Maryann Thorp’s Diary
Icelandic Glaciers


Monday, August 16, 2004

Sunday, August 15, 2004
Saturday, August 14, 2004

Friday, August 13, 2004
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Monday, August 9, 2004
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Saturday, August 7, 2004
Friday, August 6, 2004

Thursday, August 5, 2004
Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Tuesday, August 3, 2004
Monday, August 2, 2004

Sunday, August 1, 2004
Saturday, July 31, 2004

Thursday, July 15, 2004
Monday, February 2, 2004

Monday, December 15, 2004

Related Sites



Monday, August 16, 2004

Down came our sleeping tents one by one, and they, too, were loaded into Arthur. Mel had changed his flight times and was leaving Iceland today, so he left with Andy this morning to go straight to the airport while the rest of us waited for the 1:45 p.m. bus back to Reykjavik. The bus was full, so we all had to spread out to get seats. Once in Reykjavik, we checked into our respective hotels and made arrangements for a final meal together, unfortunately without Mel. Terry, Rob, and Elanir are flying out tomorrow, while Tatyana, Kim, and I have a few more days to explore Iceland.

It's been a wonderful trip, and I'm sure I've learned more about Iceland than I would have if I had come as a tourist. Some people, when told that we spent two weeks in Vik, were quite shocked, wondering what we found to do there all that time.

We had time to explore the region quite thoroughly, even to a depth of 25 meters (82 feet), saw glaciers close at hand, wondered at the volcanic power that could create such a landscape, and compared and contrasted the different cultures of Brazil, Briton, Russia, United States, and Australia. A truly memorable experience!
Sunday, August 15, 2004

Today was cleanup day. Everything was packed up from the kitchen, food, and bell tents, and then these tents were packed up and everything not needed was loaded into the van, which, not to be left out, was named Arthur. Our campsite was beginning to look very empty. Rob and Andy, the two Ph.D. students, were staying on for a week to do some more fieldwork, so they were left with some food provisions.

We finished the packing early, so we were able to include a trip to Hjorleifshofoi. This was an island off the coast before successive jokulhlaups engulfed the island in land, so now it's a hill rising out of the pumice plain. Apparently a farmer who lived on top of this hill witnessed the 1918 jokulhlaup. There was so much ice that he described it looked like snow-covered hills rushing forward. A huge boulder that was washed down in the floods came to rest close by. It was quite a rock and gave us all an indication of the power produced by these volcanic outburst floods. Andy couldn't resist checking out a section of the river channel. Thankfully, all the shovels had been packed away or I imagine he'd have asked us to do some more digging.

Late afternoon we had a debriefing. The PI's went over all that we had accomplished during this project. They will use the data we helped collect to reconstruct flow conditions of individual jokulhlaups and provide models to interpret similar events in other environments. The pits we dug were still a puzzle. The flow depths of the floods around this area were around 70 meters (230 feet), so some of the deposit layers in the pits could have been flood deposits or possibly the glacier may have covered this area and left deposits. Each pit seemed to tell a different story. It would have been less hard work and less confusion if we'd only dug one pit! The PI's emphasized the original nature of this research, as this area has not been studied in such depth before.

Our last dinner was a special feast of roast lamb and potatoes, a welcome change to the one pot dinners of rice and veggies that we'd often had up until now. The lamb tasted delicious. An Icelander told me that Icelandic sheep, knowing their eventual fate, are very helpful and season themselves by eating herbs that give the meat the delicious flavor. I had found some wild thyme on the hills, so perhaps he was right. It was quite a festive atmosphere in the hut as we relaxed and took last-minute photos of the group.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

I woke this morning to a campsite shrouded by fog. Today is the last day of fieldwork. There is surveying, section logging, and radar to be done; also someone has to fill in all the pits we dug. We wouldn't want any hikers or wandering trolls to fall in.

A check on the vehicles revealed that the horses had not been innocently standing by the vehicles after all. There were several areas where the paint had been removed by inquiring teeth, and also some rubber had been nibbled. Andy gave us strict instructions to shoo away all four-legged visitors.

Andy G., Kim, Tatyana, and Terry set off to do the survey work with the EDM and prisms while the two Rob's went off to collect samples for Rob D.'s Ph.D. project. The rest of us started digging to clear a section so that it could be logged. The river cut out in this area is about five meters (16.4 feet) high, so we had to shovel away all the pumice and leave a vertical section about 10 meters (33 feet) wide. That's a lot of pumice to move.

