Sunbathing on a glacier, and other fieldwork things…


I remember when I was in year 10 and I begged and begged my teacher to choose the cold environments topic for our Geography GCSE. I stressed how “awesome” it would be for us to learn about a landscape that we were so unfamiliar with but had seen so often that for some it had become a dream. That white blissful environment, full of snow, ice, and polar bears! I have to stress I was a very strange teenager who had an obsession with the Arctic after one too many Attenborough documentaries. Nevertheless, my teacher said no, and I went back to staring at my Frozen Planet poster on my bedroom wall… Flash forward seven years and I am currently writing a report on the fieldwork I completed on Solheimajokull glacier!

‘The Dream Team’ Do we look excited? We are very excited (L-R: Josie, Rosie, and I)

Amongst the fieldwork trips you get to do here as a Geography BSc student, from studying rivers at Bangor* to assessing geomorphological landscapes at the Cairngorms, everyone is secretly waiting for the Iceland fieldwork to come. A 10 day trip to Southern Iceland filled with tephra, waterfalls, volcanoes, the Northern lights, and most exciting of all… GLACIERS!! (I think you see where this blog post is going). Prior to the trip we split off into groups with likeminded people who wanted to pursue a similar research project. I was ecstatic that two of my friends also wanted to study glaciers and look into the dynamics of the glacier. We wrote up our initial ideas, developed on them, and presented them to our class. I have to say one of the best things about field classes is seeing the diverse range of projects everyone is studying. If I wasn’t deep in fourth year work I’d jump at the chance of reading everyone’s research reports. From studying the fallout of tephra to looking at the hydrological mechanisms of Solheimajokull, it is really interesting stuff! And most topics had some relevancy with ongoing research carried out by our professors which made our research feel more worthwhile.

The topic my group decided to pursue involved looking at the rate of surface elevation change of this beautiful, sadly retreating, glacier and using a model to infer melt over a longer time period – pretty fascinating right? We set up, what is called, a fluxgate – which is basically just two transects across the width of the glacier with points every 150m. But first, climbing to get up onto the glacier was both awesome and tiring. Never had, ‘I should have gone the gym more this summer’, been a more prominent thought. It was also my first time wearing crampons which are pretty interesting to get used to but also make you feel invincible as you climb up a steep incline gripping onto the ice and tephra laden slope. I felt like a superhero! Once up on the glacier it was time to drill! The transect was made up of seven points, so 14 in total. I was personally rubbish at this, hitting a lot of tephra and not drilling at a 90 degree angle but we had a superstar drill expert in our group.

To investigate our aims we needed to take both velocity and ablation measurements. Velocity was taken by precisely measuring the location of the point using a differential GPS on the first and last day of study. The displacement of the point was then  used to calculate velocity. As we set the GPS measurement period to 15 minutes this gave us prime time for a bit of sunbathing on the glacier and exploring other parts of the glacier – the tunnels, moulins, and subglacial hydrology system of the glacier were fascinating! To calculate ablation we placed ablation stakes in the holes and measured the distance from the top of the stake to the glacial surface. This was then repeated on the final day to measure the amount of melt over 5 days. I shan’t bore you with the data analysis and technical aspects we calculated back in the lab, but it truly was a fascinating experience being able to collect actual data on an actual glacier… Mind = blown! Never give up on your geographical dreams because one day, if you work hard enough (and you go to a university that has an Iceland trip which no way affected my choice of university 😉 ), they will come true!

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[1] Do we look like we know what we’re doing? We totally did! [2] I’m on the left pondering the start of the climb. I have little legs, it’s harder for me! (my excuse) [3] Not too bad a view for lunch!

* DISCLAIMER: Yes, Bangor may not be as an exciting place as Cape Town or Istanbul (the other fieldwork destinations for third year Geographers) BUT it is such an amazing place to study a wide diversity of geographical projects and is a really fun trip! And the local pub, where you will probably end up with the professors, is a great pub – 10/10 would return to Bangor with my fielwork group “Bob Marley and the Waders”… I’ll save this story for another time 😀

Until next time, Rebecca Shannon…

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