Friday, December 18, 2015

The Light

"When you think all is forsaken
Listen to me now
You need never feel broken again
Sometimes darkness can show you the light"
- "The Light" by Disturbed

Dear friends, it is December 18th, just days away from the darkest day of the year. I can't help but think of my friends at higher latitude in Europe and the Arctic, who have even less light than me right now. I think spending last winter in Norway has actually given me a bit of a different perspective - somehow, the days at 43 N don't seem so short this year. We're getting close to the winter solstice, but I'm finding ways to focus on the light.

Christmas lights and a star from my friend in
Germany adorn a doorway in my apartment.
For starters, I received an early Christmas gift from a good friend in Germany this week. She sent me a string of lights and a paper lantern in the shape of a star, with a note saying "Friends are like stars - you don't always see them, but they're always there." Receiving thoughtful, heartfelt gifts from the other side of the world is one of the many things that make me happy.

This week at the lab has been productive despite some ups and downs. High point: when the librarian left dark chocolate bars in everyone's mailboxes with a note saying "Dark days call for dark chocolate." Low point: when one of the lab freezers broke, and the spoiled Dungeness crabs inside made the whole hallway smell like death. High point: finding out the post-doc's DNA samples weren't ruined, despite sitting in the broken freezer at room temperature for several hours.

I have to say, though, that the ultimate high point for the week actually came this afternoon. At about 4:30 pm, just as the campus was emptying for winter break, I finally finished writing my dropstone manuscript. Well, "finished" is perhaps not the correct term, because even though I now have a complete draft together, the manuscript is far from its final version. It still has to undergo revision by my four co-authors, after which it will be submitted to a scientific journal and edited one or more times before publication. Still, getting a complete draft together was a victory for me.

Tomorrow, I fly from Oregon to Michigan, where I'll spend Christmas and New Year's with my family. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing them and spending the holidays together. I'm not sure how often I'll post while in the Midwest, but if nothing else, I'll be back at it in January.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The sound of silence

"In restless streets I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence."
- "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel

The song quoted above has been on my mind for the past couple days, because it's shown up in my social media multiple times and in a few different forms. The lyrics themselves speak to the importance of music, and the haunting melody has a tendency to hang around in one's temporal lobes. If you're interested, I recommend the cover by Disturbed, found here.

Besides just the song, I've been listening the sound of silence for much of the past few days. The Oregon coast is strangely quiet now that the torrential rains have stopped - no more raindrops pounding the window, no more wind shaking the walls. My fellow OIMBers are leaving campus one by one for the holidays, so the campus is getting quieter and quieter. My work has involved a lot of intense writing this week, so I've had to concentrate in silence.
Shore Acres botanical garden decorated for Advent.

Last night, two friends and I went to see the annual light show at Shore Acres State Park, just outside of Coos Bay. Shore Acres is the former estate of timber baron Louis J. Simpson, and even though the main house has since been destroyed, Simpson's botanical gardens are still maintained. Every year during Advent, the botanical gardens are decorated with thousands of colored lights, and the public is invited to walk through and enjoy them.

The drive out to Shore Acres is on a narrow, dark highway - street lights are nowhere to be found. In fact, entering the garden can be a bit of a stab to the eyes because it's so brightly lit. Nevertheless, we turned up our collars against the cold, blinked a few times, and pressed on. There was a community band playing Christmas carols in the garden gazebo and plenty of people milling around, especially families with young kids. I like the atmosphere at Shore Acres in December.

I'll spend the next few days chipping away at my dropstone manuscript before heading out of town myself. It's actually a bit nice to see things winding down, the campus emptying, the weather calming, my to-do list shortening.

Sometimes, it's nice to hear the sound of silence.
Katie, Luciana, and I at Shore Acres.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Ah, the life of the traveling scientist. What a crazy life it is.

A couple months ago, my dear friend, Stefanie, announced to me that she had been accepted to present her research at a conference in San Francisco. Stefanie lives in the Netherlands, so the trip to San Francisco was already a long one, crossing an ocean and a whole continent. Since she was already flying halfway around the world for the conference, she decided to take advantage of the opportunity and hop across the Pacific to see Hawaii while she was at it. (Yes, this is how we crazy people think.) She started looking into plane tickets and asked if I wanted to meet up while she was on my side of the world.

Um, yes.

Stefanie and I on Waikiki Beach.
I spent the last few days in Honolulu with Stefanie, and for the most part, we were proper tourists. We swam in the salty Pacific and dried out on the beach. We saw the Hawaii state capitol building, Iolani Palace, and Chinatown. We toured Pearl Harbor on the anniversary of its bombardment, then watched the annual Pearl Harbor Day parade through downtown Honolulu.

I did my best to be a traveler instead of a tourist by connecting with people who actually live in Honolulu. I know quite a few from past expeditions, so Stefanie and I spent an evening with UH Manoa affiliates I met on the Abyssline cruise earlier this year. It was really nice to catch up with these friends and hear what they've been doing since the cruise.

Ok, here's where the story takes a turn into real crazy-traveling-scientist territory. Before I left for Oahu, I of course had to tell my supervisor in Oregon that I would be gone for a few days. When I said I would be in Hawaii, he had an announcement of his own. Apparently, there's a pretty good archive of ROV and submersible videos from various dives in Hawaiian waters housed at UH Manoa. Some of the videos feature what can only be described as volcanic dropstones - stones that were blown off of volcanoes and landed on the deep seafloor. Imagine that - dropstones in the tropics!

View of the Pacific, facing south from Oahu. When I look at
the ocean surface now, all I can see are the various hard
substrata on the seafloor and the organisms that inhabit them. 
Craig put me in contact with the professor in charge of the archive and arranged for us to meet while I was in Honolulu. The professor was extremely helpful. He showed me his archive, held on everything from VHS and cassette tapes to multi-terabyte hard drives. He described for me what kinds of hard-bottom structures showed up in the videos, along with example photos of their fauna and an exact map of where they are. It turns out there's actually a lot more than stones out there - giant carbonate blocks, sunken coral reef terraces, shipwrecks, cars, and various junk discarded by the military - all in deep water just south of Oahu.

The archive is an excellent resource, but it might be a while before I have the chance to formulate a scientific question, mine the data that I need, and turn it into a project. Still, I'm grateful for the helpful professor, the available video, and the beauty of the island I got to experience.


Friday, December 4, 2015


"Merciless though the wind takes hold with freezing cold
Come, my friend, sit with me; take council in the warmth
Torrents wash away everything
Raindrops flowing all around"
- "Torrents" by Asgeir

I'm writing this post at my kitchen table in Coos Bay. I just finished editing a term paper for my brother (he's an undergrad), and I'm listening to the rain fall outside. Torrents of rain have been falling on the Oregon coast all week, turning my world into a dark, wet mess.
An encrusting sponge on a dropstone I collected in 2012.
This particular stone is about the size of the human hand.

