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  • Writer's pictureDr Aga Nowak

Svalbard explorations: 2019 cruise and fieldwork with my MSc students

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

The adventure has begun!

After 13 hours of travel North on Stålbas, we woke up at 6:30am to this wonderful view. Majestic mountains of Lilliehöökfjorden and even more magnificent Lilliehöökbreen..

That's how we do teaching at UNIS. AG-340 on their first day of exploratory cruise


DAY 1.

Our trip started innocently enough. We left Longyearbyen in dull weather with a few hours delay. The sea was calm and peaceful, while on board of Stålbas you could feel excitement and anticipation. We were not sure what lies ahead, you never do in Svalbard. The weather can change really quickly and ever-present wandering polar bears can alter any long-planned trips.

We left Adventfjorden behind and took course SW towards Prins Karls Forland. The sky was slowly clearing up allowing us to admire fine mountains and great glaciers coming down from the North.

Getting a glimpse of Tryghamna

One by one we were passing magnificent tidewater glaciers, Borebreen, Nansenbreen, and surging Esmarkbreen. Excitement was infectious. As we were getting closer to Prins Karls Forland, staff and students alike started appearing on the deck trying to catch that perfect picture.

Phil Porter determined to take that 'perfect' shot..

Show of lenses and binoculars, ready for wildlife

As we were passing Forlandet National Park, news came from the bridge that we will not reach our first destination until 3:00 maybe 4:00 in the morning. Nobody was bothered. We still had the West Coast to admire and a wonderful dinner to look forward to.

After the meal, we had to discuss the activities of the following day. Three groups were created. One, led by Dr Tris Irvine-Fynn was to perform GPR survey on visited glaciers. The other, led by Dr Phil Porter would monitor catchment's sediment transport and water discharge. The third led by myself, would investigate glacier and groundwater flowpats and their chemistry.

The task was ambitious. One day, one glacier, three comprehensive investigations creating the first ever scientific image of to-date unexplored catchments.

I had no doubt we could do it. Students were hard-working, eager to learn and excited about bringing important contribution to our understanding of quickly changing High Arctic environment. The staff was experienced and skilled. We also had Charlotte Sandmo, providing the best logistical support. We were prepared for anything Svalbard can give us.

As the evening came to a close, memory cards got full, we retreated to our comfortable cabins for some much needed sleep.

One of the cabins on Stålbas. We were looked after well.


DAY2. Krossfjorden

The day started ridiculously early for me. I was up and running before 5:00am. Surprisingly, I did not need an alarm, knowing we were in Lilliehöökfjorden was enough. I also wanted to make sure that we are in the best possible spot for our morning lecture about tidewater glaciers, and boy, what a spot it was..

5:00am already awake. Wanted to make sure we are in the right spot for a 7:00am lecture

Lilliehöökfjorden is a c. 14km tributary of Krossfjorden. It was most likely named after a member of Torell's expedition in 1861, commander Gustaf Bertil Lilliehöök. The fjord is truly amazing. Magnificent long, narrow and very steep Kong Haaakon Halvøya greeted us from the East, while a more open view of Signehamna, Fridtjofneset and four small glaciers welcomed us from the West. The crown jewel of the fjord was still ahead of us, more than an hour away.

We were approaching Lillehöökbreen quickly, and despite the early hour, students begun to gather at the bow to admire the glacier.

We discussed the landscape, geology, glaciology in the area, and of course the climate. The change in glacier extent was evident. We knew, thanks to measurements of Dukes of Monaco in 1906 and 2006, that in that period Lillehöökbreen lost about 40% of its volume (R.Stange, 2008). It was very apparent to us that since those measurements were made, the glacier retreated even more.

After the lecture, we took some commemorative photos and followed our rumbling tummies to the mess for breakfast.

While we were eating, Stålbas was taking us back to Krossfjorden for another adventure.

Our first landing was going to be by the Camp Zöe, a hut built in 1911 by Henry Rudi on behalf of Ernest Mansfield and the Northern Exploration Company. It was the best landing spot and ideal location for a comfortable walk towards Flakbreen.

Our first landing spot, Camp Zöe in Krossfjorden

The weather was perfect. Svalbard was spoiling us with gorgeous sky and calm waters. After a good look from the bridge for polar bears, we began to deploy students and our research gear. It took us about an hour, but at 10:00am we were finally ready to begin explorations of the forefield, and the glacier itself.