As I was digging, I found a lump of snow left over from last winter hidden in the pumice. To pass the time while we were digging, I tried to teach Mel the words to the song "Waltzing Matilda."

This section is at the end of one of the radar surveys, so logging it will help interpret the radar data. After lunch, Elanir and I helped Nigel do a velocity check with the radar while the surveying and section digging continued.

In hindsight, it would have been better if Mel had been helping with the radar checks so he wouldn't have been shoveling the pumice when it gave way. He put his hand out to break his fall but injured it in the process. I went with Mel and Andy back to camp. A trip to the doctor's revealed a fracture to a bone in Mel's hand. It wasn't too serious, but unfortunately it was serious enough to put an end to his post-Earthwatch project camping plans.

The rest of the troop came back exhausted from filling in all the pits.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Andy has persuaded Nigel to continue to radar the mid-section today rather than going down to the coastal sandur as planned. He and Rob found some interesting features in the section they were looking at yesterday. We did a GPR survey horizontal to the river's edge and then, after lunch, a perpendicular survey that is similar to the flow path during the flood event. A short 200-meter (656-foot) survey turned into 800 meters (2,625 feet). The PI's do get carried away when they're getting good data!

The four horses that we had encountered over the last few days came closer to check out what we'd been doing. They followed us part of the way back to the vehicles when we went for our lunch break. Tatyana approached them to get some photos, using her apple as enticement. They were extremely friendly and allowed everyone to pat them. They followed us back to the vehicles and for some reason seemed to find Leo more interesting than the apple. They stayed by the vehicles for some time after we went back to do the afternoon radar survey, surrounding Leo first and then Leaky.

We packed up the radar and headed back to the campsite. The fog that had been hugging the coast and glacier all day cascaded into Vik as we approached. It was a very eerie sight. Kim, Mel, and I were craving some protein, so we stopped off at the café for a bite to eat. The fog really makes things cold and damp. It is appreciably darker now at 10 p.m. than when we first arrived.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Back in the field today. Tatyana went off to help with more digging, and the rest of us had radar and surveying to do. My first job was surveying. Terry and I played leapfrog with the prism sticks while Kim jotted down the readings that Andy took from the EDM. After the main radar line was surveyed, Terry and I joined the radar group. Later on, a call came for a couple of volunteers to help with the digging. The radar can get a bit monotonous with the continual "beep, move, okay," so I said I would. The spectacular view from the digging site is an added temptation.

Andy G., Rob, and I headed off in Randy to find the digging crew. Although it was the same place as the previous day, we were unsure of the way and radioed for directions. Andy R. showed a touching confidence in Rob and my observational skills, telling Andy G. that we could direct him as we'd been there before and would know the way. We saw the horses, and again they galloped toward us only to stop short when we didn't slow down. Finally, we saw some familiar landmarks and then the diggers.

Leon showed us all the holes that we dug yesterday. The different strata were very much more defined now that they had dried out a bit. Many of the holes were quite a lot deeper, too, a testament to Andy, Leon, and Tatyana's hard work. One hole had water in the bottom, possibly due to a perched aquifer in the clay around the area. Leon picked out another likely spot for a hole, and the four of us proceeded to take turns digging. Two meters (6.6 feet) down and the hole was complete. The geologists were quite excited by the patterns in the strata, and there was a lively discussion about what it could mean. Each hole that was dug seemed to add to the confusion rather than clarify what was going on in the area.

Heading back to camp, we went along a stretch of the old Highway One where the local birds seem to amuse themselves by playing chicken with the vehicles. They swoop in and skim along the road just in front of the vehicle's grill. They do this for a short time and fly off. Another bird then takes their place. I can't imagine why they do this; perhaps it's for the adrenaline rush. It reminds me of dolphins riding the bow waves of boats. Unfortunately, it doesn't always end happily.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Today was our second day off, so I got up a little later than usual. Nigel needed some help at Solheimajokull, so Rob, Terry, and I volunteered to go with him. The weather was much better than the last time I was there, and we had beautiful panoramic views of the glacier and icecap. The icecap could be viewed in places where we've never seen it before—magical!

What a difference sunshine and blue sky make. As a treat, we decided to meet at the café. Bacon and eggs never tasted so good.

I went down to the beach for a paddle. It was bracing, and the icecap could be seen from the beach, too. The black sand gave way to small, smooth black pebbles at the high-tide mark.

