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Author: eliza

The scoop on ice camping?… it’s cold

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t anticipate quite how challenging it would be to simply live on ice for 3 weeks. Putting all research related challenges aside, the daily living routine demanded a lot of stamina and discipline.

For starters, I’ve never camped in such an alien environment for so long before. Wherever you’re sitting right now, let me try to bring you to this world. If you’re indoors, remove the building you’re in. In fact, remove every single building, every plant, every animal, and any other objects for as far as you can see in all directions. Flatten the ground to be a bumpy but relatively level surface and make it stretch out in all directions to the horizon. Now make the ground hard white ice. Turn the temperature down to about 32 degrees and put on a big parka, snow pants, heavy mountaineering boots, a hat, gloves and sunglasses. Look around. There’s now a white icy surface stretching as far as you can see in all directions. The only contrast against this white surface is a cluster of small colorful fabric tents flapping in the wind. You’re living here for 3 weeks. This is Earth but it almost feels like you’re on another planet. You pull out your phone to snap a couple pictures and in the process you’re reminded again that you have no service. Not that you thought you would have service, but just seeing those ‘no service’ words everyday makes you feel as if you’ve arrived in an alternate universe.

Yes, our camp is actually in this photo. It's a dot in the center.

Challenge 1: Wet and cold

With the temperature climbing just above freezing during the day and dropping below freezing at night, everything was perpetually cold and damp. Even inside the tent, there was no avoiding the icy floor. My hands and feet were frequently numb. I lived in my parka, only taking it off for a quick second to slip into my sleeping bag. Since there was no indoors and no heating, it was critical to constantly monitor body temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many hot drinks and soup in my life.

Challenge 2: Where’s the bathroom?

There was merely a bin with a toilet seat sitting out on the ice about 100 meters downwind of camp. A tarp strung up by some bamboo poles served as a make shift curtain. The wind and cold did not provide any comfort when using the toilet. I found myself frequently in the “how long can I wait to go pee debate”. Even worse, was the rotating job to change the toilet bag when it got full. Further, the waste was burnt in an incinerator since we couldn’t take it out with us. What about a shower? There was none. That’s right, 3 weeks and no shower.

The toilet
Watch out for frostbite

Challenge 3: The tent moving ritual

Every 6 or 7 days you had to move your tent. But seriously, you really did. Over time, the ground around the tent melted away. The tent footprint served as a striking marker of surface melt. Over the course of a few days, the insulation provided by the tent sheltered the ice directly underneath. While the surrounding ice slowly and inconspicuously melted away, the ice directly under the tent remained and soon the middle of the tent would be elevated on a pedestal of ice a couple of feet thick. This really shrunk the space inside the tent making it an acrobatic act to simply get in and out. The ice below the tent became a slippery, lumpy surface. Rather than a restful sleep, I’d feel more like I’d just spent the night holding some sort of yoga pose – my head and feet awkwardly sloping down with a big rounded lump underneath my back.  

I just moved my tent off this huge lump of snow that formed under it.
Drilling in my tent so it won't blow away

Challenge 4: Cooking a meal 

Meals took place in a bigger dome tent. Inside, eight chairs made a ring along the tent wall. While the food was mostly, dried, canned, or otherwise preserved to last for a long time, everyone surpassed my expectations with their creativity and ability to pull together a decent meal. Dinners often turned into long multi hour group conversations since there was little else to do in the evenings. After dinner it was time to take the dishes out and wash them in a melt stream and then also brush your teeth next to a melt stream.

It got pretty crowded in here

Challenge 5: Attempting a workout

Being someone who usually spends multiple hours each day working out, I was a bit distraught by the lack of exercise opportunities. The ice surface was so rough that it made it impossible to walk fast without slipping. Even when I accumulated a lot of walking over the course of a day, it was at such a slow pace that I didn’t feel like I’d exercised at the end of the day. Additionally, because it was so cold and there was no way to shower, I didn’t ever really want to break a sweat. On a whim, I did bring a jump rope with me and I have to say, jump roping on ice worked surprisingly well to warm up and get my heart rate going!

I wouldn't be too surprised if I'm the only person crazy enough to use a jumprope on the Greenland ice sheet
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Radar: a window into the ice

I haul a large box antenna, a laptop, and a software refined radio (the receiver) over the bumpy ice surface, trudging off to a radar transmitter stationed about a kilometer south of camp. I jump over melt streams and weave my way through the maze of crevasses. Eventually I spot a small black flag on a bamboo pole waving in the distance and I gradually make my way in that direction. Interestingly, black is actually the easiest color to spot against the stark white surroundings.

