field research

Imaggeo on Mondays: In-tents Icelandic sunset

Imaggeo on Mondays: In-tents Icelandic sunset

This photograph was taken at the campsite near lake Mỳvatn during a field trip to Iceland. Every year a group of students from Wageningen University travels from the Netherlands to Iceland for a weeklong excursion as part of a course on catchment hydrology. The aim of the trip is to provide students with real life examples of the processes they learned during their lectures.

After a rainy morning that day, tents and equipment were packed away as quickly as possible in order to escape the wetness. The drive took the group from the campsite in Höfn, at the foot of the Vatnajökull glacier in southeastern Iceland, along the coastal highway up north towards Myvatn. Iceland is famous for its raw and beautiful nature, with waterfalls seemingly around every corner and the imposing presence of the glaciers and volcanos in the distance.

Upon our arrival at the campsite in the evening, people begrudgingly noticed that the tents were still wet from the morning rain. The campsite was situated at the bottom of a formidable hill, which provided stunning views over the lake and landscape. Not wanting to sleep in a damp tent, a few students picked up their tents, dismantled them, went up the hill and let the evening breeze do the rest, all amid the backdrop of a stunning sunset. The desire for dry covers even outweighed the very real danger of being eaten alive by masses of midges, a known pest and hazard in these parts.

When camping there is always things that can go wrong. But for places like Iceland it is the only way to truly appreciate and experience the country’s stunning beauty and wilderness. Gazing up at the northern lights from your sleeping bag is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While waking up in the middle of the night and having to put on boots and jacket to run to the bathroom is vexing, you might be rewarded with views of the top of the glacier that has been shrouded in clouds all day, making it seem like Zeus himself is taking a peek down from Mount Olympus to see what is going on. Iceland has to be experienced, not from a cosy hotel bed, but from a tent put up in the evening and taken down the next day. As Albert Einstein once said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”. Even if that means hiking up a hill and holding your tent up into the wind to dry.

By Maria Warter, PhD student at Cardiff University


GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Federico Bianchi, a researcher based at University of Helsinki, working on understanding how clouds are born. Federico’s quest to find out has taken him from laboratory experiments at CERN, through to the high peaks of the Alps and to the clean air of the Himalayan mountains. His innovative experimental approach and impressive publication record, only three years out of his PhD, have been recognised with one of four Arne Richter Awards for Outstanding Early Career Scientists in 2017.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am an enthusiastic atmospheric chemist  with a passion for the mountains. My father introduced me to chemistry and my mother comes from the Alps. This mix is probably the reason why I ended up doing research at high altitude.

I studied chemistry at the University of Milan where I got my degree in 2009.  During my bachelor and master thesis I investigated atmospheric issues affecting the polluted Po’ Valley in Northern Italy and since then I have always  worked as an atmospheric chemist.

I did my PhD at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland where I mainly worked at the CLOUD experiment at CERN. After that, I used the acquired knowledge to study the same phenomena, first, at almost 4000 m in the heart of the Alps and later at the Everest Base Camp.

I did one year postdoc at the ETH in Zurich and now I have my own Fellowship paid by the Swiss National Science Foundation to conduct research at high altitude with the support of the University of Helsinki.

We are all intimately familiar with clouds. They come in all shapes and sizes and are bringers of shade, precipitation, and sometimes even extreme weather. But most of us are unlikely to have given much thought to how clouds are born. So, how does it actually happen?

We all know that the air is full of water vapor, however, this doesn’t mean that we have clouds all the time.

When air rises in the atmosphere it cools down and after reaching a certain humidity it will start to condense and form a cloud droplet. In order to form such a droplet the water vapor needs to condense on a cloud seed that is commonly known as a cloud condensation nuclei. Pure water droplets would require conditions that are not present in our atmosphere. Therefore, it is a good assumption to say that each cloud droplet contains a little seed.

At the upcoming General Assembly you’ll be giving a presentation highlighting your work on understanding how clouds form in the free troposphere. What is the free troposphere and how is your research different from other studies which also aim to understand how clouds form?

The troposphere, the lower part of the atmosphere, is subdivided in two different regions. The first is in contact with the Earth’s surface and is most affected by human activity. This one is called the planetary boundary layer, while the upper part is the so called free troposphere.

From several studies we know that a big fraction of the cloud seeds formed in the free troposphere are produced by a gas-to-particles conversion (homogeneous nucleation), where different molecules of unknown substances get together to form tiny particles. When the conditions are favourable they can grow into bigger sizes and potentially become cloud condensation nuclei.

In our research, we are the first ones to take state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude.

