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Newcastle students embark on exciting research trip to Greenland


A group of third year geography students from Newcastle University this week set off on a field trip with a difference - a five week research mission to Greenland.

While many UK geography students about to start their final year are using their summer break to prepare for fieldwork trips to Snowdonia or the Lake District, the group of six Newcastle students have a rare opportunity to carry out research on the Russell Glacier, on the west coast of Greenland.

The group, which is going by the name ‘Team Greenland’, will be carrying out a series of experiments to gather data about the hydrological systems in and around the glacier to better understand how the glacial environment is being affected by climate change.

They will investigate the surface roughness, and amount of debris cover on the glacier and how these affect the rate of melting, as well as the velocity of the glacier and changes in speed from spring to summer. The team will also be trying to identify when flooding has occurred in the past by digging down into the permafrost to look at the sediment layers, as well as carrying out two other projects, both looking at glacial hydrology.

The Russell Glacier has been well studied so the group should be able to compare their results with previous years and draw conclusions about the impact of climate change on the glacier.

Dr Rachel Carr, lecturer in Physical Geography at Newcastle University, said: “Melting of the Greenland ice sheet will have a significant influence on global sea level rise so it’s vital that we monitor important indicators such as changes in how fast the glacier is moving and the speed with which it is melting, to allow us to understand the mechanisms driving ice loss.

“It’s rare for undergraduates to be able to go to Greenland to carry out research first-hand, so this is an amazing opportunity for our students to contribute their own data to the body of scientific knowledge about glacial environments and how they’re being affected by climate change.”

Although Greenland is becoming more accessible, the local population still lives mostly along the coast. The Russell Glacier is about 16 miles inland from the town of Kangerlussuaq, the nearest settlement to where Team Greenland is staying. The location where the team will be camping – about two miles from the glacier - is remote, with no running water or electricity.

This means that the group not only has to take all their scientific equipment and five weeks’ worth of supplies with them, but lots of spare parts too – and they have all had to learn how each piece of equipment works so that they can operate it, and, if needed, repair it. 

The six students, Abbi Bennett, Steve Cox, Sophie Battinson and Helen O'Riordan – all studying BSc Physical Geography, and Tim Kempf and Daniel Leicester who are studying BSc Geography, will be joined for the first ten days of the trip by Dr Carr and Professor Andy Russell, as well as James Linighan, who has just finished the first year of his BSc Geography degree.

Abbi, from Bedford, said: “We are all very excited and nervous about going to Greenland. It is unlike anything we have experienced before or will ever do again, and we are all very keen to get out there.

“The remoteness of the glacier will be the biggest challenge. A lot of us rely on technology for every part of our lives, and it will be interesting to see how we get on without it for five weeks.”

It isn’t just the technical challenges the team has to overcome; the trip has its physical demands too. Because of the time of year the sun will never really set, so the team will have around 18 hours of daylight a day and will have to wear sleeping masks in order to get a good night’s sleep.

And all six members of the team have been focussing on improving their fitness ahead of their trip, by doing activities such as hill walking, kayaking, cycling, climbing and rowing.

The trip has been made possible with support from the Royal Geographical Society with Institute of British Geographers (IBG). The group of six third year students received a RGS-IBG Geographical Fieldwork Grant, and James Linighan received a Fieldwork Apprenticeship bursary, as part of the Society’s Learning and Leading programme. 

Dr Catherine Souch, the RGS-IBG’s Head of Research and Higher Education, said: “This trip will provide the students with a unique opportunity to see how geographical research is produced and to contribute directly to the process. We’re delighted to be supporting their participation through our Grants programme.”

The Gilchrist Educational Trust and the Scott Polar Research Institute’s Gino Watkins Memorial fund also provided support. Support also came from the Newcastle University Expeditions Committee, Development Trust, Henderson Fund, and the Sonia Stonehouse Expedition Fund. 

Team Greenland will return to the UK on 8 September. Keep up to date with the group by following them on Twitter @NUGreenland.

You can view the photo gallery, courtesy of Team Greenland.  

published on: 3 August 2015