Imaging the Cryosphere

UAVs over Greenland and Svalbard

3 Days on Holtedahlfonna: The Outbound Leg

Sunday morning started out with some excitement. JC, Sanja and I had done almost all the preparation for the trip, and our cargo was already distributed between four sleds, to be pulled by three heavy wide-track snowmachines. The only thing remaining was to wake up, eat breakfast and pack lunch, collect our food from the kitchens, strap everything down and blaze out of town. Of course, every one of those components cost a completely inordinate amount of time, and despite our best intentions we ended up blazing at the crack of 11am.

About 8km east of town, there is a small bay tucked up against the mountains. When the fjord is frozen, navigating the bay is as simple as finding a spot on the shore with a nice ramp down to the fjord ice, between the chunky broken blocks of sea ice that are lifted up onto the shore as the tides come in and out all winter long. Once you find your ramp, you just drive across the bay, find another ramp on the other side, and continue on your merry way towards the Kongsvegen glacier. If your destination of the day is the Gorillaheimen hut, turn north back onto the sea ice and drive cross the fjord. Once the fjord ice has broken up, however, getting past the bay becomes more involved. In this case, the snowmachine path leads across a steep slope, often with thin snow cover and dotted with patches of ice. The slope ends below the trail in a set of 25m limestone bluffs (the Bird Cliffs) which drop directly down into the bay (deep water solo, anyone?). The best way across the slope driving is to take at least one passenger on each trip, with both the driver and the passenger standing on the upslope running board and leaning their asses as far out as possible; if the passenger is up for it, standing on the uphill ski is even more effective, and kind of like a really crappy snowboarding simulator where you as the rider don’t have any choice in the rocks you hit on the way. It’s a little nervey, hanging off the uphill side of the snowmachine and looking down into the blue-green water of the bay, but the technique is basically flawless – with one or two hangers-on for ballast, there is no way even the heaviest snowmachine will roll down into the drink, especially if you keep your speed above zero.


The trouble comes, as in many situations, when you don’t play by the book. In many snow conditions, the crossing can be no problem at all, and taking turns walking back and forth to facilitate each separate crossing can seem like a waste of time after the eternity it took to get out of town in the morning. After having rolled my snowmachine on the way home from Gorillaheimen last week, we were all set to play it safe, but still one machine tipped at the steepest portion. Even here it wasn’t really in danger of rolling down to the bay; that particular piece of the scenery is pretty much psychological rather than an actual immediate danger. The snowmachine tipped over onto its side, and Sanja hopped off lightly then waited for us to come back and help her flip it upright. No go; those fuckers are HEAVY. Luckily reinforcements rolled up right behind us in the form of Ian and Mats, on their way to a one-day expedition up Kongsvegen. The five of us managed to right the fallen machine, and lo and behold! It miraculously started without any further ceremony, and we were able to carry on our way.


From here, the driving was spectacular and uneventful. Driving up to the mess of glacial terminii which make up the eastern head of Kongsfjorden, Kronebreen (Svalbard’s fastest flowing glacier) dominates the scene, galloping to the water with huge dramatic vivid blue ice cliffs towering and crumbling directly into the fjord. Kongsvegen, meanwhile, is certainly an extremely large glacier, but its terminus is a humble affair which forms a gentle and completely crevasse-free ramp all the way up to the ice cap where we were headed.


Our route led up Kongsvegen for a while before turning north off the glacier and out of this world. The pass leading from Kongsvegen behind the Tre Kroner and onto Holtedahlfonna are absolutely unreal. The closest I can come to a comparison is Canyonlands or Monument Valley, with limestone rather than sandstone and the desert floor with flash floods replaced by a wild, rolling ice cap with blasting katabatics. Also, the tops of the buttes, plateaus, peaks and ridges look like they are dripping with vanilla frosting.


I spent pretty much the whole ride looking from one side to the other, with my jaw held up only by my helmet strap. I was riding last in our little procession, so it was also my job to check behind myself every once in a while to see that nothing had fallen off any of the sleds. This turned out to be a pretty good position – when we were directly east of the first crown, and the other two had driven up ahead of me a ways, I saw an arctic fox! I was ecstatic. He was crouched low and waiting for the noisy cavalcade to pass by, then jumped up behind me and sprinted across our trail. I know they’re all dirty rabid carrion scavengers, but a pure white arctic fox running low across the high glacier is one of the most beautiful, elegant and rewarding sights I’ve been granted in Svalbard. I never saw a fox last time I was here, and seeing this one on such a spectacular and already exciting day was thrilling. Fluttery heart thrilling, not Michael Jackson thrilling.

