Summer fieldwork for memory books
There is a large reservoir of carbon stored beneath the permafrost and glaciers in the Arctic. Gabby Kleber, and her partner Leo Magerl, spent three summer months monitoring a proglacial methane seep in Rindersbukta.
5 January 2022
Text: Maria Philippa Rossi
– There is a very large reservoir of carbon that is stored beneath the permafrost and glaciers in the Arctic. My research focuses on the release of this carbon as methane, due to the melting of glaciers, Gabby Kleber explains.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. She studies the occurrence of groundwater springs that form in the front of retreating glaciers on Svalbard. These springs bring methane to the surface and release it to the atmosphere.
During the winter and spring of 2021, Kleber visited as many glaciers as possible. The groundwater springs release water year-round, so in the winter they freeze and form large “icings” in front of glaciers.
– I drill into this ice until I reach pressurized water, and then sample this water so I can analyse it for a selection of biogeochemical parameters, including methane concentrations.
Over the course of her studies, she has sampled approximately 100 glaciers around central Spitsbergen and Ny-Ålesund to gain a wide spatial characterisation of these groundwater springs.
A role in climate change?
– The field campaign we conducted this summer was a time-series study. I focused on one glacial system over the course of the melt season so see how the groundwater spring developed and changed.
They installed logger stations in the glacial river, and the groundwater springs to monitor the amount of water and some basic chemical parameters.
– The groundwater springs had vents that were constantly releasing streams of bubbles. We regularly trapped these bubbles with a plastic bottle connected to a funnel to measure the rate at which they were released. The gas had such a high concentration of methane that it could easily be ignited with a lighter!
The data from this study will allow Kleber to estimate the amount of methane that one glacial system emits to the atmosphere. Coupled with the spatial study, she hopes to gain an understanding of potential total emissions from glaciers across Svalbard, and their role in climate change.
We’re not in Michigan any more
Kleber is originally from Michigan, USA. She did a bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering at Michigan State University and spent six years working as an engineer in the automotive industry.
– I was very uninspired by my job. So, I quit it and moved to Norway to do a master’s degree in Environmental Chemistry at NTNU, she tells.
During this time, she spent 7 months in Svalbard doing courses in the Arctic Technology department. She wrote her thesis which focused on the deposition of black carbon on glaciers around Ny-Ålesund.
The sampling in Rindersbukta was part of a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and she is an external PhD student at UNIS. She has spent a total of 17 months doing fieldwork in Svalbard over the past two years.
Kleber tells that the preparations for three months field work were intense. After a demanding spring field season, they had only six weeks to prepare for three continuous months in the field.
– We knew our preparations were critical, as we would be living in an area that is very difficult to access in summer and we did not have a resupply planned. Thus, we had to ensure that we brought with us everything we would need.
She explains that organising the food was the most time-consuming, including calculating the necessary amount, deciding what to buy that would last long enough and provide enough nutrients and variety.
– What I found to be the most challenging, was the coordination of the transport of all the equipment and food. At the end of the six weeks of preparations, we had a massive pile of very heavy Zarges boxes and a double kayak that needed to be taken to the harbour, fit onto a boat, and then shuttled by zodiac from the boat to the cabin, which was a 200-meter walk from the shore.
Kleber was worried that their equipment would not fit. She was even more concerned that weather or other challenges would stop them from getting on shore in Rindersbukta. But they managed to have everything on shore and piled up in front of the cabin within three hours.
– Somehow, we did not forget anything and did not miss anything that we wish we would have brought! Except a bit more chocolate, she laughs.
As Stig Henningsen’s boat pulled away and left the couple at the shore, Kleber tells she felt disbelief that they had made it there.
– But I also felt immense freedom, joy, and excitement! After many weeks of non-stop preparations, we could finally exhale. And in those moments as the boat pulled away, the idea of truly being on our own translated from thoughts to a very real experience.
Kleber felt a lot of pressure right from the beginning of their fieldwork to get their monitoring stations installed.
– I wanted to capture as much of the melt season as possible in my dataset. So, after allowing ourselves two days to get settled into our new home, we started with our fieldwork by setting up our first monitoring station.
The others followed soon after. For the rest of the summer, Kleber had set an ambitious goal of sampling every other day. Of the 96 days at the cabin, they spent 43 of them on fieldwork.
Just another day at the office…?
A typical field day included waking up, eating breakfast, making lunch, packing bags and then hiking the 4,5 kilometres to the field site, spending ten hours in the field, hiking back, making a fire, doing “lab” work, making dinner, writing in their journal and then going to bed. Sleep. Repeat.
– Like most remote Svalbard cabins, ours had no running water or electricity. The days in between the field days were filled with chopping driftwood for fires, collecting drinking water, cooking, baking, and preparing for future field days.
She says that they quickly established a routine. But with 24-hour daylight and long working days, their sleeping schedule shifted later and later over the summer until they were getting back from field days at 7 am sometimes…
Many UNIS-courses include a lot of fieldwork, but spending three months isolated is something most people never experience. Kleber says these months have been most memorable.
– While on our normal hike home from a day in the field in early August, Leo noticed that one of the glaciers on the other side of the fjord had changed drastically – a large, cracked-up bulge had formed part-way up the glacier.
They knew it had not looked like that the week prior and studied it through the binoculars. Back at the cabin they found some satellite images and found that this glacier, Scheelebreen, had started to surge.
A surge means that the glacier is advancing rapidly, ploughing through the land in front of it. The observation set them off on a side project of tracking Scheelebreen throughout the summer. The next day they kayaked over to the glacier and began a series of re-photography and water sampling to document the rapid advance.
– We found that the glacier was advancing at up to 40 metres per day at one point. We were lucky enough to observe this extraordinary event up close! Even now, while we are back home, we continue to monitor it remotely through satellite images. It’s been a really amazing phenomenon to witness!
Coupled up in polar bear country
When spending three months in the wilderness on Svalbard you’d expect to meet a few polar bears on your way. But Kleber and Magerl did not have one encounter during their fieldwork. Nevertheless, they had to be prepared and vigilant at all times.
– We were both very conscious of our isolation and vulnerability and thus critically assessed the risk of all our actions.
She says it did not keep them from exploring or pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. They just spent more time planning and considering the consequences than they normally would have done.
– We maintained a sense of humility and were mindful of the personal responsibility that comes with the freedom we enjoyed, she says.
Being isolated as a couple, however, was nothing they worried too much about.
– It seems to suit us well, Kleber laughs.
– We have spent quite a lot of time isolated in the wilderness, just the two of us. We’ve found that we make a pretty good team in these mentally and physically challenging situations. We have similar motivations, limits, and values, she adds.
Plus, five quarantines together during the past year, turned out to be great training!
Challenging, but uncomplicated
Kleber says that neither of them were ready to leave the cabin when the time came. She add that if they had had skis and a few more supplies delivered, they would have been happy to stay through the winter.
She says that everyday things like flushing toilets, walking on pavement, smelling the exhaust from cars, and turning on a tap or a light switch felt weird.
– But the most prominent change for both of us was the loss of this simple existence that we’d enjoyed. Our days at the cabin were challenging but uncomplicated. Our time was filled with maintaining our basic needs and comforts for survival, keeping our fieldwork going, and observing the nature around us.
– Both of us still feel a constant pull back to our life at the cabin.
After completing their fieldwork, Kleber travelled back to Cambridge. She is now analysing the nearly 700 samples they collected during summer. The work will take several months. Kleber will use the data to try to better understand the formation of the groundwater springs and determine a methane emission rate from this system.
So far, the data is looking quite exciting, and she hopes to publish her findings in a scientific publication.