August 14, 2014

Hardened weather-monitoring- visiting Camp 17 with Jamie Pierce

Have you ever thought how the wind might influence glaciers?
In Juneau we had the pleasure of meeting mountain guide and environmental researcher, Jamie Pierce. He saw Pachamama sailing past his house and e-mailed Dario to introduce himself. He has studied weather, snow and ice in the US, Antarctica and Europe, as it pertains to snow and avalanche research, guiding and education. Jamie's interest in this field, like Dario's, was spurred by his concern at how quickly the glaciers he knew were retreating. He invited us to participate in a data retrieval and maintenance mission near Juneau. With a difference: we would be helicoptering in to his station at Camp 17 above Juneau.

We met at the Era Helicopters helibase. Era aids in support of his research project by offering Jamie transport in between a very busy tourist schedule. After a safety briefing, we were on board with pilot Jiri Hanis climbing the 4500 ft in five minutes to a Juneau Icefield Research Program Camp 17 between the Cairn and Vesper Peaks on the Lemon Creek Glacier. This is the site of one of a long-term Mass Balance Glacier study. In the 61 years of study, the ice thickness has decreased 30 m (about 90 ft.) - similar to other glaciers studied in the US.

Jamie is interested in how the snow and ice grains form and the potential for avalanches. He measures how the wind force influences the buried snow thus affecting shape and density of snow grains and the potential for weakening at or near buried layer interfaces. This in turn might create conditions for avalanches- so critical in Juneau particularly because the capital of the State of Alaska lies at the foot of the valley below.

He was also interested in retrieving dataloggers that were measuring the pressure pulses at the base of Lake Linda. The lake, which ultimately drains through supraglacial channels into Lemon Creek at the base of the glacier. The old monitoring equipment was presumed lost under the ice but Jamie suspected that enough snow might have melted this season to expose the old station and allow retrieval of the critical data.
Measuring wind in these conditions is not easy. He has already lost sensors to the ice and... to high winds. His last sensor was rated at 150 mph...and broke. His new ones are rated to 200 mph and contain special materials to limit the impact of ice. All his information is stored at the station and simultaneously transmitted via satellite to his base. All power is provided by a solar panel.

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Jamie and Dario realign the weather station arm

We helped Jamie rearrange his equipment and then Dario and him headed off across the glacier towards the remains of Lake Linda to see whether they could find the old weather station. An hour later they returned triumphant: they'd managed to collect two data loggers, one still collecting data. As they climbed the hill, Jiri returned to collect us. Perfect timing. And none too soon for Jamie who was anxious to access this data to see what secrets it might hold. For him, it was better than treasure; a view of the world beneath the ice that influences so much of what happens above and beyond it.

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Jamie and Dario cut lonely figures on their hike across the Lemon Creek Glacier towards the now-drained Lake Linda.
The pink tinge to the snow is caused by an algae that grows in the warmer summer weather

Back at base we discussed glacier formations and how these might be changing. We talked about the particularly worrying phenomenon of Jökulhlaup- an Icelandic name for a glacial dam burst. With warmer temperatures, the rate of water accumulation within sub-surface dams in the glacier is increasing. When there's too much water, this dam can erupt, causing a rapid release of water. On the Mendenhall Glacier above Juneau, for instance, the normal water discharge into Mendenhall River averages 2'400 cubic feet per second (cfs). During a Jökulhlaup, this rate can increase nearly ten times to 20'000 cfps, a tidal wave of sorts for those below. This type event is happening annually since 2011, far too regularly for the likes of Jamie and Dario. We hope that the unusual Top-to-Top mission to the Lemon Creek Glacier helps a little in improving our understanding of these events.

Mendenhall river hydrograph.png
Our thanks go to Jamie Pierce of the University of Alaska South East and Era Helicopters for making this mission possible and for our opportunity to learn more about these fascinating phenomena.

More pictures here!

Posted by dario at 9:25 AM

August 9, 2014

Headwind and Glaciers (Cordova to Juneau)

The wind turned against us. With so much headwind from the E we decided to hide as the forecast looked bad for the next couple of days! We went into Constantine Harbor on the W side of Hinchinbrook Island. On the navigation chart there was an abandoned village (Nuuciq) nearby, so we decided to go for an explore...

2014-07-23_usa_alaska_pws_nuuciq_camp.JPG We were greeted by a group of children and teenagers kayaking in the bay. Soon after John, the camp leader, joined us and started to explain: This used to be a native village of around a thousand and many of the helpers had relatives that once had lived here. It was one of the largest native villages in the PWS.

