La Recherche Article: The microbes accelerating glacier melting

I recently published an article in French pop-sci magazine La Recherche about the wondrous microbial ecosystems on glaciers and ice sheets (here for French speakers). For those English speakers who do not subscribe to la Recherche, here is a translation.

Also, I strongly recommend the excellent translator who worked on this article with me – contact me if you need translation services and I can link you up.

The microbes accelerating glacier melting

Context

Our planet is getting warmer and losing its ice. Mountain glaciers are disappearing and the great Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking. These masses of ice are giant coolers for the planet and they reflect energy from the Sun back out into space, meaning the smaller they become, the more the planet warms. Surprisingly, the process of melting the vast glaciers and ice sheets is accelerated by microscopic life.

Glacier and ice sheet melting depends upon more than just temperature. Most of the energy driving melt comes from sunlight that hits the ice surface. Dirtier, darker ice absorbs more solar energy than clean, bright ice meaning more energy is available to drive melting. On the Greenland Ice Sheet in particular, the ice becomes very dark in the summer, with large areas reflecting just 20-30% of the sunlight hitting them. This is not a new phenomenon – in fact it was noticed by explorers during the great polar expeditions of the late 1800s. Intrigued, they examined samples of ice under their microscopes. The dark colour of the ice was not simply due to dust as they expected – astonishingly, the ice was stained by life (Nordenskjold, 1875). The ice surface is a patchwork of greys, reds and purples coloured by the collective effect of countless microscopic organisms, with potential knock-on effects for Earth’s climate (Uetake et al., 2010; Takeuchi et al., 2006; Yallop et al., 2012; Cook et al., 2017).

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The dark sediment visible in the 1mx1m quadrat in this picture from the Greenland ice sheet is largely surface algae, along with some mineral grains. This is a particularly heavy patch, sometimes it cannot be seen with the naked eye, but occurred ubiquitously in our numerous study sites.

Microbes on Ice

When explorer Adolf E Nordenskjold arrived on the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1870 he immediately noticed the dark grey-purple colour of the ice. His colleague, a biologist called Berggren, examined the ice under the microscope and discovered a rich variety of microbial life. The importance of their discovery was clear to them – this life darkens the ice and increases its melt rate. Nordenskjold even suggested that the microbial life was the “greatest enemy of the mass of ice” and an accelerator of deglaciation at the global scale (Nordenskjold, 1875)!

Until recently, Nordenskjold’s observations of life on ice have remained obscure footnotes in the history of Polar exploration; however, as climate science has become increasingly urgent in the twenty-first century, Nordenskjold’s work has gained new significance. Contemporary scientists have confirmed the presence of a microbial ecosystem growing on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet and elsewhere and are now attempting to quantify their ice-darkening effect. Although it is an extreme environment where temperatures are low and nutrients scarce, there is abundant sunlight and liquid water to support photosynthesis, meaning microalgae can grow on the ice surface (Uetake et al., 2010; Yallop et al., 2012). The days are long in the Arctic in summer, with the sun staying above the horizon for twenty-four hours per day for part of the season, exposing the algae to intense and prolonged solar energy. This powers photosynthesis but over time the exposure stresses the ice algae, causing them to produce biological sunscreen molecules to protect their delicate photosynthetic machinery. These ‘carotenoids’ colour their cells very dark purple and enhance the biological darkening of the ice surface.

At the same time, the ice surface is peppered with holes that are often cylindrical but can have complex and irregular shapes (Cook et al., 2015). These holes range from centimeters to meters in diameter and depth and contain mixtures of biological and nonbiological material bundled up into small balls that sit on the hole floors. Nordenskjold first noticed these holes on the Greenland Ice Sheet and named them ‘cryoconite holes’, from the Greek for ‘holes with frozen dust’. These holes are the most biodiverse microbial habitat on Earth’s ice. They form when dust and debris becomes tangled up by long, thread-like cyanobacteria. The cyanobacteria are photosynthetic and as they grow they exude polymers that act as biological glues, binding the bundles of material together into stable granules. This biological bundling and binding of material creates a microhabitat for other microbes, especially those that can feed on molecules produced by the photosynthesizing cyanobacteria. As the granules grow they become heavier, meaning they settle on the ice surface. The biological material makes them especially dark, so the ice underneath melts quickly, causing holes to form in the ice surface with the granules sitting on the hole floor. The holes provide protection from the weather and intense sunlight and also prevent the microbes from being washed away. The cyanobacteria therefore sculpt the ice surface and engineer a comfortable, stable habitat where diverse microbial life can thrive in this extreme environment.

