Sunday, 12 June 2016

Leaving Svalbard...

Hi everyone, Matt here for my final post...
Once the field reports from the sea-ice sampling in Van Mijenfjorden and the research cruise around Spitsbergen were completed, there were a lot of goodbyes to good people. We had shared intense experiences during field-work and studies and on our own expeditions into the Arctic Wilderness. With a large student and research community, it was going to be difficult to see everyone.
The Student Council came to the rescue. They chartered 2 boats for an end of season party cruise to the Russian town of Barentsberg. We were lucky with the weather and were able to wear t-shirts in the heat of the Midnight Sun as the DJ kept us dancing to the rhythm as we bounced along the waves. In Barentsberg itself we went to the local brewery for what have to be the worst ales I’ve ever tried to drink, but this pales into insignificance because along the way we saw seabirds, a Minke whale, a fin whale and even a small blue whale!
As for our own Marine Biology team, we had a “Pot luck” evening. This involves everyone cooking and bringing a dish and having a buffet-style meal. With 18 of us cooking our favourites (and some cod and halibut by-catch from our sampling trawls on the cruise) the meal was great. We showed our photos and videos and then climbed out onto the roof to enjoy the sunshine and talk about the past and the future.
For my own departure the weather was astonishing. The sky was clear blue (almost unheard of in Svalbard at this time of the year) and the views from the plane as my friend Kristin and I flew to Oslo were magnificent. Kristin had booked the window seat, so she got my camera and gets the photo credits here! Over the years I’ve seen some extraordinary views from plane windows, but flying over an Arctic island that I’ve invested so much time and energy in studying and exploring was the most special. After so long living on an island of snow, ice and rocks, it was lovely to fly over Norway and see trees as the mountains give way to the forests of the south on my way back to England's green and pleasant land.
Time to prepare for our dissertation projects and plan the next adventure…
Photo credit: Kristin Sundby

Photo credit: Kristin Sundby

Photo credit: Kristin Sundby

Photo credit: Kristin Sundby

Photo credit: Kristin Sundby

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Arctic Marine Biology 6 day research cruise

Hi everyone, Matt here!
Holger and I put 4 months of theory and technical skills into practice a couple of weeks ago on the AB202 Arctic Marine Biology Cruise. We sampled and analysed local physical oceanography, phytoplankton (algae), zooplankton (things like krill), benthos (the stuff on the sea floor), fish and ice cores and we’ve learned some useful things that can stimulate further research. 
Here's a link to my own trip video for non-scientists :
... and a link to the student focused version by Eric Molina
The itinerary was extraordinary. As side trips, we visited one of the world’s most northerly science communities at Ny Alesund (Kongsfjorden) and a former Russia mining settlement (Pyramiden) on the way back. We also worked with the Coastguard on a helicopter rescue training exercise (nice to see they know what they’re doing).
The scenery was breathtaking as we headed up the west coast, round the northernmost point of Spitsbergen and down the east coast to the ice station, stopping at the sampling sites shown in the map below.
With 24 hour sunlight and long working days, I spent the time I was scheduled to be sleeping on deck or on the bridge enjoying the view rather than miss the views and the wildlife. At Moffen Island we saw a herd of walrus and one swam by the ship. We also saw seals and whales. The constant company of the seabirds was lovely too, with puffins amongst other charismatic visitors.
The highlights for me would have to be breaking through the ice at 3am en route to 80 degrees north as the fog and clouds gradually lifted and the sun broke though to reveal jagged mountains iced with snow, sailing through beautiful Smeerenburgfjorden and visiting the enormous glaciers near Pyramiden.
Incredibly, snorkelling was one of the sampling techniques we used for the shallow coastal environment. We had dry-suits and neoprene hoods, but try to imagine holding your unprotected face in waters at roughly 0°C to stare at the kelp and assess the seaweed community. Cold? Intensely. Fun? Absolutely!
As the same cruise runs over coming years, our data will contribute to the overall picture of Svalbard waters and the impacts of climate change over time.
Not sure why Holger was hiding behind me in the group photo - he's usually the scene-stealer in my pictures!
Photo credit for selfie: Simon Schmidt

The Arctic Marine Biology team with Module Leader Janne Soreide plus scientific crew

Friday, 20 May 2016

Spring is here!

Spring is definitely returning to the high arctic, birds are singing, the snow is melting in town at least, and much of Scotland has actually had more snow fall a few weeks ago than Longyearbyen. We can walk though the town without jackets, gloves, hats, or even particularly warm clothes for the first time in months as the temperature has even stopped having that funny "-" line in front of the number, at least at times. On the negative side this means that the season of freedom given by skis and snow-scooters is drawing to a close. We had to cancel a cabin trip a couple of weeks ago due to a combination of scooter trouble and bad driving conditions.

