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Up on the ice sheet - looking down with a radar

LAB & LIBRARY - Thousands of years ago a volcano somewhere in the world erupted. Now we can see its acid and dust in the ice with our radar equipment. Nanna is doing field work on the top of Greenland

When I arrived in the middle of the Greenland Ice Sheet, temperatures were -35 degrees Celsius. There is something truly special about being in such an isolated location and experiencing such extreme conditions. Then you discover that even in those temperatures and at 2km altitude it is still possible to work outside, even to do science outside and collect some unique hard-to-get data.

I am doing research in conjunction with NEEM, the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling, an international ice core project retrieving an ice core from North-West Greenland reaching back through the previous interglacial, the Eemian.

Glaciology is the study of glaciers and ice sheets. In that way, what I do is directly linked to studying the impacts of climate change. I use radar data and models of ice sheets to understand how Greenland and Antarctica have behaved in the past. This helps predict how the ice sheets will behave in a warming climate, and how they might influence the rise in sea-level.

One of the things we will be looking for in our fieldwork this year is traces of the big melt event in 2012 where almost the whole surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet was at melting point. In a warming world, an event such as this might become more and more common, and we are trying to understand the impacts it will have.

Nanna and Anna driving by while doing radar and GPS work

This year I will be collecting several hundred kilometres of radar data from a skidoo (or snow machine for the Americans) in Greenland, starting at our drill camp NEEM and ending at our new drill site EastGRIP.

The best part is the team spirit we have. You easily spent all day helping a colleague digging out some equipment that is covered by several metres of snow. The next day, another colleague will help you move the heavy equipment that you can’t possibly lift on your own. It is a team effort and it has to be, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible. It is part of the deal that the toilet is a tent outside, phone calls are limited to 5min once a week, and you get to see all your colleagues in their woolly underwear.

Nanna and Anna inside the balloon trench fetching the food boxes

The most exciting part of it all for me are the radar measurements. The equipment just gets better and better and the resolution is amazing. Basically, we emit a radar signal into the ice and study the signal we get back.

We can see layering in the ice and when we compare it to the ice core we often find that the layers correspond to, say, ancient volcanic eruptions. So, thousands of years ago a volcano somewhere in the world erupted, it sent out a huge amount of acid and dust, and now we can see that in the ice with our radar equipment.

Nanna and her colleagues shovelling snow in Greenland in -30 degrees Celsius

Read about Nanna’s team’s fieldwork here and more on Nanna’s previous research on the planet Mars’ glaciers here.

Follow the NEEM to EGRIP ice cap research Twitter feed here.

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