Cryoconite holes are more than icy buckets that hold microbial life. They are more like microbial mini-cities on ice, with each connected to many others by meltwater flowing between ice crystals just under the ice surface. Cryoconite microbes engage in engineering and construction, production, consumption, competition, predation, growth, reproduction, death, decay, immigration and emigration. There is both import and export of nutrients, waste and other biological material. At the same time, the hole itself changes its shape and size in response to changing environmental conditions with the emergent effect of maintaining the light intensity at the hole floor, promoting photosynthesis (Cook et al., 2010). Algal blooms and cryoconite are crucial components of the wider Arctic ecosystem, acting as stores of carbon (which they draw down from the atmosphere and fix into organic molecules), nutrients and biomass which can all be delivered to soils, rivers and oceans as glaciers melt (Stibal et al., 2012). Truly, these are widely interconnected complex adaptive systems created biologically on Earth’s ice.

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The beautiful cryoconite at S6, Greenland ice sheet

The Cutting Edge of Life on Ice

While life on ice has been known for many years, most of the literature on the subject has been produced during the twenty-first century. Modern molecular biological techniques have enabled scientists to catalogue the species present in cryoconite and algal blooms, and modern instruments can measure their darkening effect. However, there are several major gaps in our understanding of life on ice. To quantify their effect on ice darkening worldwide, we need a reliable method to map icy microbes at the scale of entire ice sheets. From a biological perspective, we know which organisms live in algal blooms and cryoconite so we must now concentrate on determining how they function and what ecosystem services they might provide that could impact human society.

To estimate the total coverage of life on ice, we must detect it without actually being present to take samples. It is relatively easy to take samples and analyse them in a laboratory to tell if life is present, but doing the same from the air is a different problem. In addition to biological darkening, soots and mineral dusts colour the ice. Also, as the ice melts the crystals change shape and melt water can fill the spaces between them, which in itself changes the way the ice absorbs and reflects solar energy. Disentangling the biological signal from these other darkening processes has proven to be challenging.

However, because the darkening of ice by living cells is due to biological molecules that absorb light at specific wavelengths, we may be able to use the spectrum of reflected light to identify them. Chlorophyll, for example, absorbs red and blue light much more effectively than it absorbs green light (which is why we see leaves as green). For other biological molecules, the peak absorption will be at slightly different wavelengths, and non-biological materials will have their own absorption patterns too. However, while identifying ‘signature spectra’ is simple when only one material is present, it is much more difficult when several species with different light absorbing properties are mixed with non-biological materials. All of the light absorbers can be scattered unevenly and mixed vertically within the volume of ice which can itself be a complex aggregate of variously sized ice crystals and liquid water. The reflected light is a tangle of signals that can be hard to unpick.

At our laboratory at the University of Sheffield, we are working on a purpose-built drone which will fly back and forth over a patch of the Greenland Ice Sheet taking images at specific wavelengths of light. By analysing these images we hope to be able to produce a map of life on ice. Using the drone means we can follow the flight on foot and take ground samples to examine in the laboratory, enabling us to link the drone images to actual concentrations of different light absorbers on the ground. The wavelengths imaged by the drone match up with those measured by several Earth observation satellites, meaning that achieving life-detection using a drone should then enable the same from space.

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise Joseph Cook, 2016  Laureate
UAV flights in Svalbard (ph. Marc Latzel/Rolex)