After a short stop by the hut, we split into three, created the previous evening, groups and with our tasks in mind, we chose the best routes inland.

Phil and his team headed West, towards the most pronounced lateral channel, and the river that seemed to evacuate the most meltwater from the catchment. They wanted to install a gauging station in the main outflow and carry out multiple discharge measurements. To make their investigation thorough, they also decided to study suspended sediment transport from the catchment into Krossfjorden.

Tris with his students took the route South to cross the bedrock ridge and reach Flakbreen's centre line. Their goal was to perform a GPR survey that would help us understand this glacier's thermal regime. In addition, the group wanted to measure roughness of the glacier surface.

GPR group finding their way to the glacier through moraines

I led my group to the East as we wanted to explore groundwater springs first. Our plan was to find, collect and analyse as many different water samples as possible, so we zigzagged through the entire forefield and even ventured to the glacier itself.

Charlotte, our guardian angel on the trip, covered the forefield with us, looked for bears, watched the wind and the waves. She was making sure we could focus on the science. Everyone was grateful. Before we knew it it was 5:00pm.

Suddenly, the wind started to pick up and Charlotte begun to hurry us back to the boat. It looked like Lillehöökbreen had another surprise for us today. It was channelling katabatic winds covering Krossfjorden in whitecaps. That was the last thing we needed after a long day in the field. High waves could easily prevent us from returning to the safety and comfort of Stålbas.

On the way back from a good day of fieldwork, with Stålbas in the distance. From left: Aga, Sanne, Alex, Stephanie, Mahdi, Azamat and Ziqi

We quickly let everyone know it was essential to finish work and return to Camp Zöe as soon as possible. We did not want to get stranded. After all there was a hot tub and a delicious dinner waiting for us on Stålbas.

Little did we know, both would have to wait..

My group arrived at the beach first and others were supposed to follow within half to one hour intervals. One look at the fjord was enough for Charlotte and myself, we decided to start ferry students immediately. Strong wind and noise from crashing waves made it difficult to communicate. We had to shout, but even then words were barely audible. Stålbas was ready and very eager to deploy a polar circle to pick us up, but we needed to warn them about the conditions close to shore. Charlotte took a radio and hiding behind our backs, to get some protection from the hauling wind, got in touch with the bridge. The plan was to ship the students first and worry about the equipment later. We needed more survival suits to do it though, so Charlotte asked for several to be delivered with the first transport.

In few minutes the polar circle with two drivers and the suits was in water. Four of us got dressed in the suits we had on shore, and approached the waves. We were ready to receive the boat. Only two instructions were given. You must not allow the boat to be washed ashore sideways, if that happens, you must not stand right next to the boat on the shore side.

We needed to work like clockwork, so military chain of command was assimilated immediately. This was no time for arguments, second guessing or deliberations. The situation called for a strict order - execution approach, and the students got it quickly. I was proud.

The polar circle was approaching and to our dismay, it was approaching fast, too fast. We tried to intercept it, but with that speed it was almost impossible. In the matter of seconds what we wanted to avoid the most, happened. The boat was resting on the beach parallel to the shore. Crashing waves were getting inside and a backup plan for the party, now stranded, was immediately materialising in my head. In the same time, I knew we needed to get the boat back in water at once. All was not lost as long as we acted quickly.

We pushed and we pulled, we fought against the waves and the boat getting heavier by the second. We almost got it twice, or maybe thrice, I lost count. I do remember Charlotte standing opposite me, chest high in water, with her back to the waves, focused and composed. I think somewhere between the second or the third attempt, Tris'es group arrived at the beach. What a view it must have been.

I quickly let him know how the situation looks, but he hardly needed the brief. Night in emergency tents we stashed on the beach in the morning was looking more probable than ever.

We were not about to give up fighting yet, adrenaline was doing its job, and seeing Stålbas in parallel to the shore gave me an idea.. I remembered from the morning conversation with the captain, that waters in this area are really deep, so maybe we could try to use Stålbas as a wind- and wave- breaker.. If they could only stay parallel, and close to the shore, long enough to calm the waves, we might be able not only get that blasted boat on water, but also have a chance to transport students safely on board.