24 April, 2011 at 18:20 Comments (0)

15 April 2011

see attachment.

15 April, 2011 at 19:33 Comment (1)

NOAA Sled Update

4 April, 2011 at 23:17 Comment (1)


From my desk on a Saturday afternoon…

The crew has been working hard in Ny Alesund getting everything ready for flight days. Yesterday was the first actual flight, but apparently after 18 minutes the aircraft stalled due to a faulty speed sensor. From what I understand, Jostein managed to land it safely. Nice Job!

From the flight tracks (with photo locations shown also) you can see the flight consisted mostly of racetracks over the airport.

On the ground team side, Ian, Wiley, and Sanja have been getting most things up and running and have started some intercomparisons. The ‘Mobile Observing System’, or Cryo-sled as I’ve been referring to, is set up and ready to go. All systems are running and we should be getting data from this soon. On board we have: 1 KT19 IR surface temp sensor 3 Everest IR surface temp sensors 1 calibration target (used for KT19 and Everest) 2 LiCor broadband radiometers (1 nadir-pointing, 1 zenith-pointing) 2 Ocean Optics spectrometers (1 nadir-pointing, 1 zenith-pointing) 1 ambient air temperature sensor and KT19 aspirator 1 surface temperature probe 1 IMU 2 GPS (1 integrated with spectrometers, 1 integrated with all other sensors)

This will provide excellent comparison data to the UAV which will be flying overhead. Good job Ian!

From the office side, there’s not much to report that’s exciting… my time has been spent mostly on the VPN making sure are chemical weather forecasts are running. We’ve had a multitude of problems due to the server infrastructure, faulty CPUs and mother boards, and a host of other challenges… things seem to be getting smoothed out, but it’s not much fun.

On ‘baby’ side, well everyone’s asking, and I guess you can imagine that if I’m writing this, there’s no news!

2 April, 2011 at 12:01 Comments (0)

First Full Day

Today was the first full day in Ny Ålesund for Sanja, Ian, and myself, along with Andreas, Stian and Jostein on the Cryowing Crew.  We spent a lot of time roaming around town finding the equipment that we’ve shipped up piecemeal over the last half year and setting up shop in Sverdrup Station.  Now everything has been gathered and unpacked, and the Trios ground sensors are on the station roof ready for pre-season intercomparisons so that we can be sure each of the sensors give the same reading when measuring a diffuse, even sky.

I also took the first surface scrape this evening!  These are important in providing an extra piece of information for interpreting albedoes measured immediately around Ny Ålesund, as they give us an idea of the grain size and shape at the surface of the snowpack, and a record of how (and how quickly!) this surface snow changes and evolves over the duration of the season.

I had been feeling pretty cocky about the temperatures so far, thinking to myself ‘Pff, -18C, not even a problem.’   Unfortunately, I had forgotten to think too closely about the accompanying weather factors…until this afternoon, it had been -15 to -20 with a bright sun and nothing more than a gentle breeze out of the north.  Suddenly a few clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, just a touch, but enough to strip my cockiness.  -18 felt COLD again!!  I had to keep popping my hands back into gloves while working on the roof sensors, and I was thinking longingly of the scarf I had left in my room this morning.

So what’s the best way to deal with a little bit of temperature shock?  Meet it head on!  Sanja and I decided to take some of the dogs out for a ski right after dinner, which turned out to be a fantastic decision for everyone involved.  The dogs got to stretch their legs and find some frozen treats on the tundra, Sanja and I got quick transport along the coast so we could keep an eye on the recovery of the recently-blown-out fjord ice, and the mountains to the north got to preen for us in all their watercolor, sunset glory.  The scenery around this place is absolutely unreal – this is a different world, both wonderful and spectacular.


30 March, 2011 at 07:07 Comments (0)

Kongsfjord Ice

Some views showing the edge of open water in Kongsfjord, relative to Ny Ålesund in the distance. For orientation, the plane is flying westward out the fjord; the first two pictures are facing south-ish, while the last one is to the north side of the fjord.

Unfortunately most of my pictures over kongsfjord ended up focusing on the mud on my airplane window, rather than the more interesting view outside . . .


29 March, 2011 at 09:42 Comments (0)

29 March


Italian group, including Rosamaria and two Robertos, Luca, Maurizio

NORUT: Andreas, Stian, Jostein

VAUUAV: Wiley, Sanja, Ian

NP: Max

NORUT expects at least 3 days to prepare befor ethe first possibility of flights, but we can take sensors whenever we want them

Rosamaria: setting and testing instruments today, tomorrow

Ian: Tomorrow is ambitious for Sled participation in intercomparisons

Result: Intercomparisons will start Thursday morning, when Italians, VAUUAV GRD, VAUUAV UAV, and VAUUAV SLED all expect to have sensors up and running. This is pretty ok, because this is forecast as the day the clouds close in – may be less variable than today, which is relatively low visibility, some fine falling snow and a beautiful solar halo.

