Fieldwork kit – what do you really need?

This week we’ve been taking the physical geography undergraduates out into the Peak District for their first taste of degree-level fieldwork. Often this is a bit of a comedy affair as many of the students either don’t yet own suitable kit or have forgotten to bring outdoor clothing to uni with them (I guess they prioritise outfits for clubbing!). This usually leads to a lot of cold, wet and uncomfortable-looking students. So I thought I’d do a quick kit list for any intrepid new geographers/ other field scientists considering their first forays into the great outdoors.

Why does good kit matter?

Good outdoor kit will really help you to enjoy your fieldwork, which will in turn mean you tend to collect more and better data because you’re not cutting corners to get back inside ASAP! Having the right equipment and clothing is also essential from a safety perspective and is something that you should consider as part of your fieldwork risk assessment.

In brief, your fieldwork kit needs to:

1.    Keep you comfortable. This could mean keeping you warm and dry or cool and sweat-free. Often you’ll need a combination of cooler and warmer clothing to cope with changeable weather and different activities (e.g. hiking in might be sweaty but standing still taking measurements could be cold). This is where having multiple layers is great because you can make adjustments.

2.    Protect you from the environment. I’m thinking adequate shoes to protect your feet, perhaps long sleeves to keep the sun off and maybe even specialist kit to keep you safe (e.g. crampons and ice axes for glacier travel).

3.    Allow you to carry what you need. This one is straight-forward: you need a decent bag for your scientific equipment and any samples you collect.

What is the right kit for fieldwork?

This really depends on where in the world you are carrying out your fieldwork and what it is that you’ll be doing. But I’d say the following items are essential for pretty much any fieldwork:

•    Strong, comfy and grippy shoes. Be they hiking trainers, leather boots, wellies or full-blown mountain boots. You need the right footwear because you will be on your feet a lot and poor shoe choices are the primary reason for unpleasant days in the field. Always break-in a new pair of boots BEFORE taking them into the field and make sure to wear suitable socks. Also be sure to bring some blister plasters, just in case.

•    A robust rucksack with a waist strap. Rucksacks really are the thing for fieldwork because they leave your hands free and allow you to carry fairly heavy weights comfortably. It is worth taking time to find a good one if you’re planning to do a lot of fieldwork – a comfortable fit will be really beneficial when you are wearing it for multiple days.

•    Food and drink. You will need this, fieldwork makes you hungry. Even if I’m just out for a couple of hours I’ll still take a bottle of water and a couple of cereal bars.

•    A basic first aid kit. Some pain killers, a few plasters, blister plasters, wet wipes and tissues are worthwhile and weigh very little. Tissues also double for dealing with runny noses (when it’s cold) and can be used as toilet paper. They are definitely essential!

•    Trousers that aren’t jeans. When it’s hot jeans are sweaty, when it’s cold they don’t provide much insulation and when it’s wet they get really heavy. Just don’t wear jeans – get some hiking trousers/ thick leggings/ shorts etc. It’s useful to have a lot of pockets and these should be considered when buying fieldwork trousers.

•    Notebook and pencils. You can’t write with pen on wet paper but a pencil will still work. Remember that you may only get one chance to visit your field site – so write everything down!

Apart from the above you will also need appropriate clothing, depending on the weather and the activities that you are doing. Have a think about what you may need, research the location online and ask people who have previously worked in that environment for advice.  Hopefully this has helped you to get yourself ready for fieldwork. Enjoy your time in the field!

AG-832/ 332: Diary of a UNIS field school on Svalbard

I’ve recently come back from a few weeks in Svalbard during which I took part in a field school on Quaternary glacial stratigraphy with UNIS. Glacial stratigraphy is the study of the sediments left behind by glacial (ice age) and inter-glacial (warmer) events. Studying the patterns and distribution of these sediments helps us to understand the size of the ice cover during the various glacial and inter-glacial events of the Quaternary period, which spans the last 2 million years or so. The sediments and the fossils that are found in them can also tell us about the climate and ocean circulation of the past.