Carrying the antenna to the start of the survey
The transmitter is in the blue box on the left.

When I arrive, I open up the box containing the ApRES radar – a phase sensitive, low power, light and compact instrument. From the outside, it’s just a yellow waterproof box that resembles an oversize briefcase. Inside, there’s a circuit board and a few cables to connect antennas, a laptop, and a power supply.

Looking inside the ApRES radar box

Working with my teammate from Stanford, I set up our transect. We turn on the radar transmitter, sending electromagnetic waves into the ice. As we walk away carrying the antenna and receiver, we hope that it will be able to detect the signal after the wave has bounced off the bed of the ice sheet.

In the middle of a radar survey. Inside the black box is the receiver. The blue box has the antenna.

These invisible electromagnetic waves are very powerful. While we can’t see or hear anything, these waves are propagating down through the ice. When they reach the transition between ice and bed rock, they reflect and travel back up through the ice to the surface. By recording how much time has elapsed while the electromagnetic wave travels down to the bed and back up to the receiver, we can calculate the exact thickness of the ice in the particular location. In this case, the ice-bed interface is over 1 km (0.6 miles) below us. 

Radar survey diagram - we walked away from the transmitter carrying the receiver and antenna in the blue box

We can also use this electromagnetic signal to recover properties of the ice column, like what the temperature of the ice is and how it varies spatially. This is important information for understanding the evolution and stability of outlet glaciers and how they may contribute to sea level rise.

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What’s a night like? Bright and windy

I wake up to the sound of wind beating against my tent, the fabric walls flapping up against my sleeping bag and battering my head. Gusts of wind find there way underneath the corners of my tent and threaten to lift up the bottom. The flapping is so loud that I feel like I’m trying to sleep directly under a huge flag. Even before I open my eyes I can tell it’s bright out… But when I check my watch, it’s 2 AM.

The Arctic Circle marks the southernmost point at which the center of the midnight sun is just visible on the June solstice. I was camped just north of Ilulissat, well above the Arctic Circle.

North of the Arctic Circle the sun never sets in the summer. A bit disoriented, I pull my eye mask back on and try to curl deeper into the folds of my -30F sleeping bag as the wind continues to howl. I feel very small as I drift in and out of sleep.

At night, the sun gets low on the horizon but never quite sets

These winds I experienced almost every night are called Katabatic winds -​ a wind carrying high-density air from a higher elevation down slope under the force of gravity.

In this case, the katabatic wind originates from the air cooling at night on top of the cold interior of the Greenland ice sheet. Since colder air is denser, the air will flow downwards and outwards towards the warmer coast.

The barren surface of the ice sheet provides no protection against the wind. To secure my tent, I had to drill a ring of holes into the ice around it and then insert bamboo poles into the holes and lash my tent to that. I never quite blew away, but listening to the sheer power of the wind each night was a very humbling experience.


Entering the Icebox

I just made it out of the ice research camp after bad weather and helicopter scheduling problems delayed our departure by a whole week. Luckily we had 10 day emergency rations to pull us through. I’m very happy to be back on ice-free land and sleeping in a warm bed after a hot shower! But as promised, here’s a glimpse into my experience camping on the Greenland ice sheet for 3 weeks while doing glaciological research. I’ve broken it up into a series of blogs. (Many more will follow!) To start with the adventures, let’s rewind the clock to day one.

First view of camp from the helicopter
Leaving Ilulissat in the helicopter

I descend into a world of white. As the thrum of the departing helicopter rings through the arctic air I take my first steps on the hard, lumpy, cold surface of the Greenland ice sheet extending out of view in all directions. Through my heavy down jacket, I can feel the bite of cold but other than that the weather is fair with bright blue skies bouncing off the sparkling white ice and a gentle breeze circling through the air.

The icescape

Glancing around, the landscape almost resembles the middle of an ocean if all the waves were suddenly frozen in place. However, this isn’t a frozen ocean. 1 km (0.6 miles) below my feet, this ice is sliding over land – Greenland – at a speedy rate of 700 m/yr (2300 ft/yr). In fact, here in West Greenland, I’m standing on one of the fastest flowing outlet glaciers in the world, serving as a major conveyor belt of ice from the interior Greenland ice sheet to the ocean. About 30 km (19 miles) away from me is the glacier terminus where Store glacier will reach the ocean and discharge 14–18 km3 of ice annually.

