Spring into Iceland... by Erica Dewell

Virkisjökull and its sandur
Todays update from Iceland comes from intrepid guest blogger Erica Dewell, an MSc student at the University of Dundee...

Hello from the latest field campaign at the BGS's glacier observatory at Virkisjökull in southeast Iceland. We’re a diverse group here this trip, with people hailing from BGS, University of Dundee, Wallingford Hydrosolutions, and Helsinki University & Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT. Our home here is wonderfully situated below a waterfall and between two glaciers: Svinafellsjökull, and Virkisjökull. For all the Game of Thrones nerds reading, you might be excited to know that Svinafellsjökull happens to be where the scenes North of the Wall were filmed!
Svinafellsjökull, aka North of the Wall
The activities have been as diverse as the group, with sediment sampling, stream flow gauging, ablation stake measuring, and piezometer data downloads all happening on our first working day. Since then, we’ve continued to do more of the same, with the addition of dye tracing tests on Fallajökull and Virkisjökull, groundwater and surface water chemistry sampling, and the collection of microbiological samples from groundwater, springs, the river, the lake, snow, and ice. In general the activities here are related to the holistic study of the catchment system, specifically as it relates to a rapidly melting glacier. The microbiological component was new this trip: it is to assess the changes in microbial communities, mainly through molecular biology based on DNA.

Groundwater chemistry sampling
Half of the group had never been to Iceland before this trip, and are completely charmed by the waterfalls, volcanic rocks and the gorgeous, albeit odd, landscape. Iceland provides quite a stark contrast of scenery in a very short distance, with the flat, barren sandur just in front of the steep iced slopes of Virkisjökull and its surrounding mountains. Most feel as though we’re on a trip to the Moon or Mars, but love this weird world we landed in.

The Virkisjökull glacier is particularly impressive, and is one of the many places in Iceland where the power of nature is so evident. Looking like a mix of Mordor and the North Pole, Virkisjökull provides great views when eating lunch. It’s a really ice-olated place (sorry), and is very quiet besides the sounds of meltwater flowing into moulins and the occasional creak of an imminent icefall. Despite the dangers of snow-covered crevasses, we were quite safe and well prepared with Verity’s clever system of roping up the group of three that head to the glacier. Impressively, when one of the three simulated falling down a crevasse (by running hard in the opposite direction), the other two barely felt the impact, as the rope holds and absorbs the weight of the fallen ice-climber. Fortunately, this has not been tested with a real crevasse yet. The team was also introduced to the system of crocheting the rope together after use, so that it doesn’t tangle, and is easy to unravel (not to mention, really fun to do). Despite the sore feet that come with climbing glaciers, the views and fun are definitely worth it.

Testing the Ropes

Crocheting Safety Ropes

Dye Tracing Tests in a Moulin

The glacial river, Virkisá, has been gauged on several occasions throughout the trip, and has produced its fair share of challenges each time, the most memorable of which include unintentionally fishing for rocks with the tape measure (and having to cut the tape as a result), having the current flowing so strong it carried pieces of the flow gauging equipment away with it and having a shorter member of the team state “I can’t feel the bottom!!” while “trolling” beneath the bridge.

In the other extreme of the terrain, the sandur, other members of the team were busy digging pits to collect sediment samples. The samples have to be dried before they are sorted, so that has resulted in baking a lot of dirt …
Yum – rock cakes!
Fortunately, the array of cuisine has been quite the contrary - we’ve had lots of delicious meals. It did feel like we were moving into the extreme and remote wilderness of Iceland after we carried two overflowing grocery trollies worth of food into the house with us. Other than the fact that we will soon be out of bread, we’ve done pretty well in our portioning! The trip will likely be remembered as a blur of chocolate raisins, glacier views, caramel wafers, volcanic sediment inhalation, mid-afternoon sardines, second lunch, sour cream and onion crisps, which were all enjoyed in the varied astonishing surroundings… Oh, and the fieldwork!

by Erica Dewell, MSc student at the University of Dundee