It’s been a month since the team’s return to the UK from Ny Ålesund, Svalbard, and after a much needed two week holiday, I finally feel ready to put the proverbial pen to paper to put our epic BIOPOLE adventure into words. After re-reading my daily journal that I kept during the trip, I have realised that my ramblings completely failed to capture the utter privilege it was to spend time with these fantastic people and call this incredible place home for a month. So in this blog I will endeavour to expand on my scribblings and paint a picture for the reader that may just give them a small window into our month of thrilling polar science. It’s a tale of an arctic escapade involving impossibly good weather, a heroic label printer, the Poet Laureate, a squeaky winch, and the most fetching orange boat suits.
Our story starts long before our departure from the UK in July 2023. It starts back in May 2022 with an email I sent to my fellow UKCEH colleague, Dr Nathan Callaghan, asking to discuss the field campaign in Ny Ålesund of which he was the named coordinator. From this email I had the following reply: ‘Could you please send me a link to where I am listed as the task co-ordinator, as I have to admit that this is news to me. No problem having a discussion about this, but at present it sounds like you know more than me’. A less than ideal start to what would be, in the end, a very eventful and successful field campaign!
Fast forward to 2023 and the team had already completed the pilot field study in Loch Etive, Scotland (see a previous blog to learn more about that), and now had a good idea of what we needed to accomplish in Ny Ålesund and how we were going to go about achieving it. One major question in BIOPOLE is whether nutrient delivery from land-based sources is sensitive to climate change. If the balance of nutrients entering the sea changes in a warmer climate, then the impacts of climate change on polar marine ecosystems could be significant. To answer this question in Ny Ålesund, we need to track nutrients as they travel from land and glacial meltwaters, through rivers, and into the Kongsfjorden inlet and out to the open ocean. The data we collect here should be able to tell us where the nutrients are coming from, how they are transformed as they travel through the environment, and how much of this makes it out to sea.
With six months to go until the campaign kick-off, we hit the ground running with planning everything from rifle permits, medical exams, and navigating the online RiS portal, to ashing filters, creating lab protocols, and acid washing a mind boggling amount of bottles and containers. I should say here, none of this planning would have been possible without the help of the UK Arctic Research Station manager, Iain Rudkin, who was like a lighthouse in a planning storm, who always kept us heading in the right direction with his constant advice and guidance as we battered him with email after email of frantic questions. More on Iain and his many talents later on.
By May we were ready to pack up our five pallets of cargo to start their journey by ship from Bangor, Wales, to Ny Ålesund, Svalbard. By the end of June all of our meticulous planning was paying off and we were almost ready to head off with everything mostly under control. That was until I was asked two and half weeks before our departure if I could purchase a drone for measuring river discharge, learn how to fly it, and apply for special permission to use it in Ny Ålesund, all before we left. My typical technician response to this question? Absolutely!
Come the beginning of July, I had the drone (affectionately named Droney McDroneface) packed in my bag (and one day of practice flying under my belt), and was ready to leave an admittedly less than sunny summer in the UK to travel to the world’s most northerly community. The first four field team members met up in Longyearbyen, including Prof Chris Evans MBE, Dr Nathan Callaghan, Alex O’Brien, and myself (Alanna Grant) (all from UKCEH) and we journeyed on together further north on a plane not meant for those who suffer from aviophobia. Luckily, I am not one of those people and was treated to breath-taking views over mountains that rise up and ripple out of the ground, glaciers that stretch as far as the eye can see, and stunning blue green glacial lakes that dazzled in the July sun.
On Arrival in Ny Ålesund we were met by our host, Iain, who showed us around the station and to our rooms. My room was number three; a small room with a comfortable single bed, a wardrobe, a desk and two chairs. A cosy place to call home for the next month. The station itself had everything needed to undertake a successful field campaign. Not only was it our living quarters but it also housed several excellent lab spaces. We also had use of the garage to store our mountains of bottles, as well as fridges and a freezer to keep our many samples preserved.