For those that don’t know, Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean directly north of Scandinavia. It’s owned by Norway and also has a Russian presence, although there are very few people overall – only around 2,500. Most live in the regional capital Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, which is the largest island of the Svalbard group. This was where I was based for much of my time on Svalbard, although I also spent several days at sea on a research cruise. The main claim to fame for the islands is the large and active population of polar bears, which are commonly claimed to out-number the people on Svalbard. For this reason it is a legal requirement to carry a rifle at all times when outside of the boundaries of town, in case of polar bear attack. Lends a bit of extra drama to the fieldwork when you have to lug a gun around all day!

Location of Svalbard and map of the islands. Satellite map from google Earth and inset map from TopoSvalbard.

Location of Svalbard and map of the islands. (Satellite map from Google Earth and inset map from TopoSvalbard)

Week 1

The first week of the course focused on getting everyone introduced and up to speed on the latest research about the glaciations of Svalbard during the Quaternary. There were 13 of us on the course, a mix of Masters and PhD students, plus three lecturers: Ólafur Ingólfsson; Helena Alexanderson; and Mona Henriksen.

Our first task was to complete the compulsory safety training. The two elements we needed to cover were weapons handling and using survival suits. The weapons stuff focused on learning to safely carry, store and load the anti-polar bear rifles and flare guns, as well as passing a rifle shooting accuracy test. This was completed at the rifle range on the outskirts of town. After a morning of shooting things, we were whisked off to ‘logistics’ (the UNIS equivalent of ‘Q branch’) and made to don highly attractive orange survival suits, which make you look like a Teletubbie that’s had a horrible fake-tanning accident. Once suitably attired we were driven down to the harbour and literally made to walk the plank. Aside from amusing the logistics staff, the point of this exercise was to learn how to float comfortably in a survival suit without getting wet or being separated from the group. This was preparation for the worst-case scenario of a ‘man overboard’ or sinking event on our research cruise.

After successfully not shooting each other or drowning, we had several days of lectures and presentations in UNIS. This included our first credit-worthy exercise – presenting a short seminar on an assigned topic to the group. The topics were designed to give everyone a solid grounding in the glacial history of Svalbard and the geology and stratigraphy of our fieldwork sites. We also had the chance to spend a day practicing stratigraphic logging at Bloterdalen, a valley around 30mins drive from Longyearbyen.

Having completed a week of lectures we were very glad to have a fairly free weekend, giving several of us the chance to get outside and do some hiking around Longyearbyen. Although the weather wasn’t fantastic a few of us made an ascent of Nordenskiöldfjellet and timed it just right to hit the summit as the cloud descended, robbing us of what is supposed to be a spectacular view. The cloud quickly cleared again as we were heading back down. Sod’s Law!

Week 2

Bright and early on Monday morning we were all up and packed to board the Stålbas, a research ship and our home for the next eight days.

Stålbas negotiating icebergs in Kongsfjorden

Stålbas negotiating icebergs in Kongsfjorden

We started out with a leisurely day at Linnédalen having a look at some permafrost features. But this was the end of the holiday – the next six days were very full-on with early starts followed by long days in the field, mostly digging, and then evenings of data entry and processing. By the end of the week everyone was exhausted. Definitely type-2 fun!

Cruise route. Start/ end at Longyearbyen.1) Linnédalen 2) Poolepynten 3) St Jonsfjorden 4) Kongsfjordhallet 5) Blomstrandhamna 6) Kronebreen 7) Ny Ålesund 8) Skilvika 9) Kapp Ekholm 10) Nordenskiöldbreen.

Cruise route. Start/ end at Longyearbyen.1) Linnédalen 2) Poolepynten 3) St Jonsfjorden 4) Kongsfjordhallet 5) Blomstrandhamna 6) Kronebreen 7) Ny Ålesund 8) Skilvika 9) Kapp Ekholm 10) Nordenskiöldbreen.

Our field sites were all over the western coast of Spitsbergen and gave us a great insight into the Quaternary glacial history of Svalbard. Most days involved rocking up at some sea cliffs and having a walk about as a group to get an overview before dividing into our fieldwork teams and digging out our assigned sections. My group (‘The Expendables’) always seemed to get the overhung, exposed, cliff-top or otherwise most dangerous sections. Not that this deterred us – we usually dug some of the more extensive excavations. Whilst everyone loves a good bit of digging, we also had to spend time logging the stratigraphy and discussing our observations and initial interpretations. And having tea breaks of course.