It's true what they say, you know: when it rains, it pours. As the world outside has tried to keep itself from drowning, I've been piled up with papers, projects, and plans. I set the shipwreck project aside for a while, mostly because I'm waiting on comments from my co-authors on my latest manuscript draft. In the meantime, I've turned my attention to the cornerstone of my dissertation: the dropstone project.

What are dropstones, you ask? Well, the definition is pretty simple. They're random rocks on the seafloor, stony islands in a desert of mud. In the Arctic, dropstones originate on land. They're scraped up from the ground by glaciers, along with plenty of dirt and other debris, and when the glacier calves off an iceberg, they ride the 'berg out to sea. When the iceberg melts, the stones fall to the seafloor - hence their name, dropstones.

Can you interpret this graph? 'Cuz I can.
I first became interested in dropstone communities in 2011, while working at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. I was analyzing photos of the seafloor when I started to notice the random rocks in some photos. The stones were densely populated with encrusting sponges, bryozoans, anemones, and soft corals, and I started to wonder why. I've essentially been working on an analysis of those dropstones in one capacity or another ever since. Planning, writing my thesis proposal, analyzing the footage, then analyzing the data; reading a giant statistics textbook, then re-analyzing the data, writing a manuscript, then re-writing the manuscript - so many steps! Well, the project is finally coming to a head. I've made some big strides in data analysis over the past few weeks, and I believe I'm finally starting to understand how dropstone communities are structured.

Of course there's still a lot of work ahead of me, but it's exciting to see the project finally coming together.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Feels like home

This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in the United States, so I drove north to spend the holiday with friends. I've known the Hansens since they first moved to the coast and attended my church in Coos Bay, and they've since become my surrogate Oregon family.

I spent the day alternating between adult conversation and playing with the kids - an intelligent but shy 8-year-old and a chatterbox toddler. We played violin duets. We played Monopoly. We played "Chase the Squealing Child and Pretend You're Too Slow to Catch Him."

I wasn't the only Thanksgiving guest, so I also got to know some new friends. Another family that attends the Hansens' church, one of Lee's colleagues. Remarkably, we all fit around the same table, even the kids, and it was a great time to share food, share love, share our lives.

I'm thankful for the Hansens and for the community they're at the center of. They make Oregon feel like home.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Not so bad after all

Laptop. Check.
Notebook. Check.
Sack lunch. Check.
Stack of CDs. Check.
Full tank of gas. Check.

Standing next to my car, I ran through the list one last time to make sure I had everything. It was late morning, and I was driving up to UO's main campus in Eugene to meet with a professor. She's a member of my advisory committee, and even though she's not a biologist, she's a statistical wizard and a great teacher. I needed her help with analyzing some data, so we had agreed to meet today.

Every time I'm on main campus, I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, I love college campuses, and UO has a particularly beautiful one. The brick buildings, the public bulletin boards, the throngs of students in rain boots and North Face - there's a certain energy that pervades the campus. What bugs me about main campus is largely circumstantial. I always have to drive there, so I end up navigating the narrow, one-way roads of the university district with a quickened pulse as I try to avoid the ubiquitous pedestrians. Compared to sleepy Coos Bay, Eugene always makes me feel claustrophobic. Besides the hassle, I think my least favorite aspect of main campus is that it's never felt like it's mine. Sure, I've been a UO student for over three years, but every time I set foot on the main campus, I end up consulting the posted maps like a freshman undergrad.

After parking my car several blocks from the university, I set out with my backpack, trying my best to blend in. I had some time left before my appointment, so I decided to stop in and say "hi" to another committee member. I headed to the science complex with her office number in hand, then realized I had no idea how to get into her building. All the buildings in the science complex are connected, but the variable architectures make finding the passageways between them non-trivial. When I finally reached her hallway, I found her office door closed, the room empty. Oh well.

Back at my stats professor's office, I parked my laptop on her desk. I showed her the data analysis I had managed by myself, then asked her how to test my remaining hypotheses. I can't tell you how many times I had to ask "How do you do that?" because even though I could conceptualize a particular test in my head, I had no idea how to run it properly. I consider myself relatively mathematically inclined, but I have a long way to go before I can match this professor's level of statistical fluency.

I wasn't actually in there that long, but it felt like an eternity. By the end, we had made some significant progress. I'm definitely closer to understanding my data now than I was before, and the more I look at it, the more interesting it gets.

Head held high, I made my way back to my car and put in one of my favorite albums - Lonesome Dreams by Lord Huron. That album is in my mind exactly what Oregon sounds like, and I love listening to it whenever I have to drive between Coos Bay and Eugene.

Overall, it was a pretty productive day. Maybe main campus isn't so bad after all.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The encroaching darkness

Friends, the video above contains my latest musical composition, entitled "The encroaching darkness." It's meant to represent the shortening days during my last weeks in Svalbard in October, and it serves as the fifth movement in my "Arctic" violin concerto. To be honest, it's not really fair to call it a whole movement, because it's only a minute and a half long and is missing the solo violin part. I really meant it just as an interlude, a moment of pause for the soloist between the other athletic movements of the concerto.

If the video above doesn't play for you, try this link.

If you're interested in the other movements of the concerto, find them here:

I. Longyearbyen            Blog link           YouTube link
II. Molloy                      Blog link           YouTube link
III. Midnight Sun          Blog link           YouTube link
IV. Kongsfjorden          Blog link           YouTube link

I'm still working on the last movement in the concerto, "Full Circle," so look for it soon!

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Sitting at my desk, I could hear footsteps behind me. Someone was coming down the hall toward my desk, probably just one of the undergrads using our lab. I ignored it at first, but the footsteps kept coming, encroaching on my workspace. Then all of a sudden, they stopped. I turned around. There stood my adviser, Craig, wearing a damp rain jacket and holding two ancient-looking books. 

"Do you recognize this?" He handed me one of the volumes. 

I checked the spine. Bio-Ecology by Clements and Shelford, published in 1939. "Clements is one of the names you told me to look up," I told him. 

Craig nodded. "Shelford was the other." 

Reading material, Young lab style.
I've been thinking a lot about succession in marine hard-bottom communities lately, so Craig has been giving me reading material. In case you don't know, succession is the process by which groups of organisms sequentially replace one other as a community develops. At first, you typically have fast-growing, fast-reproducing species, but as they die out, they're replaced by long-lived, slow-growing species. The process has been documented in a wide range of habitats - forests, mountainsides, fouling communities on docks. 