Federico has taken state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude. Credit: Federico Bianchi

At the General Assembly you plan on talking about how some of the processes you’ve identified in your research are potentially very interesting in order to understand the aerosol conditions in the pre-industrial era (a time period for when information is very scarce). Could you tell us a little more about that?

Aerosols are defined as solid or liquid particles suspended in a gas. They are very important because they can have an influence on the Earth’s climate, mainly by interacting with the solar radiation and cooling temperatures.

The human influence on the global warming estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (known as the IPCC) is calculated based on a difference between the pre-industrial era climate indicators and the present day conditions. While we are starting to understand the aerosols present currently, in the atmosphere, we still know very little about the conditions before the industrial revolution.

For many years it has been thought that the atmosphere is able to produce new particles/aerosol only if sulphur dioxide (SO2) is present. This molecule is a vapor mainly emitted by combustion processes; which, prior to the industrial revolution was only present in the atmosphere at low concentrations.

For the first time, results from our CLOUD experiments, published last year,  proved that organic vapours emitted by trees, such as alpha-pinene, can also nucleate and form new particles, without the presence of SO2. In a parallel study, we also observed that pure organic nucleation can take place in the free troposphere.

We therefore have evidence that the presence of sulphur dioxide isn’t necessary to make such a mechanism possible. Finally, with all this new information, we are able to say that indeed, in the pre-industrial era the atmosphere was able to produce new particles (clouds seeds) by oxidation of vapors emitted by the vegetation.

Often, field work can be a very rewarding part of the research process, but traditional research papers have little room for relaying those experiences. What were the highlights of your time in the Himalayas and how does the experience compare to your time spent carrying out laboratory experiments?

Doing experiments in the heart of the Himalayas is rewarding. But life at such altitude is tough. Breathing, walking and thinking is made difficult by the lack of oxygen at high altitudes.

I have always been a scientists who enjoys spending time in the laboratory. For this reason I very much liked  the time I spent in CERN, although, sometimes it was quite stressful. Being part of such a large international collaboration and being able to actively do science was a major achievement for me. However, when I realized I could also do what I love in the mountains, I just couldn’t  stop myself from giving it a go.

The first experiment in the Alps was the appetizer for the amazing Himalayan experience. During this trip, we first travelled to Kathmandu, in Nepal. Then, we flew to Luckla (hailed as one of the scariest airport in the world) and we started our hiking experience, walking from Luckla (2800 m) up to the Everest Base Camp (5300 m). We reached the measurement site after a 6 days hike through Tibetan bridges, beautiful sherpa villages, freezing nights and sweaty days. For the whole time we were surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. The cultural element was even more interesting. Meeting new people from a totally different culture was the cherry on the cake.

However I have to admit that it was not always as easy as it sounds now. Life at such altitude is tough. It is difficult to breath, difficult to walk and to install the heavy instrumentation. In addition to that, the temperature in your room during nights goes well below zero degrees. The low oxygen doesn’t really help your thinking, especially we you need to troubleshoot your instrumentation. It happens often that after such journey, the instruments are not functioning properly.

I can say that, as a mountain and science lover, this was just amazing. Going on a field campaign is definitely the  best part of this beautiful job.

To finish the interview I wanted to talk about your career. Your undergraduate degree was in chemistry. Many early career scientists are faced with the option (or need) to change discipline at sometime throughout their studies or early stages of their career. How did you find the transition and what advice would you have for other considering the same?

As I said before, I studied chemistry and by the end of my degree my favourite subject moved to atmospheric chemistry. The atmosphere is a very complex system and in order to study it, we need a multidisciplinary approach. This forced me to learn several other aspects that I had never been in touch with before. Nowadays, I still define myself as a chemist, although my knowledge base is very varied.

I believe that for a young scientist it is very important to understand which are his or her strengths and being able to take advantage of them. For example, in my case, I have used my knowledge in chemistry and mass spectrometry to try to understand the complex atmospheric system.

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work.

What is in your field rucksack? Backpacking in the wilderness

When hiking to altitudes above 2000 m packing light is crucial! Credit: Alexa Van Eaton

When hiking to altitudes above 2000 m packing light is crucial! Credit: Alexa Van Eaton

Inspired by a post on Lifehacker on what your average geologist carries in their rucksack/backpack, we’ve put together a few blog posts showcasing what a range of our EGU members carry in their bags whilst in the field!

This bag belongs to: Alexa Van Eaton

Field Work location: Glacier Peak volcano, Washington, USA

Duration of field work: 12 days

What was the aim of the research?: Glacier Peak is an ice-clad stratovolcano in Washington State, USA. Even though it is the second most explosive volcano in the Cascade Range (behind Mount St. Helens), it is so remote that most people haven’t even heard of it. Unlike Mount St. Helens, Hood or Rainier, the volcano can’t be seen from any of the major cities in the Pacific Northwest. This summer, we spent 12 days backpacking through the Glacier Peak Wilderness area to investigate the volcano’s eruptive history.

