Robert Wills Home     |     Newer     |     Older    

Landscapes and Climate

Friday, September 7, 2012

If you were to ask me whether I was working or on vacation for the last two weeks, I would have a hard time saying. Thats not to say I wasn't productive. I'm not sure I've ever learned so much in such a short period. I am overflowing with new ideas to implement in my research. But I was living in a hut perched beneath one of the highest mountains in Norway, going on a hike every day, and hanging out with an amazing group of people from all over the world. The Advanced Climate Dynamics Course (or ACDC for short) was the most fun couple weeks of science I have ever had and has got me excited to return to Caltech and jump back into my research project.

Pondering the landscape.
Pondering the landscape.

Snøheim is a hut run by the Norwegian Alpine Club a short hike from the 2nd tallest mountain in Norway, Snøhuetta. The surrounding landscape is quite barren, nothing grows besides lichen because it is just below the elevation of permafrost. There are jagged rocks broken up by ice cracking as far as the eye can see. This gives it an alien feel that is hard to rival. The landscape was carved by glaciers and many are still at work nearby. This makes it a great place to learn about glacial erosion, one segment of our topic, landscapes and climate.

Landscapes and climate means, at least for us, the study of how climate, in particular precipitation, affects the shapes and sizes of mountains and valleys and how these topographic features in turn affect the climate by changing the wind patterns in the atmosphere. For me this meant a crash course in geology. I have never taken a class in geology, so it was a bit of a surprise when we started talking about plate tectonics on day 1 and erosional processes on day 2.

Snøheim.
Snøheim.

I had also never been on a geology field trip and I got the chance in Snøheim. A geology field trip is basically just a hike. We went on an all day hike around the mountain and looked at glaciers and moraines and rocks. I really like learning about certain parts of geology, mainly erosion of landscapes by glaciers and rivers, but learning about a rock and its history bores me to tears. So there was some interesting stuff and some boring stuff, but hiking the whole time so it was great. We went on an even better field trip later in the week where we went to Rondane National Park and walked around there. Rondane is a beautiful landscape of moss covered hillsides. The moss here is almost white so it gives the mountains a very strange look that is beautiful in pictures. There are some trees there but they are sparse enough that you can really see the landscape. The geology we came to see was a series of glacial and fluvial erosion features caused by the retreating landscape. This is exactly the kind of geology I enjoy and I really loved learning about it. On the way back I was in such a daze looking at the scenery and taking pictures that I fell behind the group and had a peaceful walk by myself.

Rondane National Park.
Rondane National Park.

At the end of the day of hiking we had a dinner cooked over the campfire by a Norwegian chef at an extremely beautiful spot next to a lake in Rondane. The dinner was trout, potatoes, and vegetables, which doesn't sound too special but it was really good and quite a culinary experience. This was the second of two nights with the same cook. The previous night he had made many aperitifs that we ate while crammed into a teepee on top of raindeer skin rugs. Both of these dinners were such great experiences and felt very authentically Norwegian.

Eating around the campfire in Rondane.
Eating around the campfire in Rondane.

The food at Snøheim was not quite a culinary experience but it was at least authentically Norwegian. In the morning we had a buffet for breakfast and to make our own bag lunch. It was standard stuff like sandwiches, crackers, oatmeal, and cereal. I ate several brown cheese and jelly sandwiches every day which is a very Norwegian thing to do. Brown cheese is a Norwegian cheese that is a mix of goat cheese and cow cheese but really doesn't taste much like cheese at all. It honestly tastes a bit like peanut butter which is why its good with jelly. I don't think I will have convinced any of you reading this to try it based on that description but it really is amazing. I am going to have to find a way to get ahold of some brown cheese back in the states. Dinner was soup potato, veggies, and meat every day. All that changed was the type of soup and type of meat. This was way to meaty for me so I was mostly going with the vegetarian option which was a rotation between spring rolls and cows-cous. Not a lot of variety but really not that bad. I was putting lingenberry sauce (like cranberry sauce) on everything because I needed a way to flavor things. I really like lingenberry sauce now. We did have one other very special meal where we went down to nearby Kongsvold (some of us hiked there) for a fancy meal including musk ox carpachio. It was funny because I had just seen musk ox on the very pleasant hike down into Kongsvold. I also saw reindeer which we ate at various points as well. I mostly kept to being a vegetarian but not for special Norwegian things such as those.