Succession, like most ecological concepts, also shows up in the older literature. Actually, one of the classic examples comes from my home state, Michigan. Sand dunes on a lake shore undergo succession from dune grass to meadow to coniferous forest, each stage stabilizing the ground so the next suite of plants can colonize. The modern distribution of these plants reflects their successional origins. Forests, located largely inland, stand on the oldest ground, while sand dunes are the youngest ground closest to the lake shore. 

I'm continually amazed at how much information can be harvested from older literature. Especially when your Ph.D. supervisor is a science history buff, you become acutely aware of the greats who have come before. Sars, Forbes, Agassiz, Thompson - all natural historians, explorers, and ecological thinkers - and, apparently, Clements and Shelford.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Look at the stars

"I lie under starlit sky
And the seasons change in the blink of an eye
I watch as the planets turn
And the old stars die and the young stars burn"
- "Lonesome Dreams" by Lord Huron

Well, here I am again, friends, measuring time in goodbye parties. Tonight, I bid farewell to my good friend, Laurel. Sure, I've said goodbye to plenty of friends and acquaintances in Coos Bay, but this departure was not just standard procedure. It marked the end of an era.  

My Coos Bay girls at a Napa Valley winery in June 2013;
Laurel is on the right. One of the ankle bracelets I wear is
for the community I shared with these women.
Laurel was one of my first friends in Coos Bay. When I started at OIMB, she was the senior grad student, so she was one of the people I looked to for a definition of the institute. She introduced me to tidepooling and mushrooming and all the biodiversity in southern Oregon. More than that, though, Laurel became a close personal friend. She was one of four girls that were my home base during my first year here, and she was my solid rock when everyone else moved away. 

During my second year at OIMB, I would pull into the parking lot on Saturday afternoons and find Laurel's car already there. I'd go into her lab to check on her, and we'd spend a good hour complaining to each other and not actually getting anything done. She was my sounding board during my worst year yet. We know each other's theses inside and out, not because our projects have anything to do with each other, but because we spent so many hours talking about them.

Cruise participants with Laurel at her farewell party
When I left for Norway in August 2014, I was worried that Laurel would be gone by the time I got back. She was pretty close to finishing her Ph.D., and even though she did successfully graduate while I was away, she stuck around OIMB for several months afterward. I was glad for it, because it meant we got to go on the Atlantis cruise together this past summer. She was one of my cabinmates, and we would routinely stay up way too late, lying in our bunks, talking each other through the events of the day. 

OIMB is going to feel different without Laurel around, but she's bound for a much greater opportunity - a post-doctoral fellowship abroad. Her one-way flight is just days away, so tonight, a group gathered in OIMB's Boathouse Auditorium to see her off. With the chairs cleared away and tiny lights strung between the beams, the Boathouse was transformed into a cozy gathering place. Folk music wafted softly out of a pair of speakers; long tables held potluck dishes with typical Oregon ingredients - mushrooms, cranberries, blackberries, Dungeness crab. We ate seated on the floor, barefoot or in socks, chatting about everything possible except how much we would miss her.

Farewell gathering in the Boathouse
As the gathering drew to a close, several of us stayed around, slowly cleaning up, not ready to leave the departed-to-be. I think it's a testament to Laurel's impact on the institute that none of us wanted to go. At least to me, Laurel embodies everything that is the best about OIMB: curiosity, passion, knowledge of natural history and a love of invertebrates, not to mention friendship, community, and a genuine willingness to help. I was actually talking with one of the faculty members over dinner about the importance of maintaining the OIMB culture. When I first started, I looked to older grad students to define the institute for me, and now that I've reached the rank of a senior grad student, it's my job to pass on all the positive attributes of the institute to those just beginning their degrees.

With the night finally ended, only three of us remained. We shut off the Boathouse lights, locked the door, and stepped outside. Laurel glanced upwards and immediately exclaimed "Look at the stars!"

We paused for a moment, gazing up at the dark sky, where white specks shone brightly in distinct formations. The stars were certainly beautiful tonight. 

And so we remained, peering into the night. Feeling the cold November wind as it ushered in the season's first storm. Remarking at how fast the darkness can deepen as the sun sinks toward the other side of the world. Noticing the constellations. Watching old stars move on and young stars be born. Thinking about the past, the future, the present. Seeing our dear friend drive away, but also feeling the pull of the next generation. Looking at the stars.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ecological Indicators

Friends, I'm happy to announce to you that another scientific paper has been published with my name on it. I'm far from the first author on this one but rather one of many co-authors. The paper pulls together a lot of information collected from the long-term ecological research station Hausgarten, in the eastern Fram Strait, at 78° N. The Hausgarten has been sampled regularly by my colleagues at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, since 1999, and their annual field campaigns have created a unique and valuable dataset for monitoring ecological changes in the Arctic. I had the opportunity to visit Hausgarten twice, in 2011 and 2012, while I was living in Germany and working at the AWI. Hausgarten data was the basis for my first two ecological publications (find them here and here) and also provides the foundation for my dissertation on dropstone communities. For more information about the Hausgarten, I recommend you check out this webpage. 

The present paper appears in the journal Ecological Indicators, and it serves as a good summary and assimilation of work taking place at the Hausgarten over the past 15 years. Check it out:

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"I'm a marine biologist"

"I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, Jerry, at that moment, I was a marine biologist."
- the American comedy show Seinfeld

The 90s sitcom Seinfeld is in my opinion the best thing to ever happen to American comedy. It's famous for being a show about nothing - the series profiles a group of young adults living in New York, and while there are mini-plots within each episode about the minutia of their lives, there is no long-term development of the story. Each episode spins on its own head, as two or three different scenarios are laid out and then pulled together in an hilarious crescendo. In one episode, George Costanza pretends to be a marine biologist in order to get an old college friend to notice him. Check out the clip here.

Marine mammal crime scene tape. It exists.
I was actually reminded of this episode yesterday because I found myself face-to-face with a beached whale. That's right, friends. Earlier this week, a blue whale washed up on Ophir Beach, about an hour and a half south of Coos Bay. A few friends and I had been planning to go on a hike in that area anyway, so we decided to trade mountains for beach and use our Saturday to check out the whale.

When we arrived, it wasn't hard to spot the whale at all - mostly because blue whales are the largest animal on Earth, but also because there were numerous cars parked along the road and a small crowd of people on the beach. The whole area around the whale was roped off with what looked like crime scene tape, except that it bore the words "protected marine mammal." Inside the tape, a number of people were working to disassemble the whale carcass. They were dressed in trash bags and plastic rain gear, yielding giant knives.