As well as knowing where the life is, we also need a deeper understanding of how it functions. Recognition of ice surfaces as microbial habitats came at the same time as an explosion in accessible and affordable techniques in field molecular microbial ecology, meaning several groups have used high-throughput sequencing of marker-genes to identify the particular microbes present within cryoconite communities (e.g. Cameron et al., 2012; Edwards et al., 2014; Stibal et al., 2014, 2015). Environmental genomic techniques have also been used to investigate the total genetic composition of cryoconite communities (Edwards et al., 2013). To date, these have been snapshot studies, but in the very near future great insights into the functioning of cryoconite microbes will come from rapid metagenomic, metabolomic and metatranscriptomic studies. It has been suggested that ice surface microbes might be good targets for bioprospecting. Since they are able to thrive in conditions of low temperature, high light and low nutrients, they may well utilize survival strategies that we can exploit, either by extracting novel genes and biomolecules, or by observing and gaining ecological knowledge. Cryoconite has been suggested to be a potential source of antifreeze proteins, novel antibiotics and cold-active enzymes. The shape, illumination conditions and flushing with flowing meltwater make cryoconite holes natural analogs to industrial bioreactors which are commonly used to synthesise valuable biomolecules (Cook et al., 2015).

Deep insights will come from combining the expertise of microbial ecologists with glaciologists and physicists who, together, will link processes operating at the molecular level with changes in ice surface colour and patterns of melt, which suggests insights into the ecology of ice surfaces might one day be obtainable from the sky or from space. While this is some way off, great insights could be gained from a shift towards a holistic understanding of the ice surface as a ‘living landscape’.

Extraterrestrial Ice

We are working hard to achieve remote detection of life on ice for the purposes of mapping biological ice darkening from satellites and improving our ability to predict future ice melt. However, there is another potential outcome from this work… what if instead of looking down from space at our own planet, we turn the sensors around and start looking out?

The Greenland Ice Sheet is, in many ways, a good place for developing life detection technologies that can be applied to the search for life on other icy planets and moons. Take, for example, Europa. A recently funded NASA project will examine this icy moon of Jupiter for signs of life because of its potentially habitable icy shell and subsurface ocean. On Europa, the icy surface is sunlit and seeded with possibly mineral-rich snow that forms when liquid water in its subsurface oceans escapes via huge geysers (Hand et al., 2017). There is therefore a potentially dusty ice surface illuminated by sunlight that could support photosynthesis, just like the Greenland Ice Sheet (although the solar energy flux and temperature is lower on Europa and photosynthesis is highly unlikely). Any life detection technology that works on the Greenland Ice Sheet will have to overcome the challenges of ice optics, interference by mineral dusts and uncertain biological pigment composition, which would also be the main challenges for remote detection of life on the surface of other icy planets and moons. The frontiers of glacier biology on Earth may therefore intersect with the cutting edge search for extraterrestrial life.

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Summary

While many people think of Arctic and Antarctic ice as lifeless places, there is in fact abundant microbial activity on Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets. But more surprising is the huge impacts of these tiny organisms. By changing the colour of the ice surface, microbes are potentially enhancing the rate at which glaciers and ice sheets are shrinking, but we cannot yet build them into our climate models. The research priority now is mapping these ecosystems from space because this will enable us to estimate their impact on ice melt worldwide and improve our melt forecasts. The same technologies that will enable us to detect life on Earth may eventually be useful tools for searching for icy life elsewhere in the universe. There is also much to be learned about way these microbes function that can educate us about the limits of life in extreme environments. The true sharp edge of glacier biology research involves understanding how these microbes are able to sense, survive and drive environmental change. The study of life on Earth’s ice is deeply interdisciplinary and ultimately it requires us to recognize – as Nordenskjold did – the intricate bridges joining the very big and the very small.

 

References

Cameron K, Hodson A J, Osborn M (2012) Carbon and nitrogen biogeochemical cycling potentials of supraglacial cryoconite communities. Polar Biology, 35: 1375-1393

Cook J, Hodson A, Telling J, Anesio A, Irvine-Fynn T, Bellas C (2010) The mass-area relationship within cryoconite holes and its implications for primary production. Annals of Glaciology, 51 (56): 106-110

Cook, J.M., Edwards, A., Irvine-Fynn, T.D.I., Takeuchi, N. 2015. Cryoconite: Dark biological secret of the Cryosphere. Progress in Physical Geography, 40 (1): 66 -111, doi: 10.1177/0309133315616574Cook et al., 2017

Edwards A, Pachebat J A, Swain M, Hegarty M, Hodson A, Irvine-Fynn T D L, Rassner S M, Sattler B (2013) A metagenomic snapshot of taxonomic and functional diversity in an alpine glacier cryoconite ecosystem. Environmental Research Letters, 8 (035003): 11pp

