Cirques or a circus? (notes from the Quaternary Research Lab, summer 2015)

Despite the Environmental Studies Department’s reputation for going on many field trips, you might be surprised to know that working with Dr. Principato this summer has so far consisted primarily of computer work; that said, we’re having a great time conducting research right here in Science Center 161!

Fig. 1. Rachael Grube hard at work in Dr. Principato's lab, our home away from home.

Fig. 1. Rachael Grube hard at work in Dr. Principato’s lab, our home away from home.

Rachael Grube (my colleague/partner in crime; Fig.1) and I arrive in the science center by 8am each morning, Monday through Friday. The two of us are studying bowl-shaped glacial landforms called cirques on Iceland.

Dr. Principato published a paper with former student Jess Lee in 2014, in which they examined cirques on northwest Iceland. Our goal this summer is to complete analyses similar to those that Lee and Principato published, but in different regions of Iceland that have similar bedrock composition and ages to the northwest (Fig. 2). My study area is in the Eastern Fjords region of Iceland, and Rachael is studying northern Iceland.

Fig. 2. As you can see, the bedrock in north, west, northwest, and eastern Iceland is similar in composition (source: www.summitpost.org)

Fig. 2. As shown on this map, the bedrock in north, west, northwest, and eastern Iceland is similar in composition (source: http://www.summitpost.org)

So why are we studying these cool looking bowl-shaped geological features (Fig. 3)? It’s because “cirques” sounds like a circus, and who doesn’t love a circus, right!? Just kidding.

Fig. 3. A beautiful example of a cirque found on Iceland (source: www.whitman.edu)

Fig. 3. A beautiful example of a cirque found on Iceland. We aspired to take such lovely pictures when we go to Iceland (source: http://www.whitman.edu).

Fig. 4. A diagram explaining the equilibrium line altitude (ELA), which Rachael and I are studying (source: www.cssforum.com.pk)

Fig. 4. A diagram explaining the equilibrium line altitude (ELA), which Rachael and I are studying (source: http://www.cssforum.com.pk)

As much as we love the name, that isn’t why cirques are important to study. Cirques periodically contain small climate-sensitive glaciers. The presence or absence of ice (i.e. glaciers) in cirques can tell us a lot about the climatic conditions in a given region. In our current research, we are specifically measuring what is called an equilibrium line altitude (ELA), which is where a glacier’s annual accumulation of mass equals its annual ablation (loss) of mass (Fig. 4). Reconstructing paleo-ELAs is useful because, as previously mentioned, it gives us an indication of factors that influence the climate in a given area. For example, a low paleo-ELA signifies climatic cooling and/or more precipitation in a given area, while a high ELA suggests the opposite. Rachael and I want to find out if ELAs are lower closer to the coast on east and north Iceland, as well as if latitude has an effect on ELA elevation.

You might be wondering, How in the world can you do all that by sitting in front of the computer? Well, we in the ES department are fortunate enough to have a magical computer program called ArcGIS. This is essentially a mapping tool that allows you to take layers of spatial data and complete many different statistical and spatial analyses on a data set. We have mapped out locations of cirques on Iceland, transferred them to ArcGIS, and are now completing analyses on characteristics of each cirque such as length, width, area, aspect, and of course, ELA height (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. A screenshot of a few cirques on eastern Iceland atop a slope raster file in ArcGIS.

Fig. 5. A screenshot of a few cirques on eastern Iceland atop a slope raster file in ArcGIS.

These analyses can become tedious at times, because the program likes to freeze, and it has many tools to choose from, but the information we have obtained will be very valuable for future research on global climate change. Did I mention that the two areas of Iceland we are studying have never been studied before? That’s right– we are very excited to be completing the first quantitative analyses of cirques on North and East Iceland, even if it can be a test of patience at times!

US

Fig. 6. Me and Rachael sporting our stylish sleep masks. We will be needing them in Iceland– there is 24-hour daylight there during the summer!

The good news is, on June 28th, The Quaternary Research Lab is heading to Iceland! We have been preparing for this trip for the past week or so by looking at maps, making shopping lists and travel plans, studying campsite locations, ordering gear, and pitching tents (Figs. 6-8).

plans

Fig. 7. A tentative outline of our trip to Iceland. Dr. Principato says these plans will most likely change once we get there, but it’s nice to go in with some idea of what we’ll be doing.

maps1

Fig. 8. We have been studying many maps this week to prepare for our travels around Iceland.

We will be leaving early Sunday morning and returning on the next Sunday, July 5th. Unfortunately, we won’t have much time to do many tourist-y things, because we essentially have to drive around the entire perimeter of Iceland in a week. We will hopefully be doing some pretty intense hiking as well; but we’ll do our best to take some nice pictures to share with you all. We will be conducting ground-truth analyses to see how well our conclusions from our mapping in ArcGIS match what actually exists in Iceland. We will also visit a few places in which Dr. Principato would like to take samples for other cutting-edge projects to come (no spoilers!). Rachael has discovered a very special detail as well: one of the caves we are stopping by was in that extremely popular show Game of Thrones (Fig. 9)!

Fig. 8. The cave made famous by Game of Thrones, named Grjotagia, which is located in northeast Iceland (source: www.dreamlike.info).

Fig. 9. The cave made famous by Game of Thrones, named Grjotagia, which is located in northeast Iceland (source: http://www.dreamlike.info).

This detail is of course all the more reason to be looking forward to an amazing trip to Iceland. We will let you know how it goes (in picture form most likely) when we return. Kveðja!

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