Discovering Ny-Ålesund

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

Discovering Ny-Ålesund

Life at 78° N

Cautiously opening the front door, I make my way down the metal stairs. A quick glance to my sides then I round wide around the corner of the station. At 5:30 in the morning, no one is around. The bright daylight adds to the eerie feeling of desertion. I was told the morning is the most dangerous time, when the previous hours of quiet have bolstered the polar bears’ confidence. Seeing the entrance to the gym just 30 yards away, I feel like Laura Dern’s character in Jurassic Park viewing the door to the maintenance shed through the tangle of fallen trees. It is so tantalizingly close. With each nervous step from the station, my eyes search for movement and the nearest door to dash in. All exterior doors in Ny-Ålesund remain unlocked for this reason. While polar bears venturing within town limits are rare occurrences, they do happen. Increasingly, polar bears are spotted on the banks, shores and alluvial plains, using the surrounding glaciers as highways to cut from one fjord to another.

View north from the mess hall. The building was recently renovated during the pandemic.

Later that morning, while I still frantically scan between buildings for phantom polar bears, Iain, the NERC station’s deputy manager, walks us through town with a relaxed alertness, waving to researchers biking past. Arriving at the mess hall, we take off our shoes, a tradition passed down from Ny-Ålesund’s mining days to keep out the ubiquitous, grey dust kicked off the gravel roads. Though famished from traveling, I ignore my meal and gaze lost out the window at the fjord and distant glaciers. It seems too idyllic, like the default screensaver on a new Mac operating system. Looking around, everyone but my advisor and me is buried in their meals. I feel like the newbie in town still dazzled by the kitschy tourist sights. But as I quickly will learn the other researchers’ seeming nonchalance about the glacial views reflects their desire and experience to get out into the field while the mercurial Arctic weather is favorable.

After breakfast, we walk through town, passing a bust of Roald Amundsen, the world’s northernmost post office and the history museum. We see the recreation center, replete with a jacuzzi and sauna, and spy the town bar down toward the pier, a favorite hangout among residents on Saturday nights. Iain explains that mess hall dinners on Saturdays are more formal. Sweaters and jeans replace the grey and kaki expedition shirts and pants worn throughout the week. The long black tables sport white tablecloths with candle centerpieces, and many bring their own bottles of wine or spirits to share among the different stations before adjuring to private gatherings or the bar.

Hearing about the camaraderie and communal culture in Ny-Ålesund surprises me. Like me, most researchers in Ny-Ålesund only are there for part of the summer. I imagined the severe environment around Ny-Ålesund would harden everyone, but it seems to have the opposite effect. The shared hardship and love of polar science pulls everyone in town together.

Into the field

Arriving back to the station, I ready myself for our first field day and quickly dash off a message home. Paradoxically for Ny-Ålesund’s remote location, the town has high-speed internet faster even than in Wisconsin where I grew up. However, the internet only is accessible through ethernet, as wireless signals interfere with radio experiments.

After another safety talk from Iain, we strike up the path heading out of town. Reaching the town limit, we pause, and amidst a half dozen frenzied Arctic terns strafing us for being too close to their nests, we “half load” – put the cartridges into the magazine without any in the chamber – our bolt-action rifles. Every research team working outside of Ny-Ålesund carries flare guns to startle approaching bears to retreat. However, the bears are becoming habituated to the sound of an exploding flare. As the last possible means of protection when a bear is too close to safely retreat, all research teams are required to carry one or two rifles. But distance is misleading on the tundra. The massive open expanses and gargantuan sizes of mountains and glaciers fool your eyes into believing objects are closer than they are, appearing stationary until they are right on top of you. This effect appears amplified along the shores of the Kongsfjorden, where the steep walls rise to form a natural amphitheater that further distorts any normal sense of distance.

When we reach the first field site, Nicolas and Iain climb the nearest ridge to better survey the area for polar bears, while I stick close to Claudia and Kevin, two experienced researchers from the United Kingdom accompanying us. After briefly reconnoitering the area, we set to work collecting small patches of lichens and mosses then placing them in labeled paper bags. At first, everything is slow, but with Claudia and Kevin’s help, I begin to pick up on the slight variations in green hues and morphology that differentiate species. 

Our work this summer is motivated by the third report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggested that the terrestrial biosphere could store anywhere between 22 and 57 percent of expected anthropogenic carbon emissions by 2100. However, preliminary calculations suggest this would require additional bioavailable nitrogen. Sampling the diversity of nitrogen-fixing species is critical to accurately predict how much nitrogen will be available for terrestrial Arctic environments and how they will respond to climate change.

Svalbard is unusually rich in lichens and mosses, about 1000 species, given its high latitude due to the relatively-warm waters of the North Atlantic Current, an offshoot of the Gulf Stream, which flows off the west coast of Spitsbergen. We plan to use our collected lichen and moss samples in our lab at Duke to determine the drivers of terrestrial biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) – temperature, moisture, nutrients and light levels – and characterize how BNF in lichens and mosses responds to environmental changes to refine current climate models.

Passing time

Remnants of one of the coal mines in the area. Production was shut down in 1962 after an explosion killed 21 miners. Coal mining still continues in Longyearbyen. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After filling up our sample bags, we start the slow trek home, treading carefully to avoid the detritus left over from an old coal mine. The unnaturally steep cavities and piles of black mine tailings set against the bright green mosses, white snow and blue waters of the fjord make the area look otherworldly. No effort is made to clean up the mine. The Norwegian government considers the site “cultural heritage,” although everyone in town thinks that is a convenient designation to avoid paying for the cleanup. 60 years of abandonment seemingly has done little to the appearance of the mine. The cold temperatures severely hinder decay, and the railroad ties look as if they were laid yesterday. 

There is a sense when you are in the Arctic of time standing still. The sun traces slow arcs though the sky like a precessing hula-hoop, staying sequestered below or conspicuously above the horizon for four months each year. Without a consistent sunrise and sunset, it is easy to lose track of time as one day blends into the next. 

But time standing still is only an illusion. Polar amplification of climate change is warming Arctic ecosystems up to four times faster than the global average. The encompassing glaciers that appear ready to swallow up the entirety of the Kongsfjorden are actually in retreat, some losing meters per day during the peak of summer. When our station leader, Nick, started working as a skipper in the waters off Svalbard over 40 years ago, the sea ice packed the Kongsfjorden so tightly each winter that he could walk across to the far side. Today this is impossible, and the fjord remains ice pack free all year. The retreat of glaciers and loss of sea ice in the Kongsfjorden act like a giant hourglass marking the inexorable passing of time and the diminishing window to act to curb climate change. Everyone in town feels this urgency. You see it in their work, their demeanor, their willingness to help others. Researching in Ny-Ålesund feels like I am at the heart of both the problem and solution to climate change, leaving me both frightened and thrilled but delighted to be started.


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