PhD update: February 2016

PhD update: this month I have been in Svalbard, demonstrating on the Glaciology course (AG-325/825) at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). The course is aimed at Masters and PhD students who want a taste of the Arctic. The course consists of four weeks of glaciology lectures  and weekly excursions to glaciers in the local area. I have been supporting the logistical side of the weekly excursions, with the odd bit of teaching here and there.

In the first week, we went to Longyearbreen and Larsbreen. Both glaciers are situated up-valley of Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, with 2189 inhabitants (July 2015 – SSB.no). The town contains a lot of things that have the title of being ‘the most northerly in the world’ – most northerly church, most northerly Thai restaurant, most northerly university, most northerly ATM, most northerly post office and most northerly museum. Longyearbyen was named after John Munro Longyear, who founded the Arctic Coal Company and built the first permanent settlement in Svalbard in 1905. The company mined coal till 1916 when it was bought out by Store Norsk, who still run and maintain the coal mining activities in Svalbard today. ‘Byen’ means city, so ‘Longyearbyen’ literally translates as ‘Longyear’-‘city’. Longyearbreen was aptly named because it is one of the two glaciers that sits at the top of Longyearbyen. Larsbreen sits next to Longyearbreen, with meltwater from both glaciers draining through the valley

Longyearbreen and Larsbreen are relatively slow-moving glaciers (1 to 4 metres per year) with few crevasses visible on the surface. Several meltwater channels develop in the summer season when ablation is highest, forming deep-cut meandering channels at the surface. Higher up on the glacier, these channels can close over in the winter months and form vast ice caves which many an intrepid glaciologist have walked through… or crawled. The caves on both glaciers are approximately 200 m (before a massive drop that requires more technical climbing abilities) and are a great way of showing students several glacial processes – cut and closure channels, channel notching, refreezing processes, and stress and strain forces acting on ice.

Setting up our Ground Penetrating Radar system to survey Tellbreen glacier. Pictured (L-R): Heidi Sevestre, Penny How (me), Nick Hulton, Dan Goldberg, Kiya Riverman. Photo credit: Richard Delf.

Setting up our Ground Penetrating Radar system to survey Tellbreen glacier. Pictured (L-R): Heidi Sevestre, Penny How (me), Nick Hulton, Dan Goldberg, Kiya Riverman. Photo credit: Richard Delf.

Last week, we went to Tellbreen which is a small glacier roughly 14 km from Longyearbyen. To tie in with lectures on mass balance, the students dug snow pits to look at ice crystal structures and layers. Properties of the snow pack can give us an idea of how much snow is falling on Tellbreen, and demonstrate the transformation from snow to ice. Currently the snow pack on the lower area of the glacier is between 80 and 95 cm thick, which corresponds to the colder weather we have been experiencing here in the last week. In addition, we surveyed the upper section of the glacier using ground penetrating radar (GPR), which can be used to look at the water content in the ice, structures in the ice (e.g. crevasses, and areas of warm ice) and the glacier bed. The glacier is 30 m thick in the lower section and >60 m thick further upglacier.

At the end of this month, a couple of us travelled south to Svea, one of the small Norwegian mining settlements in Svalbard, to examine the sea ice conditions and also check out Paulabreen glacier – where we intend to take students in the next coming week. Conditions are surprisingly better than expected. Sea ice conditions are generally poor at present on account of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, which has brought warmer sea water up to Svalbard this year. The sea ice adjacent to Svea has been relatively sheltered though, and colder weather in the past week has meant we have adequate sea ice thicknesses for snow scooter travel – between 25 cm and 50 cm. On our journey across the sea ice we encountered some nice polar bear tracks – obviously someone wasn’t put off by the sea ice conditions!

Polar bear tracks on sea ice at Braganzavagen, near Svea. Spotted whilst we were on our way to Paulabreen (28/02/2016). The footprints shown here were slightly longer than my foot size (UK 6/EU 39), and the stride was massive (approximately 1.5 m). It is likely that this was just a small bear!

Polar bear tracks on sea ice at Braganzavagen, near Svea. Spotted whilst we were on our way to Paulabreen (28/02/2016). The footprints shown here were slightly longer than my foot size (UK 6/EU 39), and the stride was massive (approximately 1.5 m). It is likely that this was just a small bear though!

Next month I will be continuing my demonstrating work on the glaciology course here in Svalbard, with trips to Paulabreen and Tunabreen (hopefully, depending on sea ice conditions). After that it’ll be back to PhD work… sadly!

 

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