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
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  

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Back in Scotland Part Two (Gully of the Gods)

Murdoch on some deceptively steep ice on White Tiger.
Murdoch was off and had heard a rumour about some unusual ice in Torridon. The weather was looking good and I had a couple of days off;  time for a little trip up North.

I had just reached Spean Bridge when I got the first phone call, Murdoch had heard another rumour, the rumours about the unusual ice was false. After a bit of discussion, we agreed on a new objective, Gully of the Gods on Ben Bhan which he had also heard was in nick.
Myself below the impressive Gully of the Gods.

Another 20 miles up the road, and I got the second call, he had just been emailed a picture of the Liathach, and he thought there was loads of ice after all. I got him to describe what the picture showed, and conditions did not sound exceptionally icy to me. After some further discussion we decided to stick with the Ben Bhan plan.

Another 10 miles further up the road I got another call, Murdoch had the fear that there could be loads of ice, and someone else might climb the route he had his eyes on. After some further discussion, it was back to the original Torridon plan.

After a relatively comfy night in the car, I met Murdoch at 7am the next morning. There  were about 6 or 8 vehicles in the carpark all of which were vans. We left a bit old school not having a van between up. Fortunately the van dwellers had got up earlier than us, and put a good track through the deep snow into the Coire. Good effort folks! Although the major ice lines were in, conditions were not exceptional, and even Murdoch admitted the line that he had his eye on was a little too thin. Fortunately White Tiger was in nick, and was a route neither of us had done. This made of a pleasant day out.
Myself on the first pitch of Gully of the Gods. 
Looking up the impressive second pitch. Dave wondering how he was going to get out to the ice. 
The next day I had arranged to climb with Dave Almond. I had always fancied climbing the impressive Gully of the Gods on Ben Bhan ever since I first saw it over 15 years ago. However, I had never seen it in good nick. Having heard it might be in good nick I was keen for a look, and fortunately Dave was as well.

Arriving in the at the base of it we found it to be in great looking condition.  We spudded to see who got to lead the impressive second pitch, and I lost. However, this meant I got the first pitch which was great; sustained and interesting but never desperate. I was glad to hear Dave muttering away to himself about it not being overly easy when seconding.
Dave hanging out in an impressive situation on the second pitch. 
Dave then started up the second pitch, which although intimidating, turned out to be very accommodating, and not nearly as hard as it looked. A couple of easier pitches led to  the find cornice. Dave approached this direct, and about twenty or thirty minutes of hacking he managed to pop through this into the lovely afternoon sunshine. Overall a great route, one of the best Scottish winter routes that I have done, and one that it was worth waiting for.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Back in Scotland Part One.

Coire Ardair taken on a work day. Scotland in winter; a good place.  
I have been back in Scotland for about a month now, and am really enjoying the Scottish winter scene. I have been pretty busy with avalanche forecasting work although with snowy cold winter conditions this has felt interesting and rewarding. On my days off I have been trying to do a bit of winter climbing, a bit of skiing, and in the evening I have been trying to gain a bit of strength with lots of bouldering.

The first few weeks I was back were quite stormy and hard work climbing wise. A couple of planned days out got binned the night before due to very poor weather forecasts. The first day I actually made it out was pretty wild. Myself and friend Dave Evans headed up the Ben. When approaching the gearing up spot in Coire na Ciste we saw a pair sitting in the snow looking a bit spaced.  Although a hundred metres away or so, I thought this looked a little odd, and was dubious about Dave's suggestion they were just doing some winter skills. I was correct, they had just been avalanched down from near the base of Thompson's route (unless you count being avalanched as a winter skill). Fortunately they were fine, if a bit shaken.  Not wanting to go too high given the conditions we did a nice wee route called Eastern Block, or we think we did. The route had quite an old school (i.e very brief) description that was open to a bit of interpretation. However, we climbed something, and it was quite pleasant.

Myself on what may or may not have been Eastern Block. It was a good pitch whatever. 
A few days later I headed back up the Ben with Brodie Hood. We had planned to go mixed climbing, but when gearing up in the Ciste we could see a big icicle thing lurking up in the mist. I had three ice screws I had put in as an after thought.  Fortunately a friend of mine turned up, and offered to lend us a couple of ice screws. The route; Une Journee Ordinaire dans un Enfer Quotidian was not as steep as it had initially looked, and felt pretty soft for grade VI,6, but still gave a pleasant day out.

Significant cracking of the snowpack on a relatively low angled slope. It was all beginning to feel a bit spooky, I wanted to run away and drink tea (which in the end is what we did).

