Science on tour! The art of conferences

How do Earth scientists turn the scribbles in their field notebooks into a piece of coherent research?

It has been almost a year since our latest INTERACT field trip to Greenland, and we have been busy analysing the data and writing research papers. This week we are at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna presenting the findings from our fieldwork on Disko Island. We take a look at the transformation of data from fieldwork to conference presentation, and explore what life is like at an international scientific conference.

Time for an ice cream outside the conference centre

Time for an ice cream outside the conference centre

 

When we get back from Greenland, we type up our notes, enter our data into spreadsheets, draw our maps, and test for any patterns (or sometimes lack of patterns!) in the data. Once all of this is done, we can sit down and look at the data as a whole, and begin to formulate our interpretations and conclusions. For the EGU, we then presented our findings in a poster format that we will present to other scientists in our research field.

Our poster printed out and ready to display

Our poster printed out and ready to display

Why do scientists go to conferences?

Research conferences are not just a bunch of scientists gathered in a convention centre. Far from it! Conferences provide an opportunity for researchers to present their latest findings to a group of like-minded scientists. This can take the form of short oral presentations that last around 15 minutes, or poster presentations where large (A1 or A0 size) posters are displayed for other scientists to look at and discuss. To avoid confusion when there are over 10,000 scientists, large conferences are organised into themes or ‘sessions’ based around particular research fields. Some examples might be ‘Glacial geomorphology’, ‘Sea level change’ or ‘Research on Mars’. Each session will involve a series of talks as well as a poster session. Large conferences such as the EGU happen every year, and there are many sessions happening at the same time. It is a bit like pick-and-mix science. The audience can drop in and out of the sessions that are most relevant or interesting to them.

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Tim writing our blog while overlooking the exhibition hall

 

If you find yourself with nothing to do for a while, there are always plenty of books, equipment, free merchandise, and fun to be had in the exhibition hall. This is where publishers and scientific companies hold promotional stalls. It isn’t uncommon for a researcher to come home from a conference with a handful of free promotional pens, some notebooks, t shirts, mugs, and bags. This year, our favourite is a key ring made from parts of a Google satellite!

As well as the formal scientific part of conferences (and the delights of the exhibition hall!), they are also an excellent opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends from across the world, and make new contacts through informal discussion with other researchers in your field. There are plenty of opportunities to chat over coffee (and other beverages!) through the day, and meet up with friends in the evening. In fact, it is often at conferences that the best networking opportunities arise, and it is a great time to discuss new projects. Sometimes, it is a bit like a game of Earth Science iSpy – spotting your favourite researchers from books and journal articles that you have read back in your office.

 

Above all, it is great to see the outputs of all of your hard work – even when months of fieldwork are boiled down to just a few minutes!

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Kathryn enjoying an apple next to our poster

 

Scree and me: an autobiography

Looking south toward Lindemans valley

Looking south toward Lindemans valley

After our camping trip – and a day recovering at base – we have spent the last few days taking day trips to sites surrounding Zackenberg. One of these locations was Lindemans valley, around 5 hours walk to the north of Zackenberg. We had seen some prominent glacial features here and wanted to go and investigate. Unlike the other valleys, which are made of volcanic rocks,  Lindemans is made of sandstone which has been very heavily cut into or ‘incised’ by the river, and it is now a deep gorge. The soft sandstone rock makes it very susceptible to weathering and the valley is lined by large debris fans and scree slopes which made for a lot of scrambling over boulders. We had a very interesting walk down the valley mapping some of the river and glacial deposits, and discussing the potential glacial history. We also sat down to have our lunch on one of the big scree slopes while overlooking the meltwater stream.

The well-stocked kitchen in the trapping station.

The well-stocked kitchen in the trapping station.

