Monday, 7 November 2016

The enigmatic Aonach Beag snowpatch.

 Approaching Aoanch Beag. The old snowpatch can be seen down and left of the steeper cliffs.

 Iain at the top of the patch where it was over 3 meters deep. 

Myself standing below the patch. It was about 50m from where I am standing to the top right corner. 

With a lot of fresh snow having fallen in the Cairngorms over the past few days, and more forecast, particularly in the West over the next few days it looks like the lasting snows of the winter have arrived. Four snowpatches have survived the summer. These were the Sphinx and Pinnacle patches on Braeriach, the Observatory Gully patch on Ben Nevis, and the Aonach Beag patch. Back in the end of August I had been hopefully that the Point Five Gully patch on Ben Nevis would also survive, but a mild and wet September meant that was not to be. 
Last Saturday myself and Iain Cameron headed over to Aonach Beag to see how the patch there was doing.This was the first day out in potentially could be a very long winter for me.  I was quite impressed with the quantity of snow which remained. The patch was about 50 meters long, 25 meters wide, and around 3 meters deep at it's top edge. We estimated the mass of the patch to be of the order of 700 tonnes. This is, not unusually, the largest of the snow patches to have survived in Scotland this year. It as quite an enigma how this patch survives so well, as it sits at a relatively low altitude (just 920 meters). This is full 200 meters below the other patches that usually survive (The Braeriach patches are at around 1145m, and the Observatory Gully patch 1140m.). The answer is probably due to the combination of it's location (very sheltered with a large catchment area) and the fact this it sits on soil rather than rock, and so air and water don't get underneath to melt it out from below. 

P.S I have just noticed that Iain has had the same idea as me in writing about this patch, you can see his thoughts here.


Monday, 12 September 2016

Svalbard Science 2

Kronebreen and the head of  Kongsfjorden. 
I am just back from another trip to the British research base in Ny Alesund on Svalbard. As with when I was there in March, I was working as a field assistant for BAS. This time I was instructing on a polar fieldwork course for sixteen early career scientists who are involved, or are keen to be involved, in scientific polar field work.
The trip started with a few days in Maddingley Hall on the outskirts of Cambridge. Here the course participants had a number of lectures from people at BAS, and did a number of field work planning exercises. It was also an opportunity for them to tell us a little about their work. They came from a variety of backgrounds; glaciology, geology, marine biology, and climate modelling. It also gave me an opportunity to nip into BAS headquarters to catch up with various people, many of whom I had not seen since Rothera.
The Mellageret,  the Ny Alesund pub, and the world's most Northerly bar. It is only open on Thursday and Saturday nights, but does tend to provide a good if slightly random night out. 
After the Cambridge component, myself, three BAS scientists and half the students headed up to Svalbard. We flew to Longyearbyn which is the the capital of the island. We had booked a boat, with the original plan to head round to Ny Alesund that evening. However, the weather had been unsettled, and the seas were rough. The skipper of the boat decided it would be better to wait until the following day when hopefully the sea had settled down a bit. This meant a night in Longyearbyn. I had not been into Longyearbyn before, so it was quite a good opportunity to have a jaunt into the centre of town, and a wee look round the museum.
The next day the skipper let us know that the sea was still a bit lumpy, but he would like to give it a go. When we got out of the shelter of the fjord he proved not to be wrong. The further out we headed the bigger and bigger the seas got, and the wee boat (44ft long) started getting thrown around more and more. People started getting really thrown about inside, and inevitably getting sea sick, and the boat had to go slower and slower. I have to admit to not feeling the best but managed to keep my lunch down.
Ice on the beach. Pretty when washed up on a beach, but a another thing to be aware off when out at sea. 
Eventually after about two and half hours the skipper called it day and decided to turn round, our average speed had been around seven  knots, and at that rate it would have taken another 9 hours to get round to Ny Alesund (it is four hour trip in good weather). A couple of hours later we were back in Longyearbyn feeling slightly battered and queasy. However, it was quite a good lesson for the students, in the polar regions everything is so weather dependent, and the best laid plans can easily be scuppered by the weather.
Doing a bit of geology near be base of Austre Broggerbreen (the glacier which I was working on back in March)
After another night in Longyearbyn the plan was to try to make it to Ny Alesund by boat again the next after afternoon. It looked like being another morning of mooching about. Then a phone call letting us know there were enough seats on a flight to Ny Alesund for all of us if we could be at the airport in just over an hour.  After some rapid packing and rounding up of everybody, we made it for the half hour flight over to Ny Alesund. This was a lot more civilized than the previous days attempted journey. Another lesson of polar field work, it is very much hurry up and wait.