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Nowadays nobody lives there apart from the caretaker. Yet for 20 years every summer the village is revived for a few weeks, as the base for a camp where individuals from all different native villages in Alaska to come together and learn about their ancestor's culture and lifestyle. They learn about subsistence, to paddle the traditional boats: the unyak and baidarkas, how to make wooden hunting paddles and traditional mittens, learn songs and dances and much more.

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We were lucky enough to come here during this time and get a small taste of these traditions. It is needless to say we learnt a lot. From the salmon smoking hut, to watching halibut and seal being gutted. We even got to try seal which is weird mix of fish and meat. With the texture of meat and the taste of fish we couldn't quite get our head around the taste. The meat is very dark as it is rich in iron and is said to be very healthy.

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The paddles for the baidarkas, the traditional kayaks, are pointed at the end to make sure they are nearly silent in order for hunters to easily sneak up on prey. We all had the chance to make one: the children made model ones and the adults actually got to make to real sized ones for our dinghy.

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We had a great time making them and they turned out beautiful. So now Salina and Andri have a set of paddles to help row ashore. The wood used is usually red or yellow cedar and smells great. Dario thoroughly enjoyed helping build part of an unyak, a large flat-bottomed canoe.

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One evening Dario did a presentation for the whole camp and exchange the camp participants showed us some winter games. The hunters would play these to stay fit, warm and keep spirits high.

Then we tried to sail to Icy Bay but after 24 rocky hours of headwind again, we had barely moved. So we turned back towards Hinchinbrook and, with the wind with us for once, were back in half the time.
After a good night's sleep in Garden Cove we left again for Icy Bay. On the way, just after watch handover Sabine called that there were porpoises. The two Dall's porpoises stayed with us for an hour playing in the bow wave. What a start to the day!

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In Icy Bay we were warmly welcomed by the hosts of the Icy Bay Lodge, TJ and Wayne, and were spoiled with amazing food and a shower.
On the way into the bay we had seen a beach covered in washed up trees. This looked like a spot where we'd find a lot of tsunami debris. So the next morning we set of to have a look. On the way a large brown bear looking for food slowed down our party considerably. Surprisingly we did not find a lot of debris on the beach itself.

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Before sailing on to Yakutat we went further into the fjord to have a look at the glaciers and get closer to Mount St. Elias. It was stunning: slowly floating along under a cloudless sky with icebergs, glaciers and mountains surrounding us. A few harbour seals even slid off their iceberg to come have a closer look at the boat.

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We arrived in Yakutat, where we met with Quentin Hurt, whom TOPtoTOP had met at the Durban, South Africa, at the COP17 Climate Change Conference in 2012. The weather was improving but we still had mostly easterly headwinds. 1st August is the Swiss National Day, the founding day of the country. It's customary to build a bonfire. So before we could leave, we travelled out to a camp site on the Situk River, built a fire, roasted some sausages and waited for the tide to turn.

Quentin:
Then we went on to Lituya Bay. The entrance is dangerous and so you have to wait for the tides to turn before you can attempt to enter. In 1958, ice and rock dislodged from the nearby mountains, causing spray over 600ft and a tidal wave that rose 100ft high, destroying two boats and carrying a third miraculously out of the mouth, unharmed. Today there is still evidence of the natural disaster, but for us it was simply a quiet bay where icy rivers run over the lichen-covered rocks into the murky turquoise glacier water.
We were fortunate to clearly see the two arms of the La Perouse glaciers descending to within a hundred meters of the coast. The high rainfall in the area keeps it active but the warm air had caused it to recede already this year.

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Elfin Cove was, as the name suggests, a stilted village tucked into a wooded bay. We couldn't stay for long but while we toured the houses and viewed the old school room, now museum, three float planes arrived and left, carrying fishermen in and out. There are no roads and hence no road vehicles. Instead all the houses around the bay are connected by boardwalk.

Dario made contact with old Schwörer friends, Bill and Marjory, who they'd met in Mauritius and travelled with through South Africa on to St Helena. Marjory kindly drove us all through to the Tongass National Forest, where hiked up to the Mendenhall Glacier face. Andri and Dario practiced climbing on the crevasses while the rest of us climbed (as best we could in our hiking shoes). We visited the spectacular ice cave (a portion of which collapsed just a week ago).

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On return in the evening, we met Bill, Marjory and friends for a barbecue at the Skaters Cabin, near the trail head. The view of the Mendenhall Lake and Glacier face were spectacular but Marjory explained to us that when she arrived in Juneau, the glacier face was beyond the waterfall and that the face is receding at about 160ft per year (about 6 inches per day)!

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Currently, we are moored outside Bill and Marjory's house. Dario needed to complete some customs formalities and we broke the voyage for the Schwörers to regroup, celebrate Noe's birthday and plan the final stages before the winter of 2014.

More pictures here!

Posted by dario at 3:48 AM
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