Monday 12 September 2016

Svalbard Science 2

Kronebreen and the head of  Kongsfjorden. 
I am just back from another trip to the British research base in Ny Alesund on Svalbard. As with when I was there in March, I was working as a field assistant for BAS. This time I was instructing on a polar fieldwork course for sixteen early career scientists who are involved, or are keen to be involved, in scientific polar field work.
The trip started with a few days in Maddingley Hall on the outskirts of Cambridge. Here the course participants had a number of lectures from people at BAS, and did a number of field work planning exercises. It was also an opportunity for them to tell us a little about their work. They came from a variety of backgrounds; glaciology, geology, marine biology, and climate modelling. It also gave me an opportunity to nip into BAS headquarters to catch up with various people, many of whom I had not seen since Rothera.
The Mellageret,  the Ny Alesund pub, and the world's most Northerly bar. It is only open on Thursday and Saturday nights, but does tend to provide a good if slightly random night out. 
After the Cambridge component, myself, three BAS scientists and half the students headed up to Svalbard. We flew to Longyearbyn which is the the capital of the island. We had booked a boat, with the original plan to head round to Ny Alesund that evening. However, the weather had been unsettled, and the seas were rough. The skipper of the boat decided it would be better to wait until the following day when hopefully the sea had settled down a bit. This meant a night in Longyearbyn. I had not been into Longyearbyn before, so it was quite a good opportunity to have a jaunt into the centre of town, and a wee look round the museum.
The next day the skipper let us know that the sea was still a bit lumpy, but he would like to give it a go. When we got out of the shelter of the fjord he proved not to be wrong. The further out we headed the bigger and bigger the seas got, and the wee boat (44ft long) started getting thrown around more and more. People started getting really thrown about inside, and inevitably getting sea sick, and the boat had to go slower and slower. I have to admit to not feeling the best but managed to keep my lunch down.
Ice on the beach. Pretty when washed up on a beach, but a another thing to be aware off when out at sea. 
Eventually after about two and half hours the skipper called it day and decided to turn round, our average speed had been around seven  knots, and at that rate it would have taken another 9 hours to get round to Ny Alesund (it is four hour trip in good weather). A couple of hours later we were back in Longyearbyn feeling slightly battered and queasy. However, it was quite a good lesson for the students, in the polar regions everything is so weather dependent, and the best laid plans can easily be scuppered by the weather.
Doing a bit of geology near be base of Austre Broggerbreen (the glacier which I was working on back in March)
After another night in Longyearbyn the plan was to try to make it to Ny Alesund by boat again the next after afternoon. It looked like being another morning of mooching about. Then a phone call letting us know there were enough seats on a flight to Ny Alesund for all of us if we could be at the airport in just over an hour.  After some rapid packing and rounding up of everybody, we made it for the half hour flight over to Ny Alesund. This was a lot more civilized than the previous days attempted journey. Another lesson of polar field work, it is very much hurry up and wait.

Once at Ny Alesund the rest of the day was taken up with rifle courses and information about how the station operated. The following day the students started working on two science projects.
The aim of the first project was to investigate a local glacier (Midtre Lovenbreen) using various techniques. This involved using a dual frequency GPS to map the snout of the glacier and compare the results with a similar survey carried out by the students on this course last year. Rather depressingly in the last year the glacier had retreated on average 15-20 meters. It also involved surveying the lower 2 km of the glacier using ground penetrating radar. This gave a depth profile of the glacier (around 150 metres for much of its length) as well showing various interesting internal structures.
Doing a radar survey of Midtre Lovenbreen. The transmitter is located in the rear sledge, and the receiver in the forward sledge. 
The second project was a marine biology one.  The students headed out in the local fjord in boats doing various plankton trawls, sediment grabs and temperature and salinity profiles. The aim 
of this was to try and build up an understanding of  the food web which exists with in the fjord, and understand how this changes with depth and proximity to Kronebreen, the huge glacier which flows into the head of the fjord. Essentially there is less life the deeper you go, and less life up toward the head of the fjord where the water is colder and fresher.
Some little creatures dredge out of the fjord
which marine biologists knew lots about. 
A few days later the boat arrived to deliver the second group of students. The first group then left on the boat. The weather was pretty settled by this point, and the sea was calm. It sounded a very different boating experience to the one we had endured a few days earlier. The second group continued to work on the projects started by the first group. Although none of the science will be published, it was interesting to see the results that could be found after just a few days.
A  young arctic fox checking out one of our rucsacs.
After about a week at Ny Alesund, it was time for myself and the other staff on the course to leave with the second group of students on the boat. However, by this time the weather had started to change again for the worse. It was decided to bring the departure time from Ny Alesund forward four hours from 9 am to 5 am. As predicted it was quite rough on the way back round to Longyearbyn (although not as rough as when we had turned back a few days before), and it was fortunate that we had allowed a fair bit of extra time as the normally 4 hour journey took over 7 hours. I admit I am perhaps on the best sailor, and spent three or four hours curled up on floor of the boat feeling terrible. Fortunately we made it in time to managed catch our flight out of Longyearbyn despite this it looking slightly dubious for while.

Some of the larger local wildlife. A walrus sleeping on the beach.

Overall it was a good trip. I love the wildlife, and landscape and people that you get up in the polar regions. It was also good to work with a group of enthusiastic scientist from a variety of disciplines. In retrospect I even appreciate my arctic sea sick experience.  However, in the future however terrible a days field work I am having, should it be forecasting avalanches on Ben Nevis in the lashing rain, or after numerous days in lie up in a BAS pyramid tent, I now know it could be worse, I could be feeling deathly sea sick in a small boat bobbing around the arctic ocean.