Once at Ny Alesund the rest of the day was taken up with rifle courses and information about how the station operated. The following day the students started working on two science projects.
The aim of the first project was to investigate a local glacier (Midtre Lovenbreen) using various techniques. This involved using a dual frequency GPS to map the snout of the glacier and compare the results with a similar survey carried out by the students on this course last year. Rather depressingly in the last year the glacier had retreated on average 15-20 meters. It also involved surveying the lower 2 km of the glacier using ground penetrating radar. This gave a depth profile of the glacier (around 150 metres for much of its length) as well showing various interesting internal structures.
Doing a radar survey of Midtre Lovenbreen. The transmitter is located in the rear sledge, and the receiver in the forward sledge. 
The second project was a marine biology one.  The students headed out in the local fjord in boats doing various plankton trawls, sediment grabs and temperature and salinity profiles. The aim 
of this was to try and build up an understanding of  the food web which exists with in the fjord, and understand how this changes with depth and proximity to Kronebreen, the huge glacier which flows into the head of the fjord. Essentially there is less life the deeper you go, and less life up toward the head of the fjord where the water is colder and fresher.
Some little creatures dredge out of the fjord
which marine biologists knew lots about. 
A few days later the boat arrived to deliver the second group of students. The first group then left on the boat. The weather was pretty settled by this point, and the sea was calm. It sounded a very different boating experience to the one we had endured a few days earlier. The second group continued to work on the projects started by the first group. Although none of the science will be published, it was interesting to see the results that could be found after just a few days.
A  young arctic fox checking out one of our rucsacs.
After about a week at Ny Alesund, it was time for myself and the other staff on the course to leave with the second group of students on the boat. However, by this time the weather had started to change again for the worse. It was decided to bring the departure time from Ny Alesund forward four hours from 9 am to 5 am. As predicted it was quite rough on the way back round to Longyearbyn (although not as rough as when we had turned back a few days before), and it was fortunate that we had allowed a fair bit of extra time as the normally 4 hour journey took over 7 hours. I admit I am perhaps on the best sailor, and spent three or four hours curled up on floor of the boat feeling terrible. Fortunately we made it in time to managed catch our flight out of Longyearbyn despite this it looking slightly dubious for while.

Some of the larger local wildlife. A walrus sleeping on the beach.

Overall it was a good trip. I love the wildlife, and landscape and people that you get up in the polar regions. It was also good to work with a group of enthusiastic scientist from a variety of disciplines. In retrospect I even appreciate my arctic sea sick experience.  However, in the future however terrible a days field work I am having, should it be forecasting avalanches on Ben Nevis in the lashing rain, or after numerous days in lie up in a BAS pyramid tent, I now know it could be worse, I could be feeling deathly sea sick in a small boat bobbing around the arctic ocean.



Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Snowpatch time again.

This little tunnel within the Observatory Gully snowpatch had melted out from below. This was probably due to air movement. 
The Point Five Gully tunnel during the Ben Nevis Survey. This is formed by the stream flowing down Point Five Gully and under the snowpatch melting it from below.  
Alison Austin doing some science in the impressive Tower Cleft during the Ben Nevis survey. Probably a nicer place to be in winter than in summer.   
Still plenty of depth in the Observatory Gully patch. 
Saturday the 20th of August was the 9th annual Scottish snowpatch survey. Various people were out and about scanning the hills to see how much snow remains.  I joined Iain, Mark and Ben to see how things were looking on Ben Nevis. Iain has recently become a bit of a TV star with his interest in snow.

I had also been up that way a week or so earlier when working on the Ben Nevis survey as part of my work for the John Muir Trust. The Ben Nevis survey is a botanical and geological survey of Ben Nevis where mountaineers helped geologists and botanists into various places on the North Face which are not very easy to get to. I did three days on the survey in some fairly sub-optimal weather conditions, and visited some fairly dank and loose places to which I suspect I will never return to in summer conditions.

A relatively warm May and June, followed by a wet July and early August meant that there is a fair bit less snow on the hills now than there was at this time last year. However last year was quite exceptional, and compared to many years this year is not looking too bad. For example the Zero Gully patch which survived last year, was small when we passed it on the 20th However, some years it has not been there at all for the snowpatch survey. There was also a noticeable difference in size of the Observatory Gully patch between my visits on the 11th;and the 20th. I suspect this might be a reflection on how wet it had been between my two visits. 