I turn back to the long wave-like ridges noticing that they are punctuated by rushing melt streams. This time of year, the surface temperature of the ice sheet climbs above freezing during the day and as a result, melt ponds and rivers form on the surface and flow downhill. About 200 m away, the surface reaches a low point where many melt streams merge into a churning river which suddenly vanishes into a void in the ice sheet, plunging hundreds of meters down through the icy abyss until eventually reaching the ground below. The glaciological term for this hole is a moulin.

Don't fall in!
Not a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow... it's a moulin!
Another view of the big surface melt stream

I turn away from the moulin. Apart from the rushing streams of melt water, my surroundings are deafeningly quiet. My boots crunch on the hard, weather-beaten surface of the ice as I follow my field teammates to camp. When I arrive, I’m greeted by a scattering of small 2-person mountaineering tents across the ice, next to one larger dome tent where I’m told meals take place. I’ve arrived at my home for the next 3 weeks.

Communal dome tent
The cozy interior of my tent. After 3 weeks it started feeling more cramped then cozy.
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In the world of ice, water, and whales

The colossal white fairyland is quiet, still, motionless. Suddenly cracking, ripping, and crashing envelops my ears breaking the intense silence with an awesome power. I squint through the glare of the arctic summer sun trying to catch a glimpse of the ice that has just broken off, somewhere jumbled in the chaotic transition from ice sheet to water (the glacier terminus). In fact, this glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq) in Ilulissat icefjord is one of the most productive and fastest flowing glaciers in the world. The glacier has doubled it’s speed in the last 10 years and now flows at a rate of 40 m/day (130 ft/day) and produces about 10% of all the icebergs in Greenland. The glacier calves (breaks off) around 46 cubic kilometers of ice per year. To put that to scale, 46 cubic kilometers is roughly the annual consumption of water in the entirety of the USA. While it’s hard to appreciate scale in a picture, here are some attempts at capturing it.


If I’ve learned one thing today, it’s that sound travels far in the arctic. That’s also what clued me into the whales feeding in the bay. Believe it or not, I could hear the whales breathing from miles away. Even when they were only a speck out in the water, their heavy breathing sounded as if they were right next to me. Despite the fact that the whales were active all day, I struggled to get a good picture. I think they outsmarted me.

I’ll have to sign off now because I need to pack up and prepare my gear for boarding the helicopter to the field camp tomorrow morning… but get excited for lots of blogs to come when I get back off the ice! Here’s a very cute sled dog puppy and one more picture of Ilulissat to leave you with!

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Ice Sheet Incoming

Today I arrived on the biggest island in the world: Greenland. After just a few hours here, I am thoroughly convinced that Greenland is one of the most beautiful places in the world. This hardly does it justice, but here’s some shots I took today while walking around Ilulissat.


I have one more day in Ilulissat and then I will take a helicopter away from the coast to the field site on Store Glacier. Here’s a preview of what it will look like when I get to the camp. Some of my collaborators have already gotten there and took the following picture.

I’ve heard there are lots of whales in the area so I’m going to head back out to try and spot some! The great thing about the arctic summer is it never gets dark!

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Farewell America, I’m off to Greenland!

Aerial view of Store Glacier - Lawrence Hislop

Preparing for a field season takes a lot of hard work and this trip to Greenland is no exception. The last few weeks have gone by in a whirlwind of packing equipment, purchasing gear, developing our experiment designs and goals, and wrapping up projects here before leaving. With that said, I still couldn’t be much more excited to finally set foot on my first ice sheet! After spending this morning packing up the last items on my list, I’m happy to say I’ve somehow managed to fit everything in two duffel bags and a backpack.

Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that there is are multiple radar receivers in there as well as a bunch of other field equipment… TSA will be in for a surprise. (I will say it took me about 10 tries before I managed to fit everything so hopefully security doesn’t unpack too much!)

Here’s my travel plans and what you can expect:

Today (July 4th): I leave the US bound for Copenhagen

July 7th: I meet up with a field collaborator and fly from Copenhagen to Illulissat, Greenland.

July 9th: I take a helicopter to the field site on Store Glacier.

……Field work and no internet access… so sadly no blogs during this period 🙁  .…..

July 28th: Return from Greenland and re-enter the modern world of internet!

Why you should keep following despite no internet at the field site: 

a. Expect more blogs up until I take the helicopter to the field site (on July 9th).

b. I will keep notes and take lots of pictures while I am in the field, so upon returning I will have lots of posts!… so please check back in after July 28th.

