the previous... let you decide which).  Finally some long white PVC plastic water pipes acquired from B&Q:

I'm not trying to re-route the glacial meltwater to my own little camp (though this a good idea!), but instead using these 2m pipes as ablation stakes to measure and quantify melt of the glacier at the surface compared to what we are predicting to happen.  And that's where the drill comes into it.  

Also like to point people toward a great blog post I was reading last year on Antarctic fieldwork by Bethan Davies (read it here), and all the planning and logistics involved (most certainly more than this instance)... It is a nice summary and some great pictures too... worth a read if you are thinking about any kind of fieldwork loosely similar to this.  

I should most certainly give credit of these shots of me in my day-to-day activities to my friend and colleague Mark Allan, who also challenged me to wear my new climbing helmet all day around the office and the university grounds for the reward of £10!

It was going well, until I realised I wasn't undertaking a full day of work anyway, and the bet was rendered void.

I lasted 90 minutes.

Now... on to fieldwork!

Assuming I'm not left buried under mountains of snow next week, my next blog post will be some nice pretty pictures.

Until then... Arrivederci