The hills are alive with the sound of geography!

Nineteen exhausted, slightly dishevelled but very enthusiastic 3rd year undergrads have just returned from Geography and Environments most anticipated physical field course to the small village of Arolla in the Valais canton of the Swiss Alps.  This 11-day trip immerses students in geomorphological research amidst the spectacular Alpine surroundings of the Arolla and Tsidjiore Nouve Glaciers.  For over 50 years Southampton students have been exploring the complex valley; forming research projects, coring trees, studying invertebrates, collecting sediments, and drilling ice.  As the first British institution to use this remote location for field work, Southampton has seen Arolla evolve from a seasonally populated village to one with a ski resort and annually home to groups of undergrads from about another 6 UK Universities as they too explore this fantastic location.  Of course, it’s not just the settlement that has changed: the Lower Arolla glacier has retreated from down near the village into the very base of the valley.  Photographs, sketches and even the memories of some of our long serving staff bring to life the dynamic changes this environment has experienced.

On the first day, the group was introduced the dramatic surroundings, dominated by the snow covered Mount Collon (3637m).  This peak can be seen from the windows of ‘Dortoir Le Sporting’: home for the trip. It definitely beats the bustling streets of Southampton I am used to! Once we had acclimatised to the village altitude (2067m) the whole group climbed to the Upper Arolla glacier: base of this year’s ‘team glacier’ lead by post-grad Alex Clayton.  The ca. 3 hour trek didn’t put any of the hardy team glacier off and they spent a further 3-4 days using stakes and debris cones to investigate ablation. The energetic team of trainee glaciologists certainly came a long way from that first day when they tentatively waddled across the ice with their crampons!

Prof. David Sear (our river sediment guru) captained a third of the other students in ‘team fluvial’ accompanied by Liam Riddy (our geocomputational specialist). The team constructed digital elevation models, fashioned some lovely dry suits and eagerly awaited a purge downstream from the local hydropower group.

The third project investigated ecological succession along the Val d’Arolla following glacial retreat.  ‘Team ecology’ was led by PLUS Prof. Mary Edwards for the first half of the trip when they dated trees, measured lichens and estimated vegetation cover.  PLUS Prof. Tony Brown then supervised during the latter part, adding valuable information and data about soil characteristics to assist with the interpretation of the landscapes history.  The team greatly benefited from the combination of these approaches and learnt new varied skills from tree coring (which used surprisingly more energy than was expected!); to plant identification; and testing soil pH back at the lodge.

The week culminated with the Arolla Conference where each team presented their preliminary results and findings.  The high quality of the presentations definitely reflected the hard work and enthusiasm of all the students.  Whilst forming the projects and gathering the data was quite tiring; I must be noted that there was definitely still time for fun: pie making, cooking competitions, pizza nights, marmotte-spotting (a personal favourite!); table-football tournaments and the famous Arolla disco were amongst the action packed agenda making for lots of good tales and memories!

The real hard work for this course begins now that we are back as the students write up their individual reports about their research – reflecting on the theories, methods and state of the art equipment used.  Compared with my own undergraduate fieldtrip experience (destination: Swansea) I was amazed at the opportunities the students were presented with in this spectacular location.  I cannot think of a better place to obtain such a detailed insight and experience in research.  Demonstrating on this fieldtrip has definitely been a highlight of my last two years of Ph.D. research at Southampton. Working with such a good group of staff and students in a place with such a special historical links to Geography and Environments was a brilliant experience.  Here’s to another 50 years of inspiring students and encouraging physical geographers in this fantastic setting.