Our month kicked off with several days of training to ensure we would be safe and competent working in the field and in the station. Once this was complete the real fun began. We worked tirelessly for the first week with Chris, who brings a wealth of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem biogeochemistry knowledge, leading the campaign. Our goal was to sample as many of the rivers that drain into the fjord as possible. These rivers were an even mix of glacial melt rivers and non-glacial rivers. We sampled for a wide range of determinands such as phosphorus, dissolved organic carbon, chlorophyll, oxygen isotopes, metals, and greenhouse gases, among many others. During this first week we were treated to excellent weather and spent several days out on the boat. Each river we would come to, we would spend several minutes surveying the coast line for any sign of polar bears before Iain would expertly land the boat on the shore like something out of a James Bond film. Some sampling sites were fairly open so you could be reasonably sure you weren’t sneaking up on a sleeping bear, whilst others were more enclosed and felt like places that we didn’t want to hang around in for too long. At these sites, after some further bear scouting on land, we would collect our samples as quickly as we could and return to the boat, lest a furry visitor would come ambling into view. Luckily for us the only polar bears we saw in the field were from the safety of the boat.
Whilst at these river outflows, we also deployed the drone in an attempt to quantify river discharge, a vital measurement when trying to calculate nutrient outputs. This involved flying the drone over an area of the river that was un-braided and deep enough so as not to have rocks breaking the surface which would skew the surface velocity measurement. This proved more difficult than anticipated as it transpired that rivers that meet these requirements are very few and far between. However, we persisted and managed to get measurements at several of the sites and now have a better understanding of how this novel approach could be used in the future. And Droney McDroneface managed to get some fantastic photos and videos too. Ny Ålesund is a radio silence zone which means no WiFi, phone reception, or Bluetooth allowed. This isn’t ideal for using a drone so this work was made possible with collaboration from the Norwegian Mapping Authority and NKOM who kindly worked with us to ensure our drone would not interfere with their sensitive observatory measurements.
After each day sampling from the boat (or on bike/foot if possible) we would return to the station with our bulk water samples to subsample and filter for the various determinands. This was no easy task, as each determinant required a specific sized acid washed container and also had different filtering requirements. This challenge was expertly handled by Nathan, who developed a specific organisational system that allowed him to keep track of each sample whilst spending many hours hand filtering with a syringe. Nathan’s many hours of toil in the lab gained him the affectionate nickname of Lab Ape. Which was maybe less cool than his field nickname, Black Rifle. A suitable name for the guy who was always the first to jump out of the boat to undertake bear watch; risking his life for the science. A true polar hero!
We were generating an impressive amount of samples each day and if we were to hand write each label it would have taken us several extra hours each day. This is where Printy Mcprintface came in. The ultimate label printer who became the fifth member of the team and saved us from a month of cramped, ink stained hands. This was, in my opinion, easily the best thing we bought for the project and I would highly recommend one to anyone undertaking a highly intensive field campaign.
While Nathan toiled away filtering in the main lab, I was set up in the wet lab next door with a six-rig filtering manifold which I used to filter sample water for multiple determinands at once, with the purpose of keeping the filters rather than the water. This involved filtering anywhere from 50ml to 2000ml of water, depending on the sediment load of the sample, through a filter until it clogged or I ran out of water. At first it would take many hours to get through only three or four samples, but once I had a system going it was like playing a melody on the piano; my hands would do the work while my mind would wonder onto other things. After a few days I could get through around six samples in two hours. This would come in handy as some days we would be on the boat for the majority of the day, come back in the early evening for dinner, and then spend the rest of the evening filtering up to 12 samples. We wouldn’t stop until all of the samples collected that day were filtered so we could be filtering until 10-11pm. This was made easier by the 24 hour sunlight so it never felt late, and by our own music playlists that kept us entertained; some playlists more eclectic than others.
