World's First Lab Inside a Glacier
Researcher Miriam Jackson takes ice samples with a chainsaw under Norway's Svartisen glacier. CREDIT: Halfdan Benjaminsen/NVE
Nearly 700 feet (more than 200 meters) under the Svartisen glacier in
northern Norway, researchers are huddled together underground. In the
world's only lab located inside one of these giant hunks of ice, they
are carrying out some of the best experiments on the movement and
composition of glaciers ever done.
The lab, operated by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, is located above the Arctic Circle.
It started out as a tunnel for hydropower, but then researchers
persuaded the hydropower company to dig out one small extra tunnel just
for them and created a valuable in-site lab.
Normally to get access to the base of a glacier, it is necessary to drill a borehole through the ice.
Doing so involves a huge logistics operation and also means that
researchers can work only where the surface ice isn't too badly cracked.
Using the new lab, researchers can visit exactly the same location at
the glacier bed each time — and it's much easier for them to get access
to the base.
But the in-site lab comes with its own set of challenges.
To access the remoteworkspace, researchers have to fly to a small
northern Norwegian town, then drive for hours, take a ferry, walk along a
dirt road and up a mountain. From the entrance to the tunnel, it's
another mile-plus trek up a set of stairs to the lab. It's a one-hour
walkin total when conditions are good, but when there is fresh snow to
trudge through on the way to the entrance, the slog can take four to
five hours. (See images of the glacier lab.)
To get to different parts of the glacier bed to study how the ice slides over the rock beneath,
the researchers melt additional 30- to 40-foot-long (9 to 12 m) tunnels
using hot water. "The water is heated up in a large hot-water heater
that is in the main tunnel. The hot water is then pumped up the ice
tunnel," said Miriam Jackson, asenior research scientist and
glaciologist with the directorate. Melting a glacier from the inside out
isa slow process — creating one ice tunnel takes around 24 to 48 hours.
Working under the glacier instead of the cold surface protects the
researchers from some challenges, but it's still a tough environment.
"Some people find the stress of being in the tunnel system a challenge,
and although this is unusual, tempers can occasionally fray, especially
for groups that have limited experience of glaciological fieldwork,"
VIDEO: Monitoring Climate Change
Seismic signals and sliding
Once in the lab, the scientists continue their work in trying to get a
read on how glaciers move and how they drain throughout the year, as
well as how glaciers impact sea level rise by contributing melt water to the oceans. The laboratory is also being used to test and develop theories about the seismic signals — similar to those measured from earthquakes — that moving glaciers send.
"We can put the seismic instruments in the tunnel system, they are a
lot nearer to the base of the ice, whereas normally scientists must put
the instruments on the surface, even when they are studying what is
happening at the base," Jackson told OurAmazingPlanet.
The team only does research in the wintertime to avoid meltwater, and
the research area has room for up to six people sharing four bedrooms, a
kitchen, bathroom and a shower in addition to three laboratories, a
walk-in freezer, a workshop and a water heater. Most of the time there
are only three to four people in the labfor a period of six to seven
days between November and April.
Recent experiments measured the resistance to sliding at the base of
the glacier and found that most of the resistance is due to the friction
between the debris-rich ice and the bedrock — a finding that was a
surprise. Previously researchers thought that ice flow past particular
obstacles in the bedrock provided most of the resistance to friction of
The ice tunnel labs provide the researchers with more than just a research site, though.
"One of the most surprising things is the beauty," Jackson said. "Each
time we melt out an ice tunnel it is equally entrancing."
More from OurAmazingPlanet:
Tracking a Retreating Glacier
Ice World: Gallery of Awe-Inspiring Glaciers
The Power of Ice: Glacier Erosion
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