We came, we saw, we scanned a glacier!

It is often thought-provoking to quote Roman orators when discussing successful trips to far flung locations. That is not the reason for using it here, it’s simply just a catchy title. In this, my very first blog post, I want to share my thoughts on a successful first field trip as part of my PhD.

But firstly, lets take a step back. My PhD is developing the technique of ground-based radar for measuring and monitoring glaciers at high spatial and temporal resolution. Why? Because so many glacier processes operate at a scale that cannot be resolved by satellite systems and ground-based systems offer a unique perspective on rapidly evolving processes e.g. calving, lake drainage, ice melange dynamics. The system I am using is called AVTIS (the All-weather Volcano Topography Imaging Sensor), and has never been tested on glaciers…exciting stuff!

Pre-fieldtrip testing in St Andrews. Photo taken by W.D. Harcourt (2019).

We decided to ease our way into glacier fieldwork by starting off at an accessible location in the European Alps, Switzerland to be precise. Rhone Glacier can be accessed via the Eisgrotte Cafe along the Furka Pass…

At the top of the Furka Pass with the kit. Photo taken by D.G. Macfarlane (2019).

…although this did mean driving up a crazy mountain road!

The Furka Pass. Photo taken by D.G. Macfarlane (2019).

The view of the glacier is somewhat spectacular – for someone who has had an obsession with glaciers since an early age, this was an exciting experience!

View of Rhone Glacier from its snout. Photo taken by W.D. Harcourt (2019).

Clearly impressed by the sight, we scouted out the location and found a position to place the AVTIS radar. This was easier said than done, but we managed to find a suitable place and used this throughout the week.

Radar set-up for the week. Photo taken by W.D. Harcourt (2019).

We were blessed with the weather conditions – bright sunshine, t-shirt weather and not a drop of rain. Perfect surveying conditions and the data looked even better (I’ll be saving a detailed data description for an upcoming publication, stay tuned!). With the radar working, we set about scanning the glacier. The purpose of this trip was to assess the reflectivity of ice using our system, the ability to construct DEMs of glacier surfaces and the deployment of the radar at a glaciated environment.

AVTIS scanning the local environment. Photo taken by W.D. Harcourt (2019).

We were also interested in trying to classify different surfaces with the radar data e.g. snow, ice and rock. This aids interpretation of a glaciers condition at a particular time and how it is responding to local environmental conditions.

AVTIS scanning Rhone glacier. Photo taken by W.D. Harcourt (2019).

The surroundings were pretty spectacular as well! Fieldwork is always fun, and when the weather is as glorious as it was for us it makes the hard work all the more worth it.

Spectacular surroundings for our fieldwork. Photo taken by W.D. Harcourt (2019).

But this trip was not just an adventure into the Alps, nor was it simply a quick test of our radar system. We want to develop this radar for glacier monitoring. This is an extremely important topic in the context of global climate change. Advances in technology have facilitated an exponential rise in data acquisition, allowing us to quantify key parameters across the Cryosphere and aiding our ability to understand how it is being affected by climate warming. I firmly believe that the development of new techniques will further enable a step change in understanding glacier processes. We next intend to deploy the radar at a glacier terminating in water to understand the process of mass loss via calving. The current study will give us the foundation to undertake in depth glacier studies such as these.

Stay tuned for more news, posts and excitement!


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