Also during this first week, Alex deployed the algal growth experiment baskets that were designed by the freshwater team at UKCEH Wallingford. Here’s what she had to say about the experience: ‘The abundance and growth rates of algae communities in the Arctic are not well known. In July 2023, we undertook a series of in-river experiments. Floating baskets were used to determine the growth rates of river algae within their natural growing conditions. At each chosen site, a floating basket was set up containing samples of river water and its associated algae within bags made from semi-permeable membrane tubing. The algae are trapped within these bags, but nutrients can diffuse into the bag from the surrounding river water. As the algae grow and take up nutrients within the bag, fresh nutrients from the river water diffuse across the membrane, maintaining constant water quality conditions. In total, four baskets were successfully deployed in rivers flowing into the Kongsfjord, two glacial meltwater streams and two non-glacial. A fifth basket was anchored in the fjord to assess the growth rates of marine algae, and to determine how river algae entering the fjord would grow in higher salinities. In order to keep the baskets in place in the fast-flowing rivers around Ny Ålesund, we had to be creative in anchoring the baskets in place, including pinning them to the underlying sediment and setting up rock anchors in tarpaulin sheets to prevent them from being washed away. After 9 days, the baskets were collected and brought back to the lab at the UK Arctic Research Station, where the bags were removed and sampled for algal flow cytometry and chlorophyll analyses, to determine how the algal communities within the river had increased and changed in community composition. Setting up these experimental baskets in Arctic rivers provided a unique challenge, far removed from our regular work in British rivers, which has so far provided us with greater insights into algal activity in the rivers of Svalbard. And it couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of Chris, Iain, Alanna, and Nathan in the field helping cycle the baskets and algae from site to site and back again’.
Part way through our campaign we were joined by Simon Armitage, the poet Laureate, and Sue Roberts, BBC radio 4 producer. Simon and Sue joined us for four days with the goal of creating three half-hour documentaries for BBC Radio 4 which will be broadcast in the autumn. They joined us for some field work to gain a deeper understanding of what’s really going on in this important part of the world. They were even kind enough to help with some of the greenhouse gas sampling.
Photo: Alanna Grant
One day in particular stands out for me as being especially memorable. On this day, as we headed by boat towards our intended sampling site, we spotted a polar bear on the shoreline of Blomstrandhalvøya, an island in the middle of the fjord. It was particularly special as this was the first one we’d seen. It was a large male that was walking with pace around the perimeter of the island. We stopped a safe distance away and watched it walking for a while. This experience was elevated from memorable to unforgettable as we sat in silence and listened to Simon poetically narrate this encounter. What a pleasure to share the moment we saw our first polar bear with the poet laureate. Later that same day, we headed towards an area of new icebergs that had recently calved from one of the sea-terminating glaciers in the fjord. We slowly nosed our way into the field of icy boulders, some being as small as pebbles, others being the size of a small building; all in various states of melt. We sat in silence for some time as Sue recorded the sounds of the melting ice. The sound is louder than you would expect it to be and includes various popping, bubbling, and fizzing notes. I could have sat there for hours, happily hypnotised by nature’s playlist. But as mesmerising as it is to listen to, it is also the soundtrack to a merciless countdown to a potentially ice free world and a reminder as to the importance of the science that takes place up here. I look forward to hearing Simon’s take on this when the programs are aired on radio four in October.
Photo: Iain Rudkin
Two weeks in and we had said goodbye to Chris and Alex, and were joined by WP1 co-leads, Prof Kate Hendry from BAS, and Prof Bryan Spears from UKCEH. Unfortunately for them, the fresh food supply was running low and the delicious mangos, avocados, and salads were slowly being replaced with tinned fruit, frozen vegetables, and sliced cabbage. With the next ship not due until after we’d left, we had to make do for the next two weeks. Kate’s goal for the trip was to reach eight sites along a transect line down the middle of the fjord, and deploy a CTD at various depths at each of the sites. This involved lowering a CTD and a niskin bottle on a winch to depths of up to 300 meters and winching it back up, by hand. I’ve been reliably informed that, unfortunately for those on the boat, this happened to be the world’s squeakiest winch, which haunts those who had the misfortune to use it to this day. Nevertheless, the team persevered and Kate now has an impressive dataset that has already shown some exciting results. She also collected water samples at these marine sites for some of the biogeochemistry determinands and collected sediment samples from the bottom of the fjord, over 300 m into the abyss.
