How is the subglacial life?

(Written by: Miriam Jackson, researcher at The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate)

(Photography: Miriam Jackson)

There has not been much activity recently but there have been some visitors underneath the glacier.

The first visitor was probably a pine marten (norsk: mår/skogmår). We found out about our visitor when we were in the tunnel in April 2017.

That was one of those trips where the saying “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” applied. First was the flight to Bodø. Some late snow at Oslo airport caused chaos, with many flights delayed and cancelled.

One scientist was flying from Germany and I was flying from Oslo. We both arrived at Bodø airport several hours late, but the luggage for the German scientist was nowhere to be found. It was after midnight by the time we had reported that, due to long queues of people sorting out various travel problems, but due to the bad weather and flight delays, there were no available hotel rooms in Bodø.

Hence, we drove for nearly two hours to Ørnes, and let the helicopter pilot know that we would be delayed the next day, depending on the arrival of the luggage, which contained gravity instruments needed for the work in the tunnel.

The luggage arrived late the next day. In Bodø. We could either drive back and get it then fly up the following day, or wait for it in Ørnes and be delayed one more day.

We chose to drive back to get it and flew up to the tunnel one day late. There was so much snow that the helicopter could not land near the entrance, so we had to land further downhill and walk up through the deep snow with our equipment.

The entrance to the tunnel was completely covered, so we had to dig that out before we could come into the tunnel.

When we eventually got to the living quarters, we found that it was a total mess, with dried food all over the place, and containers that had been chewed open. The pine marten came in through a ventilation hole in the roof.

Fortunately, it could get out again the same way, so we didn’t have to deal with a dead animal.

We got the work done eventually, but overall it was an exhausting trip.

The next visitors were Canadian gold miners in March 2018. No, they didn’t find gold underneath the glacier, but were interested in the subglacial intakes. The flight up to the tunnel entrance was combined with visual inspection of a (possible) glacier-dammed lake, Nordvatnet, that had recently had the water level lowered and a visit to the meteorological station on top of Svartisen.

The Canadians enjoyed exploring the tunnels and seeing the ice plugs – ice that is squeezed into the subglacial intakes by the weight of the glacier above, and that can block the intakes and stop water draining through them. Even though the trip had been arranged long in advance to fit in with the Canadians who had to buy transatlantic plane tickets, the weather was perfect and we had great views of Engabreen from the helicopter on the way back.