A glaciologist returning to Ny-Ålesund

So flying into Longyearbyen in Svalbard was the same as most summers – a cloudy view with occasional appearances of a handful of nunataks and local peaks. The town itself was just the same – a quirky settlement mixing small low-rise industrial buildings and more colourful housing, shops and bars and the burgundy red UNIS building, and perhaps a few more newer buildings closer to the proglacial river running through to Adventfjord – but all with a peculiar appeal in the grey, overcast light.

Losing count of the number of times I’ve taken a flight from Lufttransport, it was comforting to see even there, nothing had really changed, but the luggage storage space was new! The little Dornier flight up to Ny-Ålesund is never eventful, and although there were a few views down onto a number of the much larger, heavily crevassed calving glaciers, summer nearly always sees enough cloud to hide the landscape.

Landing at the airstrip, we were greeted by a range of faces that were foreign to me. I guess, with it being several years since I was last here, many of the staff have left given they usually only stay for 3 years. Of course, stood there on the gravel was Coxy. Grinning away and enthused to see the Aber crew arrive, and apologetic he was leaving, but assuring us NERC Station was a fabulous atmosphere. Some things really do never change!

And so what does the glaciologist see? Glancing over to the south of the landing strip, it was hard to make out Austre Brøggerbreen through the low-lying mists over the ice, but the glacier has retreated and thinned so much since I was last here. Huge areas of moraine were really clear, and some of the large mounds of debris clearly show the remnants of glacier ice that underlie them. Later, looking at the vistas of Midtre and Austre Lovénbreen from the Ny-Ålesund mess-hall it was clear that the ice appears less prominent in the valleys. The ice here is getting less…

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Field-days reveal just the same… Exploring Vestre Brøggerbreen, a glacier fed by two accumulation areas with a main tongue transacted by a rocky medial moraine ridge, it was alarming to observe the western size of the glacier has thinned so dramatically that the ice front seems to be a long way back from where it was the last time I visited the site. The melting of so much ice has exposed a range of glacial sediments and morphologies, with ‘barcode’ features that result from the exposure of bands of differing geologies. The removal of the glacier ice also has left a lot of standing water in the forefield – never makes accessing the ice easy, as you have to pick your way over variable terrain which occasionally finds each step you take sinking up to 30 cm in the waterlogged muds and gravels. It was interesting to see the same is true at Austre Lovénbreen too… the exposed forefield is a fascinating place, with exposures of the yellow bedrock and flashes of rust red dissecting the indistinguishable browns of the mixed geology rock debris. It will be interesting to spend some time at Austre Brøggerbreen and Midtre Lovénbreen – the glaciers I know well.

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On the ice, much remains just as I remember glacier surfaces. The muddy ice at the lowest elevations where sediment is revealed from emerging basal and englacial ice, changes in ice structure with changing crystal size and cold white-blue colours, and the ice pock-marked by cryoconite at higher elevations. The cryoconite appears sometimes in clear holes, often related to larger scale but subtle depressions in the ice, which can link together almost as half-formed surface streams, sometimes just distributed like a fine dusting of potting compost occupying perhaps 5% of the surface ice area. This year, the ice surfaces do seem a little different. There is evidence of slush flows – where meltwater saturated snow suddenly drains down the glacier surface leaving an impression on the glacier ice. The surface streams, typical sky blue snakes in the whiter ice, occupy very deep ice walled canyons, much deeper than I ever remember, with patches of snow in places hiding the stream water from sight. For many years of coming up here I’ve never had to wear crampons – and this year I am strapping the spikes to my boots. Why? Well, rain and moisture really make the ice surface so much more slippy, everywhere compared to when it is sunny and the ice becomes crunchy and rough and easy to navigate over. The ice surface character depends so much on the weather.

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Of course, you come to Ny-Ålesund and never can avoid talking about the weather (and bears)! This summer has been a really wet one – and even in a week here, this does seem to be unusually wet and misty. Here, the characteristic is for nearly half of the summer to see low cloud – sometimes only a few hundred meters from sea level, completely obscuring the surrounding mountain peaks. There are always a good number of days with low-lying fog, and there are the occasional “pea-soupers”, but the week so far has seen an unusual number low lying mist days – the visibility is not too bad at sea level, but this gets worse as soon as you increase in elevation… And frankly, white mists, even if thin, when on white, off-white and blue glacier ice do make spotting off-white bears a little challenging. We got awoken this morning by a fire-cracker flare – the watchmen in town trying to scare a bear away. There have been a lot of bear sightings this year – and while there has been a bear in the area nearly every summer, it seems either they are hanging around this year, or a lot more than usual are passing through this way. Keeps you on your toes while in the field, that is for sure!

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About Aber Cryoconite

Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Research interest: polar and alpine microbiology. Views my own.
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One Response to A glaciologist returning to Ny-Ålesund

  1. westiedad says:

    Would love to travel here – sounds a fascinating place and looks spectacular. Not sure how I’d go working in those conditions though. I think my brain would freeze.

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