On the Ice Fields
We are on the Schweizerland glaciers, hiking along, deep in the rhythm of the hike. Most of our attention is focused on keeping our rope tight, so that a fall into a crevasse would be arrested instantly.
During breaks, while me colleagues eat and rest, I collect my first two snow samples. Twice, I fill a ziplock bag with surface snow from a square I have drawn next to me, awkwardly, with an ice axe. At the end of the day, I will melt the snow and filter it to capture the dust and black carbon it contains. Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of organic compounds, such as forest fires. Black carbon and dust travel along local and planetary wind highways to land on snow and ice and change their reflectivity and heat absorption rates – and, therefore, their melting rate. Scientists are keenly interested in understanding how glaciers and ice caps melt in the context of planet-wide processes. I am overjoyed to be able to contribute to this understanding. Stay tuned for a description of this trip’s science in the next post.
Peaks part in front us; the horizon is reduced to a white line; a white carpet spreads around and behind us: we are climbing along the center of a large glacier. Far to the sides, mountain facets spew glaciers left and right onto ours. After a few miles, the glacier levels off and we crest where several large tongues of snow on ice meet into a frozen kiss. Ahead and to our left there is a convenient nunatak – a perfect place to set our kitchen and dining room. Once there, we don’t see any water, but we can hear it somewhere behind the nunatak. We test the snow next to our rocky anchor for crevasses, and, satisfied, we deploy our tents. We line them up rather than form a circle, so that a visiting polar bear can always find a direct path out.
The view from our rocky perch is spectacular, as large and pointy peaks project their shadows onto the ice below. We go contemplative – one of us climbs higher and cuts a solitary figure against our giant, remote surroundings. Later, we rope up and climb to the top of our nunatak, where we now have a 360-degree view, including a bit of ocean at the end of another glacier, far, far away. The sun has just disappeared behind a summit, only to reappear a few minutes later and then plunge again behind another.
We are the only human beings in an immense and empty territory. The sense of isolation in this pristine land is overwhelming. Buzz Aldrin saw a “magnificent desolation” on the Moon; this is a magnificent desolation too, made all the more beautiful and majestic by all the cues of the biosphere that cuddles us even out here: the sky, blue with life-sustaining gases, the water, in simultaneous liquid, solid, and gaseous phases, and the wind, the telltale sign of temperature differentials and weather.