My next day out was less successful. I timed up with Dave Evans again, and headed back up the Ben with an interesting looking route in mind. Approaching the route the snow started feeling pretty "spooky". Creeping along the base of a buttress I triggered a small avalanche, confirming our suspicions. We decided to head elsewhere. However by that point the wind had got up and fresh snow was piling in. Following our tracks back there was loads of signs of instability. We tried another part of the mountain, and watched two other teams trigger slabs not too far away from us. By this time my psyche for climbing had dropped off significantly, and my pyche for drinking tea in a warm safe cafe was pretty high. We decided to bail, and saw a couple of natural avalanche on the way out.

Overall it was a wild and atmospheric but enjoyable return to Scottish winter scene. All I needed was for the weather to calm down a bit, and that is what it did a week or two later, but what happened then will the subject of my next blog post.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Rothera Wildlife

A small waddle (for apparently the is the group noun for penguins on land) of Emperor Penguins
I am now back in Scotland, my time in Antarctica is over (for this season at least). However, I do want to write a bit more about Antarctica, and more specifically about one aspect of life at Rothera which I had previously only very briefly mentioned, and that is the wildlife. Although there are no Antarctic land animals there is plenty of bird life, and the oceans around the continent team with life.
As the ice sea ice breaks up, and it is daylight 24 hours a day,  various creatures start appearing in the sea, the air, and waddling and dragging themselves onto the land. 

As there is no history of land predators in Antarctica, many of the creatures do not fear humans in the same way that most wild animals in other parts of the world would. There is a general indifference, or in some cases, an actual interest in the human inhabitants. This can allow some great close encounters. 
Emperor Penguins showing no fear of Tom or Anna. 
Penguins. These are the creatures that most people associate with the Antarctica. A few interesting penguins facts are that a group noun for penguins in the water is a raft, and on land is (very descriptively) a waddle. Penguins have two days of the year dedicated to them, the 20th of January is Penguin awareness day, and the 25th of April is world penguin day. 
There is a large number of different species, three of which I saw during my time down South. They were;

Emperor Penguins. The largest and perhaps the most elegant (at least when on land) type of penguins are Emperor Penguins. They tend more to strut than to waddle They are quite rare at Rothera, usually appearing early in the season. I was lucky enough to be on base when a group of four appeared this year .
An Adelie Penguin, a small creature with a lot of character and attitude.
Adelie Penguins. Adelies are a common sight at Rothera from about December on-wards. They waddle around base, usually in groups. Although small, they can be feisty little creatures, This can cause problems when they decide they want to wander over the runway, and I had a few entertaining sessions trying to keep them off the runway when planes were incoming.  Although comical in their waddling on land, in the water they were amazing fast and elegant creatures. 
Gangs of Adelie penguins waddle about Rothera. 
Chinstrap Penguins. I saw one Chinstrap Penguin. Chinstraps are rare visitors to Rothera. I did get a really good view of one when out for a walk around the point, unfortunately I did not have my camera. They are like a cross between an Adelie and an Emperor, closer to an Adelie in appearance, but to the Emperor in behaviour.
A Blue Eyed Shag, and it's reflection. 
Bird life.  A lot of different species of birds are regularly seen. Some, such as the gulls, skuas and the shags, are similar to the species present in Britain. Rothera is too far South for the famous, and huge, wandering albatross. However, there was another bird here which I found just as appealing as the albatross, and that was the snow petrel. These pure white birds float around on winds with an almost otherworldly grace. They can travel huge distances, and in some cases on the Antarctic continent, nest over a hundred miles from the coast. One would occasionally appear as Sky Blu, and being the only life we would see for weeks, it would feel great to see such a graceful visitor. 
An elephant seal doing what they seem to do best (at least when on land) , and that is sleeping. However, they must be pretty good at catching fish to get as fat as some of them do. 
Seals. We get a lot of seals at Rothera. The most noticeable are the elephant seals, they are huge, can easily weigh a few tonnes. You can often smell and hear them well before you see tham. They drag themselves up into the vicinity of Rothera, and laze around burping and farting. Occasionally they start fighting with each other as well. Weddel and Crabeaters are much smaller species, and are not too dissimilar to they species that you might get around the waters of Britain. Finally there is are Leopard seals. One of the top predators in the sea, these seal are large, slick and powerful predators. The shape of their face makes it look they are smiling, but in a sinister manner. Not a creature to get to close to.
Two young elephant seals fighting over who has the right to sleep in a large muddy puddle. 
Orcas and other types of whale. Orcas are not that common, but on my last day I did get an amazing view as a pod swam by, the closest ones beaching about 10m away from the wharf where I stood. Unfortunately I have been in such a hurry to get down to the wharf, that I forgot my camera.
Various other types of whales were spotted in the bay mainly by the boating and diving teams.
An Orca checking for tasty penguins/seals on an ice flow. Thanks to the boating team for the picture. 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Relaxing at Rothera

Rothera with the point behind.

