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Glacier Monitoring in Northeast-Greenland in Spring 2022 by Signe H. Larsen and Bernhard Hynek (Copyright: Bernhard Hynek).

In Northeast Greenland near Zackenberg research station (74 degrees north), ZAMG in cooperation with the University of Graz and GEUS (Denmark) has been conducting glacier monitoring since 2007/2008. At annual intervals, the mass balance of Freya Glacier is measured by ZAMG while A.P. Olsen Ice Cap is measured by GEUS. Fieldwork on these two glaciers often take place in cooperation – one person from ZAMG and one person from GEUS carry out the measurements on both glaciers together, mainly to save costs.  The ideal time for the measurements is at the end of April, when the snowmelt has not yet started but the days are already long. Under these conditions, the two glaciers can be reached after a 20 min or 1h drive by snowmobile, heavy equipment such as georadar or weather stations can be transported by a sled, and there is no need to spend the night in a tent. The glaciologists can return every day to the comfortably equipped research station Zackenberg.

The location of Freya glacier, A.P Olsen Ice Cap and Zackenberg research station (from Google).

Due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, it was not possible to visit the glaciers at all in 2020, and it was still not possible in spring 2021. Towards the end of June, it was suddenly decided that the research station would open and so it was possible after all to visit the glaciers at least in summer and to do the most important maintenance work on the weather stations and to carry out some measurements. In summer, the routes have to be covered by strenuous walks rather using the comfortable snow mobiles.

Off to Zackenberg research station

Just some days after the decision, that the station would open, we (Bernhard Hynek, ZAMG and Daniel Binder, GEUS) set off towards Zackenberg research station on July 14, 2021. However, because the fog was too thick on the approach to Zackenberg, the Twin Otter could not land and we landed instead at a military airport of Mestersvig. After two days of waiting time it finally worked out and we landed in Zackenberg in beautiful summer weather.

We spent the two days settling in at the station with the obligatory safety training and packing our equipment for the long march to the first glacier, the A.P. Olsen ice cap, where we want to maintain two weather stations and read any ablation stake that may still be present.

“The glacier is about 40km from the station, which is equivalent to a two-day walk with a 25kg backpack consisting of camping equipment, hunting rifle and measuring instruments”

Bernhard Hynek

On the way there we were able to spend the night in a newly renovated hunting lodge from the 1940’s, a 2×2 meter wooden hut, named Antonsens Hut. The further nights we spent in a tent. To protect ourselves from polar bears, we always carry a hunting rifle and a signal pistol, and we stretch a cord around the tent, which is connected to firecrackers. The work on the glacier then takes a day. One of the two weather stations was knocked over, probably by a polar bear. Obviously, they like to play with the propeller of the wind sensor. We maintain the two weather stations, download data from an automatic camera and find two ablation stakes still in the ice, the others have already melted out.  So at least we can still get two readings on the amount of ice melting since 2018. After a 2-day march back to the station we spend 2 days at the station to rest and pack our stuff for the next trip.

Freya Glacier

Then we head for Freya Glacier. For this we are taken by boat by our colleagues across the Tyrolerfjord to Clavering Island, where we will camp for a week. We set up our base camp close to the shore, at a spot where we always camp when we are there in summer. The next day we walk over steep moraine slopes for about 2 hours to the snout of the glacier.  We find almost all of our ablation stake drilled in 2016 and extend them so they can stick out of the snow and be found next spring. We observe a strange pattern of surface melt since 2016. On the lower part of the glacier we findstakes with an ice loss of -4.5 meters, but at places where large avalanches from the side valleys provided a lot of snow accumulation in the winter of 2018, the ablation was nearly zero. We were happy to find that our weather station is still in good condition. Only the poles of the continuous ablation measurement had fallen over. We are able to rebuild that and download the data. In that case, it is good to be here in the summer after all, since the fallen poles would have been covered with about 2 meters of snow in the spring. A hard, tedious job to shovel those out!  Having completed our maintainence work at the weather station, we set up our high camp, a small tent near the station, as we plan to spend the next night here so we don’t have to go up and down for 3 hours every day. That evening, however, we have to go back down because we need to get the drone and GPS units for surveying the glacier. Around midnight we arrive pretty tired at the valley bottom and have a short dinner in the midnight sun.

The next day we climb back up and visit the upper part of the glacier. We read the remaining ablation stakes and survey some points on the surface of the glacier, marking them with a chalk spray so we can accurately locate them later on the drone images. In the upper part of the glacier, the snow is so wet in many places, that we wade through almost knee-deep water. Despite our high boots and gaiters, our feet do not stay dry… We spend the night in the tent on the glacier, below us the cold ice and between us as usual the rifle for polar bear protection… The next day we survey the glacier with the drone, but unfortunately our 12 batteries are not enough to cover the whole glacier surface and we cannot complete the measurements this day. Instead, we have to go down to the base camp to recharge the batteries with the generator we brought with us.

“To our shock, the generator went down after 10 minutes of running time. The first assumption which should be confirmed later: An engine damage due to the use of the wrong gasoline.”

Bernhard Hynek

Crestfallen e crawled into our sleeping bags. It seems very unlikely to us that the Norwegian colleagues, who use the only available boat for their walrus documentation, would be able to pick up a new generator from Zackenberg and ship it to us within the remaining time. It is unlikely that we even could reach them on the sat phone to tell them about our problem.  But against all expectations, the communication with the station and the walrus filmmakers via satellite phone worked out the very next morning, and already in the afternoon they delivered a new generator to our island. We are grateful and relieved!

During the night all batteries are charged and the next day we ascend for the third time to successfully complete the aerial survey. While the drone does its work autonomously, we climbed up the ridge to pick up the memory cards at our webcams containing the photos of the last years. Another hard climb over loose boulders up to an elevation of 1000m above sea level.

“Due to a long period of stable weather with exceptionally high temperatures (almost 25 degrees are measured in Zackenberg!), we are able to complete all measurements successful.”

Bernhard Hynek

We were able to do everything we set out to do and return to the station satisfied. Especially the drone survey of the glacier worked well in the end and will give us a very accurate elevation model of the glacier. Based on this survey we can calculate the volume change since the last survey in 2013.

After one week living in the tent cut off from the rest of the world and luckily without any polar bear encounters, we are happy to be picked up again by the boat.

Back at Zackenberg we learned that things hadn´t been so easy over there, they had numerous polar bear encounters while we were out.  A scientist was even badly injured by a bear, that tried to enter through the window and pull him out of his bed during night… We are shocked by asking ourselves, what kind of protection the tent had to offer compared to a solid house! And again happy, that no bear found us out there…

Despite the successful summer measurements, we were glad that next year the measurements will take place again in spring, because the use of snowmobiles makes everything easier.

Since 2017 there is also a webcam near the Freya Glacier. Watch it online on the APRI Multimedia page!

Media information

Written by Bernhard Hynek.

Layout by the APRI-Media Team.
Contact: use our contact form.
Photos: ©Bernhard Hynek and Daniel Binder

About the scientific author

Bernhard Hynek (Mag)  researcher , ZAMG

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