The Zackenberg trapping station we stayed in

The Zackenberg trapping station we stayed in

We have also visited a large bedrock outcrop in Tyrolerfjord, west of Zackenberg, so that we could collect some rock samples for cosmogenic nuclide dating. This involved a three hour walk down the scree-covered fjordside via a small ‘trapping station’ – these are old cabins which were once used by Danish ‘Trappers’ who operated from around 1908-1960 collecting skins of foxes and bears and selling them in Europe. While working, the trappers would spend their winters staying in these cabins. Sirius, the special Danish patrol, also uses the huts when on their way through the area from their base at Daneborg – which is only around 30 km along the fjord from Zackenberg.  The team at Zackenberg is lucky enough to have one of these cabins only a very short distance away, and many of the researchers spend their days off staying there and going fishing in the small coves nearby.

Fishing!

Fishing!

The Zackenberg trapping station was built in around 1945, and is well equipped with a bunk bed, stove, table, and a small garage. The field site that we wanted to visit was located only a few hours’ walk away, making the trapping station a perfect location to stay in after a day in the field! Jannik, the scientific leader at Zackenberg, kindly gave us some of his fishing lures so that we could try our hand at fishing once we had finished our sampling. We had a great time staying at the hut! It was nice to learn more about the very rich history of this part of Greenland.

 

We leave Zackenberg in only two days, and it is now time to start preparing our samples ready for transportation. The sediments (sands, silts, clays etc) have all been air drying in the lab at Zackenberg. This ensures that any excess moisture has evaporated so that the samples do not weigh too much in our luggage – the twin otter is only small!

Happy scientists!

Happy scientists!

Bogs and boulders. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

We’ve had an action packed few days up here in Zackenberg. After a weekend of great weather, the clouds closed in and we experienced a few days of very cold temperatures, high winds, and prolonged rainfall. All research at the base came to a bit of a standstill – the ornithologists could not go out and search for birds’ nests, measuring the river levels became difficult, and we were unable to walk into the mountains due to poor visibility. Amidst all of this, on Monday a plane of VIP guests arrived at the station. They were professors from biological and geoscience faculties across Europe (with representatives from Norway, the UK, Denmark and Germany). They visited Zackenberg as part of a Greenland-wide tour to evaluate the research stations here. One of the locations on the list was Arctic Station – our home last summer! Due to the high winds the twin-otter, which brought the VIPs, had to make a special landing by flying into the wind and using the short landing strip which is less than 100 m long. An impressive sight to see!

Kathryn checking the tent is working and didn't have any holes in!

Kathryn checking the tent is working and didn’t have any holes in!

The following day, Tuesday, was ‘plane day’ – a plane arrives at Zackenberg every Tuesday afternoon, ferrying staff and researchers to and from the camp. We bid farewell to some of our fellow researchers Toby, Nils, Michelle, and Mikhail, and the chef Dina, and greeted a new group of researchers and PhD students from Denmark, as well as the next chef, Helle. As the weather started to improve, we began to prepare for our camping trip where we would do the bulk of our mapping. After the rain had largely stopped, we had to wait 24 hours or so for the water levels in the streams to drop so that they were low enough for us to cross. Fortunately, Laura, one of the field technicians here at Zackenberg, monitors the stream levels every day, and she was able to tell us when the water levels were falling back to their normal or ‘baseline’ conditions so that we could decide when was safe to begin our long walk to the ice caps. In the meantime, we had a good look around the garage and with the help of Kenny, the logistician, assembled our equipment: tent, sleeping bags, ground mats, stove, polar bear trip wires, radios, emergency beacon, and flare. It was going to be a long walk with all of that gear!!

 

Our bags for the trip, packed and ready to go!

Our bags for the trip, packed and ready to go!

