Photo Friday: Engabreen Glacier and Subglacial Laboratory

This Photo Friday, glaciologist Miriam Jackson takes us to Engabreen, a northern outlet glacier from Norway’s western Svartisen ice cap. Engabreen is Norway’s fastest retreating glacier and is also home to a subglacial observatory.

There can be 6-8 metres of snow during the winter (the record was 11 m in 1997), so the mass balance stakes and towers are visited in February or early March (Source: Miriam Jackson)

According to Jackson, the glacier previously covered the lake but retreated during the 1930s. However, there was a glacier advance during the late 1980s and 1990s. During that time the glacier tongue came all the way down to the proglacial and moraine-dammed Lake Engabrevatnet at two meters above sea level, but the glacier has retreated about 600 meters since 1999––with one third of that occurring in just the last two years. The glacier terminus now sits about 140 meters above sea level.

Dr. Miriam Jackson at the entrance to the Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory (Source: Miriam Jackson)

Jackson is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate chapter on high mountains.

Source: Miriam Jackson

The nearly 40-square kilometer Engabreen Glacier (also referred to as Engenbreen) is also the location of the Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory. The lab is situated under 200 meters of ice, with direct access to the glacier bed, and has been the site of unique glaciological experiments since 1992. Remarkably, the subglacial science center includes the following facilities for researchers:

  • Fully-equipped living quarters with beds for up to 8 researchers in four bedrooms, kitchen with cooking facilities, dining/living area, bathroom and shower.
  • Three laboratory rooms, freezer and workshop;
  • Hot-water system for melting subglacial tunnels;
  • Electronics supplies, extensive tool inventory and heavy equipment;
  • External telephone system.
The heights of mass balance stakes and towers are recorded (of the ones that are found – sometimes several of them are buried under the snow) and they are extended with extra stakes or tower joints so that they can be found during the accumulation measurements in May (Source: Miriam Jackson).

The mass balance of Engabreen has been measured annually since 1970. Jackson said the measurements consist of accumulation measurements in May, to see how much snow accumulated over the previous winter, and minimum measurements in September, to see how much snow and ice melted during the summer. Since Engabreen is a maritime glacier with high snow accumulation and high melt rate, there are extra measurements in the winter and summer. Click here for a gallery of Engabreen images dating back to 1885.

A tourist cabin at Engabreen, which is also utilized by glaciologists (Source: Miriam Jackson).
Engabreen Glacier as photographed in 1885 (Source: Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate)

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