We prepared for bad weather. My red, 96-liter L.L.Bean duffel bag brims with fleece jackets, raincoats and extra hats, and my waterproof phone case is rugged enough to allow us to collect samples in the most torrential downpours. But I never imagined while packing for Ny-Ålesund that the biggest threat to our trip wouldn’t be dark, low-lying clouds rolling in from the fjord, it would be Covid-19.
What started with one case at our station soon became three. By the third day, four of the seven of us were infected. Quickly, Nicolas and I began to reckon with the ramifications if we became infected. Quarantining would require us to miss our scheduled flights home and booking backup flights would be a challenge with the SAS pilots still striking. Already SAS cancellations has stranded scores of travelers on Svalbard, now all scrambling for a few coveted seats on other airlines. Likely, if we got sick, we would not be able to leave Svalbard for at least another week. More pressing on my mind than getting home, however, are the lichens and mosses we travelled so far to collect.
Stuck in the station
Sitting in the common area of the station, Nicolas, Claudia and I brainstorm ideas to reduce catching and spreading Covid-19 to other stations, while still holding out hope of somehow getting back into the field. It feels like we are back in the early days of the pandemic: stuck inside, each of us six feet apart wearing KN95 masks. Out the window, a west wind drives mere lake-size waves up the Kongsfjorden – a perfect field day. Seeing researchers from other stations stuffing gear into backpacks adds to the anguish of being station-bound.
2022 is the first field season in three years Ny-Ålesund is fully open to researchers and tourists. Consequently, Covid-19 has been hopping from station to station, and we simply arrived with unlucky timing. Thankfully, everyone infected at our station is vaccinated and showing only mild symptoms.
Resolved to salvage our trip, we decide to create a “sick bay” and seal it off with plastic wrap and tape. However, doing this means we lose access to the hallway through which our bedrooms connect to the rest of the station. Before we completely seal off the bay, we unlock our bedroom windows and tape shut the doors. Going around from the outside of the station, I just barely balance on the top rung of a small step ladder to crawl through my window, laughing at the absurdity of our situation. Even passing tourists cannot help aiming their cameras our way to snap pictures of the crazy scientists heaving ourselves through the station windows.
Most challenging is the need to ventilate the station. At nearly 79°N, Ny-Ålesund’s average July temperature is around 42°F. Accordingly, the station has no air conditioning, and heat is purely from small radiators. To circulate air in the station, we open all the windows. Even with the heat on, the temperature inside the station scarcely rises above the outside air. But after two days of negative tests, we finally turn our attention back to the field.
The following day, Jesper and Clement, two ecologists from the Norwegian Polar Institute, welcome us aboard their boat to ferry us to Gerdøya, a tiny but beautiful island. Shielded on the leeward side of the larger Blomstrandhalvøya, Gerdøya is an Eden of viridescent mosses. Wading ashore, the moment is all the sweeter after the long hours in our cramped station.
After half-loading our rifles, Nicolas walks out ahead, cresting the nearest ridge to scout for bears. Polar bears are common on Blomstrandhalvøya, an unsettlingly easy swim from Gerdøya, where nesting sea birds and their eggs are easy picking for bears. Fortunately, by this time in the summer, all the chicks have fledged, and the only island inhabitant we encounter is a lone Arctic fox. Nevertheless, we make sure one of us is always on watch.
After a few hours, we break for lunch and walk to the northeast tip of the island. Relentless waves have eroded the nearby cliff face and carved a sea arch, allowing us a porthole to peer through to a glacier on the far side of the fjord. Before coming to Ny-Ålesund, I bought scent-proof bags, presuming everyone would follow protocols for food storage in bear country at least as rigorous as hiking in the U.S. Arriving, I have been shocked to learn that no one shares my concern. In fact, it is commonplace to bring cans of fish from the mess hall out into the field for lunch. So, after a few days on Svalbard, I find myself sitting on the edge of Gerdøya opening a can of tuna, probably the best polar bear bait there is! Luckily, no bears join me for lunch.
After lunch, we start marching back up the spine that runs the length of the island. The ground is spongy and walking is slow. Besides a few windswept summits, Gerdøya is covered in a continuous moss carpet, primarily comprised of the genus Bryum. Every step sinks up to your ankle, dissipating all the force of your stride. After a few more hours of collecting, we nearly have reached our target goal for total samples for the trip. We hear Jesper’s voice from our walkie-talkie crack the silence to let us know they are on their way to pick us up.
With all our gear loaded on the small boat, I reflect on the transformation of the past 48 hours – from the lows of getting stuck in the station, the real possibility of not getting any work done and missing our flights to the highs of having almost all the samples we hope to collect labeled and in our bags with two entire field days left in our trip. Like the climate, the toils and triumphs of field work seem amplified in polar regions, and I am hopelessly hooked.