I spent the afternoon doing laundry and postcard writing at a little restaurant next to the tourist information center. I resisted the temptation to order puffin and went with the smoked lamb. Mel, Kim, and Tatyana went for a hike along the hills behind the camp. The hills used to be sea cliffs before volcanic action added some extra land to the coastline.

The gulls still think the hills are sea cliffs and use them to nest and roost. The landing difficulty seems to be quite high as the first attempt is rarely successful; some gulls take as many as 10 tries before their feet hit solid ground. The gulls here have a call that sounds very much like maniacal laughter—a very soothing sound to go to sleep to.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

It was sunny this morning, and everyone's mood had improved as we all piled into Leo and Randy for the drive to the research site. We were again doing radar with Nigel on the mid-section pumice deposits. The radar went smoothly, and around 2:30 p.m. we got a call from Andy R. asking us whether we'd like to take a sightseeing trip closer to the glacier, stopping off at some hills where we could get great photos of the glacier and previous research area. Oh, and maybe we could do a spot of digging before we headed to the glacier snout. Hmm, could this be bribery?

Andy and Leon had been scouting around the area looking at sections to sample after they had marked out the radar line for us. They had found a likely looking hill, and they wanted to check it out. It overlooked the sandur plain and the original survey site.

As we walked up the hill, the team slowly diminished as at each level two people with shovels were left behind with instructions to dig pits. Kim and I got the highest elevated pit to dig. After getting through the first layer of rocks, it was fairly easy going; the limited area to work in was the biggest hassle. Our pit was about a cubic meter in size and showed a horizontal band of ash/pumice between two soil layers; this got the PIs quite excited and led to much theorizing. We reached a level of boulders about a meter down; some were aerated like pumice, others were very dense and heavy rocks. These were all measured across their A, B, and C axes.

The views from the hill across the sandur to the mountains and glacier were superb; we could see some likely troll caves hidden away in the mountains. Trolls and elves are very popular in Iceland. I had heard that the route of a road might be changed so as not to disturb an elf rock. Disturbing an elf rock leads to homeless elves and brings very bad luck, apparently!

We left the pits to dry out overnight for more in-depth study by the PIs tomorrow and set off across the plains to the glacier snout. We passed jade green hills with lava tubes perched up high. Some free-running horses galloped toward us. They looked very disappointed when we didn't stop, so I guess they were expecting their owner with some hay.

Once the glacier was reached, we scrambled onto the moraines for a clear view. However, we didn't get too close as blocks of ice could break away at any time and fall to the ground. Melt water was streaming from conduits within the glacier, creating small waterfalls down the front of the glacier. Black volcanic debris blanketed its top; there were also bands of black within the glacier, giving it an interesting patterned effect. The afternoon sun showed up glistening facets on the glacier snout. It was very impressive.

On the way back to camp, we drove through the alien landscape of the black pumice plain. Rocks were scattered about, some shattered where they lay by the annual assault of ice and water.

Monday, August 9, 2004

We have been here a week. I can hardly believe it; the time has gone so fast. I'm on the radar team again, and we have left the washout plain near the glacier margins and gone down to a lower level of deposits. The pumice plains we're on now are very similar to deposits laid down by normal volcanic eruptions, but these were the result of yokel events.

As we arrived, two whooper swans did a tandem flight past us, low across the plain. The resident skuas kept a watchful eye on us, as we did them just in case they decided to swoop. They were, after all, identified as a hazard in the risk assessment.

We were all quite spread out today. For me, it's another day of beep, move, okay, beep, move, okay. We did smaller radar lines, and the process seemed to go faster. One group continued to survey with the EDM at the higher site. Rob was down by the river on the lower plain doing sections, and Leon, a Polish university professor who had joined us, walked along the cutaway edge of the river. It was windy but no rain. When the clouds lifted, we even got an occasional glimpse of the icecap.

When the survey team joined us, we found out the reason for the strange buildings by the road on the way to the other site. It's a movie set for a film about the Beowulf saga. Mystery solved!

Sunday, August 8, 2004

The weather has cleared a little this morning, so it's all systems go. The vehicles were loaded with equipment and Earthwatchers, and we all headed off to Myrdalssandur. Today I was working with the two Andy's and Kay doing topographic surveys of the areas that had been surveyed with the GPR. We used an electronic distance measurer (EDM) for this. The surveying equipment was set up on a hill, and then Andy R. and Kay took prisms mounted on surveying staffs and headed off along the lines that we had used the radar on previously. They stopped at each change in topography and pointed the prism at the EDM. Andy would then take north, east, and height readings, which I noted down on a log.

