Friday 25 March 2016

Svalbard Science

Abseiling into the Moulin.
As mentioned in the previous blog post the reason I was up in Svalbard to support a scince project. I was working with a team of glaciologists from Aberystwyth university who were interested in the internal drainage system of a glacier called Austre Brøggerbreen which is just a few miles from Ny Alesund. 
Inside the ice cave. 
During the summer surface meltwater had cut a channel in the surface of the glacier which over the years had got deeper and deeper. Creep closure of the ice above had occurred, sealing it off from the surface, and creating a tunnel. At the top of the tunnel a moulin; a roughly circular, vertical or near vertical well like shaft had formed.

This moulin/tunnel system had been surveyed every few years since 1998, and was found to be constantly evolving. This year the moulin was about 40 metres deep. After which we were able to follow the ice tunnel for about 300 metres before it was blocked by water. Previous surveys have shown that the tunnel had many steps and pools, but this year there was only really the major one step within the tunnel.

As well as surveying the tunnel using the traditional method using a compass and a laser rangefinder, the Aberyswth team were interested in using use a laser scanner to build up a detailed 3-D image of the tunnel. Laser scanners had previously never been used in an ice-walled channels. This technique would give a much finer spatial resolution data set than has previously been achieved, from which to analyse morphology change after one melt season (the team plan to return and re-surveying the channel again next year).
Telly Tubbies do science! Jayne doing some survey of the surface of the glacier close to the moulin on a chilly day.
Meteorological data from a weather station on the glacier will be used to numerically model water flow through the channel to better understand the links of hydrodynamics in altering channel morphology. It is important to better understand the processes of channel formation and evolution, in order to determine how water is transported through a glacier - the existence of water in a glacier determines its movement, and this will be increasingly important in light of the warming climate. 
The view from the abseil into the moulin

We were hampered a bit in the surveying by the weather. As well as stopping us going out that day the mild wet spell mentioned in the last blog post also released a bit of water. We failed to get up to the glacier the next day by rivers of slush. The next couple of days we made it up there, but a little water dribbling into the moulin made the abseil and jug out very damp, unpleasant and awkward due to the ropes icing up.

The next day the temperature dropped to about minus 20 degrees C(being a geek I brought along my thermometer to measure these things, but unfortunately the batteries stopped worked in minus 18). This caused a couple of problems, firstly the scanner struggled a bit at these low temperatures. Secondly, thermal contraction of the ice walls of the moulin meant that it started exfoliating, and falling off the walls, which restricted access.

Despite the problems with the weather, and we managed to get a fair bit of scanning done, and the the early results are promising. They as planning to return next year to re-scan the channel. I hope I can get involved again
Rivers of slush. The mild weather released a fair bit of water. In the end we decided just driving the skidoos very quickly across this river was the method of choice.  This technique worked, just.

Sunday 13 March 2016

Ny Alesund

The ice front of the impressive Kongsvegen glacier taken from the flight into Ny Alesund. 
The rain hammers at the window. The ground is frozen and flat, so the water readily pools to form expanses of slush in and around town. Inevitable the temperature will drop, minus fourteen is forecast in a couple of days time, and saturated snow will turn to ice. That will make getting up to our research site on the glacier interesting.

I am in Ny Alesund, a small town on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Ny Alesund is just a small place, with a population of about 35 during the winter, rising up to around 180 during the summer.  At 79ºN it is also the most Northerly permanently inhabited settlement in the world.  Until the late nineteen nineties it was further North than the North Magnetic Pole (the latter has been drifting closer the actual pole over the past few decades).
An arctic fox, as the sun becomes visible in town for the first time in about four month. This picture was actually taken from the dining room. Most mornings the fox jealously watches everybody having their breakfast. 
Being so far North the polar night is long, the sun does not above the horizon between the 24th of October and the 18th of February. However, due to the mountains to the South, the town itself does not see the sun until the 8th of March. I had just arrived on the 8th, and so was lucky enough to catch that first few minutes of sunshine in town this year. The following Saturday night the Norwegians organised a pretty good party to celebrate the return of the sun.

The town of Ny-Alesund.
Ny Alesund is an interesting place. It was set up, as many of the town in the area originally were, as a mining town. However, due to it's location, being just over 1200 km from the North Pole, it was also used as the launch site of the Zeppelins Norge and Italia on their attempts to fly over the Pole. The latter crashed on the return voyage. The famous polar explorer Ronald Amundsen (first person to reach the South Pole) then took off from here on a rescue mission for the Italia, and was never seen again. There is a memorial to him the centre of town.

Three of the team; Paula, Jane and Steven, armed to the teeth due to the hazard of polar bears. It is illegal to go outside the limits of town without at least a rifle and a flare gun in the group. 

As well as a memorial to Amundsen there are also various memorials to the large number of miners who, over the years, were killed in the local coal mines. In just 12 years of operations around the middle of the twentieth century 71 miners being killed. An explosion in 1963 killed twenty one individuals. As well as stopping mining in the area, this had significant political ramification and the Norwegian Cabinate actually resigned over the affair. There remains a lot of abandoned mining detritus sticking out of the snow in the nearby hills, slowly rotting away. This adds to the desolate atmosphere of the place.

