Inside the Glaciers

Following on from our recent short films about DNA sequencing on the Greenland Ice Sheet with our affiliate Dr Arwyn Edwards, we are excited to share the next stage in our collaboration - sequencing INSIDE the ice sheet!

In October the team will access the heart of the ice sheet by abseiling into giant melt holes known as 'moulins' (from the french for 'windmill' in reference to the way water spirals down them). In a pilot study in 2017, the team (led by adventurer Francesco Sauro and Ice Alive founder Joseph Cook) descended over 150 metres to retrieve samples of ancient biological material locked away inside the ice.

Sauro and Cook descending one of the moulins during the 2017 pilot study (Ph. Moncler / Alessio Romeo)

Sauro and Cook descending one of the moulins during the 2017 pilot study (Ph. Moncler / Alessio Romeo)

This year the team will return with a new set of objectives including on-site genetic sequencing inside the moulin and geophysical surveys that reveal the size and extent of the moulins - important for understanding the route traveled by melt-water on its way to the sea. We will post updates about the team's progress here!

The "Inside the Glaciers" camp during the pilot study in September 2017 (ph. Moncler / Alessio Romeo)

The "Inside the Glaciers" camp during the pilot study in September 2017 (ph. Moncler / Alessio Romeo)

Announcing the Ice Alive Grantees!

It is our great pleasure to finally announce the recipients of the first ever Ice Alive grants. From a very strong field of applications we decided to fund these three projects because we think they will deliver lasting impact and bring new knowledge of our changing cryosphere to diverse new audiences. We’ll be providing updates about each project on this blog.

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1. Pixel movers and makers

Pixel Movers and Makers is a unique collaboration between author/illustrator Marlo Garnsworthy and software engineer Kevin Pluck. Their animated videos, infographics and artwork are excellent examples of fresh and truly innovative Polar sci-comm. We’re delighted to be able to support their new series of animations and the related outreach. Like Ice Alive, Pixel Movers and Makers survives on “elbow grease and midnight oil” and a commitment to communicating our changing cryosphere to a global audience - we’re delighted that our missions have aligned on this project!

2. Kat Austen, “The matter of the soul”

“The Matter of the Soul” is a symphony performance that will communicate the transformations that occur when ice melts and flows to the sea. Ice Alive funding will allow Kat to enrich the performance by bringing on board two new musicians specifically to enhance the emotional engagement by improvising at the premiere. This inventive Polar science communication project draws upon sounds and rhythms drawn from real measurements from Polar science projects recorded from hacked pH and electrical conductivity meters to create moving soundscapes. We can’t wait to hear it! You can find more information and buy tickets to the event here.

3. Fabian Wadsworth, “Ice Songs”

Fabian’s project will create a mentorship program between Polar scientists and poets worldwide and host an international poetry competition. The goal of the mentorship is that the scientist and the poet mutually benefit from exposure to one another’s work and thought processes. Fabian has some experience in the icy parts of our planet, having been poet-in-residence in Northern Iceland in 2014. In Fabian’s own words, “I’ve realised how advantageous this conversation between science and art can be, yielding unique insights on both sides”.

Field work in Northern Greenland

Black & Bloom is a UK NERC funded project aiming to quantify the effects of algal growth on the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet. One of the Ice Alive founders is among the four "postdoc" researchers on the project and has recently returned from exploring a new field site in the north western sector of the Greenland Ice Sheet. After two seasons working in the south west near Kangerlussuaq, the team decided to migrate north to investigate dark ice in an area where the melt seasons are shorter and the temperatures lower. The aim was to check that the processes they had recorded further south in 2016 and 2017 were also found further north.

A fresh polar bear pelt drying in Upernavik (ph J Cook)

A fresh polar bear pelt drying in Upernavik (ph J Cook)

The team soon learned that there were additional challenges to working up here beyond the colder weather. Upernavik itself is on a small island in an archipelago near where the ice sheet flows and calves into the sea. While this produces spectacular icebergs, it also means access to the ice sheet is possible only by helicopter. The same helicopter serves local communities elsewhere in the archipelago with food, transport and other essential services. While we were in Upernavik, a huge iceberg floated into the harbour in nearby Inarsuit, threatening the town with the potential for a huge iceberg-induced tsunami. The maritime Arctic weather also played havoc with the flight schedules, and resupplying local communities (rightly) took priority over science charters.

An iceberg near Upernavik (ph J Cook)

An iceberg near Upernavik (ph J Cook)

These factors prevented the team from leaving Upernavik for 3.5 weeks. "It seemed like we would never make it onto the ice" said Cook. However, the team finally got a weather window that coincided with helicopter and pilot availablity. With the difficulty of getting on to the ice weighing on their minds, the team had to consider the risk of similar difficulties getting back out. They repacked to ensure they had several weeks of emergency supplies to make sure they would be safe on the ice for several weeks.

The edge of the ice sheet on the flight from Upernavik to camp (ph J Cook)

The edge of the ice sheet on the flight from Upernavik to camp (ph J Cook)

Once on the ice, the team quickly built a camp and started recording measurements quickly. The albedo measurements and paired drone flights went very smoothly, with refined methods developed over the past two seasons. However, glacier ice was only exposed for 1.5 days, and continuous snowfall kept it buried for the rest of the season.

Air Greenland Bell 212 helicopter sling loading the team's equipment (ph J Cook)

Air Greenland Bell 212 helicopter sling loading the team's equipment (ph J Cook)

Overall it was an interesting site, and the team confirmed that the algal bloom they studied in the south west is also present in the northern part of the ice sheet, is composed of the same species and also makes the ice dark. They have sampled the mineral dusts too, to see how they compare with the more southern site.