Saturday, January 31, 2015

Top ten things I'll miss about Norway

Norwegian landscape and sky
10) The incredible landscapes. I didn't realize until I got here just how gorgeous of a country Norway is. There are mountains everywhere, and they slide right into the sea.

9) The Norwegian sky. Everywhere I look in this country, there are magnificent patterns in the sky - clouds, rainbows, sunrises. I've never been in a place that has such consistently beautiful skies. I feel as if I'm bounded in - under a ceiling, if you will - and it's actually kind of neat to have such a keen awareness of the 3-D space around me.

8) Smoked salmon on bread. The Norwegians have a tendency to pile animal products on top of bread, and smoked salmon quickly became my favorite. I had it almost every day at lunch.

7) Waffle Wednesdays. Okay, it's not really the waffles I'll miss but rather lunchtime with my IRIS colleagues. It's so important to have one designated time in the day when everyone sits together and chats. IRIS is quite a social workplace, and I really enjoyed being a part of the community there.

6) Heated bathroom floors. 'Nuff said.

5) My bike commute to work. There's nothing like waking up before sunrise, packing a bag, and heading out on an adventure. I got to do this every day that I biked the 15 km to IRIS, and by the time I arrived, I was always wind-blown, enthralled, and wide awake. Biking was a built-in workout, and I got to really appreciate the landscape as I rode. I'm going to miss this routine.

4) Living in community. In Oregon, I have my own apartment, and honestly, it's a bit lonely sometimes. Living in a house with 16 people was definitely a different experience, but even though the kitchen wasn't always perfectly clean, it was so infinitely worth it. I will miss Vilius calling me Miss America. I will miss movie nights with the girls. I will miss Jonathan's hair-brained ideas, Paritosh's lame come-backs, and Kanjana's egg rolls. My housemates are eclectic and unique, and they contributed so much to my time in Norway. I will miss every single one of them. Every. Single. One.

3) Ingeborg. From the very first day when she found me confused and desperately lost outside of  IRIS, Ingeborg has been a gem of a friend. I am so blessed to have found someone who shares my love of art and showed me around her country. Whenever her boxy silver car stopped at IRIS to pick me up, I knew it was the start of a long and wonderful evening. Ingeborg is solid gold.

2) Dinners at Andrew and Astri's. It was such an incredible privilege to be invited into my adviser's home. Every time I spent an evening with Andrew and Astri's family, I would come away with a warm heart and a head full of new thoughts. Frankly, my time in Norway would have been worth it if all I got to do was sit at the kitchen table and listen to Andrew talk about data, about science, about life. Keeping up with him intellectually was an all-out sprint, but once the work was finished, I got to see a different side of my adviser. I'll miss hearing Andrew and Astri's perspectives on balancing a family and two careers; I'll miss playing and dancing with their daughters. I'll miss gin and tonics, bean bag chairs on the deck, and that same Coldplay album always going in the background. Andrew and Astri made me feel so warm, so welcome, so much a part of something - and I will be forever grateful to them both.

1) My Norwegian self. I have most definitely changed since I first came to Stavanger last August. I feel different now than when I arrived - I'm lighter, less stressed, more confident, and a more mature, critical scientific thinker. My life in Stavanger is simple. I got to learn from an incredible scientist, live with a community of fantastic people, see enthralling landscapes, breathe fresh air, and know that I had a place in the world. I have no idea how I'll feel when I get back to Oregon - if I'll stay this light-footed, confident girl or slide back into my old self - but if I do, I will miss the person I was while living in Stavanger.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

To revise

Do any of you remember the paper I was working on during the fall? I called it my "Svalbard image analysis," and I spent a solid month or two just analyzing data for it. I submitted the paper for publication just before leaving on my Christmas break. Ring any bells?

Well, earlier this week, I heard from the scientific journal where I had submitted the paper. I was actually surprised to hear back so soon. (I've waited up to 5 months for reviews on a paper before, but I suppose every journal is different.) The reviewers made thorough comments on my paper but asked for some revisions before it could be published. Basically, that means the study was well-done overall, but it's just not quite there yet. I still have some work to do.