On Thursday we set off for a four to five day trip (depending on how the work went!) to the western end of Store Sødal, a large valley which joins the Zackenberg valley which the station is in.  Alongside all our equipment we were also carrying enough food for several days of long walks and days of fieldwork!  The aim of the first day was to walk through the Store Sødal valley and find a suitable place to camp for several days.  Though we could have moved our tent every night to keep closer to the field sites, taking down the tent and polar bear trip wires is quite a time-consuming procedure, so it was easier to stay in one place!  The weather was perfect for a long walk on the way out, a slight wind and some clouds in the air kept the temperature cool and the mosquitos away.  Due to the heavy bags and the tough, variable terrain, the 25 km walk took about 12 hours to complete!  Firstly we walked along the road which leads out of the station and, due to the late arrival of the summer, is almost knee deep in water for much of the way.  After this we had to head through several kilometres of bog, cross a river, climb over some hummocky moraine just to reach the Store Sødal valley!  Within the valley we followed the northern edge of a large lake, hoping over endless scree slopes and debris fans covered in boulders, and jumping from one grassy tussock to another trying to dodge waterlogged areas.  We arrived in the area we wanted to camp in at 10pm, and found a finding a suitable place to camp remarkably quickly – close to two running streams.

We set up our tent and encircled it with the polar bear trip wire – connected to a series of warning flares.  If a curious polar bear (or musk ox) decided to come and have a look at our tent during the night they would trip this, waking us up so we could take action!  We quickly warmed up some freeze-dried beef curry and got to sleep to rest our legs ready for the next day’s fieldwork.

 

A beautiful view from our tent, with polar bear trip wire set up, overlooking the Store Sordal lake

A beautiful view from our tent, with polar bear trip wire set up, overlooking the Store Sordal lake

Unfortunately the weather had different ideas for us, as rain and low-cloud set in all night and the next morning.  As we didn’t have anywhere to dry our clothes if they got wet, and because we wouldn’t be able to see far enough to map the features we wanted to, we remained in our tent hoping it would pass.  By lunchtime it had, and fuelled with rye bread and salami we set out into the Slettedalen valley.  After crossing the river we headed up the hillside to investigate a series of features we’d observed from lower in the valley.  Once we arrived at them we mapped how big they were (using a GPS), took notes on their appearance, and sampled the material they were made of.  We carried on from feature to feature up the valley, recording anything interesting we came across.  Piecing this all together will eventually tell us how these features formed, about the history of the valley, and if it was glaciated.

Enjoying dinner in the evening sun

Enjoying dinner in the evening sun

Once back at the tent we had our tea of rehydrated expedition meals (very tasty – Kathryn had beef hotpot, Tim had chilli con carne), dried fruit, and a make-shift mocha.  The next morning we woke up to wonderful sunshine and blue skies!  Undeterred by the swarms of mosquitos we headed out for another day of mapping.  We found some moraine deposits on the valley sides, indicating that ice had been there in the past.  Below this, close to the present valley floor we found some sandier deposits – representing the sediments deposited by the river which drained the glacier which occupied the valley.  After we had finished Kathryn emitted a squeal which could only mean one thing – she’d seen a beautiful pro-glacial alluvial fan!

The small isolated valley glacier, with an alluvial fan we sampled

The small isolated valley glacier, with an alluvial fan we sampled

After a quick route plan we headed around a lake to go to the fan, where Kathryn took a series of sediments along its length.  After finding a route back to the tent from the fan we had some food and got a good night’s sleep for the next day’s walk back to base.  The walk back was fairly uneventful, though monotonous and long, retracing our steps over bogs, boulders, and moraines – arriving in good time for the evening’s spaghetti bolognaise.

Overall it was a tiring but productive trip, and we made the most of a few days of very good weather, topping up the fieldwork tan in periods when it was sunny, but windy enough to keep the mosquitos away!

Saturdays are for: Sun, Swimming, and (S)champagne

Fine grained 'laminated' sediments exposed by the river channel

Fine grained ‘laminated’ sediments exposed by the river channel

Over the last two days we have been mapping and taking sediment samples of the moraines and river sediments (meltwater outwash) in the Zackenberg valley. This involved walking around an area of hummocky moraine and stream cuttings to map the landforms and make detailed observations of the sediments. Unlike ‘classic’ moraine, which usually forms in a linear or arc shape, hummocky moraine is more like an area of patchy, moraine mounds. In the Zackenberg valley these mounds are around 15 m high and extend across the valley. They are covered in large boulders and meltwater streams have now eroded into them. This means that the sediments within the moraines are nicely exposed for us to sample. The meltwater deposits were also exposed by the stream cuttings. We were able to climb down the banks and access the sediments by standing on the edge of the river.