The morning went reasonably well, although we did have some rain that required using a garbage bag to protect the equipment. However, after lunch we had some problems with the EDM and the rain returned, so we packed it in a little early.

It was time for a beer and some French fries at the gas station café. I was also able to get in touch with Reykjavik and sort out some accommodation for the few days I'll be spending in Iceland after the Earthwatch project finishes. Reykjavik hotels are very full at the moment, so I'm glad I won't have to sleep on the streets.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

We started out on our hike a little later than I would have liked—some of the team took the opportunity to sleep in. The track zigzagged its way up the cliff. The further we climbed, the warmer we got, so layers of clothing quickly came off. The village of Vik was laid out before us, and it looked so small.

Once we reached the top, the layers of clothing quickly went back on; the wind chill factor was high. We continued along the track to where the cliff overlooked the sea. We had a birds-eye view of Vik's famous rock pillars. Legend has it that the Reynisdrangar needles, as they're called, were formed when two trolls were trying to drag a three-mast ship to land. When daylight broke, they turned to stone. I guess that means we only need worry about trolls during the night!

Looking down from the cliff, we were able to see puffins roosting on the rocky ledges. Fulmas and puffins also came close to take a look at us as they flew by the cliff top. The puffins had quite a concerned look on their clownish little faces, as well they might; puffin is on the menu in many Icelandic restaurants. The puffins looked comical as they came in to land; they never seemed to be in complete control of their landing gear—wings and legs wobbled in all directions.

We walked across the cliff and down the other side to the headland of Dyrholaey. This is the southernmost promontory of Iceland. Here we were joined by a local dog who decided to keep us company for a while. We settled down to have some lunch on the beach under the shelter of a rocky overhang; we could view the archway on the end of the promontory. Ships are able to sail through the arch—though it would need to be calmer than today.

Three busloads of tourists invaded our section of the beach. This brought an end to our solitude. It was time to move on, but not before they brought us some amusement by standing too close to the water's edge. They were thoroughly wet by an incoming wave.

We discussed whether to climb back over the top or go the long way around by road. The consensus seemed to be to go back over the top, so Terry and I made secret plans to leave the group and go by road, hoping to hitch a ride back to Vik. We struck off on our own, only to find to our dismay that everyone had a change of heart and decided to go the long way around, too. Terry and I exchanged rueful glances as our idea of getting a ride back to Vik slipped away. Nobody would pick up seven of us.

The walk back started off well enough. We passed paddocks full of oystercatchers, godwits, snipe, and other shore birds. The local sheepdogs kept us company, only occasionally darting off to chase a tourist bus. Horses came down to the fence for a pat as we passed, and cows walked along with us until brought to a standstill by the paddock fence. They, too, seemed to welcome a friendly pat on the nose. Only the sheep were a little standoffish, taking off in all directions as soon as we came near.

The drizzle that had appeared from time to time on our walk turned into a torrent. Adding to our misery was a howling gale and occasional horizontal hail that darted into any exposed flesh. It seemed to take forever for Vik to come into view.

Once back at camp, everyone peeled off their wet clothes and warmed themselves in the hut. The hut was definitely taking on a laundry-type atmosphere. Fortunately, I wasn't as wet as I first thought. The GORE-TEX® did a good job at keeping out the rain. I was only wet from the knees down; the gaiters seemed to have funneled the rain down my leg and into my hiking boots. I went to sleep listening to the sound of rain on my tent, which mercifully still remains dry inside.

Friday, August 6, 2004

It was still raining this morning as it had been on and off all night. With the added dimension of a howling gale, it made for a less-than-comfortable night's sleep. Fortunately, my tent doesn't leak.

Andy decided it was too wet to go into the field as the equipment is fairly rain-sensitive. We were to meet again at midday to see if the weather had improved.

We went along to the post office, bank, and then the tourist information center to plan for what to do on our day off tomorrow. The options were limited, so we decided that if the weather improved, we would take a hike up to the top of the sea cliffs.

On the way back to camp, we met Andy R. in the supermarket buying some supplies. He was standing in front of the candy counter, so that seemed promising. At midday, it was decided to cancel fieldwork for the day as it was still too wet. A lazy afternoon followed; reading and waiting for the rain to stop. Vik was living up to its reputation as the wettest spot in Iceland.

