Uummannaq area, W. Greenland

Research sites
Petermann Glacier Russell Glacier catchment

Uummannaq is located 590 km north of the Arctic Circle at latitude 70 °N. The town has served as a base of operations for Alun Hubbard and his ship SV Gambo as he researches ice sheet-ocean interactions at nearby outlet glaciers.

There are two main research sites in this area: Rink Glacier to the north, and Store and Lille Glacier to the south. Like many of Greenland's outlet glaciers, all three terminate in water, making them prone to processes of iceberg calving and sub-marine melting. With ocean temperatures predicted to rise in line with a globally warming climate, it is not yet fully understood how water-terminating glaciers in Greenland will react. To answer this problem, Alun and his team have been studying how water characteristics in the fjords such as temperature and salinity have changed over time, and what effects these have had on the glaciers fronts.

For two years running, a team of British climbers including Aberystwyth University's Sam Doyle have travelled to the Uummannaq region of West Greenland to carry out exploratory mountaineering. The following is a summary of their expeditions, and a full report from 2010 can be downloaded here.

Old Man of Saatut

In 2009 I had the opportunity to assist Dr Alun Hubbard with fieldwork in Greenland. I met Alun’s boat, Sailing Vessel Gambo in Sissimut harbour after walking from Kangerlussuaq. Crewed by a mixed bunch of sailors, scientists and climbers we explored the Uummannaq area for what seemed like the rest of the summer. A small team of us, inspired by scientist Dr Jason Box escaped into the mountains making two first ascents: one on Uummannaq mountain; and second, the highest peak in the Uummannaq region. On the sail back to Uummannaq we passed The Horns of Upernivik late at night – this huge expanse of granite inspired me to return in 2010 with a team of climbers. With the problem of a boat solved I successfully reapplied for funding from the Gino Watkins – the money was used to allow three people to join the expedition: Miles Hill, Matt Burdekin and George Ullrich.

West Greenland's highest summit. Rink Glacier is in the background. © Jason Box
Sam Doyle at the top of West Greenland's highest summits

With a strong team the 2010 expedition went ahead. Matt, Miles and George walked from Kangerlussuaq to Sissimut, saving on a flight, and met Gambo in the harbour. They sailed north, climbed an iceberg near Jakobshavn and arrived in Uummannaq where Matt and George made a significant first ascent. I arrived late due to work commitments on the ice but we were soon heading towards the Horn. Two routes were climbed on the Horn – the 1980’s route and First Price Models before we returned to Uummannaq. In total we climbed 10 new rock routes ranging in grade between HVS 5a and E5 6a. Accessing the Sneypyramidian as planned was made difficult when Gambo, responding to the break-off of a large, tabular ice berg from Petermann Glacier headed north. Instead we ventured to Saatut to explore the alpine peaks of Agpat Island. The rock turned out to be poor and it rained for five days. Still we made the first ascent of the Old Man of Saatut and enjoyed the hospitality of the locals – perhaps the most memorable experience of the expedition.

New routes climbed on Uummannaq Mountain.
Matt high on First Price Models, The Horns of Upernivik.
Gambo assisting climbers onto an iceberg.

The Uummannaq Region still holds much to be discovered by those seeking adventures. The Horns of Upernivik, a steep slab larger than El Capitan in Yosemite, has so far yielded two routes – neither reaching the top. Uummannaq Mountain has been climbed now via 8 different routes but nevertheless opportunities exist.

George on the summit of Uummannaq Mountain after completing Broken Toblerone.

Full Report

2009 Team: Jason Box, Sam Doyle, Silvan Leinss, Nolwenn Chauché, Sean Mackay
2010 Team: Sam Doyle, Miles Hill, Matt Burdekin, George Ullrich

In August 2010, Alun Hubbard and Richard Bates invited Aberystwyth University's Field Robotics Group to join SV Gambo at Lille Glacier to field-test an autonomous glacier surveying robot, Minty. Over the course of several days Gambo and Minty were used to gather data from above the water-line using a 3D laser scanner as well as underwater using swath-bathymetry equipment. These two data sets were combined to create a 3D model of the calving face of the glacier.

A false-colour satellite image, with terrain in red, water in black and ice in blue. Lille Glacier, close to Store Glacier, lies south of the town of Uummannaq.
Minty with the 3D laser scanner attached, about to be deployed from SV Gambo. © Tom Blanchard

Repeat surveys allowed the change between days to be measured. In one particular calving event it was calculated that 4,000,000 cubic metres had been lost from the face of the glacier. The field trial was considered a success and a new version of Mint (jointly funded by EADS and the Welsh Assembly Government) is currently being built for deployment in the near future.

Bathymetric and point cloud data taken from the front of Lille Glacier, 2010 [2.6mb; 24s].

Data collected from the front of Lille Glacier. Bathymetry is colour coded for depth (0-200m), and the point cloud is used to show reflections off the ice surface.

Data collected from the front of Lille Glacier. Bathymetry is colour coded for depth (0-200m), and the point cloud is used to show reflections off the ice surface.
Data collected from the front of Lille Glacier. Bathymetry is colour coded for depth (0-200m), and the point cloud is used to show reflections off the ice surface.

Minty in action in front of Lille Glacier, Uummannaq. © Tom Blanchard
Minty about to be deployed from SV Gambo. © Tom Blanchard

Richard Bates, University of St Andrews, UK
Tom Blanchard and Mark Neal, Field Robotics Group, Aberystwyth University, UK

Data collected from the front of Lille Glacier. Bathymetry is colour coded for depth (0-200m), and the point cloud is used to show reflections off the ice surface.
Minty in action in front of Lille Glacier, Uummannaq. © Tom Blanchard
Minty in action in front of Lille Glacier, Uummannaq. © Tom Blanchard

Using a winch to lower and raise the CTD instrument through the water column. © Alun Hubbard

Carrying out a CTD dip in front of Store Glacier [4.8mb; 52s].

A CTD logger being retrieved onto SV Gambo. © Alun Hubbard

CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth) loggers record water characteristics such as salinity, temperature, pressure, depth and density. When the instrument is lowered through the water using a winch, measurements are recorded continuously providing a detailed description of the water column being tested. Greenlandic fjords can be very deep, having been scoured by ice over numerous glaciations, and can easily be up to 1000 metres deep in their centre.

Temperature profiles taken using the CTD logger in the fjord 10 km from the front of Lille Glacier.

As glaciers provide a major source of cold freshwater into the oceans it is important to understand what effects increased meltwater production would have on the circulation of warm and cold currents. For this reason repeat CTD 'dips' have been taken for several years now in front of Rink and Store Glaciers in the Uummannaq area.

Results so far show relatively warm water lying at the bottom of the fjords. In the two major outlet glaciers, Rink and Store, the deep, warm water comes in contact with the glacier front and melts the ice face. The subsequent meltwater dilutes the sea water forcing it to rise towards the surface.

We have also been observing another phenomena, which is the rising of fresh water sourced from subglacial rivers discharging into the deep fjords. The stream-like upwelling of water forms a sediment rich pool at the surface of the ocean.

These processes in combination are modifying the water circulation along the glacier front, enhancing the melt that occurs below the water surface.

Nolwenn Chauché, Centre for Glaciology, Aberystwyth University, UK