West Greenland Expedition - glacier research trip

This August 2019, Outside staff member Jo Zanker and 10 other students travelled to west Greenland as part of the University of Sheffield Polar and Alpine Change MSc course. This is the story of the expedition and her experience on the glacier, together with some spectacular photos.

West Greenland Research Expedition

Our two week expedition to west Greenland started and finished in the small town of Kangerlussuaq, where we organised food and equipment.  Between these days in town, we spent 10 days wild camping next to the ice margin of the Russell Glacier. From here we conducted daily forays into the field, to gain first hand experience of an arctic environment and to develop our field research skills in glaciology, hydrology and geomorphology. For many of us, this was the longest and most remote camp we had been on.

Loaded with scientific equipment, camping gear and food to last 16 people for 2 weeks, we drove to our campsite on an extremely bumpy, meandering dirt track, originally constructed by Volkswagen so that they could test cars on the ice sheet in secret. Even on this drive out, the wildlife did not disappoint, with multiple sightings of Arctic hares, Reindeer and Musk oxen.

Greenland Expedition - Musk Oxen. Photo: Becky Hopkins Musk oxen. Photo: Becky Hopkins

After unloading all the kit we set up camp; pitching the mess tent with all the food and cooking equipment next to “Two Boat  Lake” and our sleeping tents on top on the small hill closer to the road and the car. Downwind of camp, we dug a trench where we could do our business with a nice view of Russell Glacier. The plan for the expedition was to have 4 days of “show and tell”, where the staff would teach us various field techniques, followed by 4 days working on our own group projects.

Greenland Expedition - Mess Tent. Photo: Becky Hopkins Mess tent pitched next to "Two Boat Lake" at our camp. Photo: Becky Hopkins

First day out on the ice

On our first day we set off to the margin of Isunnguata Sermia, a large land-terminating glacier that flows out of the ice sheet. We were all equipped with ice axes and crampons (very kindly lent to the group by Grivel), along with helmets and harnesses with ice screws and prusiks. We found walking on the ice for the first time a bizarre experience. You expect ice to be smooth, white and slippery; instead it was rough, dark and reasonably easy to walk on without crampons.

Heading further into glacier the ice became whiter and undulated like sand dunes, though it was still rough. We frequently hopped across winding supraglacial streams, and the ice surface was pocked with small cryoconite holes like Swiss cheese. When moving it was easy to keep warm, helped by the unrelenting sun reflecting off the white surface. But when we stood still and unsheltered it could, unsurprisingly, be bitterly cold.

Greenland Expedition - Ice Dunes. Photo: Andrew Sole The team moving over undulating “ice dunes” Photo: Andrew Sole
Greenland Expedition - Ice Dunes Photo: Stephen Livingstone The team moving over undulating "ice dunes" Photo: Stephen Livingstone

We were there to help with two ongoing research projects. The first, led by Lauren Rawlins, a PhD student at York University, used a drone to obtain very detailed measurements of the elevation of the ice surface and the meltwater rivers that flow over it. The second project, led by Dr Chris Williamson from Bristol University, investigated the effect that algae, which inhabit the surface layers of snow and ice, have on melting of the ice sheet surface. Our group also took the time to explore interesting ice features, such as a particularly staggering englacial channel system; being very careful to avoid crevasses and moulins (vertical tunnels through which surface meltwater reaches the bed) as we explored.

Back at camp with a buzz of excitement from the day, we cooked dinner and where possible, people got an early night. However, for half the group including myself, our night also consisted of a 2-3 hour bear watch shift. Although Polar bears are very common in northeast Greenland, the long distance (>100 km) from coast makes bear sightings rare in this part of west Greenland. However, as sea ice diminishes and food becomes scarcer, bears are travelling further and sightings are becoming more frequent. If a bear showed up, it would likely be very hungry. If we spotted one, the procedure was simple: sound the alarm, gather the group and if possible, leave the area. Although the risk was low, the consequences could be extreme, so bear watch was taken seriously. Having sleep interrupted halfway through the night to sit for 2 hours in the cold and dark was not ideal, but it was peaceful and quiet, and a great time to appreciate where we were.

Greenland Expedition - View from Bear Watch Hill Photo: Stephen Livingstone View from Bear Watch Hill. Photo: Stephen Livingstone

Installing a GPS tracking system on the ice

Our second day on the ice as a group was more of an adventure. The aim was to install a sophisticated GPS system on the ice, to track the speed at which it flows (very slowly, < 100 metres per year). We had to install the GPS several kilometres up-ice where it flows faster and it would stay there for the duration of our trip. The purpose of collecting this data was to investigate how the movement of the glacier reacts to variations in air temperature, which affects the meltwater supply. The meltwater flows down moulins to the base where it lubricates the ice, causing it to slide faster. This improves understanding of future glacier retreat and potential contribution to sea level rise.