In case you're interested, I'll outline the scientific publication process. It's a unique system, and it's been the same for decades. When you submit a paper for publication, three things happen:

1) The paper is assigned to an editor, who is responsible for overseeing the review process, serving as a contact person for both the authors and the reviewers (so the two groups of people never talk directly to each other, thus preserving anonymity), and ultimately deciding whether the paper is published or not.
2) The editor sends the paper out to reviewers, who are impartial scientists with no involvement in the project. Reviewers read the submitted manuscript and comment on everything from experimental design to use of the Oxford comma.
3) The reviewers are then responsible for making a recommendation: either (1) the paper should be accepted with only minor changes, (2) the paper should be re-evaluated after major revisions, or (3) the paper should be rejected.

The editor is responsible for communicating the reviewers' comments and recommendations back to the authors, who respond by revising the paper. Make sense? It's a lot of back-and-forth.

I'm telling you all of this to give you some idea of what science is really like. A lot of days, it's just sitting at a desk, crunching numbers or answering e-mails. Publication certainly doesn't happen overnight - it takes lots of people, lots of revisions, and often lots of time. Actually, I suppose I have little right to complain, because I never experienced an age before the internet. Before e-mail, websites, and online submission systems, manuscripts and reviews had to be sent in the mail. Imagine how long that would take!

I'm spending today revising the paper. Once I'm finished, I'll send it out to my co-authors to see if they're ok with the changes I made, and then I'll send the revised version back to the journal. Hopefully, I'll be able to post a link to the published manuscript for you soon.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Forget about me: Part 2

“I think that's what our world is desperately in need of - lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about.”

“Biological family is too small of a vision. Patriotism is far too myopic. A love for our own relatives and a love for the people of our own country are not bad things, but our love does not stop at the border.”
- Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical

I read The Irresistible Revolution in college, and it forever changed my worldview. In fact, I spent a significant fraction of 2010 about 2 steps away from dropping everything, moving to Philadelphia, and joining the Simple Way. I became obsessed with the idea of community - how to build one, how to sustain one, and what happens to you when you're in one. 

Instead of Philadelphia, I moved to Germany in 2011, and a large part of my motivation for doing so was actually to build international community. I wanted to knock down walls, build bridges across oceans, and further the ideals of community on a global scale. In a lot of ways, I think I succeeded, and when I paid a visit to Germany last October, I experienced the fruits of the friendships I had built there.

Recently, my concept of community has shifted a bit, and I'll explain why. I used to think that building a community was all up to me. I saw myself as the catalyst, the centerpiece, the linchpin. I was the one who introduced new friends, who hosted dinner parties, who gave others a reason to step outside their comfort zones. If I saw a community form around me, it was a sign of my success, and if one didn't form, it was a sign of my failure. 

But here's the thing: If I look back on the best communities I have been a part of, I have to admit that I was not the driving force. There was the group I interned with during summer 2010; there was my working group at the AWI in Germany, my girlfriends in Oregon, and now my housemates in Norway. In each case, building community wasn't up to me - it was up to all of us. It just happened

As I was walking home last night through downtown Stavanger, arm-in-arm with one of my housemates, she told me how much she would miss me. She said I was an essential part of the Kirkebakken family. Her words meant a lot to me, but I've got to be honest: I was surprised. I mean, I consider my housemates to be my Norwegian family, but I didn't know they felt the same way about me. I have made no special effort to further this community. In fact, most nights, I just come home, eat dinner in my room, and then crash in bed. 
Cultural exchange at its finest.

I got another surprise last night from a housemate: a gift that he had only jokingly half-promised me. It's a T-shirt with Vladmir Putin's face and the caption "Everything is going according to plan." This particular housemate is from Lithuania, and he and I have a long-running, half-joking political disagreement about the proper role of Russia in the modern world. Our opinions are polar opposites, but after a couple intense discussions, we came to a lighthearted understanding and now have some pretty entertaining nicknames for each other. I didn't expect him to actually get me a Putin shirt, but I tell you what, I'm going to wear that thing loud and proud. 

You see, friends, this is what happens when you are swept up into a community. You change for the better. You learn to appreciate others' perspectives. You get involved in other's lives. I didn't seek this out; I didn't build a multi-step plan and implement each phase of community development at regular intervals. Honestly, I didn't even think about building community in Norway because I had so many other things on my mind when I got here. 