Volunteers work to remove soft tissue from the carcass.
My two friends and I approached the person in charge and got the ok to cross the tape line as volunteers. After all, disassembling a whale carcass takes lots of man power, and we wanted to help. We were directed to a portion of the carcass that included the scapula and a pectoral fin. It had been separated from the main body, I'm guessing with chainsaws, and dragged up the beach. It was our job to cut off chunks of blubber and any other soft tissue to expose the underlying bone, then toss the tissue into a fire pit where it would be burned. I learned that burning and burial are the two most efficient ways to get rid of whale flesh, but the bones are typically saved for public display. After most of the flesh had been removed, the plan was for the various sections to be loaded into a giant net and sunk in shallow water, so benthic scavengers could take care of the fine-scale cleaning. The clean bones would then be retrieved, dried, and saved in a museum.

Belive it or not, it was a lot of fun working on the whale carcass. There were volunteers from numerous different marine labs around, and everyone shared a certain camraderie. I guess chopping up putrefied mammalian flesh is a bonding experience.

There it is: the blue whale, 75 feet long.
I know you're wondering about the smell, but I can tell you it wasn't actually that bad. It was definitely a distinct smell - one that I'd recognize again - but it wasn't as strong as I expected. Of course it was worse the closer you got to the carcass, but after about 5 minutes of sawing away at slightly-liquified blubber, you got used to it.

We worked away for about three hours, helping first with the scapular section and then moving on to the fluke (tail fin). The fluke wasn't very far along, so we ended up just removing the skin, which I was astounded by. It was a good 3-4 inches thick and tougher than anything I've ever tried to cut before. We made a little bit of headway with knives, then the rest of the skin was ripped away from the fluke by an excavator driving in reverse.

When we were ready to leave, we stepped into the ocean to wash off our gloves and rain pants. Honestly, the water didn't help that much, because whale flesh is incredibly greasy. The thick, fatty bits still stuck to us, but thankfully, we were able to get it off with soap back at the lab.

Disassembling a whale carcass is pretty high on the list of awesome things I've done in grad school. It may also top the list of the most disgusting thing I've ever done. One thing is for sure, though: I love my job.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What a wreck

I suppose I should tell you what I'm working on now. Since I got back from Svalbard, my focus has been mainly on my shipwreck project, and if you don't remember what I'm talking about, refresh your memory here.

Zoanthids, anemones, a crab, a sea star, and a fish  living  on
the rusty hull of a sunken battleship.
I've been working on the shipwreck data set for quite some time now, trying to understand what factors structure the invertebrate communities that live on them. I've looked at the size of each wreck; I've considered how they're oriented on the seafloor. I've looked up which type of ship made each wreck and what materials were used to construct them. I've considered elevation off the seafloor, complexity of the shipwreck surface, the extent of fishing gear entangled in each.

And I'm finally making progress.

When I met with Andrew in Stavanger a few weeks ago, he suggested I try a statistical technique that we used in the Svalbard image analysis paper. It's called a redundancy analysis, and it's designed to show which abiotic factors have the strongest influence on the biological communities. I can't give you the details of my results here, but I can tell you I'm very excited about them. There are clear and distinct patterns in the shipwreck communities, and there are 5 abiotic factors strongly influencing the patterns.

Step by step, my analysis is moving forward!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The path before me

"Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose"
- "Song of the Open Road" by Walt Whitman

For some reason that I don't entirely understand, I started taking pictures of pathways in 2011. I just love the look of a long, straight road stretched out in front of me. I always take the photos standing on the path and staring straight down its midline. Sometimes, the paths go on for ever, pinching off in infinity, but others have a determined end with something interesting on it. I especially love breakwalls, jetties, and docks - pathways that lead into the water. 
The breakwall at Presque Isle, Marquette, MI, photographed
at sunrise, April 2011.
It's actually kind of a game for me to find interesting pathways to photograph when I travel. I'm always on the look-out for nice, straight roads, and I take my time getting set up for the shots. In fact, I sometimes fear that I annoy my travel companions with this habit, but they usually understand. I go home with some pretty nice photos. 
A beach just outside Kiel, Germany, photographed in mid-
afternoon, September 2011.
I've thought a lot in recent years about why I take so many photos of pathways. It's not like I could ever sell or publish them - my camera doesn't have near the resolution required for that - so the photo series is really just for me. But of all things that my sub-conscious could have chosen to fixate on, it chose paths. More than that, it chose straight paths. Clear paths. Paths that stretch into infinity. 
Motutapu Island, just offshore of Auckland, New Zealand,
photographed at mid-day, April 2014.
Sure, I've photograped plenty of curved trails, but they always end up bugging me - mostly because I can't see where they end. I want my photos to shoot straight down the road, to see all of it, to see the end. I can't stand it if my photos aren't perfectly centered or if there are any shadows on the trail. I can actually be quite the perfectionist. 
Stavanger, Norway, photographed in mid-afternoon, August 2014.
If you'll allow me to wax philosophical, I think the photos are an extension of the way I view my life. I wholeheartedly believe that the true artist only ever depicts himself, and if the photos are art, then the pathways are me. I've always been a perfectionist of sorts, and I've always planned my life at least 10 years ahead. It's impossible for me to live without a well-articulated goal, and my goals are often lofty and idealistic. I see my life as extending along one long, flat, well-centered, infinite trail, and I can't stand it if the path is any less than perfect. 
Harmar Bridge, Marietta, OH, photographed in the evening,
August 2015.
Recently, I've been trying to let go of my own perfect plan for my life. As I consider my next steps, I'm trying to build patience and flexibility. Trust me, it's hard, especially for someone who despises uncertainty, but I'm grateful for all those who remind me to relax and take things one step at a time. My path is long. Maybe it will be curvy or have dark shadows or not be centered. Or maybe, just maybe, I'll end up in the same place I always planned - at the head of a long, flat, infinite path to the sea.

The breakwall at OIMB beach, Charleston,
OR, photographed in late afternoon, October 2015.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dinner party

New life goal: live somewhere with a large enough kitchen and dining room that I can host dinner parties on a regular basis.

Ever since the Atlantis cruise this summer, my fellow OIMBers that participated in the cruise have been talking about getting together for a post-cruise gathering. We grew to be friends while at sea and wanted to spend time together without the pressure of a Sentry sample hanging over our heads. Well, after the cruise, we all parted ways, so the first time we were all in town and able to get together was this week.

I ended up hosting the gathering, since I'm one of the only cruise participants with her own apartment. It was a lot of work, but I really didn't mind - I love being a hostess. Whenever someone comes over to my place, I encourage them to look around. Absolutely every decoration in my apartment is meant to be a conversation starter, and many of them originated in the far corners of the world. I love it when guests ask me questions. Granted, my apartment is small and definitely not designed for large parties (I didn't even have enough chairs for our crowd of 8), but we made do. My living room was crowded and full of warm-hearted people.