At the end of each field day we would group together to go around all the sections and see what the other groups had found. We’d then generally go on a longer hike to see more of the local landscape and glacial setting before heading back to the ship. The evening involved eating as much food as possible and getting our data into a more intelligible format before heading to bed ready for another day in the field.

We also got the chance to do a wee bit of sightseeing. The ship was always passing stunning landscapes, which some people spent rather more time looking at then they’d have liked during a particularly rough night of waves! But on a couple of occasions minor detours were made so we could have a closer look at more interesting things, notably the walrus colony at Poolepynten and the calving glacier front at Kronebreen.

Week 3

After disembarking the ship we were all hoping for a bit of time to catch up some sleep and chill out. No such luck! It was straight back to work as we had a tight timeframe to work up our data and prepare our final assessments. For the PhD students this meant researching and writing a paper on a topic of our choice linked to the course materials, whilst the Masters students worked in groups on posters and presentations exploring the field data.

We only had six days to work on these tasks, a tall order considering the amount of data to be processed, literature to be read, and writing up to do. Especially with everyone already knackered from the cruise. So there was little opportunity for getting out and about. Typically the weather decided to be fantastic for the duration of our writing up period before turning rubbish as soon as we had handed in. Another outing for Sod’s Law!

So was it worth doing?

Stratigraphic studies are often used alongside glacial geomorphology, which is my own field and involves reconstructing ice cover by using the landforms that the ice created. Having done my undergraduate degree in geography and not geology, I have not had much experience of stratigraphic fieldwork. This meant that I was missing out on information presented as stratigraphic diagrams in research articles because I didn’t always understand the symbols and couldn’t relate them to real-life examples. Taking this course has certainly addressed this issue and refreshed my understanding of glacial stratigraphy and stratigraphic methods in general. So the course was definitely worth taking for me personally in terms of academic gains. These sorts of courses and field schools are also great opportunities to meet other people in your field and get some new contacts. Plus you get to have a bit of fun out in the field and in this case you get a great opportunity to visit Svalbard.

Overall I’d thoroughly recommend the AG-832/332 course but be warned that it will be very hard work!

Alps trip Part 2: Glacier safety drills

Aside from hiking up to various glaciers looking for possible field sites, I was also in the French Alps to refresh my glacier safety skills. So my Dad and I spent two days out with our mountain guide friend Simon Abrahams (check out his twitter account) to brush up our safety drills.

There are two key safety issues for working on glaciers: cold or exposure injuries like hypothermia or frostbite; and falling into crevasses. Cold injuries are best dealt with via preventative measures, like proper layering to keep warm and ensuring that you drink enough. I already know a fair bit about this from my previous Antarctic fieldwork, so we were focusing our training on preventing crevasse falls and on crevasse rescue techniques.

Crevasses are cracks in the surface of the ice that can be several metres wide and many metres deep. At the end of the melt season, when there is little to no snow, crevasses are obvious and easy to avoid but during the rest of the year they can be covered by snow bridges. This makes them hard to spot and very dangerous because snow bridges that are thin or weakened, e.g. by warm weather, may collapse under a person’s weight. Baring in mind that glaciers are often in remote areas many hours from any help, it’s therefore important for everyone working in these environments to know how to get themselves or a friend out of a crevasse.

We didn’t fancy practicing our rescue drills in an actual crevasse (too dangerous!), so we nipped up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to find a suitable edge to stand-in as a crevasse lip. In this case we found a wind scoop, formed by snow blown around the base of a cliff, which did nicely. Our practice involved throwing a rucksack tied to a rope (simulating our unfortunate friend) over the lip of the wind scoop and taking it in turns, under Simon’s guidance, to set up a snow anchor and pulley system to haul the bag back up. The idea was to simulate the worst-case situation of rescuing a team member who has fallen into a crevasse and is unconscious or otherwise badly injured and unable to get out on their own. This situation is why you usually work on ice in teams of at least three people, because setting up the kit and hauling someone out of a crevasse on your own is very hard work. This is especially true in the cold and at altitude or if you weigh less than them, as will almost always be the case for me.