Community does not result from the efforts of one person. It takes multiple active participants, but once it happens, it's like getting swept up in a warm, kind tornado. I have been so incredibly blessed to be a part of the Kirkebakken community. My housemates rock.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hair on fire

"I'm running around with my hair on fire!" - Sandra Brooke

I met Sandra, the source of the quote above, on a research cruise in 2013. She was one of the chief scientists on board and therefore had a lot of things to take care of. She was constantly running around from place to place, solving problems, talking to people, making plans, and trying to process specimens at the same time. I always giggled when she got to the breaking point and declared her hair to be on fire - it was quite the image.

Now that I'm back in Stavanger, I've got to admit, I feel a lot like Sandra must have on that cruise. I only have a short amount of time left in Norway before I move out and embark on another adventure. (For the record, I'm still "in Norway" until April 1, but in 2 weeks, "Norway" will be a research ship in the Pacific. Andrew invited me on the cruise, so it still counts as part of my fellowship experience. More details later.)

Anyway, I've got a lot of things to worry about: cruise preparations, countless logistical issues, trying to schedule a meeting for when I get back to Oregon, editing a paper, processing more data, and on top of all that, I'm trying to soak in my last few weeks here with my friends.

I'm so incredibly blessed to be at this point in my life, when I'm traveling, researching, and embracing incredible opportunities. I just can't help but think about how little time I have left in this beautiful country - and how much of it I'll spend on things like liability insurance and the transport of hazardous materials. Bleh.

Be prepared for some emotional posts in the next two weeks. I'm definitely not ready to leave Norway. For now, though, I'll just pause, take a deep breath, gaze up to the beautiful Norwegian sky, and try to keep my hair from catching fire.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Please find my latest musical composition, "Kongsfjorden" at this link: 

Besides just analyzing my settlement plates, I managed to write some music this week. I find I tend to compose most when I'm in a place with my laptop where there are few other options of ways to spend my free time. I also write when I feel very strongly about something. Each of my compositions are tied to a specific place and a time where I experienced something new. As you can imagine, all of these factors mean I compose a lot in the Arctic. So far, my trips to Svalbard (four trips since 2011) have produced four movements for a violin concerto about the Arctic. The video above features the fourth movement, titled "Kongsfjorden," which I just finished. If you missed them, the previous three movements were posted on this blog in September. Find them here, here, and here.

When I write music, I don't use any specific formula. I don't think about what structure a piece is supposed take, where the climax is going to be - none of that. I just write. I scribble out a couple measures, listen to them a thousand times, and then hear in my head what should come next. A lot of times, I end up convinced that I have not in fact written the music at all; rather, it wrote itself. It's as if the piece was floating somewhere in the air, and I am merely the cold glass on which it chose to condense.

When I started writing "Kongsfjorden," I started with a jagged solo violin line to mirror the mountain peaks that surround the fjord. The piece then took over and developed itself in a way, and I hope you can appreciate the result. As with all my works, please turn up the bass on your speakers or use well-isolated headphones to make sure you hear the cello part. Happy listening!

Heading home

"Though the truth may vary this
Ship will carry our
Bodies safe to shore"
- "Little Talks" by Of Monsters and Men

Well, friends, I'm getting back on the Helmer Hanssen, and at least for me, the Marine Night campaign is over. I'm riding the ship back to Longyearbyen, and from there I'll fly home to Stavanger. It's been an incredible experience.

Even though I would have rather had my Kvadehuken samples, it was nice to have a free day yesterday. I spent time with the friends that I made on the ship and in Ny-Ålesund, and I even had a productive conversation with a scientist whose interests almost exactly match mine. I feel a collaboration coming on.

Every time I leave the Arctic, I fear that I will never have the chance to return. This time, though, I know I will be back in September, so leaving is just a little bit easier. I count myself blessed to have seen this place, to have researched its mysteries, and to have become part of the Arctic biology community.

I leave you now with the northern lights over Kongsfjord, photographed by Malin Daase. The lights were actually this bright two nights ago. What an amazing place this is!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Sixty-seven percent

I checked the clock. 7:30 pm. Where are they? I thought, It's been hours! I paced along the long hallway in the lower floor of the marine lab. Peeking my head out the back door, I spotted someone with a head lamp working on the dock. Is that them? Where's the ship?