Edwards A, Mur L, Girdwood S, Anesio A, Stibal M, Rassner S, Hell K, Pachebat J, Post B, Bussell J, Cameron S, Griffith G, Hodson A (2014) Coupled cryoconite ecosystem structure-function relationships are revealed by comparing bacterial communities in Alpine and Arctic glaciers. FEMS Microbial Ecology, 89 (2): 222-237

Hand, K.P., Murray, A.E., Garvin, J.B., Brinckerhoff, W.B., Christner, B.C., Edgett, K.S., Ehlmann, B.L., German, C.R., Hayes, A.G., Hoehler, T.M., Horst, S.M., Lunine, J.I., Nealson, H.H., Paranicas, C., Schmidt, B.E., Smith, D.E., Rhoden, A.R., Russell, M.J., Templeton, A.S., Willis, P.A., Yingst, R.A., Phillips, C.B., Cable, M.L., Craft, K.L., Hofmann, A.E., Nordheim, T.A., Pappalardo, R.P., and the Project Engineering Team (2017). NASA, Report of the Europa Lander Science Definition team. Posted Feb 2017. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/docs/Europa_Lander_SDT_Report_2016.pdf

Stibal M, Sabacka M, Zarsky J (2012a) Biological processes on glacier and ice sheet surfaces. Nature 1554 Geoscience, 5: 771-774

Stibal M, Schostag M, Cameron K A, Hansen L H, Chandler D M, Wadham J L, Jacobsen C S (2014) Different 1558 bulk and active microbial communities in cryoconite from the margin and interior of the Greenland ice 1559 sheet. Environmental Microbiology Reports, DOI: 10.1111/1758-2229.12246

Stibal, M., Schostag, M., Cameron, K. A., Hansen, L. H., Chandler, D. M., Wadham, J. L. and Jacobsen, C. S. (2015), Different bulk and active bacterial communities in cryoconite from the margin and interior of the Greenland ice sheet. Environmental Microbiology Reports, 7: 293–300. doi:10.1111/1758-2229.12246

Takeuchi, N., Dial, R., Kohshima, S., Segawa, T., Uetake, J., 2006. Spatial distribution and abundance of red snow algae on 35 the Harding Icefield, Alaska derived from a satellite image. Geophysical Research Letters, 33, L21502, doi:10.1029/2006GL027819

Uetake, J., Naganuma, T., Hebsgaard, M. B., and Kanda, H. 2010. Communities of algae and cyanobacteria on glaciers in west Greenland. Polar Sci. 4, 71–80. doi: 10.1016/j.polar.2010.03.002

Yallop, M.L., Anesio, A.J., Perkins, R.G., Cook, J., Telling, J., Fagan, D., MacFarlane, J., Stibal, M., Barker, G., Bellas, C., 25 Hodson, A., Tranter, M., Wadham, J., Roberts, N.W. 2012. Photophysiology and albedo-changing potential of the ice-algal community on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, ISME Journal, 6: 2302 – 2313

 

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Greenland Aurora

Camping on the ice sheet in September/October was a new experience – I’d never seen darkness on the ice before! The lack of light pollution and cloud-free skies made for a truly spectacular display of the Northern Lights. It was -25C and 35 knot winds pretty much constantly, so it was a constant battle between wanting to get into a tent and warm up and not wanting to miss a second of watching the aurora dancing over the milky way, with passing satellites and the occasional shooting star.

While on a personal level this was an incredible treat, it also presented some pretty major challenges for working with drones on the ice. The aurora knocked out the radio communications linking our drones to their controllers, meaning they could only be controlled over local wifi, reducing their range from a few hundred metres to about 30!

Inspired by a recent twitter exchange about this I bought Melanie Windridge’s book “Aurora” & thoroughly recommend it!

New spec-tech! A smartphone-based UV spectrometer

In our new paper we report on some novel tech that uses the sensor in a smartphone for ultraviolet spectroscopy. It is low cost and based entirely on off-the-shelf components plus a 3-D printed case. The system was designed with volcanology in mind – specifically the detection of atmospheric sulphur dioxide, but may also have applications for supraglacial spectroscopy. As far as we know this is the first nanometer resolution UV spectrometer based on smartphone sensor technology and the framework can be easily adapted to cover other wavelengths.

