What does glacial fieldwork involve?

I’d like to be able to define what glacial fieldwork is, but what we do changes daily.  Yesterday I spent a day in the house doing GPS processing and Wifi range tests. Today I spent several hours on the glacier, crouched in a bothy bag in horrific conditions, trying to stop it flapping and getting all sorts of unprotected electronics wet.

So how did we get to that stage? Well we’re having a few issues communicating with the probes under the glacier, the automatic communication isn’t working due to a bits and pieces we’re implementing this week. So to check that the probes are alive and to get some data back from them we took a copy of what is in our base station, plugged it into a laptop, and tried to chat to the probes when they woke up at midday. This required us to be sitting on top of the probes on the glacier, at midday, with a variety of circuit boards, two laptops, a radio scanner, a few 12v batteries and a healthy dose of nerves about whether it’d work or not.

Evidently this is easy to do in sunny weather, and on first appearances the day looked great. I’d woken up early and watched the sun rise over the coast whilst I cracked on with the GPS processing.  And at that point I decided jinx the day by posting on facebook:

‘Off for another sunny day on the glacier, what more could you ask for in life?’

What a muppet…

So by the time we’d driven to the bit of Skalafellsjokull that we work on the weather had switched from sun to strong winds, driving rain, temperatures around zero (and well below with wind chill) and very low visibility. Fantastic.  To top everything off, the amount of rain over the last couple of days had changed the glacier surface from grippy and crunchy to smooth blue ice.  We still needed to run the test so we stuck crampons on and walked up to the base station. I got out the bothy bag that I carry when I’m out on the ice and we ducked inside.  If you’re not familiar with a bothy bag, it’s essentially a tent flysheet which you keep up by sitting on the edges in each corner and leaning outwards.  If it’s cold you usually sit on rucksacks to keep you off the ground, but that isn’t particularly appropriate when you’ve got delicate electronics in your rucksack! So instead we sat on peli cases that are lying around the basestation and will be used as power supplies for the geophones when they get deployed. To keep them in place on the slope of smooth ice we hooked each one onto an ice screw, and that was about as good a set up as we were going to manage. Bothy bags get the air nice and warm with your body heat, but it’s tricky keeping your legs and feet warm when you’re sitting on a huge lump of ice.

 So here’s a shoddy quality phone video of the situation. Apologies for the rubbish chat, making light of the situation was essential!
After some seriously tense silence at 11:59 listening to the outgoing radio transmissions on the radio scanner – chersh…..chersh….chersh… – the clock ticked over to 12:00 and we got a reply from one of the probes – chersh ch….chersh ch….chersh ch…. – and then a ton of data – chersh ch ch ch ch ch chhhh ch chhh ch ch. Que cheers and smiles all round. It’s nice when things go to plan.



One comment

  1. […] oh-so different. A few people in the department have been blogging about their fieldwork, with Alex out on a glacier in Iceland and Ellie immersing herself in Bangladesh. Of course, what we are all doing for our […]

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