Soon it was 8:00. Ok, it does not take 6 hours to drive to Kvadehuken, dive, and come back, I told myself. I had had enough. Maybe their radio broke. I marched downstairs to find someone who knew what was going on, but when I swung open the door to the dive locker, I stopped cold. Peter and Daniel were inside, wearing street clothes.

"Umm..." I started.

Daniel met my eyes. "We had to abort. We've been back for an hour. Didn't anyone tell you?"

Well, no, they hadn't, but I guess I'd rather find out late than never. The dive to retrieve my settlement plates from Kvadehuken was aborted before my plates were retrieved. Apparently, the diving spot at Kvadehuken has been marked by a moored buoy for years, and the mooring also served as an anchor for the zodiac whenever a dive took place. Well, the divers anchored the zodiac to the mooring just like always, except that this time, the mooring ripped out of the ground. Thankfully, nobody was harmed, but without an anchor point for the zodiac, they could not complete the dive.

I asked if there was any possibility to re-do the dive, but it looks like the chances are small to remote. There are only a few more days left, and without the mooring, diving at Kvadehuken is even more logistically difficult than before. I fully expect we won't be able to try again, but you know what, that's ok. The data I've already collected are valuable. We know that there is settlement happening during the polar night, and we've been able to show it in two locations. There were also differences in number and identity of recruits between the stations.

Stuff happens. Logistical problems happen, and frankly, there's a reason why nobody's ever done this before. I got back plates from 2 out of 3 locations - that's 67% retrieval - and I'm happy with that number. We'll be back in September to collect settlement plates from each location, and I look forward to seeing what has settled at Kvadehuken then.

My work may be over, but others are still going strong. If you're interested in knowing more about other projects going on during the Marine Night campaign, check out the field blog:

Friday, January 16, 2015

Identification, please

After spending the better part of a day and a night at the microscope, I have counted all the recruits to my Ny-Ålesund settlement plates! They are turning out to be just as interesting as I had hoped.

The first thing I noticed about the plates was that they were much more densely populated than their Longyearbyen counterparts. I found some of the same animals in both locations, but there were also a number of new morphotypes in Ny-Ålesund. I found a couple different bryozoans that I hadn't seen in Longyearbyen, so I was very pleased.

Whenever I'm counting the organisms on my plates, I just separate them into morphotypes, which means I put them in categories with temporary names. Then later, I have to try and identify each morphotype. Sometimes, you can send specimens or pictures of your morphotypes to a taxonomic expert for help, but in this case, the taxonomic experts came to me. Yep, a number of scientists flew into Ny-Ålesund today, and among them were a bryozoan expert and several others familiar with Arctic hard-bottom fauna.

One of the bryozoans found on my settlement plates
in Ny-Ålesund, magnified 40 times.
When I approached the bryozoan expert, a dear Russian woman, to ask for her help, she readily agreed to have a look at my plates. I fully expected that she might have to take some time to compare my specimens to published literature, but when I showed her one of my samples, she was able to identify four morphotypes right off the bat. I was astounded! I have been on expeditions with Russian scientists before, and I am always amazed at the volume of their taxonomic knowledge. Maybe taxonomy is stressed in the Russian universities, or maybe there's just a culture of expertise there. I can't really say, but I certainly appreciate the results.

The bryozoan expert was extremely helpful to me, and I'll continue to show her morphotypes as long as she's willing to tolerate the interruptions. Today reinforced for me the reason why I travel: there is sometime so powerful about being in the same room with a colleague from a different country. Sure, I could have sent out e-mails to 50 people who work on bryozoans, and maybe some of them would have answered, but to be physically present in the same room with a colleague, sharing the excitement of a new specimen, experiencing the sum of two different cultures in each other's behavior, having a real conversation with someone from across the world - there is nothing like that. Nothing.


"When I woke up this morning, it felt like the whole world was hugging me."
- the TV show Suits

It's amazing how much my mood can be improved by even a small success. Yes, friends, that means that my settlement plates have been recovered from the Ny-Ålesund dock.

After breakfast today, I walked out onto the pier to see just how much the wind had calmed down. I could already tell in town that it had receded, but I wanted to feel out the conditions on the exposed pier just to be sure. To my cautious delight, the wind seemed manageable, and Peter and Daniel agreed. The dive was a go.

