sealPurdue News

May 1996

Purdue scientists glimpse inside of a glacier

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A researcher's novel approach to studying glaciers is providing a rare view of what goes on 450 feet inside a glacier.

Jon Harbor, associate professor of earth sciences at Purdue University, and two Purdue students traveled to Switzerland last summer to drill holes in a glacier and gather video images from inside it.

The images show a network of changing ice structures and channels and streams that allow water to flow through the glacier. A 24-minute highlights video that shows changes in ice type within the glacier, and rare images of openings and streams inside the glacier, was shown in April at the 1996 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Charlotte, N.C.

"People tend to think of a glacier as a big chunk of solid ice, but really there are a lot of internal structures and channels, allowing water to flow quite freely through some areas," Harbor says.

Harbor and undergraduate Marie Minner and graduate student Luke Copland used a high-pressure hot water drilling system to drill 25 boreholes vertically through the Arolla Glacier, located 15 miles west of the Matterhorn in southern Switzerland. The holes were six inches in diameter and ranged in depth from 100 feet to more than 450 feet. A special waterproof, miniature video camera was lowered down the holes to get a view of the internal structure of the glacier.

"The inside of glaciers are typically inaccessible," Copland says, "and our video camera work has provided unique information on ice structures and water channels in a glacier. These are exciting images that give us a way to look at something few people have ever seen before."

For example, the group found drainage channels within the glacier. Small rocks and patches of sediment, which fell on the surface of the ice long ago and have been pushed down into the glacier, also were visible.

"We were surprised by how clearly we could see through the ice," Harbor says. "At greater depths, it was somewhat similar to looking through clear glass."

The Purdue scientists are part of an international research team involved in a wide range of scientific studies on the Arolla Glacier. The projects are designed to study how the glacier flows and look at the way in which water melting on and under the glacier controls the flow of the ice.

The group also is investigating how water eventually drains out of the glacier. Water from the Arolla glacier is diverted into a reservoir impounded by the highest-elevation dam in the world. The reservoir holds water for hydroelectric power generation, supplying approximately 20 percent of Switzerland's electricity needs.

The Purdue group will return to the glacier in July to continue measuring how the internal structure of the ice flows and how the internal structure of the glacier ice changes over time.

The video produced by the team is being used in classes at several universities in the United States and more than 15 countries, and it has been shown at several professional scientific meetings. The video is narrated by Minner, whose involvement in the project was funded under a special Research Experience for Undergraduates grant from the National Science Foundation.

Sources: Jon Harbor, (765) 494-9610; Internet,
Luke Copland, (765) 494-0258; Internet,
Writer: Susan Gaidos, (765) 494-2081; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A color photo of graduate student Luke Copland using a miniature video system to view inside a glacier is available from Purdue News Service. Ask for the photo called Glacier/Harbor or download here. Copies of the video also are available.

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page