79 Degrees North

This post originally appeared on the blog “Arctic Research” run by the European Commission program INTERACT.

79 Degrees North

Lunch on a glacier

The rubble field approaching Vestre Brøggerbreen.

After two hours of hiking, we finally reach Vestre Brøggerbreen. The last hour has been a maze of moraines crisscrossed by braided streams. With every step the loose glacial debris shifts underfoot, requiring complete concentration to avoid tumbling onto boulders. Climbing onto the base of the glacier, I eagerly unload my pack to stop the straps from biting into my shoulders. The Austrian team with us warns not to step on snow which might conceal crevasses. Fortunately for us on this hot (albeit, Arctic hot) July day, the glacier is bare, and all the crevasses are easily visible carrying torrents of cerulean meltwater down the glacier and onto the plain below. Kneeling next to a shallow crevasse, I dip my hand into the icy water and gurgle it into my mouth.

Glaciers like Vestre Brøggerbreen team with microbial life, which lives on and in the ice and snow. The pigments in these microbes, mostly algae and bacteria, increase the absorption of sunlight and speed the pace of glacial melt. Little is known about how these microbial communities acquire nutrients to grow, particularly nitrogen. By collecting samples, we hope to identify specific marker genes in their genomes which signal the ability to fix nitrogen. In Greenland, satellite observations suggest microbial communities decrease albedo – a measure of reflectivity – of ice sheets by 17 percent, leading to widespread melt. Loss of just a third of Greenland’s ice sheets and glaciers would increase sea level by two meters and displace 400 million people in vulnerable communities worldwide.

The north face of Vestre Brøggerbreen.

Growing up in northern Wisconsin surrounded by thousands of lakes, I thought I knew all forms ice could take, and I naively imagined glacial ice would feel the same as lake ice. It does not. A layer of ash and soot blankets most of the world’s glaciers and ice sheets. These particles absorb sunlight and pepper tiny holes into the glacier, making the surface uneven, sharp and rough. 

With crampons on our feet, an ice pick in one hand and rifles slung over our shoulders, Nicolas and I begin to lumber up the north face to reach our sample sites. After our arduous trek to reach the glacier, we decide to break for lunch. In the field, the most ordinary moments take on significance, where the banal act of eating lunch is elevated to an unforgettable memory. Grabbing lunch is an everyday act, but it’s something special when your legs are dangling over the icy face of a glacier. We take time to soak in the moment sitting on the glacier facing the Kongsfjorden, awash in the sound of rushing meltwater, the bright glow of sun reflecting off the ice, even the jaggedness of the ice itself. 

Our view atop the glacier during lunch. The airport control tower and radio dish are visible in the background.

After lunch, Nicolas and I work in shifts with an ice pick to hack out and collect pieces of glacial ice, while staying alert for polar bears – a more challenging task on a pale ice field than the vibrant mossy tundra. Later, while descending the glacier to meet the Austrian team to hike back to Ny-Ålesund, we decide to take one last sample of meltwater flowing through the ice. Carefully, I inch my way off the edge of the glacier where a swift-moving stream drains the west lobe of Vestre Brøggerbreen. After dipping my sample bag into the stream, I stand up to find my boots are locked into a matrix of mud, ice and rock. Struggling to walk in the quagmire, I repeatedly lunge forward until, finally, I break free and reach the solid-footing of the glacier.  

While I never felt in danger, visions of getting trapped like a mammoth in the Le Brea Tar Pits dance through my mind. The experience immediately underscores the importance of respecting my environment every moment in the Arctic. Being a short plane ride away from Longyearbyen is small comfort out here. Danger still rules in the tundra, glaciers and fjord, which are as wild as they were when the first explorers ventured here in the 16th century. Then, as now, second chances are rare in the Arctic.

50 samples

The following day, Jesper and Clement take us by boat further down the Brøggerhalvøya peninsula to an area called Stuphallet. Scaling a winding path from the beach up the sea cliff, we emerge onto a plateau where newly hatched purple sandpipers waddle over lichen-coated rocks. Jesper dutifully records the sighting in his notebook to add to his annual wading-bird survey of the fjord.