Survival suit selfie
We suited up and loaded the zodiac. Of course the two divers had to wear their thermal layers and thick drysuits, but this time, I had to wear specialized gear too: a survival suit, built to keep you warm and dry in even the coldest water. This is the Arctic, and we aren't taking any chances. I pulled on thermal leggings and an undershirt, a thick wool sweater, my old snowpants, two pairs of wool socks, and then the suit. The suit has a hood and zips over your mouth, but since I wasn't actually going in the water, I just wore a scarf and a hat, then pulled on two pairs of mittens. I felt like a marshmallow woman, but it's a heck of a lot better than freezing.

We launched the zodiac from the beach outside the marine lab and drove over to the old city pier, now out of commission but a great place to attach experiments. I was wondering how exactly Peter was going to get into the water, and to be honest, I jumped a little in surprise when he sat on the edge and just rolled over backwards. It works, I guess. Daniel and I stayed in the boat, and by the end, I think we might have actually been colder than Peter. Underwater, he was isolated from the wind, and he also wore an electric heating vest under his drysuit.

Peter recovered two frames worth of settlement plates in almost no time, but he reported to us that the structure where the frames were attached had been partially destroyed. Actually, one of the recovered settlement plates was broken, and another had lost half of its cable ties. I'm still trying to figure out how the cable ties got broken without the plate being cracked, because the cable ties were pretty protected and in the middle of the frame. Something must have fallen into them at just the right spot. We decided to move the remaining frames to a safer-looking part of the underwater structure. With any luck, they'll still be there when we come back in September.

I'm relieved to have my plates back and excited for the analysis. As far as I'm aware, nobody has ever put down settlement plates like I have in Kongsfjorden, so we'll see what organisms are there. New discoveries await!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Of dominoes and curve balls

The radio sprang to life. "Marine lab, this is Helmer Hanssen. Marine lab, this is Helmer Hanssen."

I could hear someone pick up the radio downstairs. Not 30 seconds later, Daniel had risen from his work station and headed down the steps. I leaned over the railing to listen in. 

"We have collected your samples..." 

Ah, exactly the message we had been waiting for. Another researcher currently in Ny-Ålesund needed sediment from the fjord, and it appeared the ship had completed her mission. I breathed a sigh of relief, because with this sample collection out of the way, the dive to retrieve my settlement plates could move forward. Daniel had been designated to drive the zodiac out and pick up the precious mud, so we couldn't go diving until he had returned. Like a game of dominoes, it only took one successful box core deployment to set it all in motion.

I settled back into the couch, satisfied that the dive would happen in the next few hours. Well, not so much. Apparently, the zodiac that was supposed to be driven out to the ship to collect the mud samples needed to be repaired. All movement was halted until 6 pm. (In case you're confused why we couldn't dive in the meantime, we also needed the zodiac for the dive.)

Dinner came and went. I headed over to the marine lab shortly after, expecting to find a returning zodiac and two available divers, but instead I caught a curve ball out of left field. The wind had picked up, so much so that it was unsafe to drive the zodiac out to the ship. Instead, I found the Helmer Hanssen approaching the dock to deliver the mud.

I could feel the wind stinging my face, even in a sheltered area next to a building. There was no way we would be able to dive in those conditions.

My silver lining was that as I stood outside having this realization, I got to see a beautiful green aurora. It was brighter than before but still not good enough to photograph without cheating. I watched it change shape, grow brighter, then dimmer, forming stripes and blocks and streaks in the sky until my face could no longer handle the wind.

I'm optimistic for a dive tomorrow morning. Daniel and Peter double-checked all of their gear, and I got myself set up in the lab. Unless the wind decides to cause us problems again, we should be ready to go. Here's hoping.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

The land without time

"Out there's a land that time don't command
I wanna be the first to arrive"
- "Ends of the earth" by Lord Huron
This polar bear greets you in the Kings
 Bay cafeteria.

Before ever embarking on this Arctic adventure, I figured being in 24-hour darkness would mess with my body clock. That's just a given. I thought I would have uniformly high serotonin levels and have to constantly fight the urge to sleep, but it's actually turned out to be the exact opposite. As I write this blog, it's approaching midnight, and I find myself wondering why I should sleep. After all, it will be just as dark when I wake up tomorrow. 

