GRIS15 Diary: Part 3

Thanks to British Society for Geomorphology, Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, Gilchrist Fieldwork Fund, Mount Everest Foundation, Andrew Croft Memorial Fund, Scottish Arctic Club and Gradconsult for supporting this field work. Thanks also to the GRIS15 field team: Ottavia Cavalli, Michael Sweet and Arwyn Edwards

Walking in to the field site (me, Arwyn, Otti). Ph. Mike Sweet
Walking in to the field site (me, Arwyn, Otti). Ph. Mike Sweet

July 8th:

Mike and I went to the field site alone today, as Arwyn and Otti stayed in camp and filtered seemingly endless water samples. At the site, the conditions were much calmer, much more pleasant than on  previous days. I took advantage of the favourable conditions and managed to make extra measurements today. The wind was still occasionally gusty, but we managed to make three drone flights. One was slightly hair-raising and it was only luck that kept the quadcopter from bouncing inelegantly into a supraglacial stream on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, we got some nice footage of the ice surface, imaged our field site and made repeat high resolution imagery of our experimental transect.

Video showing a drone flyover of our field site

Disaster struck on the way back down from the field site though, as Mike’s crampon snapped, leaving him pin-less. Thankfully that occurred past the crevasse field and on relatively flat, solid ice so there was no major drama. On return to camp we arranged that three of us would go to the field site tomorrow, then all back to Kangerlussuaq the day after to find Mike some new crampons and restock food, gas and generator fuel. Back at camp, I made my measurements in the NEP-truck, ate dinner and Arwyn and I stayed up chatting science again, and then it was off to bed ready for a big day tomorrow.

July 9th:

We decided to split the team today, given that we were a pair of crampons short and navigating the crevasses pin-less seemed unwise. Of the four of us, Otti was most willing to stay at camp since she had filtering and sample prep to do that did not require visiting the field site. So Mike, Arwyn and I went up to the field site as a three, while Otti stayed behind. We made quick time getting to the site, and the conditions were perfect. The wind had finally died down, meaning we could work without constantly pinning or weighing equipment down and continually fighting to hold down sheets of paper etc. This increased our productivity hugely – I managed to record more than three times the amount of measurements today than the other days. It really was the perfect glacier field work day – bright and calm and a temperature that was comfortable to work in in just base layers, salopettes and down jackets. We capitalised on the conditions and returned with lots of data.

Working under a beautiful solar corona
Working under a beautiful solar corona

The walk-off was pleasant and we stopped on the way back to appreciate the surroundings. This spot is truly other-worldly – the scale of the ice sheet is quite unlike any other glacial environment and the sense of remoteness at the field site is unique. We discussed the aura of the place – the spooky noises of the winds over the rough ice and through channels and ravines, the sound of cracking ice, of moulins and streams, and the odd, beguiling light. Back at camp I spent a couple of hours taking measurements in the ‘NEP-wagon’ and revising the plans for the rest of the trip. The priority is to get replacement crampons for Mike so that the whole team is field-ready again, so we will have to sacrifice an ice day tomorrow to go back into town. This is a significant journey, so we will combine it with refuelling the truck, restocking food and maybe sneaking in a shower before a big ten day stretch of focussed work on the ice. We convened in the bigger of our tents for whiskey and debriefing before bed.


July 10th:

We began at the usual 06:00 am, but instead of heading to the ice we headed the opposite direction and drove all the way back to Kangerlussuaq. Half the team restocked food while Arwyn and I went to Air Greenland to refuel the truck. Everything went smoothly except for the crampons! However, thank goodness, this was remedied late in the day by the kindly staff at ‘World of Greenland’ who offered up a spare pair. There was also a bit of mucking around trying to find gas for the stove, which packed up this morning, and it ended up costing us an eye-watering £175 to buy enough gas to last the rest of the trip. That was a major blow, but at the end of the day a necessary cost to put us back in business and facilitate time on the ice. Today was an unplanned inconvenience forced by the breakage of both stove and crampons, but unavoidable and probably largely for the best as it put the whole team back in action and we are sufficiently fuelled and fed for the next ten days of uninterrupted field work.

July 11th:

Another day at the field site in clear but windy conditions. The cryoconite holes we are here to study have really changed since we arrived, with different groups showing distinctly different evolutionary trajectories, biogoechemistry and morphology. The diversity of cryoconite entities on the ice surface is remarkable, in their size, shape, cryoconite content, frequency and distribution. Our job here is to test whether these properties follow predictable patterns. It is becoming clear that cryoconite is not just cryoconite – actually the variables controlling the properties of cryoconite granules and cryoconite holes are numerous and interconnected across the micro, meso and macro scales. Hopefully our data will go some way towards shedding some light on these processes.

some of the irregularly shaped 'cryopools' are in stark contrast to the traditional model of cylindrical, pipe-like holes.
The irregularly shaped ‘cryopools’ are in stark contrast to the traditional model of cylindrical, pipe-like holes.
Some cryoconites appear to be complexes formed by merging of mobile holes.
Some cryoconites appear to be complexes formed by merging of mobile holes.
Others seem to have melted out completely and left 'smudges' on the ice surface
Others seem to have melted out completely and left ‘smudges’ on the ice surface

Being Saturday, Arwyn and I insisted upon adhering to an Arctic science tradition – one which originated on the ships of the great polar explorers and was introduced to us by Nick Cox at the NERC base in Ny Alesund… The tradition is formal dinner after a day in the field. So we donned shirts and ties and ate our freeze dried food rations under the British Ensign flag and made a bit of a do. Obviously it was silly given the squalid camp conditions and meagre edibles, but we had three courses – tea, freeze dried curry and a dessert of rye bread and Nutella. Mike was a good sport and humoured us through it and we took a couple of pictures to send to Nick to show him the tradition lives on! We even had a night cap of a shot of whisky and a square of chocolate and toasted the polar greats. Cheers!

A classy formal dinner!
A classy formal dinner!

July 12th

Today we awoke to calm, clear conditions and therefore prioritised drone flying. We hiked in to the field site and used the drone to obtain aerial imagery for creating field maps, completed our transect study, flew some gridded flights to obtain surface images for analysis, and then spent half an hour using it to obtain footage for outreach work. This included attempting a so called ‘sky selfie’ where handheld camera footage is spliced into a gradually rising drone video, spliced into a reversed google earth zoom, creating the illusion of zooming into a cryoconite hole from space… we’ll see if it works when we get home. We also flew several flights over the field site and surrounding area for aesthetic and contextual footage. Afterwards, we nailed the day’s measurements and treated ourselves to watching a movie on Otti’s Ipod before bed.

Otti on ice
Otti on ice

All in all a fun day; except for one major factor. THE MOSQUITOES. The drop in the wind has allowed them to take over. It is mosquito hell. We are having to stay completely covered at all times, and even then they bite through socks and thin trousers. In theory they should die off in ten days or so, but they are making life here rather unpleasant at the moment!


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