We gathered in the hut Andy had just rented to store the electrical equipment as the tent brought for that purpose was proving inadequate. Various bits of clothing were also draped around the hut in a vain attempt to get them dry. Andy produced the sweets he had bought that morning for everyone to try. Well, sweet wasn't the word that came to mind when I tried one! That word is unprintable. Of all the candies in all the world, he chose those? A disgusting flavor followed by a slight ammonia aftertaste. An acquired taste, obviously, and it's one I don't think I'll bother to acquire.

Thursday, August 5, 2004

This morning I was scheduled to help Kay with her research project on the investigation of till thickness of the Solheimajokull. This is the glacier we visited on the first day for orientation. Till is the sediment layer that forms under the glacier as it moves. The best place to investigate the till without large-scale excavation is the riverbanks.

Before we started, Kay did a quick risk assessment of the site. We located a vertical wall, measured the height of the wall, and then measured the height of the different bands within the wall section. Once this was done, we measured the rocks and pebbles in the till for length, slope, and direction. A sample of till was collected for later microscopic and porosity analysis back at the university lab. Another sample of till was taken and sifted to get rid of the small stuff. All pebbles over two centimeters (0.8 inches) were described for shape and size. Global positioning system (GPS) readings, diagrams, photos, and descriptions of the site were all documented. We did this at three sites along the riverbank.

When our work for the day was complete, we headed off toward the main road to meet Nigel M., who was scheduled to pick us up in Randy. The wind was extremely strong, but the clouds lifted enough for us to get a good view of the glacier and icecap. It was hard to judge the size of the icecap when the clouds were low, but now that they had lifted, bits of icecap kept appearing, looming over mountains where it wasn't before. We passed two touring cyclists who didn't look happy to be here; the wind gusts made it heavy going.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Last night we were assigned tasks for today, and I was on the radar team. We all piled into Leo and went back to the Myrdalssandur. We arrived at the survey site to a pervading smell of sulfur in the air. This had us all nervously eyeing the closest hills and mountains for possible escape routes just in case it was a warning of imminent eruption and flooding. Andy R. thought it was the result of the ice releasing some sulfuric gas during melting caused by the heavy rains we'd been having.

During the 1918 event, there were about two hours between when the earthquake was felt and the first jokulhlaup was seen to burst from the outlet glacier. The velocities of the peak discharge were 15-20 kilometers-per-hour (9 to 12 miles-per-hour), and the outburst added about 1,400 hectares (3,459 acres) of new land to the coastline. It's not something you want to watch coming toward you on low ground. There has been some increased activity within the Katla caldera since 1999, and the period since the last flood in 1918 has been one of the longest since historical times. It's just something to keep in the back of our minds while working along the flood plains.

Andy G., Mel, and Kim set off with poles to mark out transects and do some surveying with the electronic distance measurer (EDM), and the rest of us set off in formation to radar the chosen route.

Radar is a slow process. It starts off with the initial radar pulse, which sounds like a long beep. The person hauling the antennae sledge, which holds the transmitter and receiver, then moves a half meter, comes to a complete stop, yells okay, and then listens until the beep stops before moving on again. There are also people on antennae duty to lift it over any rocks or moss encountered, and some people are holding the optic cable out of harm's way. The optic fiber cables are the weakest link since they are easily breakable and there are no spares. So, there is a chorus of "cable" yelled at anyone about to step on one. The cable is about the same color as the pumice, so they are easily stepped on.

Another person moves along the trolley that holds the laptop computer, battery, and radar consol. This person is called the trolley dolly. He or she gets to push the button that makes the beep. Riveting stuff! However, the excitement that Nigel and Andy showed when the image of the sandur deposit emerges on the laptop screen almost makes it palatable.

Beep—step—okay. We covered about two kilometers (1.2 miles) today.

Tuesday, August 3, 2004

After breakfast and a cold shower (they swore to me that the women's showers were hot; it was only the men's shower that was suppose to be cold), we headed off to the research site. At first we passed through gentle farmlands, but then the scenery turned wild—weathered, volcanic rock formations looked out to sea, small green valleys with tiny rivers winding through them, and steep slopes where streams turned to waterfalls then back to streams. A dream landscape right out of the pages of Tolkien! Sheep were dotted about the hills, usually in teams of three. We also encountered a strange building site that appeared in the middle of nowhere. Was it a movie set or maybe some theme accommodation? We stopped the vehicles when a vista opened out before us. Ahead was the huge sandur plain we had come to study.

