Status Report

NASA Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition Field Report: Ice Ice Ice – 14 August 2006

By SpaceRef Editor
August 30, 2006
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NASA Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition Field Report: Ice Ice Ice – 14 August 2006


Monday evening I experienced another AMASEing tradition. We sailed to a nearby fjord to see Monaco Glacier where it extended into the fjord and calved into the water. Sailing into the fjord was an experience itself. There were icebergs!! Everywhere!!! I realized I’d never seen one in real life before. Yea, they’re in documentaries and I’ve seen Titanic. But Oh Man! It is so weird to sail amongst large chunks of floating ice! It was like we were sailing in a giant glass of ice water; or even better, a blue raspberry slushy. The ice is an otherworldly cool blue in color; much like laundry detergent or the “marine” color scheme in Classic Windows –go figure. Just for the record, I have been sufficiently chastised for saying the ice looks like laundry detergent, rather than noting detergent has been remarkably well designed to conjure images of the cool blue arctic ice. Hmm, I guess I’m more familiar with laundry detergent.

Apart from sightseeing, we visited Monaco Glacier with the purpose of collecting some glacier ice to cool our evening drinks. Excitedly, I was one of the 10 people chosen to go out in the orange lifeboat to collect the ice while Lance stayed in deeper water. There is an art to collecting the perfect glacier ice. You need to choose pieces that are small enough to pick up and fit in the lifeboat, but aren’t so small the rest of the crew will make fun of you for collecting such pitiful ice. Seriously though, the perfect ice contains no bubbles or sediment.

Bubble-free ice is surprisingly hard to find. Most of the glacier is low-density ice that cracks and forms bubbles when it falls into the fjord, allowing seawater to creep in. High-density ice forms at the bottoms of glaciers and has a more compressed structure, which does not crack and bubble as readily. This high-density ice is what we were on the lookout for.

Working together, Dave Blake and I were able to pull some large (3-4 gallon) pieces of ice out of the water. The ice is heavy, irregularly shaped and rolls and tumbles when you try to grab it. I got soaked up to my elbows trying to get a good grasp on pieces. We had to throw a few back before we learned how to judge ice quality from a distance.

The entire time we were collecting ice, the lifeboat was slowly moving closer and closer to the face of the calving glacier. It is not safe to drive right up to the edge of the glacier because pieces are constantly calving (splitting) off into the water and we could easily be crushed or capsized by the resulting tidal wave. From time to time we could hear a big boom as ice cracked off, and splashed into the fjord. Morten, one of the Lance crew known for his speedy Zodiac driving, was driving the lifeboat. The glacier face was at least 50 meters high and you could see variations in the color and texture of the ice as we got closer.

At some point during a series of small calving incidents along the glacier I noticed one very large section of ice that was developing a crack the entire height of the glacier. I pointed it out and Morten drove us even closer -probably 400m away- where we could get a closer look. We were all a bit surprised and nervous that he went so close, but he’s an experienced sailor and we all trusted him. Soon, some sizeable chunks starting calving from the area with the giant crack. The crack visibly widened with each avalanche. We realized the entire block was going to drop; it was just a matter of time. Calving incidents started increasing, the booms echoing up and down the glacier face. Suddenly, we could see it going. The entire block started tipping away from the glacier face. The crack widened until it completely lost structural integrity and in slow motion, the entire block began to crumble in mid-air and gravity brought it down. By the time it hit the water, it was a jumble of ice. A large spike of water shot straight up above the point of impact, the water surface surged upward and a curved wall of water started heading straight for us. Morten instantly turned the boat around and we zoomed away at full throttle. For a brief moment the wave looked like it was going to swamp us, but quickly after it rose up, it attenuated in the shallow water.

Morton had been keeping a close eye on the other calving incidents and could tell the water was very shallow at the edge of the glacier. This meant that even if a large chunk of ice fell off, such as the one we witnessed, the amount of water displaced would be small and would not create a very large wave. Shortly after the wave dissipated, we returned to our previous location where the calving block had now created a large region of thick slush. It was too dense to pass through, so we had a look and turned off the lifeboat engine for a short while. In the absence of engines, we could hear the surprisingly loud snap, crackle and pop of the ice as it formed bubbles in the seawater.

Upon returning to the ship we were greeted by a very relieved AMASE crew. Apparently from the perspective of the Lance, it looked like our boat had been directly under the calving block and everyone except the captain (who trusted Morten knew what he was doing) had been terrified. But, we were fine and had been in no serious danger and happily unloaded our ice while excitedly explaining what we had seen. According to Steelie, my eyes have never been so big as when I stepped off that boat. Kjell Ove got some amazing photos of the falling block and I will never forget the view we had from that lifeboat.

Kirsten Fristad
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

About Kirsten Fristad in her own words…

My name is Kirsten Fristad. I am a budding planetary scientist working in the highly talented Sample Analysis of Mars (SAM) Lab at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. I graduated from Macalester College in 2005 with a major in geology and core in astronomy knowing I wanted to pursue a research career in planetary science. Through summer internships with several planetary scientists, I developed a background in analyzing martian and lunar planetary remote sensing data and Mars analog field work in Alaska. Since starting at Goddard in May, I have been organizing the Goddard/SAM Team contribution to AMASE 2006. I will continue working in the SAM lab until fall 2007 when I will commence graduate studies in a yet to be decided location to pursue a PhD in planetary science.

Before starting at Goddard in May 2006, I worked and traveled around Australia, coached high school hurdlers, and pondered the mysteries of the universe. Aside from pondering, I love to laugh, dance, listen to music from the ’80s, and travel to remote locations. I’m really hoping I can make a career of this expedition thing.

SpaceRef staff editor.