The wind scoop we’d chosen to practice on was at the bottom of the Col du Midi, below the Cosmiques hut. Getting there was a little hairy – you have to walk along a narrow ridge to descend from the Aiguille du Midi and at this time of year it is icy and easy to slip off. I was glad to be wearing my new & extremely sharp crampons!


Once off the ridge, we reviewed best practice for glacier travel in crevassed areas and set off for the wind scoop. After a bite to eat (yummy quiches, why are French bakeries so much better? No offence Greggs), Simon ran us through the techniques for hauling an unconscious person out of a crevasse. Having learnt these previously from my Dad, it was very useful to have them reviewed by a professional mountain guide and to be introduced to some modern kit that I’d not come across before. I had definitely picked up some bad habits and out of date techniques. I do need a bit more practice though – so I’ll be bullying some rock climbing friends into letting me hang them over the edge of a crag in the Peak District in order for me to ‘rescue’ them repeatedly!


The next day was a bit wet and windy so we didn’t brave the heights and confined ourselves to the Chamonix valley floor. I wasn’t too sorry as I’d developed a horrible altitude headache on the ascent back up the Aiguille du Midi ridge the previous evening and didn’t fancy getting another one. A clear demonstration of the woes of going straight up to an altitude of 3,800m without proper acclimatisation.

A quick trip out to a local crag to practice jumarring and assisted crevasse rescue was the order of the day. Jumarring is a self-rescue technique using a mechanical ascender in order to climb up the rope and get yourself out of a crevasse. It requires a bit of coordination to get right and does involve a lot of sitting in your harness with one leg up at an awkward angle. I’m sure we entertained the local mountain police, who were also out practicing their own rescue skills, as we swung around halfway up the cliff trying to jumar up the rope and keep balanced at the same time.


I’d like to say a big thank you to Simon for going over all these techniques with us and to him, Dee and the girls for having us to stay!


p.s. If you want to know more about crevasse rescue and glacier safety, I will try and post something more comprehensive at a later date. Otherwise I’d recommend looking for instructional videos on websites like UK Climbing and YouTube (search for ‘crevasse rescue’, ‘ascending a rope’, ‘glacier travel’ etc.). But before venturing out to anywhere icy I thoroughly recommend getting proper instruction from a recognised mountain guide or attending a suitable course. Some useful sites with info on courses for UK based readers are the British Mountaineering Council, British Mountain Guides and Mountain Training.


Here are a small selection of other photos from my Alps trip. Enjoy!

Alps trip Part 1: Field site reccy

Once again I’ve had a bit of a gap between blog posts and once again this is because I’ve been very busy. This time my excuses are buying a house (a worryingly adult thing to do!) and a short trip to the Alps, which is the main subject of this post.

My Dad and I drove out to Chamonix in the French Alps where we stayed with Simon Abrahams, a mountain guide friend of Dad’s (check out his twitter for lots of nice pics of mountains). Both Dad and I were rusty on our glacier safety and crevasse rescue techniques so this was a grand opportunity to have Simon run through these drills with us. I also needed to road-test some new crampons that were replacing Dad’s old 1970s spikes that I’d been using previously. The impossibly difficult bindings of these retro crampons were often the source of a lot of colourful language at the end of a long day on the ice! I am not sorry to be shot of them.

After our tiring drive (sleeping in the car is always a bad idea), we decided to break ourselves in with a bit of a hike. I wanted to check out the Mer de Glace as a potential field site, so we decided to traverse across to the glacier from the mid station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 m above sea level), before descending back to Chamonix. The walk took around 6 hours, giving us a bit of acclimatisation time at a reasonable altitude.


I was impressed by how much the Mer de Glace has retreated and down-wasted over the last 150 years. The sign in the photo below indicates the level of the glacier surface in 1820 and you can see how much lower the ice is now. My Dad could see a huge change from the last time he visited in the 1980s and I could even see a reduction in the glacier’s size since I was last there in 2009. Evidence of climate warming in action!