The Katla eruption in 1918 released a huge jokulhluap onto the Myrdalssandur, and it is primarily the deposits left by this flood that we'll be studying. Katla is the volcano that resides under the Myrdalsjokull icecap.

The river had cut quite a deep channel into the sander plain. As we slid down the pumice-laden riverbank to begin our work, I thought to myself "this is going to be a whole lot easier getting down than it will be to get back up." We split into two groups: one group measured the depth of the channel wall while the other group dug the debris away to reveal the deposit layers in the channel wall. Both groups donned hardhats just in case something fell from above.

We returned to the top for lunch, and I was right; one step forward resulted in sliding two steps back. The shovel was a great help in clawing my way to the top. It was very much like climbing a very loose sand hill.

After lunch, Nigel C. put together the ground penetrating radar (GPR), and we ran surveys along the top of the flood plain to obtain knowledge of the sub-surface sedimentary layers it penetrated to around 15 to 20 meters (49 to 66 feet). It was then time to pack up and go back to camp. The trailer, which held a lot of the equipment needed for the study, was left out on the sandur. We were assured that Icelanders are very honest and nothing would be touched in the trailer. On the way back to camp, we stopped at the gas station, and Tatyana, Rob G. and I went down to the beach to see if we could find the puffins that allegedly roosted there on the cliffs. No puffins but lots of gulls. The black sand added interest to the usual beach scene.

Dinner involved chickpea curry. At the moment, I see no discernable difference between the meat-eaters menu and the vegetarian menu except that the meat-eaters use chicken stock cubes and the vegetarians use vegetable stock cubes.

After dinner, armed with increased knowledge of puffin whereabouts, we set off to visit the puffins again. A slippery scramble up the side of the cliff led us to puffins; one was in the standard pose with fish dangling from its beak. The way down was even more slippery, with little or no footholds. I used the inelegant method of sliding down on my backside while Mel used all his rock climbing techniques to remain upright.

Monday, August 2, 2004

I settled up my hotel bill and headed for the bus terminal. At last the Earthwatch adventure finally begins.

By 8:15 a.m., we had all arrived at the BSI bus terminal and bought our tickets to Vik, which is the projects' rendezvous point. We met the two remaining members of the team at the bus terminal—Elanir from Brazil and Tatyana from Moscow. It turned out to be quite an international group.

Judging by the amount of luggage Mel had with him, I think he decided to pack for every contingency. He had almost as much luggage as the rest of us combined; well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration.

The journey took 3½ hours as the bus stopped off along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. We passed wonderful views of waterfalls cascading over shear drops, icecaps, and washout plains.
We were met at the Vik gas station by Andy Russell and Nigel Cassidy, two of the principal investigators (PIs) for the project. They were relieved that the whole team arrived, including all associated luggage. Apparently this is quite unusual.

Camp was close by, and our tents were all lined in a row. They were on high ground and protected by shrubs on one side and old sea cliffs on the other. We settled into our tents and then had a bite to eat in the kitchen tent.

We began the project with introductions. Andy then gave us an overview of the project, which included a risk assessment. The risk analysis included what to do in the event of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and associated floods and skua attacks, amongst other things.

The group also included PI Nigel Mountney, two Ph.D. students—Rob Duller and Andy Gregory—and university student Kay who was doing her third year dissertation for geography.

After the preliminary talk, we all piled into the two project land rovers, named Randy and Leo, and headed for Solheimajokull (jokull is Icelandic for glacier) for a lesson in glaciology. Solheimajokull is one of the glaciers that forms part of the Myrdalsjokull icecap. Most glaciers I had seen before were quite pristine. Solheimajokull was very dirty, with lots of black volcanic material having been dumped on it in prior eruptions.

Andy explained how moraines are formed, how to interrupt the movement of the glacier from the moraines, and how volcanic jokulhlaups (sudden release of water from a glacier due to volcanic activity beneath the ice) play an important role in the supply and transportation of sediment. We saw how we could look at the sediment layers and use this to identify the types of action that may have caused the sediment build-up. Sediment layers can be built up in many ways: normal glacier melt-water flow, rainfall events, wind blown, and jokulhlaups. The size of the grains in the sediment and the orientation of the rocks and pebbles to the flow of water all tell their story to these experts.

