I’m about to embark on my third trip underneath a glacier within the past 13 months. I’m taking the time to write up the first two trips now, so that next month when I go on the third trip there is some context and some record in case I don’t return (I will be rappelling down a dry moulin and spending time underneath a glacier that will likely have polar bears on top). I also want to share the experience here because it was interesting and special and I hope to educate others about some unique field sites and engineering feats.
The first trip occurred in September, 2011. My collaborator Jason Gulley and I drove a short distance from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, and then hiked to the nearby Rieperbreen glacier. We crawled up the snout of the glacier, and tested the Microsoft Kinect as a low-cost 3D camera to measure the roughness of the rocky floor and the scalloped ice roof. Although just a proof-of-concept, that work was written up by Wired, and led to an invitation for my second sub-glacial trip.
In April 2012 the Svartisen Subglacial Observatory hosted a Subglacial Workshop. Compared to hiking and then crawling through 0 C degree water into the glacier, this trip was relatively speaking a luxury. It began with a helicopter ride, but the helicopter, unable to land on the snowy mountainside, hovered with its nose touching the mountain while we climbed out of it (Note: climbing into a hovering helicopter is a bit more difficult than climbing out of one). After the helicopter departed, I noticed a door in the side of the mountain.
The Svartisen Subglacial Observatory entrance is a door into a mountainside. Once inside, a km-long tunnel contains a living area able to house 8 scientists, a research laboratory, and several places with direct access to the bed of the glacier. The end of the tunnel that is not on the side of the mountain literally ends at the edge of the rock part of the mountain, but underneath 200 m of ice. There is no sunlight in this mine shaft, and one instantly feels disconnected from the outside world after entering and closing the outside door.
The living units are similar to those we live in when in Antarctica (when not in a tent): Shipping containers retro-fitted for humans to live in. There is a kitchen, rooms with bunk beds, and a bathroom and shower. There is electricity, but no internet. The water is fresh and cold. A 15 minute walk farther up the tunnel to the office and there are experiment benches and work space, and surprisingly, a WiFi signal with slow internet access to the world beyond. Another 5 minute walk to the end of the tunnel, and there are holes in the bedrock leading to the bed of the glacier, and a door big enough to walk through. Several times a year, scientists open the door and with a hot-water hose melt a cave, several cubic meters in size, into the bed of the glacier. This cave creeps closed quickly due to the weight of the ice above and around it. The room shrinks to about 1/2 its size every 24 hours, and the cave is completely closed within a week.
While I was there a Norwegian TV news program visited for an interview. That footage provides better images than I managed to take, plus time-lapse footage of the subglacial cave closing.
My third sub-glacial trip will happen in October 2012 underneath the Hornsbreen Glacier in southern Svalbard. We will rappel down an empty moulin to access the subglacial cave system.
Algorithms for the Kinect have been much improved since my first trip (for example, see Kintinuous and ReconstructMe), and we hope to make full 3D maps of the cave system. This third trip has been funded by the Svalbard Science Forum Arctic Field Grant, and I will describe it in more detail after it happens.
I know of only a few people that attempt to personally explore the subglacial environment, and am excited to partake in some of those expeditions.