Nothing can quite prepare you for stepping out onto a glacier for the first time. Despite seeing photos in magazines and recognising you're heading for a pretty stunning place, experiencing the landscape yourself can only be described as ethereal, not only because you are surrounded by natural beauty of the most magnificent scale, but because of the whole host of mysteries that lay beneath the ice.
It was the discovery of these mysteries that took me to the national park of Skaftafell, in South East Iceland, to work alongside the research team on Icelandic Glaciers at the Skeiðarárjökull, Europe's largest valley glacier.
This particular glacial region is quite exceptional, in that it not only harbours the largest glacier in Europe, the Vatnajökull, but that the glacier also shares its home with two great active volcanoes hidden beneath the ice, the forebodingly named Öræfajökull and Grímsvötn. As such, the whole area treads a fine balance between the elements, with masses of thick glacial ice holding the potential for huge melt water floods triggered by the intense geothermal heat generated by these volcanoes.
As recently as 1996 a massive flood bought chaos to the Skaftafell region when a volcano erupted through 450 metres of thick ice, destroying much of the areas road system as the subsequent flood hurled vast blocks of ice out of the glacier with careless abandon into the sea. Some of the old bridges, now gnarled and torn up pieces of iron, can still be seen at the side of the roads, serving as a permanent reminder of the power and force of Mother Nature.
As you can imagine, this diverse and unique marriage of hot and cold adds many layers of complexity to the activities taking place below the ice, which the dedicated team of researchers that I worked with have been exploring for the past 10 years since this dramatic flood changed the topography of the region forever.
The research team I took part in was in April 2006, a time of year that is particularly suited to the work that we were doing, and we were exceptionally lucky with the weather holding a blend of crisp blue skies, and cold working conditions. Cold may be underselling the temperature somewhat, as nowhere more than here are you more aware of the power of the elements, with a wind chill able to drive down the temperature by several degrees over the course of an hour. Nevertheless, the team were prepared with lots of layers, and bags of enthusiasm acted as extra thermal protection against the elements.
Working in such an extreme environment requires a suspension of all normal definitions of time, as nothing is entirely predictable and days are dictated firmly by the elements. Getting onto the glacier isn't as simple as driving up to the local car park and hopping out onto the ice; instead we ventured as far as we could get by 4 wheel drive, and then hiked for 3km across the sandur planes, the vast expanses of sandy wasteland between the glacier and the sea.
The Skeiðarársandur boasts the claim of being the biggest sandur in the world, and it's fair to say that our legs verified the truth of this, as we set off on the comforting rhythm of our daily walk to work. The sandur also held reminders of the floods of 1996 with vast moonscape-like craters sculpted in the sand, caused by the massive ice blocks that had been carved off the glacier during the volcano's violent outburst.
The volunteers spent the week working with a host of glacial experts, helping them to collect data to further the research that they've been carrying out over the years. The research focus has taken on new elements over time, and this team was no different. Andy who has been working in Iceland for the entire duration of the project and Jay from 'Alaskan glaciers' were busy mapping and surveying the sandur area at the base of the glacier; John was conducting ground penetrating radar surveys across the ice, trying to uncover its hidden depths; and 'other' Andy was busy detecting the movements of the glacier through satellite positioning.
This range of research gave way to a variety of tasks that benefited from the many hands on deck to help collect the data, activities that were enhanced by the sheer scale of the landscape in which we were working. Some days we found ourselves manning the ground penetrating radar equipment, which looked somewhat similar to two boxes on black skis, but instead of being designed to transport you off the glacier at high speed, instead held a transmitter and receiver which was detecting the ground beneath our feet.
The purpose of this was varied - knowing what is happening underneath a glacier not only helps the researchers properly understand the physical geography of the landscape, but it also helps with more practical feats - if the path and pattern of the sediment beneath the glacier can be understood, then in the event of another volcanic eruption, the subsequent flooding pattern can be better predicted, and help assist the Icelandic government with evacuation plans should the need arise. We could watch the patterns of the data as they were fed into the computer in the evening, with John patiently explaining the possible causes for the various contours and patterns that emerged below the ice.
Other days were spent trekking the base of the glacier, properly mapping and surveying the area by taking waypoints, compass bearings, and describing the area in which we were standing. Much of this region remains unmapped, and as such the information recorded not only benefits the research team, but other Icelanders who want to better understand what is happening in their national park.
We mapped amazing features such as kettle holes - holes in the ice caused by large pieces of ice breaking off the edge of the glacier. Seeing the magnitude of these features really makes you appreciate the strength of ice and its ability to carve and sculpt the landscape. We were also buoyed by Andy's boundless enthusiasm who managed to convert the entire volunteer team to the beauty of not only the ice, but the sediment that was contained within.
So, what did we take away from this? Well, the research team managed to record a large amount of information from the Skeiðarárjökull, and take away increased levels of understanding about what is happening at the foot of this glacier. The volunteers came back with a new found passion and understanding about glacial regions; with a better awareness of the role that glaciers play as ecosystem indicators and the sensitivity of these vast swathes of ice to their surrounding environment, whether that be from the geothermal activities of this particular region or the impacts from cooling and warming temperatures over time.
Since 1930 the Skeiðarárjökull glacier has retreated a massive 3km, a trend that shows no signs of reversing in today's climate. On a more personal level, I think that working in such an inspiring and extreme environment makes the paradox of the immense power yet simultaneous fragility of nature really hit home, as does the vital importance of preserving it for future generations. And as is surely to be expected in situations where such close team work is engendered, some new friends and shared experiences, that will help keep alive the memories of our week on the ice for much time to come.
Clare Marl is the Director Marketing and Communications with Earthwatch Europe. She participated in team 1 of Icelandic Glaciers in April 2006.