Another view of the Observatory Gully Patch. Interestingly the wall in the foreground  is absent of the ablation hollows which  you usually see in such locations. I am not sure why this is. 
Iain taking pictures of the Point Five Gully patch. It was all looking a bit unstable, so we didn't actually go any further under the tunnel.  The boundary between last years snow and older multi year snow can be seen just above Iain's head. The snow tunnel here hard enlarged significantly, and was looking a lot less stable that 9 days earlier when I had visited it on the Ben Nevis survey. 
At the end of last autumn there was a significant amount of very hard, dense, icy snow remaining at the base of Point Five Gully and in particular in Observatory Gully. This meant that although last winter was not exceptional in terms of snow build up in these locations, they had a significant head start.  Despite the significant melting between my two visits, I would say that the Observatory Gully patch in particular was looking was looking very healthy, and point five was looking okay. In places the boundary between the last winter’s snow and the old hard icy multi-year snow was very evident.

One thing that was very noticeable about both the Observatory Gully and Point Five patches is how much melting had occurred from below due to water and air. This is due to these patches sitting on scree which allows the air start circulating underneath, and lots of running water coming down the gullies and flowing below the patches. This is in contrast to other long laying patches such as Aoanch Beag (the lowest lying regularly surviving snow patch) and Britain’s most permanent snow patch, the Sphinx Patch over in the Cairngorms. These patches lie in sunken hollows, and sit on soil rather than on rock so air and water do not get underneath them, so they only melt from the top. This means that they don’t melt as quickly, but on the other hand you don’t see the create the impressive tunnels and shapes that are shown in the photos here.  

After descending from Observatory Gully, Iain and the others continued round to Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag to have a look at the snow patches there. I had to head down to start getting organised for another trip up to Svalbard, which I am sure I will write about in due course.

From what I saw last on the Ben Nevis, and from Iain’s pictures for the rest of his trip my predictions of the West coast snow patches are as follows; Observatory Gully will definitely survive, Aonach Beag is highly likely and Point Five likely to survive. I don't think however, that the other remaining Lochaber patches will make it.  I will let you know how accurate these predictions are in a few months time.....
Heading home! It will be interesting to see how much of this snow remains when next season  lasting snow arrives in October or November. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A slightly late Spring update.

Kalymnos, not a bad spot. 
It has been a while since I last posted on my blog.  The reason for this, is that I have not really done a huge amount which I have felt has been worth writing about.

After Svalbard I returned to Scotland and did a fair bit  a fair bit of avalanche work, but no spectacular winter routes. Unlike previous few years, I did not go on a Spring skiing trip. After the previous six months I felt over snow and ice for a time, and fancied some warm rock climbing. My first attempt at this did involve some good quality rock, although unfortunately it was not that warm. I had a week in Pembroke dodging the showers  and trying to stay warm (we even had some wet snow one day). I manged some nice climbing and a few good E5's, but felt I was just getting going (it was my first time of rock since September).
Myself on Delayed Attacked, a great E3 on Binnein Shaus. I also did the E5 to the left, The Wallachian Prince prince. This was cleaned recently, by Adam Russel I think. Good effort. 
Next up was Kalymnos for a bit of sports climbing in early May. This was warm, but not too hot as long as you climbed in the shade. It was nice to go sports climbing again, but compared to previous sports trips I was not exactly on fire. I guess that sitting on an ice cap for a few months doesn't do your sports climbing too much good.

Since then it has been climbing in Scotland. Between work and general life faff (which I will try to write about soon), I have managed a few good trips up the North-West, and felt like I started to remember how to climb.
Iain cleaning his new route Endolith.
The most interesting thing I managed a rather chilly day new routing in  Glen Coe with Iain Small. We did a couple of new routes (both led by Iain) on an 30m high clean buttress on the Chasm to Crowberry Traverse. The rock is good quality and naturally quite clean, technical, the angle is around or just off vertical, the outlook is great, and we thought the routes are probably worth a star each.  The buttress is just to the right of the start of a a VS from 1970 called Neolith (page 51 of the SMC Glen Coe guide).
Iain cleaning Megalith. The line of Endolith is also marked on the left. 
Endolith E5 6a  25 m
Shallow groove up the left hand side of the buttress. Start just right of a downward pointing flake. Make tricky moves up into the shallow groove. Follow this to it's top. Step right to climb a very thin intermittent crack directly to the top of the crag.