 In the distance, we see a herd of reindeer grazing on the mosses we have come to collect, but the plateau is vast and there are plenty of mosses for all of us. Walking away from the herd, we head out onto the plateau where Claudia spots a cluster of feather mosses, an order of known nitrogen-fixing mosses that have eluded us up to now. Excitedly, I zip open my sample bag and pull out my serrated trowel. After delicately placing a few samples into paper bags, I tally up our samples. With the addition of the feather mosses, we have reached our 50-sample goal for the trip. Success!

An inquisitive reindeer calf watches us while staying close to the herd.

Not long after, we hear the distinctive crunch of dry moss underfoot and hurriedly turn to find reindeer a few paces away. Relieved that in our enthusiasm to collect the feather mosses we did not let a polar bear sneak up on us, we pause and watch the herd munch its way across our view. An ivory-colored calf particularly seems interested by our unusual appearance on the tundra and whirls around on a ledge above us to look over these interlopers. 

North of Blomstrandhalvøya

Claudia and Nicolas shortly after crossing 79°N.

With our quota of samples and the afternoon of our last field day quickly slipping by, I ask Jesper and Clement if they would take us around Blomstrandhalvøya, so I can cross 79°N. Skipping north over the waves in the fjord, I stare locked at my phone’s GPS and watch our latitude slowly climb: 78.94°N… 78.96°N…78.98°N. When we reach 78.99°N, I am thrown into the gunwale as Jesper wildly veers toward starboard. For the next few moments, he teases me, swinging the boat helter-skelter, keeping us just shy of 79°N. After multiple rounds of this torment, he finally relents, pointing the bow north and allowing us to cross 79°N. We mark the moment with fist bumps all around and plot a course for the glacier on the far side of the fjord. 

The gap between Blomstrandbreen (left) and Blomstrandhalvøya (right).

Clement explains that the glacier, Blomstrandbreen or “Blomstrand glacier,” which now terminates in the sea near the far shoreline, was attached to Blomstrandhalvøya, or “Blomstrand island,” as recently as the 1990s. Thirty years ago, circumnavigating Blomstrandhalvøya would have been impossible, as what is now a channel north of the island was an impassible wall of ice. The stark sight of the kilometer-wide gap where the glacier once reigned resonates as loss within me. From ice wall to open water, we bear witness to our changing climate. The name Blomstrandbreen now a misnomer highlighting an environment irrevocably damaged. 

Going past the south face of Blomstrandbreen by boat.
Piercing blue ice east of Blomstrandhalvøya. From our little boat, the outline of the large bergy bits seemed to melt into the distant mountains.

With lament, we turn for town. As we pass through a muddle of bergy bits, I reach in and scoop out two small pieces. Arriving back at the station, I wash the ice and place it in the freezer. Later that night, Nicolas, Claudia and I, joined by a group of French tourists, drink glacial-ice gin and tonics, a fitting nightcap to our time on Svalbard.

An Arctic farewell

On our last morning, after packing our bags, Nicolas and I walk to the mess hall for breakfast. There is an electric excitement in the air. In front of us, a group of researchers huddle by one of the stations passing around a pair of binoculars. Just then someone rushes by, and I catch the cause of all the trouble – a polar bear. Hoping for a better view of Ursus martimus, Nicolas and I cut back to the east side of town. In the dull glow of an overcast sky, we see the unmistakable outline of a polar bear tramping across the tundra. Mesmerized, we follow its track until it cuts out of sight behind a distant mound of mine tailings. Delighted by seeing my first wild polar bear, I feel baptized into the official ranks of Arctic researchers.

After breakfast, we load a cart with our bags and say goodbye to our station mates. We regret not being able to say goodbye to everyone who helped us during our stay in Ny-Ålesund, and we are incredibly thankful to everyone at NERC Arctic Research Station, the Dirigible Italia Arctic Station and the Norwegian Polar Institute. We also are deeply grateful to Claudia and Kevin for their experienced guidance and help collecting samples.

Once again tipped skyward from Ny-Ålesund, the land fades into the same consuming clouds that shrouded it upon approach one week earlier. This time, it is a relief to see it gradually disappear. After a week of hiking with the constant stress of lurking bears, I am tired and ready to head home. Sitting back in my seat, I close my eyes to enjoy the short 22-minute flight to Longyearbyen and begin to daydream about Alaska.

Looking east toward Kronebreen and Kongsvegen glaciers. The group of three peaks in the left of the view are known as the “Three Kings.”

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