Greenland Expedition - Packing the GPS gear. Photo: Becky Hopkins Loading up the extremely heavy GPS equipment, credit to those who carried it. Photo: Becky Hopkins
Greenland Expedition - Grivel crampons Photo: Andrew Sole Grivel crampons helping us over the ice and through the streams. Photo: Andrew Sole

Navigation on the ice can be very tricky. High points offered a view of a very similar blank ice sheet in every direction, and we rapidly lost direction every time we dropped into a valley between ice dunes. It was also nearly impossible to know when we were about to confront an impassable meltwater stream. This led to a long, winding route and a bit of back-tracking before we finally reached our goal. Trudging across undulating ice is extremely tiring; crampons have a way of absorbing momentum and weighing you down, but without them, repeatedly going up and down ice slopes is a little sketchy. Nonetheless, the otherworldly scenery and fascinating features kept us invigorated. After successfully setting up the GPS, the return journey was a lot quicker when we realised our impassable stream was, in fact quite passable further down.

And the river turned pink - subglacial river dyeing

The third field day was spent at a river that flows directly out of Isunnguata Sermia. Almost all of the meltwater produced at the ice sheet surface eventually finds its way beneath the ice. As with normal rivers, these “subglacial rivers” have a catchment, and tend to grow larger as they approach the ice edge.

As water flows beneath the ice, it interacts with the overlying ice and with the ground beneath, which changes the properties of the water. By measuring these properties where the rivers emerge at the ice edge, we can deduce the nature of these interactions and the patterns of water flow beneath the ice. In this way, these rivers provide windows into the world that exists beneath the ice sheet – a world that is otherwise almost completely inaccessible. Our aim was to continuously measure river discharge and sediment transport.

Doing so is not easy: these rivers are powerful, choked with boulders and are barely above freezing (0.1 degrees Celsius!). With some difficulty, we were able to install the sensors and conduct our first dye trace, which would allow us to measure the discharge of the river.

Greenland Expedition - River Dye Photo: Becky Hopkins Dropping Rhodamine WT dye into the outlet river to measure the discharge. Photo: Andrew Sole

When we were not conducting field research we were at camp preparing dinner, washing up, on bear watch or relaxing after a hard day’s work. Despite limited ingredients and lack of fresh food, meals were always delicious and filling. Evenings were often spent chatting and playing cards in the mess tent, which seemed to get more enjoyable the more deliriously tired we got. Mornings consisted of coffee and syrup-smothered porridge for breakfast (followed by passing the toilet paper ladle around for private trips to the trench), and the hustle of gathering equipment and lunch for the day.

Greenland Expedition - camp cookery Photo: Andrew Sole Camp cookery on three stoves - for 16 people. Photo: Andrew Sole

Mapping glacial landforms and building an arctic folly

The fourth day was dedicated to learning geomorphological techniques: identifying and mapping glacial landforms and using those landforms to reconstruct the behaviour of the ice sheet over the last 100,000 years. We got very good at spotting moraines (glacially formed piles of debris) and were taught about dating moraines through measuring lichen on rocks and Schmidt hammering.

Until today we had been very lucky with the weather; though cold, it had been dry and still. On returning to camp we were battered by a fiercely cold wind, which snapped all the poles on one tent. It quickly became apparent that bear watch would be somewhat unbearable on the exposed hill. We wrapped up warm and fighting the wind, we ferried rocks up the hill to build a rudimentary wall, unearthing some monstrous rocks with some (un)impressive displays of strength. Quite proud of our work, as we finished the wind died down, and we sat down to dinner thinking our achievement might at least confuse future archaeologists.

Time to go exploring

Our first four days of instruction complete, we now split off into our project groups, each focusing on one of the aspects taught in the first four days. For me, it had to be the 'on ice' project. We set out on a mission to explore, having spotted an interesting feature on a digital elevation map a few kilometres north of our GPS. The only problem was a huge crevasse field in between, which meant going the long way around. We took a bearing towards our vague goal but went slowly, frequently stopping to admire the complex meandering of streams, peer as close as we dared to moulins and to crack the ice on cryoconite holes for a satisfying ‘ting’.

Rising on top of a ridge we were met with a huge, dazzling supraglacial lake, which we dubbed the ‘Blue Lagoon’. Dragging ourselves away, we were now nearly on top of where we expected the feature to be from the map reference. We circled around and up and down repetitive ice dunes with no success, until we stopped on a high point, fell silent and heard a faint and ominous noise. The unmistakable low and powerful rumble of rushing water told us there was a gigantic moulin nearby, and once again the ice sheet did not disappoint.