It was nice to see the relationships that had formed among the cruise participants. I know all of them a lot better now than before the cruise; that's for sure. We got caught up with each other's lives, our projects, the progress of our theses. We talked about our plans for the future, about applying for jobs and applying for visas and where in the world we'll find the funding for our dreams. Some of us will be moving away pretty soon, so it was nice to have everyone together, maybe for the last time. It was a great evening.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

American Girl

"Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn't help but thinkin'
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to"
- "American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

It's October 25th. It is October 25th, but my brain refuses to accept it. I'm now in Oregon, and the outside temperature is the warmest I've encountered in 2 solid months. I'm wearing short sleeves and crop pants while everyone else pulls on thick socks and extra jackets. If it weren't for the cheesy blow-up Halloween decorations in people's front yards or the ubiquity of pumpkin spice lattés, I would have no way of knowing that it was already mid-autumn. My world is covered in crunchy gold leaves, but my skin still thinks it's summer.

Coming home is always hard, especially after long trips. The first time my jet-lagged body woke up in the early morning in my dark apartment, I had to remind myself where I was. It feels as if I've traveled to another planet, in another universe where time runs on a different scale. Thankfully, I've had plenty of friends around to help me transition back to life in Coos Bay. Caitlin, my labmate, picked me up at the airport, and I spent my first day back at OIMB doing nothing but catching up with other students. For the first time in a long time, I have friends at my institute, so it felt good to see them again.
Daniel and the Blonde performing at Seven Devils Brewing.
Photo by Jesse Borland.

A group of us went out on Friday evening to an establishment I affectionately call "The OIMB Extension Office." Seven Devils Brewing Company was started by an OIMB graduate and her husband, and the staff is dominated by current and former OIMB students. It's the go-to hang-out for Coos Bay's young, educated population. On Friday, there happened to be a band playing classic Americana music - folksy, almost bluegrass. I found myself explaining to our Portuguese post-doc what bluegrass was, and only then did I realize how quickly I had slid back into American Kirstin - just 24 hours after landing in Oregon, I was sitting in a microbrewery, listening to Appalachian folk music as if it were no big deal. I hadn't felt the gears shift this time, but I guess it had happened all the same.

In the coming months, I plan to explore every side of American Kirstin, mostly because I'm going to be stuck here for a while. Now that my Svalbard settlement plate experiment is finished, every data point that I need for my dissertation has been collected. All the numbers I need are on my computer, so as of right now, my sole responsibility is sitting in my office, analyzing data, and writing papers until the day I graduate. I have no more field trips planned, no more experiments, no more cruises, no more trips. It feels a bit strange and even sad to admit that, but of course I can't exclude the possibility that something will come up. You never know.

For now, I'm going to settle in to Coos Bay and enjoy the time I have left here. I'm going to establish a regular work schedule and give myself plenty of rest. I'm going to wear skirts and earrings to the lab and actually feel like a woman. I'm going to invest in relationships, invest in my institute, invest in my town. And who knows - maybe I'll rediscover American Kirstin.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Last stop

I made one last stop on my friend-visiting tour, in the Netherlands. My friend, Stefanie, lives in Utrecht, so I spent a few days at her place on my way back to the U.S. We climbed the Domturm (Cathedral Tower) in Utrecht, then did day trips to Den Haag and Amersfoort. It was great to see her!

View from the top of the Domturm, Utrecht

Stefanie and I on top of the Domturm

Seen in Amersfoort, the Netherlands

Seen in Amersfoort, the Netherlands

No holds barred

Toward the end of my week in Stavanger, I spent time with my old housemates at Kirkebakken. One former housemate, who moved out to get her own place just before I left, was kind enough to let me stay with her, and I also spent plenty of time at the house itself. To be perfectly honest, not much had changed - a few people had moved out of the house, but they all remained in the Stavanger area. Actually, one of my favorite things about the Kirkebakken community is that even after moving out, housemates remain friends. There are even a number of new Kirkebakken couples, I discovered, each one involving one current and one former housemate. It made me smile.

I spent most of Friday evening on the brown faux leather couch in the second-floor living room, surrounded by Kirkebakkeners. We shared chips and dip and clever quips, in a conversation where every topic was fair game. These people know each other far too well for their own good, but the no-holds-barred nature of the exchange just made me happy. This is what community looks like.

I somehow made it through the whole week in Stavanger without taking a single photo of people, so I apologize for the text-only nature of this post. It was good to spend time at Kirkebakken.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Et hjem

Hello, friend.
When I left Stavanger last February, my housemate, Kanjana, made me a keychain. On one side, it has a sketch of our house and the name of the street, Kirkebakken. On the other side, in front of a psychedelic orange patterned background, the words "et hjem," Norwegian for "at home." I stopped by Stavanger to visit on my way back from Svalbard, and I must say, dear friends, it still feels like home.

Ingeborg picked me up at the airport, and except for new coat she was wearing, both of us looked exactly the same. It was like I had left Stavanger yesterday. I spent my first few days at her place, and it was great to spend time together again. We ate Thai food one night and Indian the next. We went to see an indie Italian movie about a mob family. I was reminded of all my favorite things about Ingeborg: her generosity, her adventurous spirit, her love of ethnic food, music, and art, her classy fashion sense that always makes me look like a hobo. It was so good to see her again.

Most of my friends work during the day, so I used that free time to revisit all my favorite parts of Stavanger. I took a long walk through the city center and along the shore of the fjord. I ran a few errands. I bought fresh raisin rolls and ate them in the sun. Of course I stopped by IRIS to catch up with colleagues and drop off specimens, and of course I ended up finding a quiet corner and working on my laptop for a few hours. Such is the life of the traveling scientist.

The city was as beautiful as ever.
I spent Thursday evening at Andrew's. He actually picked me up on his way to get his daughter from school, which meant I got to pick her up with him. Friends, let me tell you, there is nothing like seeing a blonde-headed 6-year-old run at full speed across her classroom towards you to make you feel like you've done something right in life. After some time on the trampoline, I spent most of the evening sipping cider and talking science with Andrew. True to form, he took one look at my most recent data set and gave me 5 new analyses to try, but I don't mind. The paper will end up better for it.

It was a great week, and I feel like I'm finally recuperating from my absurd work schedule during the Svalbard course. In essence, I stopped by home on my way...well, home.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Four Long Years

I'm not sure if you know this, but Longyearbyen is actually named after an American. His name was John Munro Longyear, and he was a pioneer of the coal mining industry on Spitsbergen. Longyear and I have more than nationality and an affinity for the Arctic in common, though. We were both born in the same state, Michigan, in the American Midwest. Not only that, but John Longyear was a notable timber and mining developer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and he served as mayor of Marquette, Michigan in 1890-1891. Just 118 years later, I moved to Marquette, Michigan, to earn my Bachelor's degree at Northern Michigan University. There is a Longyear Avenue in Marquette, not far from Northern's campus, and while I was a student at NMU, one of my dear friends lived in Longyear Apartments.

