Ice crystals, a scientific itinerary into the heart of icefalls
A partnership with the environmental glaciology and geophysics laboratory in Grenoble (LGGE) has since 2006 allowed the launching of a fundamental research program about ice-melt, and specifically about icefalls.
How does the ice in icefalls form? What is the structure of the ice they are made of? How does this very particular type of ice react to external influences, like for example, a blow from an ice axe? Maurine Montagnat, manager of the LGGE project and its research team, tries to answer these questions.
Journalist Christophe Migeon interviews Maurine Montagnat and Jean-Jacques Eleouet:
Who started the project?
Jean-Jacques Eleouet, Petzl Foundation’s General Secretary: When I carried out a review of the level of knowledge in different Petzl’s activity sectors, I discovered that, surprisingly, no scientific research had been done on icefalls. Luc Moreau, a glaciologist and member of the board of the Petzl Foundation, noticed a real demand during training sessions for guides. We therefore approached the LGGE to see if some research could be started along this theme.
Maurine Montagnat: I really liked the subject from the start. I started by doing some bibliographic research, but it was completely fruitless. There was absolutely nothing on the nature of icefall ice. Of course, this is not an easy subject to research. The data you obtain can vary significantly. This is one of the fundamental areas of research that do not have an obvious, direct or immediate application.
Is it not a problem to conduct research that will neither lead to concrete application nor be of concern to more than a very small number of people?
Maurine Montagnat: The discoveries we make today on icefalls are not applicable to the climate, like the research being done on glaciers is. The very idea of carrying out this research is to provide a basis for the research of future generations. Research on icefalls allows us to increase our knowledge on the icefall formations and their interaction with the environment for the purpose of bringing this information to ice climbers.
Is there a demand from ice climbers?
Maurine Montagnat: In fact, ice climbers have had mixed reactions. They are certain they know their environment very well and have no desire to see us elaborate with a scale of risks. For them, this would represent a certain limitation on the activity and additional responsibilities. We had to reassure them of our real objective, explaining that our interest was limited purely to knowledge of the environment, and that the research would not lead to coercive regulations.
How did you proceed?
Maurine Montagnat: From the questions created by the project team, we progressively put in place a measurement protocol. We wanted to discover the secret of the icefall's formation, its microstructure, its evolution associated with weather conditions and its reaction to use. We had to create and adapt specific devices, place pressure and temperature captors in the heart of the icefalls, use ice-coring drills capable of taking samples in a vertical icefall, and position cameras to take time lapse photos at regular intervals. All the measurements have for now been taken from the “Nuit Blanche” icefall on the left bank of the Argentière glacier in the Chamonix valley.
What difficulties have you come across?
Maurine Montagnat: The data we have gathered is hard to reproduce because of the extremely variable nature of the matter. This winter, temperature variations have been too limited to validate our results. Even if we have already identified parameters which can be duplicated, a lot of data still needs to be validated.
How did the collaboration with the Foundation come about?
Maurine Montagnat: The first contacts happened in December 2006. At the beginning, I must admit the nature of the project was somewhat fuzzy. We did not know what the Foundation was expecting from us in terms of results, or what François Damilano and Didier Lavigne, mountain guides and expert members of the team, were expecting. Then everything fell progressively into place, and today we have a fantastic, solid team, where everyone knows exactly what to do: on the lab side, there are three scientists, two full-time permanent members and one full-time trainee during the six winter months. Two mountain guides are working with us along with Luc Moreau, who works on the scientific photography, as well as a cameraman and a photographer working on communication.
Jean-Jacques Eleouet: The sponsorship allows us to create bridges between the scientific and business communities, especially for small companies. Beyond the basic research that we have just talked about, which is linked to the Foundation, another collaborative project has recently been established between the LGGE and the Petzl Company. The LGGE and the Petzl Research Department are now together trying to work out a protocol for experimentation on the behavior of the ice axe pick on an ice model.
The protocol is now in place. How do you see the next steps?
Maurine Montagnat: We now need to apply and validate the protocol on other sites. We are probably going to start studying the formation of ice gullies (permanent ice flow in rock cracks in the mountains). I also hope to publish several initial scientific articles as soon as September or October…
Jean-Jacques Eleouet: And soon, why not an article in “Nature” magazine? I must admit, that day would be hugely satisfying for the team. In more concrete terms, I think that in two or three years we'll be able to provide a synthesis of our discoveries to winter outdoor enthusiasts.
I imagine, Maurine, that this is not your only project?
Maurine Montagnat: No, of course not, even if it is my favorite, the one that excites me the most! It is the only one that really gets off the beaten track and allows me to be in contact with people who spend all their days in the mountains. My colleague
Jérôme Weiss and I spend about 30% of our time on it, essentially during the winter, of course. In addition to our laboratory work, we go out in the field at least every 15 days. I was never an ice climber, even though I have done some mountaineering, but with about 20 ice climbing trips per year, I'm getting used to this environment.
It’s also - and I really want to mention this - the only project that has such a flexible budget: the Petzl Foundation gives us a certain amount of money per year, which we can allocate for this project with considerable flexibility. This is very rare in the field of research, where all spending must not only be justified, but also tracked, which can have a terribly sterilizing effect on the projects themselves.
Jean-Jacques Eleouet: I didn't want the financing to be controlled. The Petzl Foundation wants to apply this formula toward more mature organizations and leave them a maximum amount of freedom to maneuver. The precise description of each expense isn't important; what matters is the accomplishment of the objectives we target at the beginning, and we are following their evolution together, one step at a time.
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About Maurine Montagnat - Born June 14, 1975
Physics Engineer - Researcher at the CNRS since October 2004
Activities: Rock climbing, Ski touring and since the end of 2006… ice climbing.
Favorite place: The Chartreuse Massif
Favorite People: A mix of Prévert, Einstein, Marie Curie and Boris Cyrulnik
“These people whose view of others has changed ours so much!”
For more information: www.lgge.osug.fr
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