Megalith. E6 6a. 25m
Start at a diagonal groove just right of the start of Endolith. Make hard moves up the groove to easier ground. Climb up and right to the left end of an area of overlaps and a small rock scar. Step left and make hard and blind moves  directly up. Continue straight up the wall (sustained), stepping right just below the top of the crag.



Thursday, 21 April 2016

Snow cover in Lochaber 3

It is again roughly the time of year when snow depth reaches it's maximum in the high North and East facing gullies and hollows. The amount of snow in these areas is the biggest factor in how long it survives, and how likely various patches are to make it through to next winter. For this reason, and because of the popularity (in relative terms) of my previous blog posts on this subject, I thought it would be a good time to write about the current snow situation.

Below are a series of pictures of the South side of Coire an Lochan of Aonach Mor taken in April this year, and previous Aprils.
 April 2016
April 2015
April 2014
April 2013
April 2012
April 2011
April 2010

April 2009
March 2008 (I could not find an April picture for this year)
By studying these pictures, and in particular how buried some of the rock are, I would say that in terms of the amount of snow  that in this location this year there is;
The point Five patch on Ben Nevis last
August. A fair bit of this now very dense
snow must be buried under this winter's
snow. 
Less than 2015.
Less than 2014.
More than 2013.
A lot more than 2012.
More than 2011.
A lot more than 2010.
More than 2009.
Less than 2008.

I would say that this year is the 4th snowiest in the 9 years that I have pictures for.

The strongest single factor in which patches survive the summer is the depth of snow in the spring.  The three years snowiest winters, as ranked using the photos above, led to the survival of the snow in this coire through the following summer. This did not occur in any of the summers following the years winters rated less snowy than this winter. This suggests it will be touch an go as to whether the coire holds snow through to next winter.

Another source of data on April snow volume is the cumulative snow fall totals as recorded by the SAIS forecasters through the winter. This tells a similar, perhaps slightly more positive tale as the pictures. This year's total being put this year as being the joint second (shared with 2015) winter in the last 8 winters (note that the data only went back to 2009, I suspect we would have been beaten by 2008 if that had been included in the analysis).

However, there are of course other factors than just April snow depth which affects how much snow survives through to the next winter. One of these factors is the length of the melt season. It it now mid to late April, and the forecast is for a north winds, and consequently a low freezing level, until at least the end of the month. Therefore there is no sign of the melt season beginning properly until into May. Although cold weather at this time of year is not unusual, every day that the snow is not thawing helps. 
A picture taken August 2015. You can see the first year snow in the foreground peeling away from the much denser multi-year snow in the background. There is presently plenty of multi-year snow  in some locations.
Another factor is the amount of multi-year snow which exists in some of the snow patch locations, particularly the Point Five and Observatory Gully patches on Ben Nevis.  What I mean by multi-year snow is snow which fell in previous winters which did not melt through the summer.  This has compressed into a high density snow-ice.  This will give these patches large icy hearts which will be it much more resistant to thaw than first year snow.

In summary due to the quite reasonable amount of snow that fell over the winter, the so far cold spring, and the multi year snow in some locations I am currently quite optimistic about prospects of snow patch survivals this season. I think it is unlikely to be an exceptional year, but I suspect (and hope) it is better than average. 

Friday, 25 March 2016

Svalbard Science

Abseiling into the Moulin.
As mentioned in the previous blog post the reason I was up in Svalbard to support a scince project. I was working with a team of glaciologists from Aberystwyth university who were interested in the internal drainage system of a glacier called Austre Brøggerbreen which is just a few miles from Ny Alesund. 
Inside the ice cave. 
During the summer surface meltwater had cut a channel in the surface of the glacier which over the years had got deeper and deeper. Creep closure of the ice above had occurred, sealing it off from the surface, and creating a tunnel. At the top of the tunnel a moulin; a roughly circular, vertical or near vertical well like shaft had formed.

This moulin/tunnel system had been surveyed every few years since 1998, and was found to be constantly evolving. This year the moulin was about 40 metres deep. After which we were able to follow the ice tunnel for about 300 metres before it was blocked by water. Previous surveys have shown that the tunnel had many steps and pools, but this year there was only really the major one step within the tunnel.

