Friday, July 27, 2012

Embracing Arctic Nature: Glacier Valleys

by Robert Nystrom and Miriam Zarate

Our sixth day at 78 degrees north provided another exciting adventure for us all. The day started off with a hike from our guesthouse in Longyearbyen to Endalen and Advent Valley with the intentions of studying reindeer and also learning more about the environment as a whole. Ironically the only reindeer we saw on our hike was on our way out of the city of Longyearbyen. This fact however did not make the hike any less valuable or breathtaking. On the way out of the city we experienced another frightening encounter with arctic terns. These birds are extremely aggressive and will peck at your head in order to protect their territory, leaving "a pecking you won’t soon forget” according to our Swedish instructor. Luckily for our group we were able to scamper through their territory with only a few close calls. After escaping the arctic terns we passed by the lodging facility for the sled dogs in Longyearbyen, then right on the edge of the safe zone we stopped to take pictures with the famous polar bear sign.

Once out of town the real hike began. We walked alongside the mountains and looked at some of the cultural heritage remains from old mining infrastructure. There was a long series of Aerial coal transportation towers along the majority of the hike. While cultural heritage sites on Svalbard are technically anything constructed before 1946 a special exception was made in order to preserve the mining infrastructure.  We also discussed how to tell the difference between a valley created by a river and a glacier. A glacier valley will have a U-shape while a river valley will have a V-shape. When we finally reached Endalen Valley we hiked up the mountain a bit until we had a good vantage point over the valley and stopped for lunch. During our lunch we were annoyed by mosquitos, which we did not expect to find.

After lunch we listened to Professor Bruce Fouke lecture on the Arctic in the changing climate. He pointed out many interesting statistics and facts. He pointed out that from 66 degrees and north it is expected to warm at twice the rate of the global average. Professor Fouke also made it clear that the real cause of rising sea levels is not the melting of sea ice but the melting of glaciers. He informed us that it is estimated that the sea level when arctic glaciers melt by 2100 will by 60 cm higher. Professor Fouke then discussed that the Arctic has a higher albedo as the snow and ice melts and as a result will warm more rapidly in the future. He wrapped up his lecture explaining one last effect of melting permafrost. When permafrost melts it releases methane. Methane is the second most effective greenhouse gas, following water vapor, with the third most effective being carbon dioxide.

After the lecture by Professor Fouke we hiked a bit more over to Advent Valley with hopes of spotting some Svalbard reindeer but were unlucky. Since this would be the last day that Professor Fouke would join us, we decided to celebrate his last day with dinner at Kroa, where some of the students opted to try whale meat. The dinner was both a farewell to one of beloved professors and a great way to relax after our adventurous hike through Endalen and Advent Valley.

Robert Nystrom is a sophomore studying Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois. He is from Villa Park, IL. 

Miriam Zarate is a junior studying Earth, Society, and Environment with a concentration in Science of the Earth System. She is from Bartlett, IL.


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