24 hour sampling? Yes we did!

Our most epic sampling adventure yet began at 10am on August 24th. Usually, we sample the Athabasca Glacier every morning at about 10am. Keeping a consistent time allows us to accurately compare outflow and chemistry day-to-day and be sure what we observe are seasonal changes, not simply artifacts of a different sampling time. It seems logical, on a surficial level, that as daily temperatures get colder less of the glacier will melt, and subsequently the outflow will contain less water. If one day we measured outflow at 7am, then the next day at 3pm, the larger volume we measure could be due to time of day, or to day of year. As scientists, the goal is to definitively say why things happen, so we keep measuring at a consistent time.


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That said, there’s naturally some curiosity as to what happens during the other parts of the day! To answer that question, we devised a relatively simply sounding, yet path-through-Dante’s-inferno feeling, experiment: we would take measurements and samples every two hours for a 24-hour period. We tackled this from 10 am August 24th through 10 am August 25th, collecting water samples for preservation and chemical analysis ever 2 hours, in addition to collecting meltwater discharge measurements.

Every two hours, all three of us would hike up the hill to the melt channels. One person would collect 12 litres of water, carry it back to our “lab” in the van, filter and preserve it. One person would put on waders and measure the discharge across the melt channel. The third person would hold the safety rope of the person in the stream. Each 2-hour period, there was about a 5-15 minute break for everyone but the chemistry person, then it was back up the hill to rotate positions and do it all again. 

It was exhausting, tedious, COLD, and ended with field notes that read: “Midnight. Rather dark. No clouds, see stars. Water looks black. Everything looks black. Cannot see glacier. Water level down. No breeze to speak of. Coffee = mandatory.” FYI – the second one down is a night time “selfie.” Doesn’t it look great?

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But we were successful! We have 13 samples: 10am to 10am, all three of us survived!

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There were some rough patches: I want nothing more than sleep from 2-4am, Emily wants nothing more than sleep as soon as the sun comes up, and Anna prefers to avoid chemistry when things get stressful but we made it! Now there’s one more 24 hour sampling adventure to come in October. Check back to see how that goes!


Greetings and bonjour from the Canadian Rockies!

Hi Everyone! This is Emily, Mark, and Anna reporting in on our northern adventures to give you an idea of what we’ve been researching the past couple weeks and why we’re so excited to continue exploring in our natural laboratory.

This is just the beginning of a three-month field expedition to characterize subglacial weathering and seasonal progression at the Athabasca and Saskatchewan Glaciers, located in the Columbia Icefield. The Columbia Icefield has the largest accumulations of snow and ice south of the Arctic Circle and its meltwater runoff reaches the Arctic, Pacific, and the Atlantic Oceans. Based off of climate trends, a significant decline in alpine glaciers is predicted in the next 20 years; so, this meltwater may have both significant and wide-ranging effects on downstream ecosystems and human infrastructure. For example, salmon communities could be greatly disrupted if we see an increase in sediment production due to glacial erosion because of an increase in glacial melt. It could become more difficult for them to find food as the sediment builds up on the bottom of the outflow channels.

Tracking changes in the chemistry of glacial meltwater gives us clues to what’s happening below the glacier. This is important because what remains hidden to eye is an expansive series of subglacial meltwater channels that expand and evolve as temperatures rise and the meltseason progresses. We monitor the changes in the chemical composition to try to understand how fast the changes are occurring and to what scale. These measurements open up large windows into a hidden world beneath the ice.

The Athabasca Glacier has been the site of extensive GIGL field expeditions during May and July of 2011 and May of 2013. So, what we’re really interested in this year is the end of the meltseason to track what happens as the subglacial channels refreeze and close. It’s difficult to capture a full meltseason because conditions get really harsh during the final months. Just last September, a huge blizzard swept across the region! While it’s completely unknown what’s in store for us and when the meltchannels begin to refreeze, we’ve packed bundles of thermals, stocked up on thermos for warm soups, and are ready for whatever challenges the weather and glaciers will throw at us this season.

Each day, we’ve been taking a multitude of different samples to characterize different components of meltwater chemistry. From microbial communities and dissolved sediment load to total discharge measurements, we’re collecting samples as part of a huge collaborative project at the UM. Check out the pictures below to see what a typical day entails! We’ll also be traversing the icefield to collect ice samples and are working with a cool, new organization called Vicarious Earth to develop a sampling method for deep glacial moulins.

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In-situ measurements (water temperature, pH, etc) of surface melt with crampons for safety

Here’s Emily using the ADV to measure meltwater discharge and velocity. The water’s generally about a balmy 0.1°C (not quite freezing!) so we pass time by playing word games and attempting to answer life’s important questions like “Is there anything Mark won’t put peanut butter on?”

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Last Friday, we scouted out the Sakatchewan Glacier. After last year’s battles with glacial mud (Sakatchewan- 1 , Anna’s left boot- 0) and kilometers of snowshoeing/trekking over moraines and avalanche piles, we were prepared for a long and difficult day. But, we were surprised with how much things changed in what would have been a few months. It was an incredible hike through spruces and wildflowers like Indian paintbrush and alpine lupin. Each turn had us amazed with how lucky we are to be out here for the next couple months. The difference in the sampling site was remarkable as well. The summer melt caused the lake in front of the glacier to become quite expansive. We’ve scouted out a good route and hopefully,we’ll be able to get even closer to the toe next time!

May 2013

May 2013

August 2014

August 2014

We’ve been having a really, really, really great time exploring the Rockies in our time-off. Here we are in a river-eroded formation, but you can also see how the rock has been uplifted and rotated from when mountain-building activity, hundreds of thousands of years ago, created what we’ve come to know and love as the Canadian Rockies. More adventures tomorrow when we set sail down the Athabasca River in our tiny rowboat after we finish our morning sampling! But, for now, it’s about time to put together a yummy camp dinner of pesto and pasta. Catch you all later!