This follows on from a Raspberry-Pi based UV camera reported in Sensors last year which was recently adapted to sense in the visible and near-infra-red wavelengths for use on ice. The plan now is to compare the images from the Pi-cam system to those made using an off-the-shelf multispectral imaging camera that detects the same wavelengths. A report of testing this camera system for detecting volcanic gases is available at Tom Pering’s blog here.

Raspberry-Pi and smartphone based spectroscopy could make obtaining high-spectral resolution data a real possibility for hobbyists and scientists lacking sufficient funds to purchase an expensive field spectrometer. The system is also small and light and therefore more convenient for some field applications than the heavy and cumbersome field specs available commercially and can easily be mounted to a UAV.

Frontiers Paper: Albedo products from drones

A new paper, led by Johnny Ryan, shows that a consumer grade digital camera mounted to a drone can be used to estimate the albedo of ice surfaces with an accuracy of +/- 5%. This is important because albedo measurements are fundamental to predicting melt, but satellite albedo data is limited in its spatial and temporal resolution and ground measurements can only be for small areas. Methods employing UAV technology can therefore bridge the gap between these two scales of measurement. The work demonstrates that this is achievable using a relatively simple workflow and low cost equipment.

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The fixed-wing UAV setup (Figure 1 in the paper)

The full workflow is detailed in the paper, involving processing, correcting and calibrating raw digital images using a white reference target, and upward and downward shortwave radiation measurements from broadband silicon pyranometers. The method was applied on the SW Greenland Ice Sheet, providing albedo maps over 280 km2 at a ground resolution of 20 cm.

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An example of a UAV-derived albedo map from the SW Greenland Ice Sheet (Figure 3 in the paper)

This study shows that albedo mapping from UAVs can provide useful data and as drone technology advances it will likely provide a low cost, convenient method for distinguishing surface contaminants and informing energy balance models.

Final UAV mods

After testing the UAV performance in Svalbard in March, I realised the original ‘tripod’ landing assembly was not going to cut it for work in the Arctic. To prevent damage from landing in cryoconite holes and to spread the drone’s weight when landing on snow, I have added some ski’s modified from off-the-shelf landing gear for RC helicopters. This also has the added advantage that if one attachment point fails, the UAV is still landable, which is not the case for the tripod design.

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As well as the ski’s, I have now added the Red-Edge camera’s down-welling light sensor to the top of the casing. This will automatically correct the images for changes in the ambient light field in each wavelength.

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Svalbard UAV: Lessons learned

 

Here are a few things I learned after ten days of field testing the UAV multispectral data acquisition in Svalbard…

Video showing take off in stabilize mode, switch to loiter mode at about 5 m, quick control test then into automatic mission. 

1. The UAV is surprisingly robust.

The aircraft was transported to the sites on a sled on the back of a snowmobile, hitting sastrugi and general lumps and bumps in the landscape, was hold baggage on three flights, launched and landed in snow, flown in winds and operated at temperatures down to -25 degrees. It is still is perfect working order and flew every mission without issue. I’m now pretty confident in the flight case and arrangement of kit inside, and trust that there won’t be significant flight issues in Greenland in summer.

2. Very low temperatures rapidly deplete the LiPo batteries

One noticeable, and unsurprising, effect of flying in these conditions was that the battry ran down very quickly. The toughest day was about -19 but with strong winds, and we only managed a 2.5 minute automated flight before the battery voltage dropped low enough for me to get twitchy and land the UAV manually.

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Taking off on a particularly cold flight, near Telbreen, Svalbard

3. A dGPS and ground control points will be essential for ground truthing the UAV imagery 

It was impossible to accurately pinpoint ground sampling locations using handheld GPS and ground feature ID. This was especially true in Svalbard because of the homogenous snow cover, but will also be an issue in Greenland in the summer. This is not really surprising, but the need for an accurate dGPS location lock has been reinforced by the test flights.

4. The workflow for geotagging multispectral images using Photoscan is not as straightforward as I originally thought. 

The red-edge camera does not output GeoTIFFs – they have to be postprocessed with ground control point data before they can be stacked and aligned. This is not a big problem, but good to know in advance of summer data collection.

