Using Kayaks and Drones to Explore Glaciers

Field study sounds cool: a group of scientists take boats out into untraveled waters on an important scientific mission, even witnessing extraordinary scenery like an iceberg calving event along the journey. However, the breathtaking beauty of such a trip can also come at a price, sometimes even human life!

“I like working in Alaska, but I face the difficulties of any ice or ocean research project,” said Erin Pettit, an associate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pettit finds it hard to find a reliable boat and captain for her trips, and too much ice in the fjord often limits how close she can get to the glaciers. The risks to her personal safety rise when she has to work on cold or rainy days.

A group of scientists are collecting data from Le Conte Glacier (source: Cal Dail/Flickr).

“It can be really dangerous in Alaska, so we send the kayaks out,” said June Marion, the principal engineer for a new study using remote-controlled kayaks to research Le Conte Glacier. The oceanic robotic kayaks are controlled by a laptop a few miles away, according to Marion.

“When the calving event happens and an iceberg falls onto the kayak, we do not need to sacrifice valuable human life,” she said. “More importantly, the kayak can go further into unexplored regions. We are more hopeful to collect data.”

Mechanical engineer June Marion works on the kayak’s engine assisted by her dad, Bobby Brown. Working on the rear kayak is robotics science students Nick McComb and Corwin Perren (source: Angela Denning / NOAA).

With a radio controller or a computer, the researchers navigate the kayak by clicking on points on a map, sending the kayak directly to the location for study. The engine can even be started using a computer program.

“There are always new technologies being used on glaciers,” said Pettit.

Guillaume Jouvet et al. figured out another way for scientists to avoid danger during field work. They used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, to study calving of the Bowdoin Glacier in Greenland in 2015. They combined satellite images, UAV photogrammetry, and ice flow modeling, drawing important conclusions from the results.

With UAVs, researchers are able to obtain high-resolution orthoimages taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, including major calving events. In this way, Jouvet et al.’s study demonstrates that UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modeling can be a safer tool to study glaciers.

Measurement of surface temperature of a glacier using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) (source: W. Immerzeel et al.).

This technology has also been successfully applied to monitor Himalayan glacier dynamics: the UAVs can be used over high-altitude, debris-covered glaciers, with images of glacier elevation and surface changes derived at very high resolutions, according to W. Immerzeel et al.. UAVs can be further revolutionized to develop current glacier monitoring methods.

Scientists like Marion and Pettit are excited to see these new technologies developed to study glaciers and save lives. They are hoping for more methods to achieve this goal.

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