Return to Vatnajökull: First Sledge Report

Here at Ice Alive, we are delighted to report on an exciting expedition to retrace the steps of a 1932 crossing of Vatnajokull, collecting new samples and measurements along the way. Over to Expedition Scientist Glen Glowers explain…

In addition to the interest of contributing to the solution of problems of Arctic science, the contacts made during the preparation and fulfilment of such expeditions must tend towards friendship between nations and to a wider appreciation of the capabilities of one’s fellows.


For this reason alone, exploration is well worth while.
— Brian Roberts 1932 Expedition Leader

In 1932, six undergraduates self-prescribed their antidote to the Great Depression, independently organising their first unguided expedition to Europe’s largest ice cap, the Vatnajokull in Iceland. The objectives were far from simple. With an average age of 24 years they set out to execute a double traverse with an extended stay at a base camp to be established just off the northern edge of the glacier. From here they would conduct a number of scientific objectives, namely to map the glacier tongues of the region and to characterise the flora and fauna.

Two of the 1932 team pulling a sledge over the Vatnajokull ice-cap    Image from: The Geographical Journal , Vol. 81, No. 4, (Apr., 1933), pp. 289-308

Two of the 1932 team pulling a sledge over the Vatnajokull ice-cap

Image from: The Geographical Journal , Vol. 81, No. 4, (Apr., 1933), pp. 289-308

87 years on we, a team of three friends from University discovered their diary. Their scientific descriptions of the route and region quickly gave way to poetic lyrical descriptions of the beauty, power, and vastness of their environment.

One wished to take endless photographs, yet the whole beauty was dependent upon the unique colouring, colours which none of us had ever seen in nature before. The magnificence of ice and snow under these conditions is almost indescribable and has to be seen to be believed
— Iceland Adventure J. Angus Beckett, 1932
Team of three crossing the Hardangervidda Plateau, Norway in preparation

Team of three crossing the Hardangervidda Plateau, Norway in preparation

Captivated by their complete journey; the organisation, the fundraising, the planning, the friendship, the difficulties, the scientific rigor, the beauty, we had our minds set. The only way to see what they saw, to feel what they felt was to walk in their shoes. Or, rather, ski in their ski trails. However, a faithful recreation wasn’t going to cut it, with it we would always be there as guests to their party. We were compelled not to directly recreate their trip but to recreate the spirit of their objectives so we could go on our own journey.

Our headline scientific objective is directly inspired by their detailed observations of the flora and fauna in the volcanic region around Kverkfjoll, north of the ice-cap. While native communities near the ice cap will have been extremely familiar with their findings they clearly felt as if they were the first pioneering people to discover these “oases” teeming with life. 87 years on we want to take their enthusiastic characterisation to the microscopic oases. With expertise in microbial genome sequencing using Oxford Nanopore devices we plan to shed light on what microbial communities exist at the intersection of glaciers and volcanoes or, more poetically, ice and fire. One major obstacle stands in our way. No one has yet to perform fully off-grid nanopore sequencing relying on solar power only with no internet or backup power in a polar environment. To complicate matters this will be performed after a 60 km ice-cap traverse. In the pioneering spirit of the 1932 team we have not been dissuaded and have established a close collaboration with Dr Arwyn Edwards to adapt all our protocols to ensure the highest likelihood of success.

Our proposed route including a 60 km crossing followed by 2 weeks completing our various objectives on the northern edge of the ice cap.

Our proposed route including a 60 km crossing followed by 2 weeks completing our various objectives on the northern edge of the ice cap.

We set off on the 14th April and have planned to live on the ice-cap for 20 days. Check back for updates as we progress.


Glen, Oliver, John-Henry

A summary of our expedition can be found at sledgereport.com and in our trailer:

Icebergs Alive!

In the first of our Ice Alive grantee blog posts, Pixel Movers and Makers present their amazing polar art and data vizualisation work. Over to you, Marlo…!

We present to you, ICEBERGS ALIVE!

We put this together one weekend late last year. One Saturday afternoon, I direct-messaged Kev via Twitter to ask him whether—if I supplied a painting of Antarctica—he could use iceberg data to create an animation that would show the flux of icebergs around Antarctica over time. And, of course, he jumped right in. (That’s what Kev does, and it’s one of numerous reasons we work so well together.) By Sunday evening, we had created Icebergs Alive.

We named it Icebergs Alive because... Antarctic icebergs… ALIVE! In truth, “Icebergs Alive” is a homage to Ice Alive, to acknowledge their significant role in helping us achieve what we have over the last year.

Who are we? We’re Marlo Garnsworthy and Kevin Pluck, an Aussie in the US and a Kiwi in the UK who met on Twitter, discovered a mutual passion for polar ice, and quickly became a team and friends. In fact, today is the one-year anniversary of us founding Pixel Movers And Makers, our joint creative science communication venture.

Mid-year, Ice Alive awarded us a grant. It not only helped fund the software we use and paid for me to go to the WAIS (West Antarctic Ice Sheet) Workshop, it gave us an enormous boost of confidence. Like-minded people could see the value in what we were attempting to do, and that was so affirming.

As well as making Icebergs Alive—which has been shown and published all over the world, from EARTHER to the Weather Channel to NASA Goddard—we’ve made a host of other polar ice- and Climate Change-inspired creations.

We made this one for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration meeting. Each penguin is named after one of their projects.

We were also honored to present a poster about online science communication at the WAIS Workshop (a wonderful experience I have written about elsewhere).

Kev has continued to wow the Internet with his data visualizations. Not only are they informative, they are beautiful, and I’m forever astounded by his numbery-jiggery. He was long-listed for the Kantar Data is Beautiful awards and has numerous scientists clamoring to collaborate.

My work for Pixel has been a little waylaid by a book illustration job, but I continue to make icy art when I have a spare second.

I’ve also created graphics for a glaciology paper (soon to be published) and worked with other polar researchers in an editorial capacity.

Whether attending workshops, reading papers (happily supplied by our growing list of cryo-allies), or communicating with polar researchers, Kev and I have continued to learn about the cryosphere. My passion and concern for polar ice ever intensifies, and I’m certain Kev will say the same. There’s nothing I’d rather think, paint, write, talk, or make animations about. Or worry about—because we both do more than enough of that, too.

As I write this, I am on a train to New York City, from where I’ll fly to southern Chile and board the JOIDES Resolution as Education & Outreach Officer for Expedition 382, Iceberg Alley, delving into the long-term history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Tomorrow, one of Kev’s animations with Thwaites Glacier data will be published in Rolling Stone to accompany journalist Jeff Goodell’s latest missive from NBP 19-02, as part of the THOR expedition, one of the projects in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.

These are amazing ways to celebrate Pixel’s first birthday. We’ve come a long way over the last year, and we’re so grateful for the part Ice Alive has played in making this happen. We’re excited about what we’ll make this year!

Marlo Garnsworthy (@MarloWordyBirdy)

National Geographic Explorer's Festival, London

February 2019 saw the National Geographic Explorer’s Festival in London. The multi-day event included talks from emerging explorers, science communication bootcamps, photography training and networking events. On the final day, our co-founder Joseph Cook spoke to the festival about the AI for Earth project and sat on a panel discussing barriers and opportunities relating to AI techologies for conservation. The event was livestreamed and can now be watched back. Our session begins at 1:32:00 and runs until 2:13:00 but there are a whole range of amazing talks covering a range of topics from animal tracking to ocean plastics and summiting everest.