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!

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