Back at camp, it had been raining hard and things were getting wet. Dinner, comprised of chili con carne without the carne, was a communal affair with everyone pitching in. When it was time for bed, I discovered that I'm a little out of practice with this whole camping thing. Note to self—it's not a good idea to leave opening your luggage until after dark, especially if you have a combination lock and your flashlight is inside the luggage.

Sunday, August 1, 2004

I met up with four other team members for dinner this evening: Mel; Terry, who works for American Express; Kim, a teacher from New York; and Rob, an Earthwatch fellowship recipient from HSBC London. Two more team members from HSBC will be arriving later tonight. We ate at a restaurant with a fish buffet. Very tasty, but very expensive. All the food in restaurants seems to cost two to three times what they would in Australia.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

I finally got to Reykjavik yesterday evening. Mel Fiel, another Alcoa fellowship participant, called me to arrange dinner for the following evening with some of our fellow team members. I am so glad he was able to make it to Iceland after all the problems he has had getting here over the last couple of years.

Today I did a spot of sightseeing. I went on the Golden Circle tour, a day tour of thermally heated greenhouses that grow everything from flowers and trees to many different types of vegetables and fruit (apparently Iceland is the largest grower of bananas in Europe); a volcanic crater Kerio; the impressive and beautiful waterfall Gullfoss; and geothermal fields where hot springs are in abundance and the original waterspout called Geysir resides. It no longer spouts much, but there is another very active geyser there that springs into action every five or 10 minutes. The final destination was Pingvellir National Park; this was the site where the first settlers held their annual parliamentary assembly. The park also contains a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

I am definitely getting excited now; I have all my tickets and documentation. Only two more days and a heap of work to finish until I fly out. I'm leaving Australia on July 17 to do some traveling in the Arctic region before heading onto Iceland for the Earthwatch project, which begins on August 2.

I had been chatting to a girl from Iceland who is over here studying, and she told me that the area near our Earthwatch project is overdue for some volcanic action; the trip may be more exciting than even I can imagine. I went to the Iceland weather site and, sure enough, there had been some earthquake activity in the last 24 hours near the research site. It was less than three on the Richter scale, so hopefully any action will remain small until after I'm gone. I don't want the site to disappear before I get there!

I've pulled all my polar fleece and thermal underwear down from the attic and am trying to work out how to fit all the gear, including sleeping bag, sleeping mat, pillow, and gum boots, into my reasonably small backpack. Maybe I should have aimed my application at the more tropical expeditions—not quite so many clothes to pack!

I was sorry to read that Mel, my fellow Alcoa traveler, has had his second dose of bad luck in trying to get to this project. I hope he will still be able to make it.

Monday, February 2, 2004

Who'd have thought a simple request for coal samples would have had me packing my bags for a trip to Iceland? Today, I received the e-mail congratulating me on my selection for an Earthwatch expedition. I had to re-read the e-mail several times to make sure I had not misinterpreted it. Once I was satisfied that I was indeed going, I couldn't keep the grin off my face for the rest of the day. We'll be studying how sub-glacial volcanoes and their resulting floods affect the Icelandic landscape.

Monday, December 15, 2003

I am the station chemist at Alcoa's Anglesea Power Station in Australia. I was asked to send a sample of coal and ash to the Alcoa Technical Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh, and I went to the ATC intranet site to find the center's street address so I could send off the samples.

As I looked, I came across an Earthwatch link. I followed the link to find that Alcoa was offering Earthwatch fellowships for 2004. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I sent off for an application and then considered how best to answer the questions so that, if selected, I would be sent to a place I've never been but that also had some relevance to my work as a chemist. I filled in the application, sent it off on a wish and a prayer, and waited.




Related Sites


Fire and Iceland
A photo and video expedition of Icelandic volcanoes and ice fields by National Geographic Magazine.
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Glacier Monitoring in Iceland
Technical information about Icelandic glaciers from the United States Geological Survey.
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All About Glaciers
This glacier site for everyone contains links to glacier research, projects, and glaciological organizations
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Types of Glaciers
Learn about the different types of glaciers.
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Glaciers: Clues to Future Climate
A PDF file of an out-of-print publication from the U.S. Geological Survey
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Photo Gallery


View the images from Maryann Thorp's diary.
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Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
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Icelandic Glaciers


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
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