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The “bear” facts – on Longyearbjen

I left Ny Alesund having seen most of the mesocosms deployed and everything running well.
The local Arctic fox – who apparently lives under the 1912 houses which have become the Dutch Arctic station – appeared to see me off.

I found Longyearbjen in a state of great excitement because a polar bear had drifted in on the sea ice a few days ago. I was hoping he’d come back, but so far he hasn’t. It was a big attraction, because although they are said to be all around, understandably they don’t come into town that often. The authorities were happy as long as he snoozed on his iceberg, but when he started to move around, they zapped him with a tranquillizer dart and moved him off to a “safer” location.That left the ice floes clear for the Eiders.

Longyearbjen is called after American John M. Longyear, who established the first mine here in 1906. The mining history of the settlement is in evidence everywhere, old coal shafts and the pylons which carried the rope line used to transport the coal to the port.

Coal is still mined here today. It’s controversial, Greenpeace staged a protest here last year, which has made them quite unpopular with the locals, worried about their jobs. That’s presumably one reason why up in Ny Alesund, somebody threw a seal’s head onto the deck of the Esperanza. The local newsletter ‘icepeople’, self-styled as “the world’s northernmost alternative newspaper” reported on the return of the environmentalists saying “This time Greenpeace is promising – it seems – to be good”, i.e. because they are supporting scientific research rather than protesting. The newsletter people are clearly still wary, though.
There is a test project running here for carbon capture and storage. I went to the site of the borehole with the director, Gunnar Sand.

They are testing whether the underground storage site would be safe to store 90% of emissions from the local coal-fired power plant. He says they could be up and running by 2015. But he also stresses the need for much more intensive testing, as safety is paramount. He says Longyearbjen is ideal for a pilot plant, as they have a small community with a closed system. He thinks the world will be dependent on coal for the next fifty years at least, given especially the developments in China. More later on DW radio and the website.

There’s supposed to be a population of 2000 here. I don’t know where they all are, it makes a rather empty impression most of the time. Most people I’ve met have been incomers, who tend to come for a short time, fall in love with it and stay as long as they can. Margrete Nilsdater Skaktavl Keyser is one.

Margrete came here for a short course and went on to do a full degree here. The student residences at the far end of the town show the two main attractions that seem to bring students to the uni here : snow mobiles in winter and nature all around, all year round, with plenty of potential for field work on all aspects of Arctic sciences:

Margrete came here as a student for a short course and stayed on for a longer degree, writing on polar bears. You need a job to stay here, so she takes whatever she finds and goes home to the Norwegian mainland in between.In the season, she guides people on snowmobile trips. At the moment she’s working with the Svalbard authorities compiling a data base on encounters between humans and polar bears, trying to work out guidelines for avoiding “incidents”. I’ve been keeping that in mind walking around here. You can’t leave the town area safely without a rifle, flares etc. People have been killed around here, although it’s a good few years ago.
Glaciology Professor Doug Benn, a fellow Scot who taught in my old university St. Andrews, invited me to join him and two junior colleagues for a look at the local glaciers yesterday. He’s also an active researcher into a glacial area of the Himalayas. More on that next time.
As you can see, no hikes outside town without the rifle. Doug is the one in charge of the party’s safety here:


June 3, 2010 | 8:56 am




Out in the Kongsfjord

Before I go any further:
Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso, the coordinator of the whole EPOCA project, (see last blog post) has drawn my attention to the websites for the EPOCA project and suggested Ice Blog readers might like a look, so here they are. Thanks Jean-Pierre:
European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA) blog
EPOCA Svalbard 2010 Blog

Sunday afternoon: the plan is to deploy the mesocosms in the fjord Monday morning if the weather remains stable. So Sebastian Krug from IFM Geomar, who is responsible for the logistics of the deployment, took some of his colleagues out in a boat with a remote-controlled underwater camera

this afternoon to check the anchors which have been put down to hold the floating test-tube constructions and make sure the lines coming up are not tangled and everything is where it should be. I was able to join them.
We need survival suits for this as the water is around freezing point. Everybody gets a briefing on the dangers of hypothermia up here, which sets in very quickly if you fall into the water without a suit, and nobody takes any chances.