Around the corner we stood and gazed in awe at the biggest and most powerful moulin we had seen yet, perhaps big enough to drop a land rover into, which we poetically named ‘big fat moulin’. Satisfied by our day of exploration, we headed back by a slightly more direct route. This meant getting more closely acquainted with the crevasse field. Armed with ice axes, crampons and an experienced leader, we were able to use problem solving and good communication to avoid any danger. In fact, this was a highlight of glacier travel for me and a welcome change from the now slightly tedious ice dunes.

Greenland Expedition - Diving In. Photo: Andrew Sole Diving in to the “Blue Lagoon” supraglacial lake. Photo: Andrew Sole.

Studying a supraglacial stream

The following two days on the ice were dedicated to scientific research. We found a relatively straight and wide supraglacial stream that fed into a large moulin, from which we took discharge measurements. We measured the speed of the flow by dropping a floating bottle (which was caught by someone in waders) and measured the cross section of the stream with a walking pole and measuring tape. We would later correspond this data with the ice velocity data from our GPS and the air temperature and compare it with previous years to see how ice dynamics are changing in a warming climate.

Greenland Expedition - River speed measurements. Photo: Andrew Sole. Cross-section measurements in the supraglacial stream. Photo: Andrew Sole

The second experiment was a Rhodamine WT dye trace which went into the moulin. The hope was that the sensors set up by the hydrology group would pick it up, giving us an idea of the subglacial drainage system efficiency. The nature of the subglacial drainage system is directly linked to ice movement but it's very difficult to observe. Data like this is key to understanding the link. Dropping the dye in made for a spectacular sight as the water turned the brilliant pink as it rushed down the moulin.

Greenland Expedition - Releasing river dye. Photo: Andrew Sole Releasing Rhodamine WT dye trace into the supraglacial stream. Photo: Andrew Sole
Greenland Expedition - River dye. Photo: Andrew Sole Rhodamine WT dye trace in the supraglacial stream. Photo: Andrew Sole

For the last on-ice day we repeated the stream velocity and cross-sectional measurement and went to collect the GPS rover and all the equipment. This was the first day on the ice without blue skies and dazzling sunlight. With the overcast sky came an especially cold wind and a little rain. In the diffuse light, the ice was streaked with blue; this altered the atmosphere considerably and it almost felt like a brand-new place. The novelty of pulling on waders and roping up to splash around in the stream was now somewhat lost in these unfavourable conditions.

Greenland Expedition - River light. Photo Andrew Sole Our supraglacial stream site in the eerie light. Photo: Andrew Sole

Returning to camp aching but happy, we found that the reindeer who had been hovering around all week had finally made their move on our mess tent, raiding the oats and the rubbish. Bear watch now became bear and reindeer watch, warning everyone when they needed to shout a reindeer away.

Greenland Expedition - Reindeer Watch. Photo: Becky Hopkins Reindeer drinking from “Two Boat Lake” at our campsite. Photo: Becky Hopkins.

Our final day was spent packing up the camp, feeling like we had only just unpacked it. Returning to our accommodation in Kangerlussuaq, we took a long-awaited shower and relaxed a little, but not before organising all the kit. Before flying home we were treated to one last ice sheet hit, with a visit to the ice cliffs of Russell glacier. In the evening we gave informal presentations on what our group had been up to on the project days, over an extremely tasty meal with fresh ingredients.

Greenland Expedition - Russell Glacier Ice Cliffs. Photo Andrew Sole Our group at the Russell Glacier ice cliffs. Photo: Andrew Sole.

We flew back via Copenhagen, this time with an evening and nearly a full day to enjoy the sights and kick back, after an adventurous, effortful and altogether exceptional trip.

Thanks to Andrew Sole, Stephen Livingstone and Ben Davison at Sheffield University for going beyond the call of duty to make this such a fun and successful trip, to Chris Sorensen for accommodating us and for logistical support, to Lauren Rawlins and Emma Lewington for lending their experience and helping with day-to-day camp life, to Chris Williamson for sharing his time and expertise on ice algae, and to all the other PAC students for an extremely fun and memorable trip.


Thanks to Becky Hopkins, Stephen Livingstone and Andrew Sole for the photos and thanks to Ben Davison for the edits and suggestions. A special thanks to Grivel and Outside Hathersage for helping out with the equipment for the trip. 

Written by Joanna Zanker.

We were sad to wave Joanna off in the summer, to further her studies in Cambridge. We hope she'll be back with more trip reports soon - Outside Admin.

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