This should be the last part of my mini-series on what’s involved in glaciological fieldwork. Here, I’ll talk a bit more generally about the overall experience of actually being out in the field.
So, what does fieldwork mainly involve? There are two principal components: heavy lifting and waiting. To get all your equipment into the field means loading and unloading it from sundry vehicles and containers, and then dragging it to wherever it’s actually going to be deployed. For drones, for instance, this isn’t so much an issue – the boxes are a bit bulky, but they weigh under 10 kg. For GPS stations powered by about three car batteries, weighing 100 kg+ in total, this is more of a problem. In many ways, the ideal field team would be composed of contestants from the World’s Strongest Man. This is also the reason many more field-based researchers end up with all sorts of musculo-skeletal issues by the time they reach 40…. Safe lifting practices aren’t always practical when you’re trying to get a car battery up a cliff to a time-lapse camera site…. It’s fair to say that glaciological fieldwork is pretty physically demanding!
The waiting comes in throughout the whole trip. There’s obviously all the waiting around at various airports as you fly out and back. In the field, when you’ve got a helicopter scheduled, there’s a lot of waiting for that too. You’ve got an approximate arrival time, but you want to be ready well before that, as it could easily arrive half an hour or more either side of that time. And, just generally, once the instruments are all set up, your main task becomes waiting around until something breaks or it’s time for some sort of scheduled maintenance check.
In other words, fieldwork can be very neatly summed up as a process of ‘hurry up and wait’. You run around like a madman, carrying things, in the set-up phase, but, otherwise, you’re largely sitting around, either in transit or keeping an eye on your experiments. And, then, with Greenland, you have a couple of further issues. Firstly, mosquitoes. Everywhere, at the field site near the terminus. You will get bites, no matter how much repellent you slather on. Going to the toilet is particularly hazardous. You won’t catch anything, but it’s pretty unpleasant. And then there’s the fact that it’s permanently light that far north in summer. At first, this is quite fun, but what it means is you never really sleep properly for the whole time and just get more and more tired….
It might sound as if fieldwork is rather unpleasant. Sometimes, it is. On the other hand, it does have its advantages. My view on waking up every day was like this:
It was pretty spectacular. You also get to watch a lot of very impressive calving events (when bits of ice fall off the front of the glacier), creating icebergs. Seeing the thing you’re researching in the flesh, as such, is also very valuable. As a modeller, I mainly think in data points and triangular mesh elements. Being able to see what those actually corresponded to in reality was a very useful experience, to say the least. There’s a further important element of team bonding – you really get to know your fellow researchers when you’re stuck with just them for a month – which means we work better together back in the office. And, finally, if no one went into the field, we’d have no data, or, at least, no way of verifying that satellite data were actually accurate. It’s therefore quite exciting to be involved in such a scientifically-valuable enterprise and know that you’re really helping move things forward.
So, overall, whilst some of the trip wasn’t very fun whilst it was happening, it does give you an awful lot of anecdotes to trot out on your return, and it definitely has its upsides, as well as being very important scientifically! A worthwhile experience, in other words.