After the mining had all closed down the town changed it purpose, it slowly turned into a research village with fifteen permanent research stations run by ten different countries including Britain. I am working for BAS on the British Station with a team from Aberystwyth University who are mapping the glacial drainage system of on of the local glaciers, but more about the science in a latter blog post.
A Norwegian lad enjoying some lovely arctic sunshine and good snow a few days ago before some very "Scottish" weather arrived. It looks like great terrain of ski touring  

Thursday 10 March 2016

Back in Scotland Part Two (Gully of the Gods)

Murdoch on some deceptively steep ice on White Tiger.
Murdoch was off and had heard a rumour about some unusual ice in Torridon. The weather was looking good and I had a couple of days off;  time for a little trip up North.

I had just reached Spean Bridge when I got the first phone call, Murdoch had heard another rumour, the rumours about the unusual ice was false. After a bit of discussion, we agreed on a new objective, Gully of the Gods on Ben Bhan which he had also heard was in nick.
Myself below the impressive Gully of the Gods.

Another 20 miles up the road, and I got the second call, he had just been emailed a picture of the Liathach, and he thought there was loads of ice after all. I got him to describe what the picture showed, and conditions did not sound exceptionally icy to me. After some further discussion we decided to stick with the Ben Bhan plan.

Another 10 miles further up the road I got another call, Murdoch had the fear that there could be loads of ice, and someone else might climb the route he had his eyes on. After some further discussion, it was back to the original Torridon plan.

After a relatively comfy night in the car, I met Murdoch at 7am the next morning. There  were about 6 or 8 vehicles in the carpark all of which were vans. We left a bit old school not having a van between up. Fortunately the van dwellers had got up earlier than us, and put a good track through the deep snow into the Coire. Good effort folks! Although the major ice lines were in, conditions were not exceptional, and even Murdoch admitted the line that he had his eye on was a little too thin. Fortunately White Tiger was in nick, and was a route neither of us had done. This made of a pleasant day out.
Myself on the first pitch of Gully of the Gods. 
Looking up the impressive second pitch. Dave wondering how he was going to get out to the ice. 
The next day I had arranged to climb with Dave Almond. I had always fancied climbing the impressive Gully of the Gods on Ben Bhan ever since I first saw it over 15 years ago. However, I had never seen it in good nick. Having heard it might be in good nick I was keen for a look, and fortunately Dave was as well.

Arriving in the at the base of it we found it to be in great looking condition.  We spudded to see who got to lead the impressive second pitch, and I lost. However, this meant I got the first pitch which was great; sustained and interesting but never desperate. I was glad to hear Dave muttering away to himself about it not being overly easy when seconding.
Dave hanging out in an impressive situation on the second pitch. 
Dave then started up the second pitch, which although intimidating, turned out to be very accommodating, and not nearly as hard as it looked. A couple of easier pitches led to  the find cornice. Dave approached this direct, and about twenty or thirty minutes of hacking he managed to pop through this into the lovely afternoon sunshine. Overall a great route, one of the best Scottish winter routes that I have done, and one that it was worth waiting for.

Thursday 3 March 2016

Back in Scotland Part One.

Coire Ardair taken on a work day. Scotland in winter; a good place.  
I have been back in Scotland for about a month now, and am really enjoying the Scottish winter scene. I have been pretty busy with avalanche forecasting work although with snowy cold winter conditions this has felt interesting and rewarding. On my days off I have been trying to do a bit of winter climbing, a bit of skiing, and in the evening I have been trying to gain a bit of strength with lots of bouldering.

The first few weeks I was back were quite stormy and hard work climbing wise. A couple of planned days out got binned the night before due to very poor weather forecasts. The first day I actually made it out was pretty wild. Myself and friend Dave Evans headed up the Ben. When approaching the gearing up spot in Coire na Ciste we saw a pair sitting in the snow looking a bit spaced.  Although a hundred metres away or so, I thought this looked a little odd, and was dubious about Dave's suggestion they were just doing some winter skills. I was correct, they had just been avalanched down from near the base of Thompson's route (unless you count being avalanched as a winter skill). Fortunately they were fine, if a bit shaken.  Not wanting to go too high given the conditions we did a nice wee route called Eastern Block, or we think we did. The route had quite an old school (i.e very brief) description that was open to a bit of interpretation. However, we climbed something, and it was quite pleasant.

Myself on what may or may not have been Eastern Block. It was a good pitch whatever. 
A few days later I headed back up the Ben with Brodie Hood. We had planned to go mixed climbing, but when gearing up in the Ciste we could see a big icicle thing lurking up in the mist. I had three ice screws I had put in as an after thought.  Fortunately a friend of mine turned up, and offered to lend us a couple of ice screws. The route; Une Journee Ordinaire dans un Enfer Quotidian was not as steep as it had initially looked, and felt pretty soft for grade VI,6, but still gave a pleasant day out.

Significant cracking of the snowpack on a relatively low angled slope. It was all beginning to feel a bit spooky, I wanted to run away and drink tea (which in the end is what we did).

My next day out was less successful. I timed up with Dave Evans again, and headed back up the Ben with an interesting looking route in mind. Approaching the route the snow started feeling pretty "spooky". Creeping along the base of a buttress I triggered a small avalanche, confirming our suspicions. We decided to head elsewhere. However by that point the wind had got up and fresh snow was piling in. Following our tracks back there was loads of signs of instability. We tried another part of the mountain, and watched two other teams trigger slabs not too far away from us. By this time my psyche for climbing had dropped off significantly, and my pyche for drinking tea in a warm safe cafe was pretty high. We decided to bail, and saw a couple of natural avalanche on the way out.

Overall it was a wild and atmospheric but enjoyable return to Scottish winter scene. All I needed was for the weather to calm down a bit, and that is what it did a week or two later, but what happened then will the subject of my next blog post.