29 March, 2011 at 09:26 Comments (0)

The Ny Ålesund season begins

I’m posting this note from the office, as most for me will be this year. As an expecting father, I cannot join my team just yet as they deploy to Ny Ålesund, but will instead be providing support from home.

The team arrived yesterday from Longyearbyen. In the field for VAUUAV we now have Wiley, Sanja, and Ian who has joined us from Colorado for our ground team. Our flight crew includes Andreas, Stian, and Jostein.

In the next few days, efforts will be focused on integrating our measurements with the group CICCI efforts, conducting intercomparisons of instruments, and general preparations.

This year is a special year for VAUUAV as we join the CICCI program. You can read more about CICCI here:

This is an international effort of significant magnitude bringing together teams from Germany, Italy, Russia, the US, Austria, China, and Norway to work together on questions related to aerosol deposition in the Arctic.

Eventually, we will have three UAS flight crews, working to achieve coordinated flight activity in the region of Svalbard.

29 March, 2011 at 07:09 Comments (0)

2011 Underway…

It’s been a number of months since we provided any updates, but it’s time to start again! This post is coming from my office, as a number of them will this season. We have a *huge* season planned, as VAUUAV has become a cornerstone project for the AMAP-UAS expert group. Furthermore, here at NILU with our collaborators from all over Europe, we’ve established a collaborative framework for the work in Ny Alesund this season. This new project: “Collaborative Investigation of Climate – Cryosphere Interaction” or CICCI, is simply an ‘umbrella’ framework covering a number of existing activities, with the hope of making each stronger through cooperation, data sharing, and enhanced measurements.

I’m in the process of working on a new site to outline all of the CICCI activities. There are many, so it really justifies a web site of it’s own, and I’ll post a link here as soon as it’s ready.

In the meantime, we’ve been working hard here at NILU on the FLEXPART forecasting system. This is up and running now, and soon products will be available.

Other than that, it’s been mostly shipping, logistics, management of resources, and other ‘pre field season’ activities.

Stay tuned…

Until later, a picture from 2009 of our site:


8 March, 2011 at 09:54 Comments (0)

Long days and a rockin flight

Well, they are long workdays, but we’re actually getting closer and closer to August 7, the summer’s first sunset at Summit. It’s amazing how much less light is in the Big House late at night, compared to earlier in the summer. We’re actually turning lights on, in order to keep working after midnight. That doesn’t mean the tents are any darker, but on clear days you can see the sun thinking about putting on some color as it dips towards the horizon near midnight, before changing its mind and climbing again. He’s gettin tired, that sun.

Today John and I worked hard at putting up another powerful supporting instrument – thegoniometer, which John mentioned in his last entry.  The dangerous looking box with flashing red and green lights (see below) is actually the brain center of the instrument, controlling a suite of spectrometers mounted on a robot arm.  The goniometer measures the directional reflectance of light from 145 points in a hemisphere around a single point on the snow surface. Snow is an anisotropic surface, which means the brightness of the surface depends on both the angle of the incoming light as well as the angle of observation – when you are facing the sun, the brightest snow you can see will be between you and the sun. The goniometer is designed to measure the magnitude of anisotropy, which is an important piece of knowledge because remote sensing platforms such as satellites and our UAV observe the surface with a fixed viewing angle, so translating the energy coming off the surface at that specific angle to a full albedo measurement requires a knowledge of the anisotropy.

Our biggest challenges remaining with the instrument will be taming the mess of control cables, data cables, power cables, and fiber optics flying everywhere, as well as administering an accurate and precise calibration to sensors which are awfully sensitive to changes in temperature.

In other news, congratulations are in order once again to the flight crew! Cryowing has been haunted throughout the campaign by communication issues, dropped connections through the Iridium satellite modem, and sensors on the fritz at exactly the wrong times. It seems as though Rune and Kjell-Sture managed to overcome many of these hurdles today, with an excellent flight that lasted well over an hour thanks to stable communication with the plane. The plane made several passes of reflectance measurements over our ground station, then flew three times through a grid pattern covering several square kilometers west of the skiway. Great flight, and we hope to see great data out of it!

As with every flight of the Cryowing, John and I were kept busy late into the evening characterizing the snow surface observed by both the plane and our ground station.

2 August, 2010 at 04:27 Comments (0)

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