It's very easy to lose track of time when it's constantly dark outside. I find my only way to orient myself is by mealtimes. Food is only served during the day, and I know what time it is by what I'm eating. In case you're wondering, this isn't just true in the Arctic - it happens to me every time I'm on a ship working weird shifts. 

I think the lack of time up here contributes to Arctic researchers being very laid-back. You would think that in such a difficult environment, we'd need to be on the top of our game just to stay alive and get valuable data. I for one tend to run in a high gear whenever I really need to get something done. Those around me, though, are much easier-going. 

Part of the relaxed manner up here might be because the communities are very small. It's not like there are 5,000 different groups of people trying to get stuff done, and we all have to keep to a rigid schedule to succeed. If you need to change what time the ship comes into port, you just call the port watchman. No big deal. There probably aren't any other ships coming in that day anyway. You probably even know the watchman by first name. If something doesn't happen now, it can happen tomorrow, and nobody panics. The sky will look the same anyway. 

Speaking of the sky, you know those fantastic photos of the northern lights you always see at art fairs? Brilliant stripes of green, red, and yellow light up a night sky with mountain-shaped shadows in the foreground. You know the ones I'm talking about. Well, they're all lies. Vicious lies. 

There was a dim aurora in the sky when we docked this afternoon. Honestly, I never would have noticed it if another student hadn't pointed it out. It almost looked like a thin, pale green cloud or like the last rays of a green sunsent were peaking out from behind a mountain. The aurora stayed for about an hour, alternatively waxing and waning in strength. I noticed that another scientist had gotten a fantastic picture of the green light, and in fact, the aurora in the photo seemed stronger than I was seeing with my eyes. Hm, I thought, how did she do that?

Well, as my companion explained, it is quite easy to get a fantastic photo of a mediocre aurora. You just leave the shutter open for 30 seconds or so, and all the light that enters the camera during that period of time will be recorded. Friends, I will never believe an art fair photo again! The people marketing those photos are not travelers with incredible luck to stumble upon the strongest aurora ever known to humanity! They're just leaving the shutter open. They're cheating! 

I wish I could illustrate my point to you with a photo of the aurora I saw, but honestly, it wouldn't be worth showing. It would be a black rectangle. I will never trust an art fair photo again. Lies, just vicious lies.

End of the earth

“Out there’s a river that winds on forever
I’m gonna see where it leads
Out there’s a mountain that no man has mounted
I’m gonna stand on the peak
To the ends of the earth,
Would you follow me?”
-“Ends of the earth” by Lord Huron

The Helmer Hanssen at the dock in Ny-Ålesund
At about 2 pm today, the Helmer Hanssen pulled up to the dock in Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost settlement in the world. No group of humans dwells closer to the North Pole than this. 

Of course I've been further north than Ny-Ålesund before, but always on a ship. We actually pushed it to about 81° on the Hanssen earlier this week. As I walk between the houses of this tiny little place, I can't help but marvel at the select few that persist year-round at 79° N. Most people in Ny-Ålesund are just visitors - scientists who come for a field season, tourists who just stop in for the day (yes, cruise ships dock here) - but there are a few support staff who stay for up to 4 years. The cooks, receptionists, and watchmen all sign 2-year contracts with the option to renew only once. The lady who works in the shop actually told me they're not allowed to stay any longer, because the company that hires them insists they have at least semi-normal lives. 

In case you're wondering, there are currently 25-30 people in Ny-Ålesund. I tried to gauge the population at dinner, but I couldn't get an exact count. Yes, that means that everyone in town eats dinner at the same place. There's a single cafeteria operated by Kings Bay, the company in charge of running the town

Now, you should be aware that the number of people in Ny-Ålesund flucuates widely throughout the year. There can be up to 10 times as many people here in the summer as in the winter. Researchers come and go all the time, either by plane or by boat. There are also a lot of nationalities represented. If you take a walk through the settlement, you'll notice Norwegian, Italian, French-German, Korean, and Chinese research buildings. The Dutch, British, and Indians are also present at certain times of year. I was astounded at the number of countries so invested in Arctic research. 