I have been back to Rothera for about two weeks which have included Christmas and Hogmanay. After my extended stay at Sky Blu, I am still very much appreciating the simple things that life in Rothera affords such as showers, warm building and not having to worry about weather obs every hour. However, being back at Rothera does not mean I have not been busy. The big job what occurred recently was relief. A couple of days after Christmas the ship The James Clark Ross (JCR) arrived. The JCR is one of two BAS ships, and it brought with it almost all the food and equipment that Rothera will require over the next year. With a minimum of about twenty, and a maximum of over one hundred people on base, the residents of Rothera will consume a lot of food over the next year. This all had to be unloaded and put into storage. There was also all the new field and recreation kit. It was the job of myself and the other field assistant on base to check, sort and store all this. On top of this I have been doing some training with the recent arrivals on base, organising equipment to be sent out in the field, proving some recreational opportunities for the ship's crew as well as my own recreation. Below I find a list of some of the more interesting things I have been up to in both as part of work and in my own time.

Heading up to get some nice turn in in Stork Bowl.
Skiing. There is some good skiing around Rothera and earlier in the season, there was some really nice snow about. Recently the snow quality has decreased due to a bit of freezing and thawing (it is raining outside at the moment), but even so it is still nice to get the skis on and go for a skin up a hill for some exercise.

Nice views from round the point.

Round the point. Rothera sits near the end of a small peninsular. On a pleasant day it makes for a lovely walk or, early in the season, a ski, round the point. Although probably only a kilometre in total, you can’t see base from the majority of the route, and it feels very peaceful and calm. On a nice day it is a great place to go to read, watch the abundant wildlife and ever changing sea ice or just generally chill out.

Doing some work out on the Larsen C ice shelf.
Co-piloting.  Sometimes extra people are required for day flights in the local area. Just before the ship arrived I got a trip to the Larsen C ice shelf. Over the past couple of decades the Larsen A and the Larsen B ice shelves have disintegrated due to the rapid warming of the Antarctic peninsular. The much larger Larsen C ice shelf remains. There are some concerns it may collapse in the near future, and so it is being monitored closely. I was part of a team to head over and service a couple of automatic weather stations. However, the Larsen is a notoriously cloudy place, and safely landing a plane on an ice shelf requires good contrast. The trip was cancelled times due to the weather, but in the end we did make it, although we were only able to reach one of the weather stations.

The band in the boat shed for Hogmanay.
Christmas and Hogmanay. Christmas was a very relaxed affair with the a bit of skiing and the chefs doing a great job preparing a Christmas dinner. Hogmanay was a bit more lively, with the boat shed being transformed into a music venue. With various musical people on base, there were a couple of bands playing. With the ships crew being around, it made for a good night.

Science. One of the main objectives of BAS is to facilitate the science which goes on in Antarctica. This means there is a lot of scientists passing through Rothera. I enjoy talking with the scientist about their work, and sometimes get to help out with various bits and bobs. One day I had the job of driving a vehicle up to pick up a pair of scientist doing some seismic training. I arrived in time to watch them detonate some charges which was satisfying. From time to time there are general interest lectures on base which, if I am around, I enjoy attending (although I have missed the majority of these by being in the field). 
Show Crevasse. Near base there is the show crevasse, although ice cave might be a better word for it. It probably was originally a crevasse, with meltwater draining in and freezing has created a spectacular ice cave.  Access is by abseil, and there is a nice loop which can be done. It makes for a good little adventure, particularly for people who do not have a climbing background. In the 1st of January we guided about various groups of sailors from the JCR round the crevasse. 
Suffering at the end of the Rothera 10km
 Rothera 10km. Traditionally on New Year’s Day there is a 10km race at Rothera. This year it was postponed for a day due to strong winds and heavy rain on the 1st. On the 2nd it was not much better. However, about 15 people turned out to take part. The route was five and a half laps of the runway. Although not the most interesting course terrain wise, the views were good, and it did have the extra interest of Elephant seals (who like to lie on the runway) which had to be avoided, and a group of penguins which sat about two metres off the course watching the proceedings. In the end I completed the run in 48 minutes and 9 seconds, which I felt was okay for someone who has, until recently, been sitting out at Sky Blu doing very little exercise.