Sebastian’s colleagues Andrea Ludwig, Sine Klaasen and Kai Schulz from IFM Geomar, the Kiel University marine science institute that’s managing all this, are also doing test runs with their equipment to take water samples and transport them back to the world’s most northerly marine lab in the base at Ny Alesund. They will be doing this with samples from the mesocosms regularly, once they’re in place and have been “dosed” with the required doses of CO2, a different amount in each mesocosm to simulate, in situ, what would happen if the ocean acidifies to a particular amount, according to the different IPCC scenarios, depending on how much CO2 we continue to emit in the coming decades. Kai is responsible for adding the CO2.

It started off as a grey day with snowflakes, but the sun came out surprisingly in between. The weather changes quickly and frequently here in the Arctic. You have to make the best of every sunray.

(View back to Ny Alesund)

Meike Nikolai is the communications officer from IFM Geomar. She’s documenting all of this for the institute’s records and website. She took this photo.

Thanks Meike.
We got close up to this iceberg in the fjord. Hoping it and its colleagues will keep a safe distance from the mesocosms site.

Our little friend did his work underwater.

He makes some interesting blubbering and spitting sounds as he goes down (which you’ll hear when you tune into the radio stories on this project some time in the not too distant future! Keep an eye on the DW website and Living Planet
DW Environment web page
Nathan (Living Planet host), I hope you have plenty of space for this one, it’s a very exciting project.
The anchors are looking good, so weather and ice permitting, it’s full speed ahead for deployment on Monday morning. The scientists are getting excited, some nervous. They’ve been working for several years preparing this and it is the first of its kind. The crew on the Greenpeace boat are also excited about it all. They are playing a key role in getting this world premiere on the stage.


June 1, 2010 | 9:28 am



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Sunday morning in Ny Alesund

We didn’t get the usual 7.30 morning wake up knock on the door this morning, a Sunday treat.
Still, when I looked out onto the pier, Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso, the coordinator of the whole EPOCA project, was out there in a shower of sleet preparing test samples.

When I looked up the fjord to the huge glaciers, there was some floating ice to be seen in the distance. The mesocosms will be placed at the other,more sheltered end, but the one thing that could cause a problem, the scientists have told me, is if the wind changes and blows the icebergs down this way. The frames for the mesocosms are very stable, but the ice could damage the plastic sacks.I\’m told there will be some kind of barrier put round to protect them, still this is the main factor causing a little apprehension as the actual deployment comes closer. The team would like to start the experiment as soon as possible, but logistics have pushed the deployment back a little, probably to start tomorrow.

The world\’s most northerly post office (open once a week I believe!) looks picturesque even in a shower of sleet.
Meanwhile, the sun has been putting in the odd appearance, although it still keeps snowing or sleeeting, which gives a lovely light to the place. I think so anyway. The place is very quiet so far, probably a mixture of Sunday and the weather. Seems a shame to me not to be out and about.
Our resident Svalbard reindeer seems to think the same. Here he’s heading across the snow:

And as the summer comes in, he’s finding more and more tasty greenery:


May 30, 2010 | 10:21 am



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In the interests of science…

Ny Alesund is a very unique kind of place. On the one hand, at 79° north, it’s a really remote location. At the same time, thanks to all the scientific interest, the small village is very well equipped to provide accommodation for a small group of privileged scientists who get permission to work here for some time during “their” research season. It’s a radio-silent area to avoid disturbing sensitive measuring equipment. Imagine a place with no mobile phones!
In winter, there are only a maximum of 30 people here, including the logistics staff. I’ve just been talking to Marcus Schumacher, who was the station leader until recently and is now the coordinator of the EPOCA research project on ocean acidification. He says there’s a great community feeling, just a few people in the long, winter months. Then, in March and April the glaciologists come in, when the snow is firm enough to get to the glaciers on snowmobiles. They’ve gone now, and the others are coming in, biologists, geologists, etc.
The village is a collection of different coloured buildings, occupied by a very international set of people. The Norwegians, obviously, have a station.

The French and Germans have a combined AWIPEV station.The Chinese have a station, so do the Koreans. 4 Indian scientists have just arrived at their station.

I dropped in there this morning and had a coffee chat with some of the team. More about their work at a later stage when I’ve interviewed them on their work. I was also made welcome by the head of the Norwegian station, who is actually German. (Science is very international). Again more later on the interesting things I discussed with him. The problem with being here is there are so many interesting things going on it’s hard to decide what to write when and to make sure you don’t miss anything while you’re writing – especially since it never gets dark and there’s no clear end to the “working day” for anybody. The sun has come out today for the first time since I’ve been here, so the urge to get out and take photos while the light is good is very strong.