Musk Ox walking through the moraines

Musk Ox walking through the moraines

On Saturday, while we were walking to the site we spotted a group of 4 musk ox (3 adults and a young musk ox) walking up the valley. There are lots of musk ox in the Zackenberg area, and while they are peaceful herbivores they can feel threatened if you get too close and have been known to charge at humans on rare occasions (especially if they have baby musk ox). It is therefore important to keep your distance when out in the field and keep an eye on their whereabouts. They particularly like the safety of hilly and bouldery areas (just the like the hummocky moraine!) so we have to be extra vigilant. Fortunately, it was a very hot day and the musk ox had been lying in the snow patches and bathing in the river to keep cool.

Tim studying one of the sections we too samples from.

Tim studying one of the sections we took samples from.

After we had mapped the area of moraine, we then looked around for suitable exposures into the landforms so that we could take samples of the sediments and describe them in detail. The best cuttings were located next to the present-day channel, where the strong meltwater currents had dissected (or ‘incised) the moraine and the gravelly sediments were clearly visible and accessible. Glacial deposits are made up of a sandy/silty ‘matrix’ and larger pebble/cobble-sized ‘clasts’. It is a bit like a fruit cake – the sponge is the matrix, and the raisins are the clasts – suspended in the spongy matrix. Go and buy a fruit cake to check (it’s a good excuse to eat cake!). We took several samples of the matrix, and measured the roundness of the clasts. Roundness can be used as a good indicator of the transport history of the clasts. Normally, rocks carried by rivers are more rounded and smoother than glacially-transported rocks because they have been eroded and rolled along by the water.

Saturday daytime entertainment was provided by ‘Zackenberg Logistics Radio’ hosted by DJ Kenny. This comprised the logistics manager playing us snippets of songs over our field radios – we are tuned in to the same channel so that we can communicate with eachother. We enjoyed a good variety from Gorillaz, Bob Marley, and the Beastie Boys. It was a hot, sunny day and the musical interludes kept us all dancing in the field!

Musk Ox trying to cross the Zackenberg River

Musk Ox trying to cross the Zackenberg River

While we were taking our samples, we watched the musk ox family have a Saturday morning swimming lesson. The three adults waded into the river to cross the channel, but the baby musk ox was not so sure! The river was very strong and the bank was very steep and covered in snow. Baby musk ox stayed on the bank waiting for the adults to come back and help him. One of the adults directed him into a smaller channel, but he still didn’t enjoy swimming. In the end, they decided not to cross the river, and continued walking up-valley.  The moral of the story, whether you are a musk ox or a scientist, is: don’t bite off more than you can chew. Or failing that….just keep swimming!

On Saturday night we all had another tasty meal cooked by Dina and shared some champagne and Siberian vodka with Jannik and Mikhal who were celebrating their 10th field season here at Zackenberg. Whisky and beer was also brought out by those celebrating the weekend, and the party went on until around 3 am. We shared language lessons of English, German, Danish, and ‘loud Danish’, and listened to another wide variety of music courtesy of Kenny.

Two happy workers after a good few days of mapping and sedimentology!

Two happy workers after a good few days of mapping and sedimentology!

 

M is for: mapping, moraines, musk ox, and mosquitos

Kathryn crossing a particularly boggy area!

Kathryn crossing a particularly boggy area!