The Longyear connection is actually one of many examples of recurring names and numbers in the lives of myself and my family. I won't bore you with the other examples here, but every time an unexpected connection comes up, I take it as a small reminder that the course of my life has not been determined by chance. Call me crazy, but I believe there is a larger plan at work, and I am meant to be here.

As I now prepare to leave Longyearbyen, I can't help but reflect on the turn of events that have brought me here. My first time in the Arctic was in 2011, just after my graduation from Northern, on a research expedition with my colleagues from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. I returned in 2012 for a similar expedition with the same group, then in September last year to deploy my settlement plates. We only stopped at the dock in Longyearbyen when I came back in January, so I was never actually in town that trip.

If I look at myself now, I have to admit I've changed a lot since that first trip four years ago. For starters, I know my way around here, and I'm perfectly comfortable adjusting to the polar climate. One of the most important things I've learned during this most recent trip is how much Arctic experience I actually have. I was shocked every time a classmate would turn to me for advice or direct a question at me just because I've been here before. I mean, there are plenty of people at UNIS and other institutions who have been coming up here for more years than me, and who are much more experienced and frankly better-equipped to conduct Arctic research than I am.

Still, I've started to see myself in a new light. After all, I'm a fourth-year Ph.D. student, and by now, I should have at least some idea of what I'm doing. One of the side effects of research is an acute awareness of how little you know, but this course has reminded me of all the things I do know, all the things I can do, all the things I have learned.

Every time I come to the Arctic, I fear it will be my last. Well, it’s been 4 years since my first expedition, and I’m now leaving Svalbard for my fifth time. I’ve slowly become integrated into the Arctic research community, having gotten here via institutes in both Germany and Norway. I’m still nowhere close to the inner circle of Arctic researchers, but I’m somewhere on the edge, which is good enough for now. I have colleagues and connections and no shortage of ideas. All I need to return here is some grant money.

Someday, when I’m a tenured professor, I’ll list “Arctic biology” as one of my research interests on my university’s webpage, and I will mean it. There are so many questions still left unanswered in the high North, so many truths still unknown. I want to discover them all, no matter how logistically difficult the research may be. I want to plunge myself into the intellectual and actual darkness to learn things that no one has ever learned before. 

I’ve realized now that the Arctic will always be a part of my life, a part of my research, a part of me. Because the truth is that I am in love with this place, more than anywhere else on Earth. I am full-on, gut-wrenchingly, heart-smashingly, sell-your-soul in love with this place, and I will always come back. Always.

Photo by Carl Ballantine


"Es heißt ja nicht umsonst Spitsbergen!"
"They don't call the island 'Mountain Peaks' for no reason!" - Ingo Schewe, translation mine

Aurora borealis behind barrack 11. Photo by Adrian Pop.
Dear friends, when I last left you, I told you the course was over. Well, in reality, most of the Master's students took off last weekend, but the Ph.D. students had to stay on and write an additional report. (Higher degree, higher expectations.) I'm actually grateful for that report, because it kept me in Svalbard for an extra 7 days, and when you're in the most beautiful place on the planet, every second counts.

I've spent most of my daytime hours this past week in the UNIS computer lab with the report, but in the evenings, I was free to just breathe deeply and be in love with Longyearbyen. There was the night we all sat on the barrack 11 roof and watched the northern lights. Then there was that time we had a dance party in the kitchen. There were two times that someone confused me for a Norwegian, and I took it as a huge compliment. There was saying goodbye to my classmates, and then more goodbyes, and then more.

There are only three of us left now - me, a Russian, and a Romanian - and the Russian and I leave tomorrow. We decided to use our last day in Longyearbyen to go on a hike, so the Romanian (who happens to be in charge of the UNIS student council) hooked us up with a rifle and helped us decide on a route.

For those of you familiar with Spitsbergen topography, we hiked up Sukkertoppen, walked along the ridge and across the plateau, summited Trollstein, then came down across Larsbreen and ended at Nybyen. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, we hiked up a mountain, walked along a narrow ridge and across a plateau, went up to the summit of another mountain, then came down across a glacier and ended back at our dorm.

It was an absolutely fantastic hike and the perfect way to spend my last day in Longyearbyen. I'll let the photos speak for themselves.

Adventfjorden, seen from Sukkertoppen

Dear Trollstein,
I will conquer you.

The narrow ridge to the Trollstein summit

Uliana and I at the Trollstein summit

Coming down the slope from Trollstein to Larsbreen (the big white patch on the left)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A real Viking

When I lived in Stavanger and would bike to work, the IRIS secretary used to call me "a real Viking." I worked up a sweat biking to work, so I didn't wear as many layers as she thought I should. Plenty of times, even into the late autumn, I would show up at work in leggings and a T-shirt, flush in the face and breathing hard. I'd come into the front lobby holding my bike helmet, and she'd tell me, "Kirstin, you are a real Viking!" I'd smile, push the sweaty hair out of my face, and make my way downstairs to the locker room.

Classmates gather for dinner at the Viking round table at Kroa
Well, friends, last night, I again felt like a real Viking. For starters, the final exam for my course was Friday morning, so my classmates and I fought valiantly against each question with our pens. After a break in the afternoon, we met for dinner at a restaurant called Kroa, in the center of Longyearbyen. One of the classmates had reserved a round table for us, and I didn't understand the significance of this reservation until I arrived. The Kroa Round Table is a special place; it's a private room with an epic, hexagonal table and large windows. The ceiling is glass so you can see the stars and the northern lights. The table is wide enough that you feel a mile away from anyone across from you, and the centerpiece is a wire candelabra that resembles a knotty tree. I actually felt like I should have arrived with my sword, spread a primitive map on the table, and discussed how we were going to conquer the North Atlantic. 

We ordered drinks and appetizers, and friends, one of the appetizers on the menu was smoked minky whale. Whale. Yes, of course I ordered the whale, and then proceeded to pass my plate around the table so anyone who wanted could take a taste. The meat was very dark red, almost black, and the taste was something halfway between fish and roasted lamb. It paired very well with the tart berries and pickled red onion they gave me on the side.

We spent the rest of the night eating, drinking, chatting, and relaxing. It was the first time we've been able to spend time together without the pressure of time-sensitive lab work or a looming deadline, and it was the perfect way to celebrate the end of our course.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

If you give a biologist a sample

Paradody of If you give a mouse a cookie and similar books by Laura Numeroff

If you give a biologist a sample
She'll want a microscope to look at it.
When she sees the beautiful polychaetes and bivalves,
She'll ask you for a pair of forceps to pick them out.
She'll probably need a petri dish for sorting
And a jar with some ethanol to store the specimens.

