Hiking to Canada (Glacier)

Jan 28, 2014 (weather delay; posted Feb 23)

It starts with a beautiful 1.5hr hike up the mountains and alongside the glacial fan. This is the part of a glacier that ‘spills over’ the mountains and spreads out into the valley below. Every glacier is different, but today’s trip onto Canada Glacier is the one I’ve decided to write about, and has one of my favorite views within the Asgard mountains. The melt season is starting to ebb as the austral summer season ends and colder temperatures prevent the glacier from melting, but there are still streams of water that pour out of the glacier, both beneath it when water flows down and pools under the surface, and spouting out of waterfalls that channel the meltwater from the top of the glacier along to the upper edge.

IMG_7802This is actually a view of Commonwealth glacier, but is a good example of  what a ‘glacial fan’ looks like as the enormous mass of ice spills into the valley below. To hike onto a glacier we usually hike up the mountainside to the ‘waist’ of the ice, where it is easier to hike onto the surface than the steep downslope edge.

Even though the sun shines 24hrs a day in Antarctic summer, the actual location of the sun makes a big difference when we’re hiking– when the sun faces the mountainside we’re on, the snow melts a little bit along our path and it’s a slippery journey through patches of soft snow.  Today our job is to measure the distribution of cryoconites (melt pools; see last post) on the surface of the glacier- we’ll pick locations to set up flags, measure the size and location of cryoconites in a grid around each flag, and then revisit the flags next year to see if the number of melt pools, or their size, has changed over time. Are the melt pools growing? Will some of those that freeze during the winter melt in the same location next summer? Does the slow downhill movement of the glacier mean they’ll be squished into different locations next year? Many glaciers move downhill very (very) slowly, and push ice as they go– this means the actual locations of features within the glacier are also bound to change over time.  These are some of the questions we’ll try to address with this study.

Using large flags to mark the locations we’re measuring means that today I hiked up to the ridge of Canada with a number of flags sticking out of my pack, reminding me of little bit of the character Russel from the pixar film ‘Up’.

IMG_8360dHiking on the surface of Canada glacier, with volcanic Mt. Erebus far in the distance ahead

Once we reach the ridgeline of the glacier where we’re high enough up on the mountainside to hike onto the ice (the “waist” of the glacier where it starts to spill out into the valley below), we stop to attach stabilizers to our boots (like little attachable metal soccer cleats that prevent us from slipping on the glacier) and hike onto the ice.

IMG_8354bStopping at the ridgeline to take in the view and attach my stabilizers.
Up this high, the glacier is smooth enough to hike up and onto its surface.

Now on the glacier, we pick a few locations to study and other members of my group drill into the ice with a manual auger (like a hand-crank drill) to make holes for the flags while I measured the amount of sunlight penetrating through the water in the melt pools.

IMG_8370cDrilling into the glacier

IMG_8366cInstalling the flags to mark the location of our cryoconite grids

IMG_8403bMeasuring the size and location of small melt holes around each of the flags we drilled into the glacier

IMG_8362cMarking the location of our flaglines with GPS

IMG_4678bHiking up the glacier. The higher parts had very patchy snow and was easier to hike in snowshoes, which distribute our weight over a wider surface and help prevent us from slipping into holes or sinking through softer parts of the ice.

IMG_8376cOne of our ‘flags’ was missing the fabric, and had been reconstructed into a duct-tape battle axe by whoever used it before us. Corey and I had fun taking turns posing with it on the glacier, with volcanic Mt. Erebus in the background behind us. It’s the little things in Antarctica that keep us entertained.

IMG_8392c    This is a close-up of the texture of the ice on top of the glacier. The angle of the snow/ice here is created by strong winds and a freeze/thaw cycle– warmer weather softens the top layer of ice, and winds during the re-freezing process create the layered, angular juts seen here.

After setting up five different flags and measuring the location of the meltpools and the amount of sunlight penetrating through the water to the bottom of each hole (which will help to describe how the water melts over time), we made our way back across the glacier and back to camp. The flags will stay (hopefully!) in the locations we drilled until we come back next year to compare the data. Since the sun rotates around the sky in a large circle in Antarctica, by the time we left the sun had rotated behind the mountains, casting our hiking trail into shadow and re-freezing the soft snow we’d hiked over when we first arrived. It’s much easier to hike across hard-frozen snow and we had a beautiful view of the mountains in shadow, the sun across the other side of the valley, and the water still streaming from waterfalls off of Canada glacier on our way back to camp.

Quick view of our hike back

General blog update- A few storms hit Antarctica towards the end of my season, and I just arrived back in the US this week [Feb 13]. Before I left I had the opportunity to visit the Coast Guard icebreaker, measure rising lake levels, and see a group of emperor penguins, but a rush of work meant I didn’t get a chance to write those stories yet, so I’ll get to those now that I’m back home!


Posted on 2014, in *Season 3: Life in the Dry Valleys, 2014 (02/23) Hiking to Canada. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hi Alex,
    When are you in Antarctica? The year 1’s at my school are looking at different environments in 4 weeks time and my class are focusing on Antarctica. Would be AMAZING to skype to someone who is actually there. Thanks Nyomi
    PS: Amazing what you do for schools and taking the time to do such. Such an incredible opportunity for the children.

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