As well as surveying the tunnel using the traditional method using a compass and a laser rangefinder, the Aberyswth team were interested in using use a laser scanner to build up a detailed 3-D image of the tunnel. Laser scanners had previously never been used in an ice-walled channels. This technique would give a much finer spatial resolution data set than has previously been achieved, from which to analyse morphology change after one melt season (the team plan to return and re-surveying the channel again next year).
Telly Tubbies do science! Jayne doing some survey of the surface of the glacier close to the moulin on a chilly day.
Meteorological data from a weather station on the glacier will be used to numerically model water flow through the channel to better understand the links of hydrodynamics in altering channel morphology. It is important to better understand the processes of channel formation and evolution, in order to determine how water is transported through a glacier - the existence of water in a glacier determines its movement, and this will be increasingly important in light of the warming climate. 
The view from the abseil into the moulin


We were hampered a bit in the surveying by the weather. As well as stopping us going out that day the mild wet spell mentioned in the last blog post also released a bit of water. We failed to get up to the glacier the next day by rivers of slush. The next couple of days we made it up there, but a little water dribbling into the moulin made the abseil and jug out very damp, unpleasant and awkward due to the ropes icing up.

The next day the temperature dropped to about minus 20 degrees C(being a geek I brought along my thermometer to measure these things, but unfortunately the batteries stopped worked in minus 18). This caused a couple of problems, firstly the scanner struggled a bit at these low temperatures. Secondly, thermal contraction of the ice walls of the moulin meant that it started exfoliating, and falling off the walls, which restricted access.

Despite the problems with the weather, and we managed to get a fair bit of scanning done, and the the early results are promising. They as planning to return next year to re-scan the channel. I hope I can get involved again
Rivers of slush. The mild weather released a fair bit of water. In the end we decided just driving the skidoos very quickly across this river was the method of choice.  This technique worked, just.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Ny Alesund

The ice front of the impressive Kongsvegen glacier taken from the flight into Ny Alesund. 
The rain hammers at the window. The ground is frozen and flat, so the water readily pools to form expanses of slush in and around town. Inevitable the temperature will drop, minus fourteen is forecast in a couple of days time, and saturated snow will turn to ice. That will make getting up to our research site on the glacier interesting.

I am in Ny Alesund, a small town on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Ny Alesund is just a small place, with a population of about 35 during the winter, rising up to around 180 during the summer.  At 79ºN it is also the most Northerly permanently inhabited settlement in the world.  Until the late nineteen nineties it was further North than the North Magnetic Pole (the latter has been drifting closer the actual pole over the past few decades).
An arctic fox, as the sun becomes visible in town for the first time in about four month. This picture was actually taken from the dining room. Most mornings the fox jealously watches everybody having their breakfast. 
Being so far North the polar night is long, the sun does not above the horizon between the 24th of October and the 18th of February. However, due to the mountains to the South, the town itself does not see the sun until the 8th of March. I had just arrived on the 8th, and so was lucky enough to catch that first few minutes of sunshine in town this year. The following Saturday night the Norwegians organised a pretty good party to celebrate the return of the sun.

The town of Ny-Alesund.
Ny Alesund is an interesting place. It was set up, as many of the town in the area originally were, as a mining town. However, due to it's location, being just over 1200 km from the North Pole, it was also used as the launch site of the Zeppelins Norge and Italia on their attempts to fly over the Pole. The latter crashed on the return voyage. The famous polar explorer Ronald Amundsen (first person to reach the South Pole) then took off from here on a rescue mission for the Italia, and was never seen again. There is a memorial to him the centre of town.

Three of the team; Paula, Jane and Steven, armed to the teeth due to the hazard of polar bears. It is illegal to go outside the limits of town without at least a rifle and a flare gun in the group. 



















As well as a memorial to Amundsen there are also various memorials to the large number of miners who, over the years, were killed in the local coal mines. In just 12 years of operations around the middle of the twentieth century 71 miners being killed. An explosion in 1963 killed twenty one individuals. As well as stopping mining in the area, this had significant political ramification and the Norwegian Cabinate actually resigned over the affair. There remains a lot of abandoned mining detritus sticking out of the snow in the nearby hills, slowly rotting away. This adds to the desolate atmosphere of the place.

After the mining had all closed down the town changed it purpose, it slowly turned into a research village with fifteen permanent research stations run by ten different countries including Britain. I am working for BAS on the British Station with a team from Aberystwyth University who are mapping the glacial drainage system of on of the local glaciers, but more about the science in a latter blog post.
A Norwegian lad enjoying some lovely arctic sunshine and good snow a few days ago before some very "Scottish" weather arrived. It looks like great terrain of ski touring