Icelandic glaciers research fieldwork

We had a long difficult hike to access basal ice of Kvíárjökull because meltwater forced us to skirt a long way along the steep western moraine. It was a spectacular location though and we were quite lucky with the weather which turned bad as we were approaching the car to leave.

Working on basal ice, our business was not on the surface. But once we reached an accessible flank of the glacier access onto the surface was easy and we had to have a look. Our guide Simon Cook explained the geomorphology and we considered hydraulic linkages between different parts of the glacier. It was especially helpful having Joe Cook with us too, as his research is specifically focused on glacier surface phenomena.  No part of the glacier should be considered in isolation!

I was surprised to see so much flowing water on the glacier surface, and also within the glacier where it makes fantastic noises. Most of our fieldwork was not carried out at Kvíárjökull, but at Svínafellsjökull which is much more easily accessible. I also accessed the Svínafellsjökull surface and took this sound recording by attaching a JrF contact microphone to a climbing screw fastened into the glacier surface:


During two fieldtrips I have explored the margins of Svínafellsjökull extensively, and the following photographs show something other than the spectacular scenery which is typical of Iceland. Firstly – broken rocks are everywhere. Freeze-thaw action is going on all the time judging by the temperature swings experienced during fieldwork. Rocks fractured in-situ like the ones pictured here are really common in the glacier foreland, and fairly common on the glacier surface too.

Fragmentation of rocks is part of the soil formation process (pedogenesis) which begins after glacier recession. Mineralogy in the Svínafellsjökull area is extremely diverse and this is at least partly because the area is volcanically active. Freeze-thaw and diverse mineralogy provide opportunities for life – especially mosses and lichens – which further contribute to pedogenesis. These organisms, helped by microbes, trap carbon and nitrogen from the air, building organic matter in this rocky environment that will eventually become soil.

The microbes of the glacier are what we were there for – investigating the mystery of what lives in the ice and it’s possible functions. The most obvious impact glacial microbes might have on the world is that microbes living in the glacier are deposited as it melts – they will colonise the land and may influence pedogenesis or other processes, but they may also carry out functions and have an ecological role within the ice too. For example they might be active in the carbon cycle which could be significant due to the large volume of glaciers globally. These and other subjects are being studied by PhD student Mario Toubes-Rodrigo, whose project these field trips were in support of.

It turns out that there are lots of types of ice, and Simon trained us in reading the ice. For example elongated bubbles indicate that the ice has been deformed since the formation of a frozen bubble which of course is expected to be near enough spherical. The basal ice which we were working with contains a lot of sediment or soil-like material, and correct classification of ice type was an essential part of the work (see our publication on this).

We fortunately found time to visit the famous glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón which is a very atmospheric spot. The diversity of ice types in the lagoon adds to it’s appeal. In the photograph debris bands can be seen in the background, surface ice with cryoconite holes in the mid-ground, and near the front black-coloured ice. All around is white ice with varying degrees of translucency – colour and translucency likely linked to crystal size and air bubbles I presume.

There were less spectacular bodies of meltwater at all the glaciers we worked at. Here is a sound clip recorded using a hydrophone submerged in a meltwater pond at the Svínafellsjökull glacier margin:


Finally, demonstrating progression of the pedogenesis process, a shot of lupins growing on new soil at svínafellsjökull.


All photographs were taken using a Panasonic GX1 micro four thirds camera. Often I took multiple exposures and combined them in order to extend dynamic range (indicated by HDR), this was assisted using phtomatix software. Image processing done using lightroom.

Higher quality sound files are available on freesound.

This photo story is now available on Behance too, slightly modified for more general audience: