John Groves is a glaciologist working this summer with British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) to take a team of young students to a Norwegian glacier field for weeks of research, adventure, and personal growth. As a BSES 2013 Arctic Odyssey Expedition science leader, Groves will take four TimelapseCam 8.0 cameras with him. Wingscapes recently caught up with him in the United Kingdom to hear more about his upcoming odyssey to the Arctic Circle.
Q: What’s the British Schools Exploring Society and how did you get involved?
JG: They are a charitable group based in London that organizes youth development expeditions to remote places in the world, with a hearty emphasis on science. I went on a BSES expedition myself as a young person in 2007. We went up to the Yukon and were doing science there, some geology and some animal trapping as well. I really enjoyed the expedition and thought I should give something back.
Q: Who’ll join your Arctic expedition this summer?
JG: We’ve got an expedition of about 50 young people aged between 16 and 20, most of them between 16 and 18. The expeditions as a whole are personal development expeditions, so we encourage them to do their own fund-raising to pay for their places. The majority do things like sponsored climbs.
We also have a group of 11 trainee leaders, who are 18 to 25. They have their own leadership-by-mentoring experience. And then we have a team of 10 science and adventure leaders, a chief mountaineer, a base camp manager, and three doctors.
Q: Where will the expedition team go?
JG: We’re going to a place called Øksfjordjøkelen—the spelling is pretty intense—and we’re doing quite a lot of glaciology. We’ll be there five weeks, though some of the young people, some leaders, and one of the trainee leaders will be coming back after three weeks.

In July, we are flying out to Oslo and then to Alta and getting a bus from Alta to our basecamp. We’re camping at the base of an ice field. We’ll spend the first part of the trip training the young people how to walk on the ice, how to work with ropes, things like that—essential safety stuff. Then we’ll split up into what BSES calls “fires.” The idea is to have groups consisting of the ideal amount of people you can get around a fire so you’re not too warm and you’re not too cold. We’ll split into fires of 10 young people and two leaders—a fully qualified mountain leader and the science leader, who also does a lot of outdoors stuff but has the science perspective as well.  We’ll then go around the area exploring.

We’ll take seven- or eight-day journeys away from base camp, taking scientific measurements and climbing big mountains and things like that. The five fires are split up between five different sciences: glaciology, geology, an atmospherics fire looking at airborne pollutants, a geomorphology fire looking at the landscape that’s been left by the previous ice, and a marine biology fire looking at some of the wildlife on the shores of the fjords.
Q: Sounds like a great adventure for the young people! What do the scientists gain from it?
JG: I have a massive adventure as well! I absolutely love doing anything like this whenever I possibly can. So I suppose there is that selfish element of wanting to get out on the ice for five weeks. I’m looking forward to it.

I also like to get other people involved in science. I think that science, particularly the way the language is written, can exclude quite a lot of people. I try to make it accessible, because you can see when science makes people change their perspective or when they’re genuinely interested. That’s one of the reasons I’m going—to get these young people more interested in science.
Q: How did you make the connection with Wingscapes cameras?
JG: My original degree is in physical geography from Aberystwyth University in Wales, and I have a masters in glaciology as well from the Center for Glaciology in Aberystwyth. I went back to the university and asked them the best way to use timelapse cameras. They gave me this huge list of equipment I’d need, massive amounts of stuff. So I did a little research by myself and found Wingscapes. They make perfectly good, weatherproof—which is important—timelapse cameras. I emailed them and gave them my ideas. They jumped onboard, donating four cameras to the expedition. I feel the timelapse system Wingscapes offers is the most cost-effective way of producing scientific timelapse data.
Q: What do you hope to study with the cameras?
JG: You can get quite good images of the glaciers retreating if you take timelapse photography. The best glacier investigations last three or four years, but you have to take into account that the glacier is going to move out of frame. Plus, keeping cameras going during the winter when it can get down to 80 below can be really tricky.

We’ve got four cameras and four solar panels. There will be two cameras set up that will record for the entire five weeks. The first will be set up on a tripod at the base of one of the glaciers. I’ll take photographs every half hour, and that will show changes in the hydrological discharge—the water—coming off the glacier. When the temperature’s colder, you expect there to be less water because more of it’s frozen up into ice, and when it warms, you get more water coming off. We could get lucky—we could capture some calving events, which is when big chunks of the glacier fall off. But I reckon I’ll get some visible retreat from the glacier in that amount of time, because they’re shrinking quite quickly up in Norway. They did a big investigation in 2005, and it’s changed drastically since then. So hopefully I should get some really good images.

The second camera will be set up before we get there by the advance party, and that will record the impact the base camp has on the area. It will take a photo every half hour for the whole five weeks so we can see our impact. We want to get the young people to think: Is our expedition justified? Are we doing more harm than good? Things like that.

One of the cameras is being taken by the geomorphology fire, and I think they’re going to use it to look at river discharge. Their leader is also doing some repeat photography. He’s found photos that were taken back in 1995, or maybe earlier, and he’s going to try to get to the exact same places and take repeat photos. He might use the timelapse camera for that.

The fourth camera is in quite high demand among the other scientists. I think they might end up doing a few little projects over the course of two to three days or maybe even an hour. I’m weighing what they’re proposing to me so I can give it to the best projects.
Q: Have you been working with the cameras for long?
JG: I tested all the cameras out at the briefing weekend, which was the first time we were all together as an expedition. They all work really well. The day I set one up in the garden at home, it hailed, snowed, rained, and was really, really windy. It survived everything fine.
Q: What other research will your glaciology fire be doing?
JG: In 1994, two glaciologists actually managed to get under the glacier into a big ice cave. It went back through the glacier for about 100 feet. It would be great to find that cave and see how much it’s retreated. The only real investigations done there since have been from aerial photos. Apart from those guys in 1994, no one’s been on the ground and gotten a good feel about how the glacier’s behaving. If I could replicate their methods and find out where the cave’s gone, that’d be a really good finding.

I’ve got a list of the other glaciology stuff we’re doing as well as the timelapse photography.  We’re going to look at the stream discharge on the glacier and do things like injecting salt into the stream and measuring it downstream so we can find out how the hydrology of the glacier works. We’ll also do some mapping of the glacier snouts to see if they’ve retreated at all. The timelapse cameras are going to be really good. I don’t like looking at a lot of numbers and graphs. They turn people off. But I’m hoping that some of the pictures we’re going to get will be excellent.
Q: What do you expect will be the expedition’s biggest challenges?
JG: I think the greatest challenge for some of the young people will be the huge amount of time spent away from home. For a lot of these young people, it’ll be the first time they’ve ever been away from home for more than a weekend. It can be quite a strain—not just being away from home but being away from things like your computer and your dog, things you take for granted. But you make such good friends on these expeditions that by the end of it, when you get home, you wish you were there again.
From a scientific perspective, I think the biggest challenge will be the power source on the cameras. The one factor I haven’t been able to fully test yet is whether they’ll go down to the temperature we’ll need them to. It should be below freezing pretty much all the time.

Wingscapes has helped, however, by giving me the solar panels. For the first three weeks we’ll have 24-hour sunlight; the sun won’t dip below the horizon at all. So solar power is pretty much the best way to generate power. I’m hoping that will work out fine, and I’m pretty confident it should.
Q: How will the results of your research be used?
JG: It will be published in the year-end report for BSES. We try to get the young people to take the initiative and write up their own little bits for magazines that they might have at school. Equally, they could give presentations to their classes at school. People have also written peer-reviewed academic journal articles based on evidence they’ve collected in a BSES expedition. It’s all what you want to make of it. We just try to get them to follow the whole procedure through. When you’ve done the investigation, you don’t just walk away from it. You’ve got to look at the data and judge how you’re going to disseminate that data amongst other people.

Best of luck with the trip, John. We hope to connect later this fall to see what kinds of images and videos the expedition captures!