This dramatic shrinkage is shocking but exactly what I’m looking for in terms of my own work – I need accessible glaciers with significant recent retreat. Clearly the Mer de Glace has the retreat box ticked and it even has a train service right up to the ice, bingo for accessibility! Even better, we have numerous paintings, sketches and photos (like the ones below) showing the extent of the glacier at its most recent advance, during the cooler period of the Little Ice Age at around AD 1800.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).  Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 and a zoomed in view of the snout position, with the snout marked by the white arrow.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).
Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 with a zoomed in view of the snout (marked in the main image by a white arrow).


On other hikes, I also had a look at the Glace des Bossons and the Glacier d’Argentiere as possible field sites. However both of these glaciers have retreated so much and so quickly that they have exposed polished bedrock and scree slopes around their snouts, which would be too unsafe to work on. When we were up near the Glacier d’Argentiere we witnessed 3-4 ice falls on the glacier snout over the course of around 20mins. I’d certainly not be keen to be getting up close to that!


So it looks like the Mer de Glace is going to be the optimal field site for me, if I decide to work in the Chamonix valley. Now I just have to write up some grant applications and work out the logistics!



Iceland Fieldwork & Road Trip 2011

Before I start I’d like to point out that Iceland is simply the kind of place that defies description. There are volcanos AND ice and, in several places, volcanoes under ice. It’s pretty cool. Plus for extra geography geekiness – Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the Eurasian and North American Plates are slowly pulling apart. We walked down the gorge between the plates, in some areas you can even scuba dive through the gap. Seriously awesome geology in action (I refer you to the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘geogasm’).

Before I get to talking about what I got up to I need to thank Gordon and Fran for letting me use their photos. Some of my own also feature, but I realised that I had somehow not taken any photos of several important places/ things and had to call on these guys for back-up. So merci beaucoup! As you go through the gallery you’ll see details of who took each photo in the captions.

The Fieldwork Bit

As part of our assessment at Edinburgh, we had to work in a team of three to produce a small fieldwork study on or around Eyjafjallajökull in South Iceland (that’s the volcano that caused all the European flight chaos in 2010). We were in the field for two weeks or so and the whole show was run by Prof. Andy Dugmore and his team of academics and PhD students. My fieldwork group decided to map the geomorphology of the Seljalandsá river above the impressive Seljalandsfoss waterfall. The hunch was that the waterfall is too greatly undercut for the relatively small volume of water currently flowing over it; perhaps this could be the site of a palaeo jökulhlaup?

For those who are not familiar with glacial hazard management, jökulhlaups are floods that suddenly surge out from underneath glaciers – the word in Icelandic literally means “glacier leap” because the ice surface lifts as the water passes beneath it. In Iceland the most common cause of these floods is the eruption of a volcano buried under ice. The heat from the eruption melts a load of the ice, creating a lake that jacks up the glacier until a critical level is reach when the water suddenly flows out as a jökulhlaup. These are no laughing matter cause a lot of damage and destruction. We even had to be temporarily added to the Icelandic government’s emergency text alert system. Apparently, if the volcano erupted during our stay we each would have received a text along the lines of ‘run for the hills, but not the one currently spewing out ash and noxious gases’.

Back to the science. Our research involved producing a series of river cross-sections and a long profile from the source of Seljalandsá to the waterfall. It also involved looking for potential palaeo-flood deposits by digging some holes and studying exposed sediment sections. We were keeping a look out for tephra (ash) layers in the soil as these can be linked to specific eruptions and used to relatively date any flood deposits that we came across. Although limited for time, we did get enough data to conclude that Seljalandsá probably was a palaeo jökulhlaup route. As well as the waterfall, there is a convincingly massive gorge and some suspicious-looking flood deposits – now we just need the Edinburgh academics to go back and confirm our findings. And we even managed to sneak in a fair few naps and Disney sing-a-longs during the fieldwork and the write-up. Productive time management!