I have managed to get up to a lot over the last few weeks however which explains, if not excuses, the lamentable lack of blog-writing, sorry! Since I last updated you I've had two field weeks and spent an inordinate amount of time in a workshop mending scooters. Oh, and a few lectures/report writing days too.

The first field week was with AGF-212 Snow and Ice Dynamics and consisted of a succession of day trips out to a couple of glaciers about an hours drive on scooters away from Longyearbyen. I was in a pair specialising in digging snowpits (the regularity with which we do this does tend to lead to a few jokes from friends in other departments) and doing snow stability tests to look at avalanche risk, then reporting back our observations to the forecasters each evening. We also got to have a go helping do some of the other tasks including attempting to operate the radar to measure snow/ice depth and drilling holes in the glacier to put in new mass balance stakes. The weather and temperature varied quite widely during the week with the Tuesday being so snowy that we didn't have good enough visibility to make it as far as the glacier but other days were sunny and clear enough to make up for that. We also had temperatures as low as -23.3˚C and as warm as a balmy -12˚C.

One of many snowpits!
The views were phenomenal on the clear days however!
A rare photo of me, in this case drilling a hole for a mass balance stake by hand because the petrol drill was on strike. I'm pretty sure my camera was with Chris Borstad at the time so credit to him.

A BBQ on the east coast, filmed by the BBC no less!

We also had an amazing cruise for AGF 211 Air-Ice-Sea Interactions onboard the Norwegian Polar Institute's research vessel Lance. Over 8 days we saw lots of Svalbard, spent several days in fast ice in Woodfjorden on the northern coast, swam through a hole in the ice and reached 80˚ North whilst in an outdoor hot tub on the aft deck of the ship! It wasn't quite on our route but the captain was really cool and said we couldn't have only made it to 79˚ 50-something north so he took a slightly more northern route and blew the horn 8 times at 80˚ to let us know. I'll let the photos do the talking:

Arriving in Woodfjorden

Our midnight visitor

Swimming at just below 80 degrees north

Reversing out of the ice to avoid breaking off a section

This will look very familiar to anyone who has used the CTD on Calanus. Note the "shed" to stand in while you use it though!

Entertaining ourselves between stations and on the deeper CTD casts where one cast could take over an hour!
In our own time, between the report writing, I've also managed a few trips, including a final cabin trip with Holger and a Norwegian friend of ours.

Photo credit Maiken Rian

Photo credit Maiken Rian

Finally for this post Tuesday was the 17th of May - Norwegian Constitution Day. Cue a champagne breakfast (well pressecco because we are cheap students after all...) and a big parade with lots of Norwegian flags.

I think that's all to report back for now, our time here is coming to an end and I think the reality is just dawning on me!


Edit - Here's a picture of is in the hot tub courtesy of Yannik:

Monday, 2 May 2016

Cabin trips - Arctic bathing, Scandinavian saunas and snowmobile ice-skating

Hi everyone – Matt here!

The Biology courses have been a bit mundane since we met the Russians, so I’m going to tell you about two snowmobile trips I’ve done recently!

My brother stayed over Easter, so we planned a trip to Diabase cabin. My flatmate Renee is a glaciologist, so she turned the trip into a guided tour and showed us her favourite site for fossil hunting, led us over a couple of glaciers and stopped at a “pingo”. A what? Is that even a real word? Well, apparently it’s a rare occurrence wherein sediments start forming soil and land on top of glacial ice… Whatever – it made a really cool slide ;-)

As the weather was nice and we had plenty of time we drove to my favourite local viewpoints at the Fredheim promontory, the plateau above Fredheim and the frozen waterfall off Sassendalen.

The cabin was in a great location, surrounded by wildlife – lots of reindeer, a flock of ptarmigan - and an unseen Arctic fox left tracks in the snow. Diabase cabin has a wood burning stove, a gas burner and a big sofa so it was cozy and warm and we cooked a proper dinner and a fry-up in the morning. It also has a sauna - so we fired it up to 90 degrees C and tried rolling in the snow. That was easy, so we went for a dip in the fjord!

I’m not kidding – check out the video!

Onwards and upwards in both latitude and altitude. The second trip enters the chart straight into my Top 10 adventures of all time. I had a 5 day weekend in April that I’d had my eye on for months as my chance to take on a serious expedition. I wanted to get to the summit of the highest mountain on Svalbard and to stay at the Overgangshytte cabin by Austfjorden. I got a GPS track from Sarah in the UNIS Logistics Team as she’d done the same route the week before and I asked my flatmate Renee to come along to navigate and teach me how to read glacier and sea-ice conditions. Since Renee’s scooter had a list of minor problems and two major problems, we spent the week before the trip fixing it with my friends Kristian and Mikkel and invited them to complete our crew.