When I got to my dorm room, I noticed there was a packet on my bed labeled "How to survive in Ny-Ålesund." Inside were instructions for disposing of waste, avoiding polar bear attacks, and avoiding interference with important scientific instruments. There is no Wi-Fi, radio, or cell phone service in the settlement because instruments used by the Norwegian Mapping Authorities rely on radio waves. You have to keep your cell phone off everywhere in town. 

It's so interesting for me to experience life in Ny-ÅlesundA lot of more experienced scientists on the ship have been here before, and for them this is all old news. Maybe someday it will be normal for me to pull into a remote port at the end of the earth, but that day is not today.  

Friday, January 9, 2015


After about a 2-day steam north, we arrived last night in the port of Longyearbyen, Svalbard. When we first arrived, we were unable to dock for a few minutes because reportedly two SCUBA divers were underwater near the dock. Can anybody guess who the divers might have been? Yep, that’s right – it was Peter and Daniel, and they were picking up my settlement plates from the Longyearbyen city pier. They had apparently waited until the very last minute to complete the dive and were just finishing as we pulled in, even though the ship was 6 hours late. I wanted so badly to roll my eyes at their incredible procrastination, but to be honest, I have no right to complain. The settlement plates got to the ship in time. No harm; no foul. Furthermore, Daniel and Peter are helping me out on a volunteer basis, even though they have their own projects to worry about. I owe those guys so much beer.

When the dive leader handed me the plates, he warned me not to get my hopes up. “We thought about just leaving them there,” he said, “I’m not sure there’s anything on them.” I held up a settlement plate to the light. Sure, they look completely uninhabited to the untrained eye. Most people would conclude that my experiment had utterly failed, but if you look closely enough, you would notice hundreds of tiny spots on the plexiglass. I might not have seen them, either, if they hadn’t interrupted the flow of water down the vertically-suspended plate. Tiny spots. That means life.

One of the spirorbids on my settlement plates. 
I cut the settlement plates from their frames and stored them in seawater in the ship’s walk-in refrigerator overnight. I spent most of today staring down a dissecting microscope, counting and trying to identify the inhabitants of the plates. The most common recruits were tiny worms, called spirorbids. They live inside a calcium carbonate tube and eat by filtering the water around them. Some of the spirorbids on my plates were as small as half a millimeter in length and a quarter millimeter across. I also saw a number of different bryozoans, also known as moss animals. Bryozoans live in colonies with many individuals, and they can be either upright and branched or flat and encrusting. Most of the colonies on my plates had only one or two individuals, indicating the colonies were very young.

I was elated to get my settlement plates back – and then to have successful recruitment! I think an important lesson to take away from these firstfruits of my data is that there is recruitment of benthic invertebrates happening during the polar night, at least at one location. Previous work by another group of scientists showed the same thing. You know, we often think of winter as a time when everything shuts down, the weather is cold, there’s not a lot of food, and basically life comes to a screeching halt. But even in the coldest part of the world, in 24-hour darkness, there is new life taking hold, metamorphosing, and recruiting to my settlement plates.

What an optimistic metaphor!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Into the darkness

The first few days of an expedition are always the hardest for me. I’ve actually spent most of the last two days in my bunk as a result of jet lag, exhaustion, and seasickness. Don’t ever let anyone tell you marine biologists don’t get seasick – it happens to the best of us.

When I woke up today, I could feel the motion of the ship had changed. We were no longer racing along and rocking from side to side. The ship had slowed down, and I could hear ice scraping against the hull. Every once in a while, we’ll hit an ice floe and get a good jolt to one side or the other.

Sea ice, as seen off the bow of the Helmer Hanssen.
I headed to the bridge to see if I could get a glimpse of the ice. Of course it’s pitch black outside, but I was able to see some of the ice floes thanks to giant flood lights shining off the bow. Ice floes are transported around the southern tip of Svalbard from the Barents Sea, so the ice we’re experiencing now is advected from elsewhere. We’ll actually get out of the advected ice as we continue to head north along Svalbard’s western coast, then reach an area with pack ice north of the archipelago.

It’s thrilling for me to be in an area of sea ice, on a ship in complete darkness, heading north to the end of the earth. We’ll dock in Longyearbyen later today to load some scientific equipment and supplies onto the ship. For me, the most critical items coming on board are my settlement plates. Daniel and Peter, the two SCUBA divers that I worked with to deploy all my settlement plates in September, have by now hopefully completed a dive to recover and replace half of the plates from the Longyearbyen pier. Once the plates come on board, I’ll be able to examine them, counting and identifying all the organisms present. Plates will also be recovered from Ny-Ålesund and Kvadehuken, two locations in Kongsfjorden, later this week. 