I asked Charlotte to contact the bridge.

The plan was set in motion. Stålbas left its current position and quickly headed East, only to turn around soon after. We were watching her getting closer. Soon, her red port side dominated our horizon. It did not take long to see the effect she had on the waves. For a brief moment the sea calmed down. This is the chance we were waiting for! Gathering all remaining strength, we managed to push water filled polar circle off the shore and into deeper water.

Hurrah! Electrifying euphoria spread through the group. Everyone was cheering. I was very proud of my students and staff alike, and grateful for the crew on Stålbas who was willing to give an unconventional idea a try.

While both the boat and Stålbas were slowly moving away, I knew the students will spend the night on board, and we will be able to proceed with the expedition according to the plan.

The rest of the events followed rather quickly. Stålbas was moving back and forth, as close to the shore as possible. Now dry, polar circle was waiting in her shadow for the right moment to approach the shore. Six of us were waiting in the water to receive the boat, while other six were getting ready to quickly jump on board.

Each time we only had a couple of minutes of calm waters before we lost the cover from Stålbas, so the loading must have been quick and precise. There was no time for error or questions. Everyone knew what to do. Time was of essence.

Students were our priority, we left the equipment till last.

Finally, the last piece of equipment was loaded on polar circle. I asked Tris to leave as well. I needed a staff member on Stålbas with the students. The three of us, Charlotte, Phil and myself had to stay behind. Despite protection from Stålbas, we would not have been able to safely receive the polar circle. We decided to hike in search for a better landing. Charlotte remembered there is a cove about 5km to the East that could work.

Feeling happy and definitely accomplished, we attached our survival suits to the rucksacks and headed East following steep shores of Tinayrebukta.

Finishing the day in Tinayrebukta. Tinayrebreen, Stålbas and the polar circle waiting for us in the distance

It took us about an hour to get back on Stålbas.

When we stepped below the deck and went into the mess, we were greeted by the students with cheer and applause. A wonderful welcome indeed.

After a quick meal I went to the bridge to thank the captain and the crew for help and effort they put into getting us on board. They were happy everything went well, and excited

they had a chance to test Stålbas'es engines and thrusters. Apparently, the wind was so strong, the vessel had a 2 mile drift.

Once the excitement died down a bit, as in the previous evening, we gathered in the common room to share our experiences from different exercises and plan the research for the following day. A huge WELL DONE! was also issued to all students, a round of applause filled the room.

It was late when we finished, but despite the hour and overwhelming tiredness, some decided to use the hot tub. After all, it would have been rude if we wasted all that hot water..

Phil, Tris, Charlotte and myself decided to call it a day and get some much needed rest. After all, another adventure was just around the corner.


DAY3. St. Jonsfjorden

We woke up to a splendid view. Gorgeous weather, calm waters, fantastic landscape. St Jonsfjorden is relatively small, only about 20km long, but it hosts five tidewater glaciers with the largest one, Osbornebreen, at its head. The terminus is c. 3km wide and it is shared with Devikbreen and Vintervegen. The southern side is equally spectacular but dominated by large, now valley glaciers that used to terminate in the fjord.

Geology of the fjord does not disappoint either. Strongly deformed basement rocks with a multitude of folds and faults make a wonderful view. Sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in the area also attracted cooper and gold miners, but as with many resources on Svalbard, their excavation was not economic. We all felt grateful for that.

Refreshed after a good night sleep with our bellies full, rucksacks heavy with spare clothing, lunch and cameras, we rushed on the deck to start the day. Løvliebreen was waiting for us.

Beautiful morning in st Jonsfjorden. Løvliebreen in the distance.

Everyone knew what to do, so deployment operation run like clockwork. Two students were on the bridge looking for polar bears, the rest was on the deck putting survival suits or vests on, checking rifles and securing research equipment.

At 8:00am everything was ready, we could start getting on shore.

Daily deployment routine.

After an hour we were hiking towards our sites. Svalbard was kind to us again, the walk was pleasant, almost leisurely.

AG-340 students ready for another day of Arctic explorations. This time we are tackling Løvliebreen and its forefield. From left: Phil, Alex, Jonas, Armin, Esther, Alvilde and Azamat

Flat forefield and dried up meltwater channels made our assignments a breeze.

