Andy Torbet reveals what life was like living on, inside and under glaciers in the BBC’s latest science series Operation Iceberg
Andy Torbet combines adventure skills with TV presenting and zoology to brilliant effect in BBC Two’s new Operation Iceberg series. Last seen on your screens in BBC’s Coast – where he spectacularly scaled crumbling cliff faces at The Needles – Torbet’s latest expedition sees him climbing glaciers, caving in crevasses and diving beneath giant icebergs.
“We spent six weeks on the ice in total, split between Greenland and Canada, to study the entire life cycle of an iceberg,” he tells WideWorld. “From their creation in a glacier, to the big calving event, and then an iceberg at sea, studying how it breaks up.”
A highly qualified climber, caver and diver, after graduating with a degree in Zoology Andy spent a decade in the British Armed Forces as bomb disposal officer, diver and paratrooper. This varied and well-seasoned CV makes the perfect match for a programme like Operation Iceberg.
“I’m really an adventure sports presenter more than a scientist, so I was the expedition climber, diver and caver,” he says, “It was a proper scientific expedition, but the scientists there weren’t divers or mountaineers. There are a lot of places where they haven’t had access previously, so I was the science monkey, sent down into the ice caves, diving alongside the iceberg, or diving into these blue lakes that formed on the glacier. I could get in there and take samples from the places that you normally can’t get to.”
On the glacier in Greenland, Torbet reveals that he was boggled by the sheer scale of the ice structure they were studying. From the 100m-tall ice face, the glacier stretched off some 16km into the horizon, with continual calving events shattering the air.
These are where the icebergs are born, the noise of which Torbet compares to a volcanic eruption. “Seen from a distance, you realise how large these are,” he says. “They create waves that are 60 or 70 metres high and several kilometres long. It’s just because the epicentre of the iceberg is so enormous that it’s hard to appreciate the scale of it.”
Part of his work was to drop GPS sensors into the glacier that revealed the speed of its movement to the sea: some 15-25m every day. As it glides along, it splits and crashes with booms day and night, a noise Andy compares to an artillery barrage – and he should know. It’s all part of the living glacier, a sense of which the TV show attempts to convey. Just like a living animal, the glacier holds threat to anyone coming close.
“Often in TV they ham up the jeopardy, but there was no real need to here,” Torbet says. ”Take the blue lake that we dived in, this big glacial lake that forms on top of the glacier. What happens is that often a crevasse will open up when it gets to a certain level; a crevasse opens up on the lakebed and the water drains out. Fast. We’re talking a couple of kilometres of water draining in a matter of minutes. We still dived, but we had to tie ourselves in to the shore just in case it happened.”
Ice blocks the size of cars regularly fell into the caves that the team descended into, their main precaution against being hit by one being to go in during the coldest part of the day when it was hopefully more stable. Two of the camera team had to be evacuated from one descent when the roof of their ice cave started collapsing. All this, and they still had polar bears to deal with.
“When we got to the iceberg, which was about 5km by 3km, we saw about eight or nine bears in the first six hours, including one that was swimming beside the ship. Fantastic, but it brought certain safety implications – they do eat people. We had to station polar bear watchers and evacuate back to the boat when they came too close.”
Glaciers moving faster, calving more
Despite the dangers, the science has triumphed. Although the data coming from Operation Iceberg’s studies will take months to crunch, there are already important discoveries from the adventure. The discovery of horizontal caves through the glacier, which Torbet’s tough work inside the ice revealed, means that there is more water moving than previously thought.
This, he says, drains the bottom of the glacier, acting as a lubricant to speed the entire structure towards the sea. The team also found that warm currents are undercutting the cliff face of ice, too, causing more calving and bigger icebergs.
Revelations on this scale underline the importance of the kind of skills that men like Andy Torbet have to offer. Operation Iceberg will invite you to experience it as closely as you can – catch the first episode on BBC 2, Tuesday 30th October at 9pm.
Find out about Andy Torbet’s latest expeditions at his official site: www.andytorbet.com