At the moment there’s a special buzz about the place, with the team of scientists and technicians just arrived for the EPOCA ocean acidification project. At the same time, the Greenpeace ship came in with the mesocosms and loads of other equipment supplies for the project. Marcus is coordinating all this – must be quite a challenge. All of a sudden, this small, exclusive research station has trebled its population or something like that. It also means more people sharing the laboratory space and other equipment. Sandra Heinrich, a German PhD student who’s working here on macroalgae in the fjord showed me round the marine lab today.

This is her 4th time here, and she says it’s an ideal place to work. She really feels the difference since the arrival of all the extra people.
Another interesting thing is the cooperation between science and Greenpeace. This cooperation between the ngo best known for its spectacular protests and campaigns and an established scientific research organisation is a premiere. There was a lot of discussion beforehand on whether it was a good idea. The project was having problems finding a suitable boat, because they need the equipment to be up here for 5 weeks. Greenpeace stepped in with an offer to transport the mesocosms on the Esperanza, as they were planning an Arctic expedition anyway. It all seems to be working very well, in spite of some sensitivities. I know some of the scientists are wary of being associated with a campaign group, because they don’t want to compromise their scientific neutrality or be seen to be taking sides. At the same time the issue of ocean acidification is one that’s based on chemistry and facts, so not a controversial topic like climate change.
The Greenpeace team are doing a great job, very professional and keen to facilitate the scientific research in every way possible.

Climate campaigner on the Esperanza Martin Kaiser.

Oceans campaigner Frida Bengtsson, one of my cabin-mates on the ship.
Another interesting relationship has been between some of the Norwegian seamen whose boat has been brought in to assist with some of the work. Given the country’s policy on whaling, it’s not surprising that the occasional tension has been felt. So far though, scientists, whale and seal hunters and the Greenpeace team are working well together in the interests of science and, I’m convinced, for the good of the planet.

View from my porthole.


May 29, 2010 | 7:40 pm



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Ocean life in a big plastic tube

The mesocosms are impressive pieces of equipment. It’s only when you see them up close and with people beside them that you realise how big they are and what a logistical challenge it is to get them up here to the Arctic and deployed in the Kongsfjord.

Professor Ulf Riebesell has been explaining to me exactly how they work.

He arrived two days ago and it’s “all systems go“, now that the season has started and the fjord is more or less ice free – at least at the point chosen here. There are nine separate “tubes“, which will be lowered from the Esperanza once everything is ready, each to contain their own little mini-cosmos of ocean life. The ocean absorbs around 30% of the CO2 we emit – good to buffer climate change, says Ulf, but bad for the creatures in the ocean that rely on calcium to form their shells or skeletons.
Co2 reacts with water and forms carbonic acid which makes oceans slowly more acidic. Lab experiments show that some organisms have a hard time, especially calcifying organisms, which need calcium to form their shells and skeletons.
On a global scale, this has implications for example for coral reefs, with their huge biodiversity, importance for coastal protection, the food supply and also for tourism. Calcifying organisms are everywhere, Ulf stresses, many organisms in ocean depend on forming calcium carbonate and are crucial links in the food webs. Scientists here will be looking particularly at a type of snail,the pteropod up to 1 cm in length, which, as our Professor puts it, have transformed their feet into wings. They’re also knows as butterflies of the sea.
They’re a key link in the food web between algae and higher trophic forms like whales etc. But they form their shells from material very susceptible to acidification. The scientists want to see what happens if they are affected by acidification, and what that would mean for the food web.
The Greenpeace boat has also transported loads of equipment the scientists will need to collect and test the samples in the Ny Alesund marine lab.

The Arctic, says Ulf, is the place to be to study ocean acidification. Cold waters take up more gas than warm. The polar oceans are close to the stage where water becomes corrosive for organisms depending on calcification. In 20-30 years some parts of Arctic will be completely corrosive for many organisms. Now that’s a scary thought.
And while there’s a lot of debate going on about what extent of climate change will have what effect – with ocean acidification, there’s no debate, Ulf says. It’s a chemical process and it’s easy to model how acidification will increase with certain levels of CO2 emissions. The big unknown is how it will affect marine life. And that’s the point of the giant test-tubes in this Arctic fjord. Unlike a lab experiment, which will look at individual organisms, the scientists here are looking at whole communities of life-forms. A daunting task – with potentially devastating results. We need to do something to reduce the CO2 emissions very, very soon, says the Kiel professor.


May 28, 2010 | 7:56 am



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