She'll start to wonder what the organisms are,
So she'll ask you for a dichotomous key,
And when she's finally finished identifying the species,
She'll want to know why they live where they do.

She'll want to go on an expedition
And run experiments in the lab.
She'll ask you for a ship and a crew.
She'll go out to sea for weeks at a time,
Taking measurements and collecting sediments
And strange, wonderful creatures from the deep.

When she returns home, she'll be exhausted
And probably want to take a nap.
She'll ask you for a blanket and a pillow.
She'll crawl in, make herself comfortable and fluff the pillow a few times
Then pass out like a dead woman.
When she wakes up, she'll be hungry
And you'll have to take her out to eat.

As you're driving home from the restaurant,
She'll see the lab in the distance.
She'll ask you to turn towards it,
Because now she's fully recuperated and wants to get back to work.

Walking into the lab, she'll see microscopes on the tables.
And if you let her sit at a microscope,
Chances are she'll want to look at a sample.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


The scene in the House of Benthos today. 
I woke up this morning to find two classmates already in the barrack 11 kitchen, except that instead of eating breakfast, they were typing on their computers. In all honestly, I joined them just as soon as I had eaten, because we have a report due tomorrow.

As the morning rolled on, more and more classmates made their way into the kitchen with their computers. We filled the long wooden table with laptops, water bottles, and notebooks. At any given time, at least two conversations were going on at the table - one work-related, one not. We talked amongst ourselves to coordinate what should go into the reports, then shouted across the room to make a joke.

We spent several hours like this, clicking away at our computers, trading USB sticks and clever quips across the table. Eventually, we got hungry and distracted, so somebody turned on a Queen-Pink Floyd-Nirvana shuffle mix, and someone else started cooking a late lunch. The laptop crowd broke up for a few hours while we ate, watched movies, and took walks, but then we got right back to it.

The best way I can describe today is to tell you about a Norwegian word that really doesn't translate into English: koselig. It's an adjective meant to describe the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when sharing the simple things in life with good friends. Getting coffee with someone you haven't seen in years is koselig. Sitting by a warm fire and sipping wine with your mother is koselig. And apparently, at least to me, working on a cruise report with 16 other classmates is koselig.

Today rocked because most of us were in the same room, and we were all working toward the same goal. We were forced to collaborate, to share scientific ideas and grammatical advice, to pull ourselves together and write a solid report. Today was an exercise in togetherness.

As the reports gradually got finished and the kitchen crowd broke up, most of us shifted over to the living room to watch a movie. This is perhaps my favorite thing about my classmates: sure, we're forced to spend time together for the course, but we also choose to spend our free time together. In a pretty short amount of time, we've become a little family.

I absolutely love watching communities form, and the dynamic among my classmates really makes me smile. The environment in the House of Benthos is collaborative, dynamic, and diverse. And most days, it's really quite koselig.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Night Live

It's Sunday evening, and I'm in my dorm room in Nybyen. Across the hall from me, a group of classmates is reviewing for our exam tomorrow. They've got someone's computer hooked up to the TV screen, and they're flashing up pictures of animals we collected on the cruise and trying to name them. It's like a strange game show - a biological Match Game - and I can only imagine what a group of comedians would make of this scenario. They'd look at our indiscernible blobs, the strange and alien forms of our specimens, and shout out terrible-sounding words in a made-up language, because that's what we sound like to them. I can picture the SNL skit already.

Hey, at least the lab has a view!
Anyway, it's been a long week, and I've spent most of it in the lab. Once we got back from the cruise, we had samples to sort through, exams to study for, and reports to write. My settlement plates are all analyzed and the data stored safely on my computer, so now it's time to follow up on my obligations to the course. Two reports, two exams, and a presentation still stand in front of me, but the pressure will continue to lessen as each one passes by.

I still have two weeks left in Longyearbyen, and I'm going to make the most of them. This place is so unique and so beautiful, I can't help but take a few minutes each day to appreciate where I am. It actually seems crazy to think where I've just been on the cruise. I spend so much time looking at maps of Svalbard for my research, but now I can visualize each of the fjords. Even Rijpfjorden, in the far northeast - I've been there.

I took a walk on Friday evening just to clear my head, and it was the absolute perfect choice. I walked along the side of the valley, past Longyearbyen's only night club, then a kindergarten, the power plant, and the church. I turned along the shoreline and walked past UNIS, then turned toward the city again and made my way through downtown. There was a party tent outside one of the hotels, and apparently the tourists were celebrating Oktoberfest. I heard a cover band playing and people singing along.

The sound faded as I hiked back up to Nyben but remained clear as a bell in the cold Arctic air. Faint strains of "Don't Stop Believing" reached my headband-covered ears. I paused, turned around, and looked back toward downtown. Warm yellow lights glowed from the windows of homes nestled between the mountains. I could see the street lights, the faint outlines of a few clouds, the gray fjord disappearing in the twilight. I took a deep breath and drank refrigerator-temperature air into my thirsty lungs. I looked to the northern horizon and silently nodded to the darkness that is encroaching on my world at 19 minutes a day. I turned slowly back towards Nybyen, setting my sites on barrack 11, where I would soon be greeted by frantically-studying classmates. Marching back to the dorm, I held on to my minute of serenity in the midst of the chaos, because of all things, I cannot afford to forget where I am and why I'm here.

If there is such a thing as paradise on Earth, Svalbard is most certainly it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

People of the world

The title for this post is something my classmate, Adriana, always says when she wants to get a group's attention. She walks into a room, loudly says "People of the world," and then starts in with an important message. Others in the course have now picked up the phrase too. It's great.

As I look at my classmates now, I can tell we've changed since the beginning of the course. At first, we were just a group of hodge-podge strangers trying to figure each other out. Then it became clear who was the leader, who was the introvert, who was the caregiver, who was the adventurous one. On the cruise, we were thrown into the single most intense working environment I've ever experienced, but we handled it together. Granted, the fast pace, excess of work, and lack of sufficient sleep caused some conflict, but it also forged trust. We learned to rely on each other, to keep each other going, to get past our little annoyances and work effectively as a group.

We have a lot more structure now as a cohort than we did before. Some of us are closer than others, and some of us grate on each other's nerves. We're organized into clusters - two of us are always together; three of us are a group - but at the same time, we all communicate with each other. We're a network. We're a village. We're a community.

Watching relationships form among colleagues is one of the best parts of my job. I absolutely love watching people go from strangers to friends, and I witness this process every time I travel. More than that, I get to participate in it. Science is a broad and deep international network, which I think is at its best in the Arctic. This is internationally-managed territory with lots of nationalities involved. Sure, conflict is inevitable, but once people get to know each other, everything changes. You learn how others work and how to work together, and once you get to that point, there is no turning back. Friends can never go back to being strangers.