The logistics were crazy – I had to borrow 20 jerry cans for petrol and 3 sleds to carry them plus all the safety gear for glacier and sea-ice rescue, co-ordinate emergency beacon and emergency response and plan for emergency camps and every eventuality we’d covered in the safety course back in January…

The journey to the cabin took us 12 hours, of which less than half was actually driving and we finally arrived at 5am!? It was nuts. We had to deal with whiteouts from clouds and a blizzard, torn straps and a broken sled, snowmobile breakdowns, digging scooters out of deep powder snow-drifts in moraine fields, crevasses everywhere, disappearing sea-ice and driving and hiking up a natural skating rink (a frozen river and lake). Kudos to UNIS for teaching us how to deal with all of the above and for providing the safety gear we needed for free!

The weather was stunning for our day trips and the return journey. We drove all the way up to 79°N on week-old sea ice crisscrossed with fresh polar bear tracks, made it to the frozen lake on the way up to Atomfjellet and got to the summit of Newtontoppen in pink light above a sea of cloud with the sun just at the horizon.


Video below. The jacket is a UNIS down jacket provided by SAMS and the clothes I took were all paid for by SAMS Arctic Bursary, so thanks and kudos to SAMS for keeping me warm!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Meet the Russians

Hello everyone, it's Holger again!

A little later than originally anticipated, but here it is: as promised I want to talk about the trip to Barentsburg Matt and I did with the environmental management course and our meeting with the Russian Consul General. And then I'll talk a little more about other stuff we have been up to :-)
We all got snowmobiles from UNIS to drive to Barentsburg, which is about 2 hours drive away. The visibility was quite poor unfortunatelly, so we couldn't really see much of the landscape on the way. However, we arrived at Barentsburg Hotel in the early evening. A local guide showed us the mining town, it's not pretty but very fascinating. Many houses were abandoned and lay in ruines, a few have been renovated for the local population though. There are also still a lot of traces from the Soviet era such as a Lenin bust in the middle of town. In combination with the coal mining activities the whole place had certainly a "Russian feeling" to it. After the little tour around town we had a look in the museum. It was really small but they had a lot of stuffed animals and information about the history of the Russians on Svalbard and in Barentsburg in particular, which was nice. They also had the heart of a polar bear in a jar, it's as large as a childs head, absolutely massive! We spend the rest of the night in the hotel, having a few beers at the bar and playing cards. Our meeting with the Russians was sceduled for 10 to 11am the next morning. The meeting was very interesting. Everyone was really friendly and it felt pretty official, they even had a translator. First they introduced themselfs and the city to us and then we had about 45 minutes to ask questions. My favourite was "In the light of climate change, do you consider using more green energy in the future instead of coal?" The Consul General was obviously confused and just said: "Why should we? There is plenty of coal left..."
After the meeting we took the obligatory picture of the class with the consul and the translator. I think they take the same picture every year.

The way into Barentsburg, minig ain't pretty...

Some cow barns, they actually keep livestock here.

And of course comrade Lenin!

The local orthodox church at dusk

AB-203 class with the Russian Consul General (photo credits: Børge Damsgård)

The next and last excursion we did with the Environmental Management course was to SvalSat, a comercial ground station for polar orbiting satellites. They do a lot of stuff for NASA and ESA, but also work for weather forcast and so on. We didn't spend that much time there, and Matt and I have already been there with the Northern Lights course in February. They gave us the same lecture as they did then, but this time inside of one of the big satellite dish thingies. The first time I ever had a lecture at -15C, but they provided us with reindeer furs and blankets. On our way home we saw a polar fox, the first I've ever seen! :-)

A one hour lecture under the satellite dish at -15C is not an everyday thing

That's the same from the outside

The last experience I want to share with you for this time is from the trappers trail 2 weeks ago. Trappers trail is a big dog sled race from Longyearbyen to Kapp Laila over 2 days. It's also the worlds northernmost dog sled race! I volunteered myself and my snowmobile to help out, my job on the first day was to put up warning signs whereever the race track crossed main snowscooter tracks or when the terrain was narrow without space to give way to potential traffic. I also had to put up tents at Kapp Laila, take the times for the first day and prepare a small cabin. So lots of work to do, and all I got was a t-shirt. Not that I'm complaining, it's a cool t-shirt :-) It was very windy and snowing on Saturday, which made the actuall driving very difficult. We couldn't go faster than 30km/h due to whiteout, but I had to carry a heavy sledge, so that was probably good for the engine of my little 2-stroke scooter anyway.
Well, whatever, after I did all the tasks I had to do, a few other volunteers and I had some time for a nice BBQ and for the general joys of camping in the Arctic. We saw some belugas in the bay, and allegedly there were orcas as well, which I didn't see unfortunatelly. On Sunday I had to make sure all participants were leaving on time, and generally help out. After everyone else was gone we had to clean the cabin, and follow the race track home, to make sure everybody got home. All in all a very interesting experience, and the doggies are of course super cute :-) I also had a chance to chat with Christine, who was also helping with the race. For those of you who don't know her, she was a student at SAMS a couple of years ago, and now she is living on Svalbard.
One cannot just leave Svalbard, it is the call of the Arctic...