The Road Trip Bit

After our fieldwork was done, eight geographers decided to brave the high alcohol prices and stay on a bit longer for a wee Icelandic road trip. Our first stop was Reykjavik where we picked up the dodgy hire cars (from the appropriately named ‘Sad Cars Rental’). To say that the cars were not the finest is massive understatement – the one I drove allowed you one of steering or breaks, but never both. At one point we had to jump-start a car in the pouring rain up in the hills using jump leads borrowed from a passing coach. And they didn’t get on terribly well with gravel roads (there are a lot of gravel roads in Iceland). We really missed the university’s Land Rovers! But the dodgy car mechanics were the only bad thing and having transport gave us the freedom to stop off at every glacier, beach, lake, waterfall or geyser that we passed.

I think I’d have to say Jökulsárlón was probably my favourite place. It’s a lake in front of a calving glacier snout. Calving is the process of ice bergs breaking off from a glacier, so this lake was absolutely filled with ice bergs of every shape and size. Incidentally, this is the place where they filmed the car chase on ice for the Bond film “Die Another Day”. One of the boys (you know who you are) decided to go for a swim a climbed up onto a berg – big mistake, the water was close to freezing and the ice shredded his hands and knees. We had to apply plasters, towels and hot chocolate pronto! But it did make for some suitably heroic photos. The beach outside the lake was also good for pictures, black sand strewn with ice bergs. Very photogenic!

Throughout the whole trip we were all massively geeking out at all the cool landscapes, you could tell we were physical geographers. But even if you’re not a geographer I would recommend that you check out Iceland, it’s an awesome place. Stick on some suitably dramatic music (the Jurassic Park theme, Lord of the Rings theme etc.) and go do a spot of Icelandic adventuring of you own.


Norway 2011


During my undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, I wanted to study the response of a glacier to recent climate change for my final year dissertation. First off, I had to find a nice glacier with plenty of available data in a straight-forward area to go and visit for some fieldwork – much easier said than done!

I eventually settled on Nigardsbreen, an outlet glacier of the Jostedalsbreen Ice Cap in Norway. Jostedalsbreen is the largest ice cap in mainland Europe and Nigardsbreen has the advantage of being only a 1hr hike from the nearest road. Plus the nice folks at the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) have a whole heap of data on it, which they very kindly allowed me to use for free. Along with more free data from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, this allowed me to analyse the response of the glacier to the increasingly warm climate from 1980-2011.

An essential component of this research required me to visit Nigardsbreen and map to glacier’s snout at very high resolution. Luckily, I was awarded a grant from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and was able to borrow all the scientific gear for free from Edinburgh Uni. Otherwise I could never have afforded to go!

So off I went with my dad and brother drafted in as field assistants/ general dogs-bodies. Luck mostly wasn’t with us – poor weather (think lots of rain and a nice dose of strong katabatic winds off the ice cap) plus knee injuries for both me and my brother, who had to be sent back to the UK in the end. But we did get the data I needed over a gruelling three weeks and arrived home the day before my 21st birthday. Not that I was up for much celebrating by that point!

Anyway, I found a marked retreat of the glacier since the early 1990s that correlated nicely with the temperature records. Good news for me but bad news for the glacier. If you are interested in my results then drop me an email (address available here), or alternatively there is a hard copy of my dissertation in the library of the Institute of Geography at the University of Edinburgh. For the rest of you – here are a selection of nice fieldwork photos.

p.s. Big thanks to Astrid who ran the campsite we were based out of. She literally couldn’t do enough to help us and was just fantastic. If you ever find yourself in the area, I definitely recommend her campsite and cabins as well as her sister’s (or possibly some other relation’s) hotel. Here is her website.

All the Norwegian scientists I spoke with were also great and very generous with their data. There are so many nice people just across the North Sea!

Antarctic Fieldwork 2012

A few snaps I took on expedition last season to the Patriot Hills, West Antarctica.

I was part of a three person team collecting surface ice samples and shallow ice cores on the blue ice below the Patriot Hills. The gas trapped in these samples is being analysed to inform our understanding of the region’s long-term climate. The expedition was run by the University of New South Wales as part of the Ellsworth Mountains Project – look out for publications of the results by Prof Chris Turney and Dr Chris Fogwill. These guys are currently sailing back to Antarctica to follow in the footsteps of the great Aussie explorer Douglas Mawson, you can follow their expedition’s progress here.