This picture of Kronebreen, the Crown Glacier in Norwegian, was an entrant in Naturejobs’ inaugural Scientist At Work photo competition. Joshua Chu-Tan investigates the science behind the image.
Imagine taking a helicopter over a fjord, across crevassed glacial surfaces, on top of the wildest country you could imagine — one of the most untouched areas in the world. The chopper lands, you jump out, throw your equipment on the ground, watch the pilot take off. You’re on top of the mountain, in the middle of the wilderness. It is silent. This is what Doug Benn, professor of environmental change, and his colleague Heïdi Sevestre do every day in their role as glaciologists.
The photograph above is of Kronebreen (the Crown Glacier in Norwegian), in Svalbard. The picture was taken with a programmed camera set up by Benn’s team. Representative of many of the fast flowing tidewater glaciers throughout the Arctic and Antarctic regions, Kronebreen is of particular interest. “We can look at very great detail at this particular glacier and we can deeply understand the physics involved in the response of these glaciers to the warming of the atmosphere and the ocean,” explains Benn.
Benn and Dr Sevestre worked as part of a team on a project called CRIOS (Calving Rates and Impact on Sea Level). The project aimed to improve understanding on how ice is lost from glaciers into the ocean by ice flow and calving, which is the process of ice breaking away from the glacial edge. The picture shows ice stretching in action — the ice in the foreground is moving faster than the ice at the background, causing it to crack open as it extends. With Kronebreen moving up to six metres a day, cracks and groans can sometimes be heard at the site.
The camera system, designed and built by Nick Hulton, was developed to do exclusively time-lapse imagery and to reliably take repeat photographs in extreme conditions in Svalbard. It was programmed to take photos at varying intervals of 13-15 minutes every day and with daylight being 24 hours a day so far north, it works in their favour. The photo itself was just one sample of the many photos taken during their study.
Sevestre, who is now studying glacier dynamics in a postdoctoral position at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, shared her story of how she got into the field. “I was hiking from Chamonix in France and this was the first time that I was walking on glaciers and it just blew my mind — there was something really special about it,” she says. “One of the guides told me some people get paid to study glaciers — I really didn’t know that there was a profession like that available.”
Benn was also introduced into the world of glaciology from his love of climbing and travelling, but stresses the importance of the subject in our ever-changing climate. “I initially just wanted to hang out in the mountains and then suddenly you find out that it’s your task to understand how glaciers are responding to climate change — so it was a real bonus.”
“We’ve had such a fantastic time working on this project, these are really the best days of my life. We had so much fun as a group but also doing very good science, very important work,” Sevestre says. To her, this picture represents the spirit of the group. “We are all connected with the same rope and trying to do work together. It’s this small group in front of this huge and very impressive environment but we’re still doing what we can to try and understand this glacier better.”
Benn is currently working on a follow up project at the University of St Andrews.
Joshua Chu-Tan is a 3rd year PhD student with the Provis Group at The Australian National University’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, Canberra, investigating gene therapies for age-related macular degeneration. He loves writing whilst sipping espressos in the finest hipster cafes. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @joshchutan.
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