5. New landing gear needed

The three-leg solution currently used on the UAV is better than I expected, but there is still the real problem that the legs sink into soft ground (e.g. snow) which risks pushing the camera lenses and the internal electronics into the snow. This could scratch the lenses or soak the electronics when the snow melts. Also, with the current model, a problem with any one of the three legs compromises the whole UAV because it becomes impossible to land flat. I’m going to develop something new before Greenland.

Video showing manual landing on a patch of compacted snow after an auto mission. It would be more stable on soft ground with a skid-type landing gear rather than the three legs. Includes heckling by Tedstone…!

6. Some a priori knowledge of image area can be useful

High resolution imagery is not available for all locations – for some of our field sites there was not sufficient google earth coverage to orient ourselves or draw a polygon by eye in Mission Planner.  It is possible to estimate using the compass and the map scale, but with some existing knowledge of the GPS coordinates of the grid perimeter would help to plan an accurate mission.

7. It’s amazing how small the UAV looks, even when flying quite close by

Even flying the UAV at 30 or 40 m elevation, it quickly becomes difficult to keep track of its orientation when it flies a hundred metres or so on a mission. This does have implications for the length of mission I’d be comfortable flying, since I want to be able to rescue it manually if there are any GPS or autopilot issues – maybe I’m soft but my comfortable range is less than the CAA ‘dronecode’ distance limits- even though these do not currently apply in Svalbard/Greenland. Of course, the conditions (esp. visibility) affect what feels comfortable.

8. The controller is awkward in gloves

At -25 C gloves were pretty essential, but it is also difficult to have fine control over the switches and sticks on the controller. I was flying in a very thin pair of gloves or gloveless, which meant my fingers quickly went numb, especially when there was any wind. This will be less of a problem in Greenland in summer, but I will still get some warmer, thinner gloves with rubber finger pads to help with the UAV control in the cold.

9. Pre-flight checklists are invaluable

It’s so easy to overlook or forget something in harsh conditions or when rushed or excited. The written checklists developed before we went out to Svalbard were extremely useful for making sure everything went smoothly. These are a condition of CAA compliant flights in the UK and our experience in Svalbard demonstrates why! I will probably add a few additional checks or reorder a few things before our Greenland deployment – site specific things like take off and landing zone preparation (in Svalbard it was often a compacted snow platform, in Greenland I intend to use plyboard to avoid melt ponds and cryoconite holes).

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One of the field sites at Reiperbreen, Svalbard

Svalbard UAV tests

Having made successful UAV test flights at home in the Peak District, we have relocated to Svalbard for a week to test the equipment in the most challenging possible conditions. We are flying in temperatures as low as -10 C, in gusty wind and after pulling the UAV to the field site in its flight case on a sled behind a snow scooter. It is taking off and landing on platforms of compacted snow.

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Day 1 field site, Svalbard, Norway

Nevertheless, so far it has performed magnificently. There has been no damage even to the delicate props during transport, suggesting the flight case is sufficient, and the autopilot seems to be deftly dealing with the gusty wind. It interfaces quickly with the laptop and it is easy to load a preprogrammed flight, even in these very cold conditions. It was quite difficult to take of and land in ‘stabilize’ mode with the wind though.

A few modifications I’d still like to make include a new landing gear design. The three legs are OK for flat, hard ground, but for ice and snow I think it would be much better to have something with skids, or possibly a circular base, as this would protect it from landing with a leg in a cryoconite hole and prevent the camera touching the snow if the legs sink. Also, at the moment any problem with a single leg compromises the UAV’s ability to land, whereas a unit that joins to the UAV in more than one place would give more redundancy.

The battery life is also significantly reduced in these temperatures. That’s to be expected, but I’m wondering if there are more mods we can make to extend the flight time for surveying big areas in Greenland.

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Day 1 Field Site, Svalbard, Norway

This performance gives me hope for a successful mapping mission in Greenland, where the UAV will be used to map the ice surface in much less demanding conditions than we are experiencing here, but will be worked on more ambitious missions (higher, further, more frequent). We are continuing to test the UAV protocol in the field for a few more days, but will now focus on our methodology for pairing UAV flights with ground sampling rather than flight tech and UAV control.

As a bonus, we were treated to a spectacular aurora on the way in…

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A picture that doesn’t do it justice…!