In our Tech Expeditions feature this month, Associate Editor Erico Guizzo recounts his journey to the ice fields of Norway to cover the work of a British team of engineers and scientists studying the way glaciers are responding to climate change. His narrative, "Into Deep Ice", is an insightful close-up of technologists in the field at work on vital research.
Guizzo caught up with the team working on the GlacsWeb project earlier this year in the town of Olden, Norway, to document its work on the nearby Briksdalsbreen glacier, where they were in the middle of field-testing a wireless monitoring network embedded in the ice to record temperature, pressure, and other variables. The group's goal is to gain greater understanding of how Earth's ice masses are responding to the shifting temperature of the planet.
"The GlacsWeb system could shed light on [this] by allowing scientists to 'see' with unprecedented detail what goes on deep inside glaciers," Guizzo writes. "Their wireless probes could prove a good replacement for some of the conventional instruments used by glaciologists, like gauges that are also embedded in the ice but with wires running to the glacier's surface [which routinely break]."
The outcome of studies on glaciers has important implications for planetary climatology. "Earth has more than 160 000 glaciers," Guizzo relates. "Scientists study them because they are an integral part of our climatic system, affecting and being affected by it. Today, with the rise of global surface temperatures, the overall trend is of 'continuous if not accelerated glacier melting', according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, in Zurich, Switzerland."
Specifically, the GlacsWeb team is recording subglacial dynamics, the sliding of the ice masses that is responsible for most of the glacier's movement—an area that is poorly understood at present. "It's this piece of the puzzle that the British team hopes to supply," writes Guizzo. "The GlacsWeb probes . . . will be able to track one of the key variables needed to study the sediment layer: water. When glaciers move over a water-soaked layer of sediment, they are able to go faster. That's the case of the Briksdalsbreen, which is likely flowing over a bed of muddy sediment about 10 meters thick."
In the end, the GlacsWeb researchers were pleased with the results of their field work. They are receiving data from the glacier wirelessly via the Internet at the University of Southampton, in England. And Guizzo, who actually got to be of assistance by answering a last-minute request from the team to bring important chips and switches from the U.S. upon setting off for Norway, got the story and got to walk on a mountain of ice.
[Note: A fire recently destroyed much of the research laboratory at the University's School of Electronics and Computer Science, where the GlacsWeb team is based. Their equipment and research data were spared, however, and their work continues.]