Photo: Iain Rudkin
Bryan’s main task for the campaign was to produce a sediment sample archive across our many catchments and deep-water areas of the fjord. He committed himself to this task with more glee and gusto than I have ever seen from a researcher before. He was quite literally like a kid making mud pies and absolutely loving it. I’ve never seen someone sniffing sediment as if it were an expensive cheese or a fine wine. In the end he was very successful in his task and we left with several kilos of dried marine sediment for use in process experiments back in the UK. This will be opened up to the wider community – hopefully it will save others time and money in their pursuit of the black (sometimes red, sometimes white etc.) gold. Bryan was also a great help to the team overall, always jumping in the help wherever he could, and always doing it with a smile (and even a cheery song on occasion). That is with the exception of when he was wading out from the beach with a bucket, hunting for the salinity gradient with a probe, and overtopped his wellies. Much to the amusement of a nearby curious seal, who he swears he saw laughing maliciously at his misfortune.
Photo: Alanna Grant
Photo: Alanna Grant
It wasn’t just seals and polar bears that we spotted, but a plethora of other iconic arctic species as well. We saw several arctic foxes, in their brown summer coats, darting about town chasing goslings, as well as many reindeer which seemed mostly untroubled by human presence. Whilst out on the boat we were treated to sightings of guillemots that weave like spitfires, puffins that look as if they’re perpetually struggling to stay airborne, as well as fulmars, kittiwakes, ivory gulls, arctic skuas and many more. But there was one bird in particular that really made the trip memorable; the Arctic Terns… Whilst being lovely birds to look at with their red lipstick and black cap, they are absolutely vicious. They seemed to take a particular disliking to me, and seemed to always go straight for me every time we walked or cycled past them, even if we were in a group. They did, however, provide endless entertainment as we could watch the unsuspecting tourists being attacked from the comfort of the station window, pleased that I wasn’t the target for once.
Photo: Alanna Grant
Photo: Alanna Grant
With the month drawing to a close and the fieldwork component of the trip complete, we bid farewell to Bryan and Kate who made their way back to the UK laden with a large amount of aqueous scientific treasures. All in all we collected over 1500 samples including water, sediment, greenhouse gas, and eDNA samples which will make an impressive dataset. Nathan and I spent the next three days repacking the kit and equipment back onto the pallets and tidying and cleaning the lab spaces. There was a sense of quiet contentment around the station knowing that the job was complete and had gone as well as it could have. But there was also, for me anyway, a sense of sadness at having to leave this vibrant science community and head back to the real world. Being in Ny Ålesund felt very strange at first; remembering to take your shoes off in every building was difficult and getting used to the strangely early meal times even more so (dinner at 16:50?). But by the end of the month the thought of seeing paved roads and driving to Tesco for the weekly food shop felt absolutely foreign. I feel very fortunate that I was able to experience this place and meet so many talented and diverse scientist from across the world. The Polar Regions are experiencing some of the most rapidly changing environmental conditions in the world and the science that is done here is absolutely vital. This campaign wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of those back in the UK; Amy Pickard, Mike Bowes, Stephen Lofts, Chris Barry, Justyna Olszewska, Rebecca McKenzie and many others. As well as without the crucial support from boat driving, James Bond stunt double and photography extraordinaire, Iain Rudkin. Thank you to all of the visitors that helped with our sampling throughout the month; Jenny Forster Davidson, Simon Armitage, Sue Roberts, and Jane Francis. It was a pleasure to meet you all and share a gin and tonic with you.
When asked by a friend if this trip had scratched my adventure itch, my reply was ‘it’s only made me itchier’. I think I may have just caught the Polar bug…
Photo: Alanna Grant
Photo: Iain Rudkin