You know, I was joking with a classmate the other day that there should be a reality show made about marine biologists. After all, we have all the makings of a good show: a group of diverse people, isolated and sent away from civilization, dealing with harsh conditions and tasked with the impossible. We have to work together to do practically everything, and in the course of any field campaign, we become a miniature society. It’s Lord of the Flies every time.

Granted, the drama that takes place on a research cruise may be a bit mundane for modern television audiences. We’re more concerned with which species that tiny worm is than who is dating whom. Others may not be interested, but I know the living reality I experience is both captivating and fulfilling. I love to watch relationships form and networks deepen. It's the best part of my job.

We are the people of the world.
Classmates and cruise participants show their nationalities
on the deck of the Helmer Hanssen. Concept by Jørgen Berge.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Friends, the opening of this post may surprise you, since I last wrote about Rijpfjorden but am now back on land. The end of the cruise was short and sweet, and I spent most of my time analyzing data in the shipboard lab. My classmates and I have now made it back to Longyearbyen, but I suppose I should fill you in.

One of these things is not like the other one.
First of all, my settlement plates were all recovered successfully. I had plates at 3 different dive sites and on 2 different moorings, and I got them all back. The results are very interesting, because I could see clear patterns in the data before even counting the organisms. The figure at right is a prime example: these settlement plates are from the Rijpfjorden mooring. One set was deployed at ~20 m below the surface, and the other set was deployed at the seafloor (~195 m deep). One set of plates had exactly two species on it, and the other had exactly none. Can you guess which is which? By the time I finished analyzing all my settlement plates, I could have just thrown the plates into a pile, pulled out a random one, and told you just by looking at it what station and what depth it was from. The patterns were that clear. I haven't crunched any numbers, but I like my data already.

Now that I'm back in Longyearbyen and all my settlement plates are analyzed, I'll be spending time on my class. We have exams and reports coming up, and I'm also preparing a presentation on my settlement experiment. The presentation is a good chance to communicate my findings, and besides, my classmates should probably know what I was doing all those late nights on the ship.

I'll keep you updated on my data analysis and my adventures as they happen. Stay tuned!

Alcyonidium gelatinosum, a gelatinous bryozoan on my settlement plates.


If you look at a map and find all the places I've named so far on the route for this cruise, you'll notice we're traveling north and east. We started in Lonyearbyen, then hit up Kongsfjorden, Magdalene- and Smeerenburgfjorden, and finally Rijpfjorden, which is our turn-around point. Rijpfjorden is the northermost and easternmost fjord in the Svalbard archipelago, on the island of Nordauslandet. It's pretty different from the rest of the Svalbard fjords because it's primarily influenced by Arctic water coming down from the central Arctic basin. Along the west coast of Svalbard, the West Spitsbergen Current flows northward and brings with it heat, nutrients, and Atlantic organisms, so western fjords are much warmer and Atlantic-influenced. Rijpfjorden, by contrast, is a true Arctic fjord.

Contents of our Rijpfjorden trawl. Photo by Adrian Pop.
When I did my Svalbard image analysis last year, I found that stations in Rijpfjorden had the highest diversity of all of my stations - higher even than some on the north Svalbard shelf. I think that's mostly because Rijpfjorden is not as heavily influenced by sedimentation from melting glaciers, which sets it apart from the warmer western fjords. During this cruise, I once again got to observe incredible diversity in Rijpfjorden when my group did a bottom trawl at 200 m. The contents of our trawl could have supplied an entire semester-long zoology course with study material. There were sponges, soft corals, sea stars, crustaceans - you name it, we caught it. Paul, the leader of my course, commented that this trawl reminded him of the "old Svalbard," when the archipelago was renouned for its biodiversity. Nowadays, particularly the western fjords host large populations of Atlantic cod and haddock, so many of the invertebrates end up as prey.

While we were in Rijpfjorden, there was just enough time for us to make an excursion onto land. We went ashore at a place called Torskevannet, which translates to "Cod Lake." The lake doesn't actually host any cod anymore, but it's still limnologically interesting. The lake sits behind a glacial moraine, and it has saltwater at the bottom but freshwater at the surface. At one point in time, the valley where the lake sits was a fjord, and the glacial moraine was a sill in the fjord. Then sea level fell, leaving salwater behind the sill, and freshwater from rain and snowmelt filled in on top. The result is a meromictic lake, with two distinct layers that don't mix. If you take a few minutes to dig through the pebbles in the glacial moraine, you're bound to find fossilized blue mussels, and a member of our group actually found one. The fossilized mussels indicate that the glacial moraine used to be underwater, but they also tell another story: the youngest fossils of blue mussels on Svalbard are from the Viking era, about 1000 years ago, but in recent years, blue mussels have returned. The first viable population was found in 2004, and the current hypothesis is that they were brought north as larvae in the West Spitsbergen Current. Read more about blue mussels on Svalbard here.

Zooplankton from Torskevannet
Ok, so the name of the lake is Torskevannet, or Cod Lake in English, but there aren't actually any cod in the lake. It's mostly inhabited by small zooplankton that can tolerate a wide range of salinities. We found a krill and an amphipod, but what's interesting is that the amphipod, Gammarus wilkitzkii, is usually found living on the underside of sea ice. Yes, things live on the underside of sea ice, and the communities are actually very unique. Anyway, G. wilkitzkii can allegedly tolerate salinities from 0 (freshwater) to 50 without breaking a sweat (normal seawater is 35, by the way). It has to have this wide tolerance because it normally lives in a mixture of melting freshwater ice and dense, salty brine, but this incredible tolerance also means it was pre-adapted to thrive in Torskevannet. It's really an impressive organism.

Bonfire on the beach in Rijpfjorden
We hiked around the lake for a bit and then headed back to the beach. There was plenty of evening left, so we built a bonfire and roasted hot dogs on sharpened sticks and reindeer antlers. Yes, I said reindeer antlers. We found several sets of them between the beach and the lake, and incidentally, they make great hot dog sticks. We relaxed and chatted, warmings ourselves by the fire, grateful for a break from our microscopes and the ship. Looking out over Rijpfjorden, where the ship sat waiting, we were witness to one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. The sky was completely clear, and the color of the sky was this intense, pure yellow that my camera simply cannot capture. The sea was just as intensely blue, and it reminded me of thick, undiluted paint in a Van Gogh masterpiece. Anyway, the sun chose to lay its head down right behind the Helmer Hanssen, giving us a beautiful view of our backlit ship. It was really a lovely excursion, and I'm glad I got to see Torskevannet.
Sunset behind the Helmer Hanssen in Rijpfjorden