Celebrating Student Science: Icelandic Adventures

Jonathan Hillaby, Devin Harrison and Helen Bowater describe their sub-arctic experiences.

Louise Bingham
3rd November 2015


Earlier this year, three Physical Geography students from Newcastle University travelled to the Gígjokull outlet glacier in Iceland to conduct a series of experiments for their dissertation projects.

Jonathan Hillaby, Devin Harrison and Helen Bowater braved the Icelandic wilderness to conduct their studies. forgoing the comforts of indoor plumbing, the trio camped out hours from the nearest town to collect raw data.

After deciding they wanted to do something with an adventurous flavour, Jonathan and Devin became interested in volcano-ice interactions and the resulting geomorphological change. The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which dominated headlines and column inches all over the world by grounding planes and stranding thousands of travellers, was the focal point for their projects.

Professor Andy Russell supervised the three students in Iceland. Professor Russell is a specialist in floods and their effects on glacifuvial systems in Iceland, Greenland and Chile.

"Forgoing the comforts of indoor plumbing, the trio camped out hours from the nearest town to collect raw data"

He has extensive field experience of examining flood impact on both the northern and southern margins of the Vatnajökull ice-cap and carried out fieldwork at Eyjafjallajökull during the 2010 eruption.

"When we go to Iceland, it was a mix of excitement and trepidation. The day after we landed, we found the most beautiful place not far from our campsite with a guy playing acoustic guitar," recounted Jonathan.

But despite the picturesque surroundings, the trip was full of difficulties.

"The first week was very rough and tiresome due to the distances we covered each day (upwards of 12 miles)," related Devin. "But the moment we met up with Professor Andy Russell our spirits were lifted, as with him there was transport to the field site, better research equipment and a much higher quality of food."

Where could you go?

Arguably one of the greatest perks of reading Geography at university is the fieldtrips. While the majority of trips in your undergraduate years entails the short bus ride to the Lake District to stand in a bog in the pouring rain, there are some pretty incredible opportunities.Iceland Piechart

During the Easter holidays last year approximately 200 stage 2 Geography students were shipped off to the southwest USA, Ireland, Borneo, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Berlin and Barcelona and that’s before the dissertation fieldwork even begins.

Given the diverse range of topics covered under the Geography canopy, students can pretty much choose to study any phenomenon, anywhere in the world. Previous expeditions have included Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Canada, USA, Bosnia, Barbados, Kosovo, South Africa, Israel and Zambia, investigating everything from glacial moraines to the socio-economic impacts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Basically, Geography takes you places.

Louise Bingham


"My dissertation investigates the effects of Ice-Block impacts on proglacial environments. The fieldwork was done over two weeks Iceland in front of the Gígjokull outlet glacier, flowing from the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. The main impacts are the kettle holes found in the proglacial environment following the 2010. I measured this using a DGPS. This helped in locating the kettle holes with great accuracy, helping me understand how jökulhlaups from the 2010 eruption influenced the positioning of the ice-blocks. We also used a remote sensing process called Structure From Motion to help create a Digital Elevation model. This research will help in understanding how much of an impact ice-blocks have during a volcanogenic jökulhlaup and can be used for future, possibly larger events such as at nearby Katla, which throughout history has gone off only a few years after Eyjafjallajökull."


“My dissertation revolves mainly around the jökulhlaups that occurred from the Gigjökull glacier in Iceland as a result of the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption in 2010. These floods caused major geomorphological change within the proglacial area of Gigjokull. The aim of my dissertation is to understand how the landscape has recovered since this high magnitude event and the role of the proglacial fluvial system in this. In order to achieve this I used a differential GPS (DGPS) to survey relevant geomorphological features. This data can then be turned into graphs and maps  that will display the results of my research and allow me to interpret what has been occurring at the study site since the high magnitude flood events in 2010.”


Helen’s research focused on the Little Ice Age, which extended throughout the Middle Ages in the UK, back when the Thames froze over annually. The same phenomenon also occurred in Iceland during this period. Helen utilised Lichenometry to determine the age of the rocks which the lichens inhabited. This technique was only possible due to the consistency that lichens grow. The process required calibration. The method for this involved  collecting lichen data from gravestones, which are engraved with an accurate date, and then collecting a sample from the rocks - the first dataset could then be used as a control.

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