The participants are getting ready infront of the UNIS building in Longyearbyen

Our camp at Kapp Laila. The cabin was really nice but for participants and organiser only...

Monday, 4 April 2016

Easter trips and polar bears

Hi everyone! Holger here.
The days are getting very long now, it doesn´t really get dark at night anymore. On the one hand it´s nice because the lights of my scooter broke (along with the windscreen and handle heating...) and we can stay out for longer. But on the other hand the constant light messes with my sleeping rhythm.
Us biologists finally finished the last report, it was a difficult one. The data we had to use was not the best ever, because it was from a student group from last year and the fact that we had to make up a topic for the paper from the data didn´t help. Maybe it´s just me but usually scientists come up with a research question first and then go collect data, not the other way around. It was still good to practise scientific writing and the handling of data.
We were on Easter break for the last two weeks and for a change didn't have to work all day! Naturally we went on a lot of trips, I'll talk about the most exciting ones in this blog.

During the first week off, Matthew and I went to Mohnbukta at the east coast of Svalbard. Jamies scooter, the sexy cat, was still in need of some attention, so he couldn't join us. Chances to see polar bears are a lot better at the east coast, and although we didn't actually see a polar bear, we covered a lot of territory. A big glacier is going into Mohnbukta and there was enough sea ice to have lunch in front of a spectacular blue ice front! Of course we had to keep a save distance, because even in winter glaciers can calve at any given moment. On our way back we also visited Tempelfjorden and a frozen waterfall, both of which are worth a trip on its own, but we covered all of it in one day.

Lunch break on the sea ice infront of a glacier
Especially last week was very busy. I went to Paulabreen with a small group , which is another glacier ending in Rindersbukta, a fjord close to Svea. Svea is the smaller mining settlement about 2 hours away from Longyearbyen. It had been quite cold all week (about -20°C) so the sea ice covered all of the fjord and was safe to drive on. The original plan was to camp, but we found a half finished cabin, which nobody else was using. We had to secure the cabin first by nailing some boards over the window openings, otherwise we would have had to have a polar bear watch, there were a lot of bear-tracks all around the cabin. But with the improvements to the cabin we decided it was secure enough, and we ended up having a cosy, comfortable night. The next day we drove back over the sea ice and saw quite a few seals on the ice. And just before we reached Svea, we spoted a polar bear lying on the ice watching a seal hole! The bear didn't mind us approaching at all, so we were able to carefully drive relatively close to it (perhaps 150-200m). Of course we had to stay on our scooters and have them all faced away from the polar bear, so we could quickly drive off, if we needed to. But the bear just looked up once and ignored us for the rest of the time. We watched it for maybe 10 minutes when another tourist group came from the nearby town and drove straight towards the bear with no precaution whatsoever. Of course the bear didn't like being cornered so it run away. Luckily not through either of the two groups....
Please excuse the bad quality of the pic, I don´t have a fancy camera with good zoom. But you can clearly make out the polar bear anyway.

Polar bear!!!

 Our home for the night

And myself driving my snowmobile (photo credits Renee Rookus) 

The last trip I want to talk about was another cabin trip to Diabasodden. Matthew and his brother, who was here on a visit for a few days, joined the group this time. Jamie didn´t go with us again, because the sexy cat (his snowmobile) was still not ready yet. But at least he found a new gear box and brought it back from the dead. I´m sure he´ll have it running again soon! However, back to the topic. On the way to the cabin we visited the view point, a huge cliff overlooking Tempelfjorden. It was a clear day and we had an amazing view. We also stoped at the frozen water fall again, it´s always worth it! We arrived at Diabasodden quite early so I had time for a little hike up a nearby smaller cliff to take some pictures. Compared to the other cabins this one is pure luxury. It has a small sauna and plenty of space for at least 7-8 people. In the evening we heated up the sauna to 100°C, enjoyed some Scottish whisky and cooled off by jumping into the fjord and rolling in the snow! The last one was a little difficult, because the snow was very densley packed, it was more ice than snow. We had to dig a little pit first and fill it with snow. The next morning we had a nice easy walk and headed back to civilisation after lunch.   
Well, that´s it for now, I hope it wasn´t too long. The biologists are going to Barentsburgh (The Russian mining town in Svalbard) on Thursday and Friday to talk to some Russian officials about
environmental management, that´s what you will hear about next time :-)

 Diabasodden, what a beautiful place

The view point

The frozen waterfall, half of it collapsed in February but still impressive!

Sundogs have nothing to do with the sea, but are still quite nice to look at!