Ok, I’m off to the airport. I’m hoping to catch a few fireworks from the plane which would greatly improve the fact that I have a red eye flight on the 4th of July.

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When you think ‘ice sheet’, think ‘sticky water’

Let’s pick up our discussion from last time and talk about viscosity. When you think viscosity, think stickiness. Viscosity is a measure of a fluid’s resistance to flow. Here’s what google has to say:

The special thing about ice is that it’s viscosity is high enough that it doesn’t instantly flow off the land into the water, yet low enough that it does eventually flow down slope. Honey, is a good analogy: If you pour honey onto a surface, it starts as a mound and slowly spreads out.

However, if you tip over a glass of water it quickly spreads all over the table.

Why? Because the molecules in honey (and in ice) experience more internal friction, which opposes flow. In glaciology, we measure viscosity as the shearing stress that causes flow divided by the rate of shear strain (or deformation), that results. I think here’s the main things to take away. 1) ice is flowing and 2) the flow speed is dependent on the viscosity of ice. Viscosity of ice isn’t one fixed number, it actually varies some with the temperature of ice. Here’s a plot. 

Colgan et al 2015

However, if you think back to that velocity map I showed in my last blog, you’ll remember that the flow of ice is like streams in some places and it’s not uniform. That’s because there are many important factors governing the flow of ice sheets and viscosity is just one sticky piece of the bigger picture!

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What does the word flow bring to mind? Maybe a river? Water coming out of a sink? What about pouring syrup out of a jar? If it didn’t already, ice sheets should also come to mind. Ice isn’t stationary, it slides! Here’s maps of surface ice velocity for both Greenland and Antarctica.

Velocity of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets for the period 2015-2016. Mouginot et al. (2017)

Take a minute to really look at these maps. The first time I saw maps of velocity for Greenland and Antarctica I was surprised by what I saw. You might guess that the velocity would be fastest near the ice margins (the edge of the ice where it meets the ocean) and progressively slower towards the middle of the ice sheet. This is sort of the case, but there is a lot of variability. Do you notice the very fast flowing areas that resemble streams within the ice, almost like veins? Fittingly, glaciologists call these “ice streams”.  Some of these streams start very far in the interior (near the middle of the ice sheet). While it’s all ice, these streaming areas move orders of magnitude faster than ice adjacent to the streams. Remember, you can see these streams when looking at a velocity map, however if you just look at a picture of an ice sheet from space (see below), you can’t really identify where the ice is moving fast and slow.

What dictates exactly where and how these ice streams develop is not entirely known. Some of it has to do with topography of the bed below the ice and some has to do with how slippery the bed is. What’s important, is that these ice streams are like a conveyor belt transporting ice to the ocean where it eventually melts. Warming the ice sheet only causes the ice to flow faster, contributing to sea level rise.

If you’re curious to look more closely at ice flow, take a look at this video showing just how dynamic the Antarctic ice sheet is.  


Here’s a thought to leave you with. What causes the ice to flow this way? Why doesn’t ice sit complacently at rest, like a pile of sand or rocks? On the other hand, why does an ice sheet last at all? Why doesn’t the ice immediately flow off the land like water would? I’ll give you a hint, this has to do with viscosity. Let’s pick this idea back up next time. 

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Glaciology venturing to the desert

A trip to the desert may sound like the wrong place for a glaciology group to go, but that’s exactly what we did the other weekend. After packing up the radar that we usually use on the Greenland ice sheet, I drove down with my research group to the Mojave Desert. Situated in an abandoned part of Southern CA about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas, the Mojave is home to sand dunes the size of small mountains, and buried lava tubes. 

These sand dunes may not be ice, but they actually have some similar material properties and could provide a setting to conduct similar tests to an ice sheet (minus a long and expensive trip to Antarctica or Greenland). Instead of using radar to map out the bed and layers of an ice sheet, the radar could be used to map out the layers of sand and the transition from sand to bed rock at the bottom of the dune. If successful, the dunes could be a useful place to do initial tests before implementing new techniques on an ice sheet.

The testing was only preliminary since the fieldwork was done in conjunction with a weekend geophysics class field trip, however initial processing of the data suggests that we can detect the bed of the sand dunes. If further processing shows that dunes work to test our radar, maybe we will be back to the desert again. Here’s some more photos I took over the trip.

Driving up to the sand dunes
Climbing sand dunes isn't easy!
Morning view outside the guesthouse
In the lava tube
A little exploring during lunch, my first joshua tree!
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