Fuel is important during field work too! Credit: Alexa Van Eaton (click to enlarge)

Fuel is important during field work too! Credit: Alexa Van Eaton

One specific aim was to document the deposits from two large, explosive eruptions that occurred about 13.5 thousand years ago. These eruptions transported volcanic ash all the way out to the east coast of the USA, and likely beyond. But the detailed story of what really happened during those eruptions—and why they occurred in the first place—is best recorded in the thick deposits close to the volcano. Getting to these sites high on Glacier Peak meant backpacking to about 7,000 ft [over 2000 m ] elevation through dense forest.

Roughly half the time we would set up a base camp and coordinate day hikes for the mapping and stratigraphic work. Other times we would traverse with our gear to cover more ground. That made the backpack situation pretty crucial. During last year’s fieldwork my backpack was way too heavy (maybe ~40 pounds?), so this time I was committed to slimming it all down, without sacrificing the essentials (e.g., coffee and chocolate…). This year my base weight was ~8 pounds lighter, which made a huge difference.

The one item I couldn’t live without: Cold-weather down sleeping bag (rated to -16degC). A close runner-up would be my 1944 US Army entrenching shovel. It’s vintage and ridiculously heavy, but nothing does a better job of chopping climbing steps into steep tephra outcrops just when you need it.

USGS summer intern Kristin Beck enjoying the view of Glacier Peak volcano from 7,000 ft. elevation. Credit: Alexa Van Eaton

USGS summer intern Kristin Beck enjoying the view of Glacier Peak volcano from 7,000 ft. elevation. Credit: Alexa Van Eaton


If you’ve been on field work recently, or work in an industry that requires you to carry equipment, and would like the contents of your bag to feature on the blog, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact the EGU’s Communication Officer, Laura Roberts (

Imaggeo on Mondays: Home Sweet Home

Imaggeo on Mondays: Home Sweet Home

Can you imagine camping atop some of the highest mountains in Europe and waking up to a view of snowcapped peaks, deep valleys and endless blue skies? This paints an idyllic picture; field work definitely takes Earth scientists to some of the most beautiful corners of the planet. But, there often are two sides to one story. Kaspar Merz and André Nuber, researchers at ETH Zurich, who took today’s featured image, no doubt appreciated the wondrous beauty of their surroundings, but also experienced the perils of carrying out research in remote locations first hand. Be prepared to learn about some very interesting geoscience as well as reading about a true fieldwork adventure!

In this picture our basecamp on the Furggwanghorn rock glacier is shown, home to four researchers (Marco Bonamore, Dominik Zbinden and the authors) for almost a week in early spring 2012. From here we conducted geophysical measurements, trying to reveal the internal structure of the permafrost body below our feet.

Located in the Swiss Alps at an altitude of around 2700 masl, this rock glacier lies at the lower limit of the permafrost in the Alps and is therefore highly affected by increasing mean annual surface temperatures. It shows movement rates of up to 4 m/yr and deep crevices open as a result of this deformation.

Researchers from the fields of geophysics, hydrology and geotechnical engineering made an interdisciplinary effort to understand the mechanical principles that govern the behavior of warming, degrading rock glaciers. This knowledge is essential for assessing risks associated with thawing permafrost, like rock fall, landslides and other instabilities.

Field camp for geophysical investigations of permafrost at the Furggwanghorn rock glacier. Credit: André Nuber.

Field camp for geophysical investigations of permafrost at the Furggwanghorn rock glacier. Credit: André Nuber.

With our geophysical measurements we were able to describe the internal structure of the Furggwanghorn rock glacier in great detail. The most fascinating discovery was a shear zone located at around 20m depth below the surface, where almost all of the deformation takes place. This finding was confirmed by inclinometer measurements in boreholes, and lead to a novel rock glacier model. Based on thin-skin tectonics, this model explains the formation of different generations of rock glacier lobes and it can be used as a basis for mechanical modelling of the entire permafrost body and its deformation.

The field campaign got a bit more demanding than intended. Our plan was to stay for two days and one night but a sudden fog made it impossible for the helicopter to pick us up for return. We decided to stay for one more night and ski down to the valley the next morning. But 50 cm of fresh snow did not only make our tent collapse, but it also severely increased the avalanche risk preventing us from skiing down. We therefore had no other choice but to stay until the helicopter could fly again, which was three days later!

By André Nuber and Kaspar Merz researchers at ETH Zurich


If you pre-register for the 2016 General Assembly (Vienna, 17 – 22 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at