As planned the previous evening, Hydrochemistry group explored several lakes and springs while Hydrology group set up a monitoring station on the main meltwater channel and performed multiple discharge measurements. A dye was used on the glacier to explore its drainage system. As on Flakbreen, the third group performed radar survey to determine Løvliebreen's thermal regime.

Time flies when you are enjoying yourself. Before we knew it, the day went by and it was time to return to the ship.

GPR survey by Esther, Christian, Janos, Armin and Alvilde. Photo by Tris Irvine-Fynn

I don't think anyone was ready to say goodbye to St.Jonsfjorden just yet. In addition, the students worked very hard to collect good quality data, so they deserved to be spoiled a bit. I asked the captain to head North-East and get us as close as possible to Osbornebreen.

We discussed tidewater glaciers, their surges, hydrological features and their influence upon physical and chemical properties of the fjord. All this while waiting for calving.. and of course, the hot tub to get ready.

Another day, another tidewater glacier. In front of Osbornebreen with wonderful AG-340 students. From letf: Charlotte, Jonas, Mahdi, Emil, Lena, Braden, Armin, Alex, Sanne, Esther, Alix, Alvilde, Aga, Hao, Tris. Bottom row from the left: Phil, Christan, Dana, Stephanie, Melanie, Ziqi and Azamat

I had one more ace in my sleeve for the group. Since we were leaving St. Jonsfjorden in the evening to head for Grønfjorden, I arranged with the captain to pass by Poolepynten in the eastern part of Prins Karls Forland. Once news spread, everyone was excited. After all, it is not often one has a chance to see a walrus colony.

Walruses in a sunset light on Poolepynten, Prins Karls Forland


DAY4. Grønfjorden

The last day of our expedition had to be spent relatively close to Longyearbyen as we needed to be back by 6:00pm. My initial plan was to head to Tryghamna and target Protektorbreen. However, over the past couple of weeks we were getting information about a pesky polar bear in that area that was causing a lot of problems for tourists and scientists alike. I have therefore decided that it will be best if we head for Grønfjorden instead.

Grønfjorden is a c.16km fjord opening to the North. It is most known from Russian mining town Barentsburg, the second largest settlement in Svalbard that is occupying its northern part. Majority of the area is deglaciated but 3 decent size glaciers still cover its southern and south eastern part, Austre Grønfjordbreen, Vestre Grønfjordbreen and Aldegondabreen.

Our target was Aldegondabreen, a 3km valley glacier named after Infanta Aldegundes, Dutches of Guimarães. This was the only glacier we visited on this expedition that has been previously explored. It was also studied by AG-340 in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Over the years, Aldegondabreen changed its thermal regime and dynamics from polythermal to predominantly cold based, from tidewater to land terminating. We were extremely curious if it still had any of the temperate ice left ..

As it often is with polar expeditions, external conditions dictated time we could devote to study of the catchment. Research would therefore have to be quick, precise and flawless.

Our third site, Aldegondabreen, hidden behind moraines and riegel.

We were not worried. It was our third day in the field so no guidance was needed. Rifles were checked and half loaded, equipment divided, groups formed. We split at the beach and proceeded inland with the goal in mind.

We were goal oriented until the moment someone spotted mussel and coral fossils. I have to admit, they played a wonderful distraction. Intoxicating feeling of a possible discovery was following us, and several reminders of polar bear watch had to be issued.

Despite all distractions, the fieldwork went well on all fronts and GPR group even managed to return to the beach second. They were all smiles as their radar survey looked particularly promising. I can't wait to see the results!

We returned somewhat sluggishly to Stålbas. Journey back to Longyearbyen was painfully looming on the horizon and we did not like it. We had way too much fun exploring Svalbard..

One the agenda we only had two things now. One last briefing and one last meal.

The last post fieldwork briefing. From left: Christian, Alvilde, Esther, Jonas, Zigi, Melanie, Mahdi, Alex and Hao

Three hours later familiar landscape greeted us with a promise of a warm bed, long shower and a cosy place to celebrate successful expedition.

I felt grateful to UNIS, crew of Stålbas,and my guest lecturers. I was also thankful for having such a great bunch of students who were willing to work really hard to collect scientific data from those unexplored areas of Svalbard.

I have already started planning the next expedition. Svalbard will do this to you. Once you taste it, you cannot stop exploring.


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