Preparing dinner in the teepee.
Preparing dinner in the teepee.

One thing that made the summer school a lot of fun is that we got a three hour lunch break every day during which we were encouraged to go hiking. I took advantage of this most days and really go to know the area. When the sun was out the area made for great photography with mossy rocks as foreground for rugged peaks. On two of the days we had a bit of extra time for hiking and were able to get to the two nearest peaks, Snøhuetta and Snøhuetta Vesttoppen (West Top). Vesttoppen was the much more rugged but slightly lower peak. It had shear views down onto the glacier. We went up on a cloudy, snowy day and could see the glacier but not much of the other views around.

The glacier.
The glacier.

The day we went to the main top was the sunniest day of our time there and we had great views in all directions. One of my many new friends, Perry and I were feeling extra motivated and decided to run up. It was a little too rocky for that so we alternated between running and scrambling. It took an hour and a half to get to the top so we had plenty of time to explore. The mountain had been lightly dusted with snow the previous night and looked gorgeous. Another memorable hike was a hike up to the nearby lake for a cold swim on our last day. It was quite refreshing and fun to swim in the glacial melt water. Such things always are. We did so much hiking while we were there that we were even a bit burnt out by the end, but I saw so much cool stuff and the hiking really kept me energized for science every day.

The side of Snøhuetta.
The side of Snøhuetta.

Regardless of all the reasons that made this summer school a special experience in terms of fun activities, it was an amazing scientific opportunity as well. I already mentioned that it allowed me to get a working knowledge of some important geology concepts and make some connections in the geology community, expanding my horizons. I also learned about aspects of the climate system that were somewhat new to me and a bit of meteorology which I had never been exposed to before. The most exciting part of the conference scientifically was to be able to collaborate with scientists in other fields and come up with original ideas in areas of overlap between our research. One area of overlap which is probably going to become my thesis project is the building of mountain ranges and their influence on climate. It is usually taught that mountains rise and get their shapes by tectonic plates crashing together. While this is mostly true, it is important to consider that this tectonic uplift must be balanced by the erosive processes on the surface so that no additional rock accumulates in one place. For this reason, it is the balance of erosion and tectonic uplift that determines the shape of mountains. It is therefore important to consider where precipitation falls around a mountain and how this influences erosion of the mountain.

For my research, I hope to model global rainfall in a way that is useful for studies of erosion. This involves modeling not just the mean rainfall in a location, but also how much it varies from day to day. With this information in hand I hope to gain some insight into how mountain ranges evolve over time. This information is also useful for more immediate concerns like the severity of regional flooding. I now feel like I have a concrete idea of what I will be doing for research for the next four years and I am very excited about it. I think the key thing I learned from summer school is how my ideas fit into the big picture of earth science. That in itself is a huge accomplishment for a two week summer school.

Teaching the high schoolers about weather stations.
Teaching the high schoolers about weather stations.

Near the end of the summer school I got the opportunity to do some fun outreach, leading a geology field trip of my own for local high school students. We went on a half day hike up to the glacier where my fellow guide Shawn and I were able to teach the kids about glaciers, glacial flour, ice cracking, lichens, weather stations, and much more. This whole conference was a great experience scientifically and otherwise. I'm now working on writing up a review letter about the ideas that we synthesized. I'm excited at this opportunity to get my ideas into writing

Swimming during our last day in Snøheim.
Swimming during our last day in Snøheim.

It was sad to see everyone go there separate ways at the end of our time in Snøheim. I hope that in the future I am able to cross paths with the people I met there and that I am able to visit Norway once again. Thank you to everyone who made this an incredible experience.