I feel a bit like the last few days have been the calm before the storm. Once we hit Longyearbyen, it's going to get crazy on board, and I'll be working pretty much constantly. For now, I take a deep breath and ride on into the darkness.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Almost familiar

“But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like
You’ve been here before?”
-- “Pompeii” by Bastille

Friends, I come to you now from the research vessel Helmer Hanssen, currently underway in the waters surrounding Tromsø, Norway. In the past 24 hours, I landed in Stavanger after a trans-Atlantic flight, unpacked a suitcase, packed another suitcase, jetted north to Tromsø, and boarded a ship. I snagged a few hours of sleep along the way, but to be perfectly frank, I am exhausted.

Tromsø, Norway, as seen from the ship
I passed through Tromsø briefly in 2011 and 2012, each time at the end of a polar expedition aboard the German icebreaker Polarstern. In 2011, my colleagues and I had enough time to walk around downtown, but that’s the extent of my experience with the city. I actually know the fjord much better. In fact, Tromsø is my favorite port city in the world for this reason alone: the entry to the fjord is absolutely stunning. Steep mountain peaks rise on both sides of the water, and now that I’m seeing these cliffs for the third time, I can tell you they look magnificent in any weather - fog, sun, or snow.

Tromsø looked significantly different this time compared to the last time I saw it. Sure, the pastel wooden houses were all in the same places, but they were sprinkled with snow and only dimly lit. When I got to Tromsø at 11 am, the eastern horizon was pink. I never actually saw the sun because it stayed too low on the horizon, and a mere two hours later, the sky began to grow dark again. Two hours of gray dawn light – that’s all I got.

I’m very excited to experience the polar night as we steam further north. I got to see the midnight sun in 2011 and 2012, so I feel it’s only fair that I now am subjected to 24-hour darkness. We’ve got a full day of steaming tomorrow, and we’ll arrive in Longyearbyen, Svalbard on the 7th. Here’s to a good expedition!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Forget about me

Well, friends, I’ve been out of touch for a while. I returned to the United States to visit family and friends over Christmas and New Year’s. It was an incredible time with a wedding, snowboarding, visits from old friends and neighbors, and seeing my brother’s university.

As I sit here in Detroit Metro Airport and reflect on the past two weeks, I think about how incredibly blessed I am. My life nowadays is split almost equally between the U.S. and Europe, and I am grateful to have a network of friends and family on both sides of the Atlantic. I think a lot of people in my situation would lament their lack of a home base, but whenever I travel, I am reminded how many home bases I actually have. It’s so comforting to return to places that I know and be received by people that love me. I have my house in Norway and my university back in Oregon, but I also have my previous home in Germany, my close friends scattered across the Midwestern United States and northern Europe, my parents who care about me deeply, and my awesome brother.

My mom once showed me a speaker named Pam Stenzel. Pam grew up with little family to speak of, but she nevertheless has a lot of good things to say about the topic. She equated the word “family” to an acronym and pointed out the letters could stand for “Forget About Me; I Love You.” Forget about me; I love you. The words stuck with me because more than anything else, they capture the self-denial that is so integral in familial love. I have no problem admitting to you that I cry every time I say good-bye to my family, any time I see a close friend fly away or get dropped off at an airport myself. It truly is the people that make my jet-setting life so incredibly worth it.  

And so I watch the people around me in the airport, wondering where they came from, who they left behind, and who they are going to meet. I think about my brother, who survived his first semester of college and is becoming ever more interesting, mature, and unique. I think about my dad, who is incredibly hard-working and never stingy with advice. I think about my mom, who is self-denial personified and still tries to take care of me as much as she can. I miss those three people so badly it makes my heart hurt.

I’m so glad I got to see my family over the holidays. My flight is about to begin boarding, so I should probably sign off. Friends, tonight my heart is heavy, but my spirit is light. When I land on the other side of the Atlantic, I will have another series of adventures to tell you about. I’ll catch up with you then. In the meantime, go hug your mother.