Why the Stauning Alps?
The Greenland ice sheet is the second largest of the world’s ice sheets, surpassed only by Antarctica. It covers an area of 1, 800, 000 km2, that’s around 7.5 times the size of the UK. Because of its size, the Greenland Ice Sheet is well studied, and is known to be a major contributor to sea level rise (check out the National Snow and Ice Data Centre if you want to read more). But the ice sheet isn’t the only ice mass in Greenland. When we refer to the ice sheet we mean the large mass of ice which covers the majority of the continent of Greenland, but around the coastline there are many smaller glaciers and ice caps (ice caps are like mini ice sheets), which are independent of the rest of the ice sheet. The coloured areas in the image on the right (reproduced from this research paper) show all of the smaller glaciers and ice caps which surround the main ice sheet. The different colours represent how ‘connected’ they are to the main ice sheet (red, yellow and blue are strong, weak or no connection).
Because they are so much smaller, these glaciers and ice caps are often overshadowed by their much larger neighbour. But recent research carried out by researchers at the University of Zurich using satellite data has shown that the loss of ice from Greenland’s peripheral glaciers and ice caps is equivalent to between 14% and 20% of the total ice lost from the much larger Greenland Ice Sheet. This means that these areas are making a very substantial contribution to the loss of ice from Greenland, and yet they attract a tiny fraction of the attention. The Stauning Alps region of East Greenland is one such area for which there is very little ground-based data available. As far as we are aware, only three data sets have been collected from different areas of the Stauning Alps: in 1963 from Bersærkerbræ in the northern Staunings, between 1970-1975 from Roslin Glacier in the central Staunings, and in 2008 from Schuchert Glacier. This all makes the Staunings really interesting; current records are incredibly sparse, but by repeating past measurements we can get a valuable snapshot of change in the area over the last 40 years.
What are we going to do?
We plan to repeat measurements first collected from Roslin Glacier, in the Stauning Alps, during the 1970s. The results are currently held in the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute and are not available in any current online databases. So, our first task will be to access this data from the archives. The expeditions in the 1970s drilled a network of stakes into the surface of the glacier. The length of these stakes above the ice and their position were measured repeatedly over subsequent years to determine how rapidly the surface of the glacier was moving and melting.
When we visit Roslin Glacier we will install stakes in similar positions (where possible) and reproduce the methods so that we can compare how the behaviour of the glacier has changed over the last 40 years. The stakes we will install are called ablation stakes, but there isn’t anything special about them. They can be made of wood, metal, or sometimes bamboo and we will simply measure the height of the stake above the ice. As the ice surface melts the stake will gradually get longer and give us measurements of how quickly the ice is melting. These measurements allow us to estimate the mass balance of the glacier, which indicates how quickly the glacier is growing or shrinking. Ground based-measurements like this are incredibly valuable for checking equivalent measurements estimated from satellite data, and having historic data to compare to gives us a valuable insight into how this remote and inaccessible region of the planet is changing.
How do mountaineering and science work together?
Mountaineering and science have a long history together. Most of the historic datasets from the polar regions were collected on exploratory expeditions whose missions were to explore, map, and collect data from remote and unexplored regions of the planet. The well known polar expeditions led by famous explorers such as Shackleton, Franklin, Nansen and Scott all had strong scientific elements. Some of their measurements provide a historic baseline to current datasets, and instruments which they developed, such as Nansen bottles, were still in use until very recently. Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, often credited as the founder of alpine climbing, was both a famous physicist and geologist, often spending days camping on the cols and summits which he reached in order to collect scientific data.
We want to carry out our expedition in the same spirit, driven by the desire to explore, research and inspire. There are numerous mountaineering expeditions to Greenland each year which visit regions which are lacking basic and simple glaciological measurements, meanwhile scientific research requires major grants and therefore focusses on expensive and complex datasets, leaving a gap for simple but vital measurements. Our expedition is planned in the spirit of those carried out in the 1970s and presents an interesting narrative on the links between science and mountaineering – one which we hope to rekindle.
How can I get involved?
As you will have gathered, the measurements we plan to collect are reliant upon future expeditions getting involved. So, if you are planning, or even remotely considering, an expedition to the same area in the next few years and would like to be involved in the science we’d love to hear from you! We’ve found that the grants and funds which we have been supported by were excited to see a mix of science and mountaineering in an expedition, so we would be happy to give you advice on including a scientific element in your applications. We can provide you with all the necessary information you’ll need to find our stakes and take the readings we need (which are very simple!) and your team will be appropriately acknowledged in any scientific publications we produce.
Even if you’re not planning an expedition to Greenland, you can get involved by checking out our blog and sharing it with your friends, or chipping in a few pounds (we are entirely supported by small grants, foundations and our own back pockets).
Ask us questions about the science and the experience, and get excited! Three years ago, I never thought I’d be involved in planning an expedition, there’s no reason you couldn’t be doing the same in a few years time!