We are just at Zackenberg base recovering from a 17-hour walk to and from our field site. We set off yesterday at 10 am and returned this morning at around 3.30am. The purpose of the trip was to locate the best route to our field sites, and to check the condition of the meltwater streams and scree slopes to check that we could cross them next time we go out for our longer camping trip. In total, we walked 42 km, saw 15 musk ox, one arctic hare, one arctic fox, and received 53 mosquito bites (Kathryn 38 : 15 Tim). It was a successful trip and we managed to plan out a safe and efficient route. We intend to follow the same directions next time we head out on our main mapping campaign, further up valley at the ice caps. On the way back from our trip, we also managed to map and sample the sediments from some of the large moraines in the valley. We will use these to establish the former ice limits and to analyse the sediment particle size – this can tell us about the kind of material that was deposited by the glacier, and allow us to infer some of the depositional processes.

Some of the deposits we mapped!  Tim for scale

Some of the deposits we mapped! Tim for scale

We were quite surprised by the size of the moraines – some of them are over 10 m high! They are not very distinctive on the aerial photos of the Zackenberg region, and we did not expect them to be so big. This is good news for mapping, as it makes is much easier to pick out the landforms. We took some samples on our trip, but will probably also return over the next few weeks. We have spoken to some of the other researchers about what we found on our trip, and it has been good to hear their thoughts on the moraines. Some of the other groups who spend a good of time in the field tracking birds and monitoring the streams have also spotted some moraines and have been able to tell us where in the valley we should look for them. Cross-disciplinary science is always important!

 

Kathryn with a nice brew to keep us going.

Kathryn with a nice brew to keep us going.

Today we are staying at/around the base collating notes from our trip and making plans for the next few days. The weather is much nicer today; the sun is shining and it is around 20 degrees! The heat means that the mosquitos are running riot and Kathryn is being eaten alive! It’s safer indoors, which is good news for our blog! It also gives us a good opportunity to stock up on the essential – food, sleep, and coffee. Dina has once again made a fantastic lunch (with roast beef, sausages, salads, hummous, and the all-important cake. Today is peach cake, though we are sure we could smell chocolate cake being baked in the oven – maybe this will be on the menu at dinner this evening. Yesterday Dina had baked an excellent chocolate and hazelnut brownie. It was the perfect brownie – gooey on the inside and crunchy on top. Mmmm cake.

 

Tim coming into land after a long day.....

Tim coming into land after a long day…..

Tomorrow we intend to do some maping of the moraines and meltwater streams close to the base. This will allow us to take it easy after such a long walk, before we head back out into the upper valley towards the ice cap. On our trip yesterday we saw some good exposures into the meltwater deposits and we would like to go and sample these. We will also follow up some of the recommendations from the other researchers about the moraines in the lower valley close to the base.

Proper planning and plentiful pudding prevents poor project performance

Kathryn getting ready to head out!

Kathryn getting ready to head out!

Day 1 of the Geo-CAICS project and we have been busy making plans for our fieldwork – selecting our field sites and mapping out our intended route. We have chosen several outlet glaciers from the ice caps closest to Zackenberg, these are all within a short walking distance (c. 20 km or so). We intend to map the present-day ice limits, landforms within the glacial forelands (the area in front of the ice), and the planform (birds-eye view) of meltwater streams draining the ice caps. We also intend to take sediment samples to determine the kind of material that has been deposited by the ice and meltwater streams. In total, we plan to analyse seven or eight sites during our three-week stay. Of course, this will depend on weather conditions and the time that it takes to walk to each of the sites.

Part of Zackenberg research station!

Part of Zackenberg research station!

First up, we intend to visit the smallest ice cap in our study. We chose to tackle this one first as it is closest to Zackenberg, and gives us a good opportunity to get used to the terrain without venturing too far from the safety of base camp. We have spent the day checking over the aerial photos and maps so that we can be sure to identify the most suitable route. The other researchers at Zackenberg have also been very helpful in passing on any tips for the optimum walking routes – avoiding large meltwater rivers and boggy areas. We intend to head out in the morning and try to cpmplete our work at this field site within 24 hours. The 24-hour sunlight means that we will be able to work long days, and this will mean that we can avoid camping for lengthy periods of time. While we have been around camp today, we have sampled more of Dina’s culinary delights. We had a lovely lunch of roast pork and vegetables followed by some wonderful apple cake!

