The frosty welcome is part of the package

August 17, 2001

A group of glaciologists has escaped the British weather for somewhere... colder. In the fourth article on what researchers do in the summer, Bryn Hubbard reports from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen.

Welcome to Ny-Ålesund research base, where the 100-strong summer population is shivering its way through the season with barnacle geese, Arctic terns and polar bears for company.

A former coal-mining village well above the arctic circle, Ny-Ålesund - on the island of Spitsbergen, where the Barents Sea meets the Arctic Ocean and the Norwegian/Greenland Sea - is an interesting blend of industrial monument, wildlife sanctuary and contemporary research base.

Alongside the now derelict steam locomotive and massive concrete coal-storage towers is the ultra-modern Norwegian Polar Institute's research building and some 20 other buildings, home to research delegations from several other countries. However, none of these buildings dominates the landscape because, at more than 79 degrees north, temperature reigns supreme. You have the feeling when looking at Ny-Ålesund that design has come second to nature. Buildings, for example, are raised some feet off the permafrost, which reaches hundreds of metres in depth, while pipes are raised on poles to prevent them melting winter permafrost. Patches of tundra between the buildings are preserved as homes to barnacle geese and Arctic terns - the former seeking a safe haven from Arctic foxes, which are slightly more wary than the geese of human habitation. This year, the geese's strategy appears to have worked and their population is holding up. Last year, however, only 15 of 261 goslings survived fox attacks. Add to this somewhat surreal blend a multinational group of scientists (for Ny-Ålesund is run exclusively to support Arctic science), continuous sunlight and frequent invasion by hundreds of cruise-ship tourists - and a clearer impression of the eclectic nature of Ny-Ålesund emerges.

Scientists normally arrive at and depart from Ny-Ålesund on a small turbo-propeller aircraft from the Svalbard capital, Longyearbyen. Over summer, the population of the base is normally about 100, with scientists coming and going regularly. This number drops to about 30 in the winter when temperatures can reach - 30C. From the airstrip - there is no airport here - we are met by our respective national base manager and escorted to their research building. In our case, we go to the Natural Environment Research Council's Harland Huset (house), which is managed by personnel from the British Antarctic Survey. Ten or so research students and more senior scientists are located in the house at any given time.

Most scientists conduct their research away from the base, departing each morning on foot or boat for field sites scattered the length of the adjacent iceberg-filled fjord. For us, this means a three to six-hour walk each day (round trip) to one of the many local glaciers. After such a long walk, we normally manage an hour's work before lunch, which is often taken in balaclavas and gloves - temperatures here are typically 4C in the summer - huddled down in a rock hollow near the day's glacier.

Surprisingly, conversation comes easily in such situations. Up for discussion is how hungry we are (it is, after all, almost five hours since we set off from Ny-Ålesund laden with field equipment, rations, emergency rations, backup emergency rations and an armoury of anti-polar bear paraphernalia); how cold it is; the statistical probability of our path crossing that of a polar bear (thankfully almost zero); and the statistical probability of us being able to mortally wound such a beast with our antiquated rifle in the event of a bear attack (the answer to which is unfortunately even lower).

I, together with three colleagues from Aberystwyth University, am at Ny-Ålesund collecting ice from the base of glaciers. This is an activity more akin to standing in a waterfall and attempting to shatter a breeze block into a plastic bag with a cricket stump. The resulting samples of ice and water form the basis of our research. We are trying to identify and investigate the processes responsible for forming distinctive sediment ridges on the surface of local glaciers. This knowledge of modern process is important because it allows us to infer past environmental conditions from the presence of similar landforms in presently ice-free landscapes, including the United Kingdom where such features were deposited by the retreating ice some 10,000 years ago. Significantly, unravelling the precise nature of such relationships provides key information relating to the future response of the world's ice masses to continued greenhouse warming. The samples - some eight bags of basal ice, to be passed through filter papers in the base's laboratory later that evening, and about a dozen bottles of melted glacier ice, to be analysed for its stable-isotope chemistry back in the UK - have to be hauled back to the base. Then, with polar-bear rifle locked away, there is time to mingle with scientists of all nationalities in the shared dining area.

It is an interesting observation that, unlike in academia, scientists at Ny-Ålesund tend to express little scepticism of the work of their fellow scientists. This refreshing entente cordiale no doubt reflects a variety of factors - a genuine common interest in all aspects of polar science, from the study of shrimp behaviour to dirt in glaciers; the necessity to get on with others in such a remote, claustrophobic and sometimes dangerous environment; and, last but not least, heartfelt goodwill in the light of a few weeks' freedom from undergraduate teaching, marking and administration. Much as we love these departmental duties, glaciologists need their seasonal fix of research on a crisp glacier - despite incessantly complaining about being cold and hungry.

Bryn Hubbard is a senior lecturer in the Centre for Glaciology at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

A slice of island life

Spitsbergen is the main island in the Svalbard archipelago. The islands, which stretch from 74 to 81 degrees north and 10 to 35 degrees east and have a population of 3,500, are under Norwegian sovereignty, but have a unique status in that they are subject to broadly equal access by the 40 or so countries that are signatories to the Svalbard Treaty.

At Ny-Ålesund, the Kings Bay Coal Company, a commercial company and a legacy of the village's industrial past, provides infrastructure support for international scientific projects, of which there are 39 registered this year.

The UK's research station, Harland Huset, is rented from the company that owns and runs the communal mess. With two flights and a boat in and out each week, there are plenty of fresh provisions and a large turnover of research staff.

On Saturday nights, the communal mess is turned into a candle-lit dining area, followed by a duty-free bar run on a cyclical basis by each of the research delegations. The UK's station is manned by the British Antarctic Survey from June to September.

In winter, the British base closes but about 30 of Ny-Ålesund's population remains.

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