Hard at work in the station

Hard at work in the station

We spent the afternoon doing some more reading about the ice caps and meltwater streams in East Greenland, and the Arctic region more generally so that we can head out with some important ideas to test out in the field.

Touch down in Zackenberg

We’ve made it to Zackenberg! We touched down today at around 3pm after several short flights from Reykjavik. After our flights from the UK, we met up in Keflavik airport before catching a bus into Reyjavik town centre where we enjoyed some dinner sat out in the sunshine while awaiting an internal flight to Akureyri in North Iceland. At the Reykjavik airport we managed to meet up with some other researchers who were also heading up to Zackenberg and Daneborg (another research base around 10 km from Zackenberg).

Kathryn enjoying Reykjavik!

Kathryn enjoying Reykjavik!

Akureyri the evening we arrived!

Akureyri the evening we arrived!

In Akureyri we had an overnight stay in a hotel with the other researchers. We arrived in good time to head out into the town in search of a Viking beer and some cake. We were particularly pleased with our stay at the hotel as they had a waffle iron at breakfast, where you could make your own waffles! The next day we caught a flight, together with the other researchers and some climbing groups, to Constable Point in East Greenland. Here we landed at a small airstrip where we changed planes ready for the final two-hour flight to Zackenberg. There were only six of us catching the next plane. Three of us got off at Zackenberg, while the other three continued onto Daneborg. The plane was very small – just a twin otter – and it was stuffed with cargo boxes of food supplies for Zackenberg. The views were great and we all managed to have a short nap on the flight.

The small plane from Constable Point to Zackenberg

The small plane from Constable Point to Zackenberg

As we came in to land at Zackenberg we were surprised to see so much sea ice and snow on the ground, even at low altitude. This was completely different to our time in Disko last year where it was snow-free.  When we touched down, the staff and researchers from the base came out to greet us and we were very warmly welcomed into the Zackenberg family! We unloaded our bags, as well as the boxes of food (the most important part!) and were shown to our rooms in ‘Building 9’ – one of the many buildings that make up the small village of Zackenberg.

Once we had unpacked and grabbed a cup of coffee and a slice of cake (Kathryn) and cinnamon swirl (Tim), we were given a short safety induction by Lars, the resident Science Manager here at Zackenberg. Palle, another researcher who we had met on the flight also joined us in watching a video about polar bear encounters. This taught us about the three key types of polar bear behaviour – curious, threatened, and attacking. Lars also told us about other wildlife in the area that we were likely to encounter during our stay – musk ox, arctic fox, and arctic wolf – as well as the many birds and insects. Talking of insects – by this time Kathryn had already been the victim of mosquito bites! It was quite cold and foggy, so we donned our windproofs and waterproofs and went on a short tour of the site with Lars and Palle. It was important to understand the history of the base and the location of other, on-going research sites so that we were sure not to disturb any of the experiments while out walking. When we got back it was time for tea! The remote location of Zackenberg means that they have a resident chef, Dina, who prepares tasty, nutritious, and plentiful meals for the staff and researchers. Dina had cooked a fantastic meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, beans, salad, and warm freshly baked bread! It wasn’t like being on fieldwork at all! Over dinner we got talking to the other researchers – there are around 20 people staying at the base, working on a range of projects including ornithology, ecology, and hydrology.

Welcome to Zackenberg!

Welcome to Zackenberg!

After dinner, we pulled our windproofs and waterproofs back on and headed out with Kenny, the Logistics Manager, for a tour of the complex including the laboratories, workshops, and storage areas. We were given further details on safety management for our time in the field and completed a short training session on the use of rifles and signal pistols in the instance of polar bear or musk ox attack. While these incidences are very rare at Zackenberg, it is important to be confident in dealing with these kinds of situations should they occur.

The weather had started to close in for the evening and it was getting cold and windy. We decided to get an early night ready to start planning the rest of our field season!