Monday, August 31, 2015

Another way you can die

"And so you find yourself embracing the ground
And your foe is as near as the silence you hear
As [you] stop to load another round
Battles raging, it's all staging, 'till you realize
Another way you can die"
- "Another way you can die" by Trans-Siberian Orchestra

I'm all settled in to Svalbard by now, and today was the first day I had a schedule. I'm going to be here for 6 weeks this time - the longest I've ever spent on Svalbard - and I'm officially registered for a class, so my days are much more structured than before. I'm taking the class essentially because in order to finish my experiment, I have to be on the class research cruise, and to be on the cruise, I have to take the class. It makes sense to take the class anyway, because it's taught by Paul Renaud, one of my advisers for the settlement plate project, and also because the topic is Ecology of Arctic Marine Benthos, which, after all, is kind of my thing.

My day began in a classroom at UNIS, the University Center in Svalbard. I arrived with a group of my fellow students, and as soon we entered the room, Paul jumped up and greeted me with a big hug. It was good to see him again. He asked if I had had a chance to peruse the reading list for the course yet, and when I shook my head, he declared, "Well, your paper is on it!" He was referring to the Svalbard image analysis paper that occupied most of my time in Stavanger and was published last spring. Paul is also a co-author on the paper. Got to admit, knowing that one of my research papers has made it onto the mandatory reading list for a graduate-level biology course makes me feel pretty awesome. Twist of irony: I'll probably have to answer test questions about my own paper.

Paul wasn't with us in the classroom for long, because most of the day was actually designated for safety training. Field work in the Arctic is, as you may imagine, logistically difficult and often dangerous, so all UNIS students are trained in how to minimize the risks.

The first step in our safety training was a 60-minute lecture on all the possible ways to die in the Arctic. If you don't fall into a glacial crevasse, you may injure yourself skiing. If you don't slide down a steep mountainside, you may fall into cold water and freeze. If none of that happens, you may be attacked by a polar bear. Thankfully, the lecture was more informational than morbid, but still, there are a lot of ways to get yourself into trouble up here.

This just got real.
Shortly after the lecture ended, we were whisked away on a bus to the Longyearbyen shooting range. We had to be trained on how to use polar bear rifles, because yes, polar bears do pose a threat to humans. Polar bear attacks are not common at all but still common enough - maybe one or two per year - to necessitate extra caution. Anytime you leave the valley, you need to travel in a group and be armed.

The rounds we shot were 30-06 caliber, and even though I don't know that means, my brother will. We practiced loading and half-loading the rifles first with dummy ammunition, then with real bullets. Half-loading means that bullets are in the magazine but not in the chamber. You can go from half-loaded to loaded by sliding the bolt, same as if you were ejecting a shell. We drilled ourselves on how to half-load - we must have done it a dozen times - and finished by firing rounds. I was surprised by how loud the rifles were - they had an almost deafening boom that in a real case of emergency would ring ominously off of the mountainside.

After we had learned everything there is to know about polar bear rifles, we had to pass a test. It wasn't conceptually difficult; all you had to do was shoot four rounds at a target and hit all of them in a semi-concentrated area. The guns aren't actually that accurate, so you may not hit the center of the target, but they're precise, so if you aim properly, you'll always hit the same place. We did the test from a kneeling position.

Each target was shared by two people, so not all of these
shots are mine. Most are covered up by stickers, and the
best shots in the middle (the ones that are still holes) belong
to my target partner. It's certainly not perfect, but hey,
I'd be able to save my own life.
I'll be honest: the first time, I failed. Only two of my rounds actually hit the target. I was having trouble focusing on the sights because I'm unable to close only my left eye (although weirdly, I can wink my right eye with no problem), so I was playing brain-eye games with myself to focus in the correct place. The second time around, I took a few more seconds between shots, manually closed my left eye with my right hand before returning it to the weapon, and remembered to relax. And I got it! All four rounds hit my target, and they were pretty well-clustered too. The girl whose target was next to mine later said she actually had 6 holes in her target during the first round of the exam, which is odd, because each of us only shot 4. The best I can figure, during the first round, I was so focused on aiming my eyes correctly that I ended up shooting at the wrong target. Before you harass me, please note that the targets looked exactly the same and were less than 5 feet apart.

Once everyone had passed the rifle exam, we moved on to signal flares. On a scale of intensity, signal flares are much lower than rifles, but in the case of a real bear attack, they would chronologically be used first. It's much better to scare away a polar bear than to have to kill it. We fired flash-bangs and red flares from a rudimentary pistol, not even really bothering to aim. In fact, when you fire a flare, you want to turn your head away from the pistol because the barrels are not completely sealed and you could get a bit of gunpowder on your face.

Finally, we went back into the firing range's classroom and watched videos of polar bear behavior, talked about how to behave in case we encounter a polar bear, and when it is appropriate to use each kind of gun. A very small proportion of the bears will even approach humans, and an even smaller proportion of them want to attack. Flash-bangs are for scaring the bear away when it is within 100 m and heading towards you; rifles are for worst-case life-or-death scenarios only, when the bear is within 35 m. Conveniently, the targets we had been shooting at all day were 35 m downrange.

I highly doubt I'll ever need to shoot a polar bear, since most of my work will be from the safe confines of a large ship, but you never know. It's good to be prepared.

Survival suit demonstration. We were obviously listening
patiently to the instructor. Photo by Uliana Nekliudova.
Speaking of the ship, the last step in our safety training involved survival suits, which I have used many times before. In fact, every time I set foot on a research ship, I have to prove that I can put on a survival suit. Anyway, the suits are designed to keep you warm, dry, and afloat. They're annoying as all get-out, because the hood sticks to your head and your mouth is covered by the zipper and you have no dexterity in your fingers. I can't keep one all the way on for long; I have to take off the hood indoors. Still, aside from the hood, the suits are lightweight and actually pretty comfortable. I and two others were selected to put on survival suits and demonstrate how to float in a group with them on, legs around each other, leaning back on each other's stomachs. In this position, a chain of people could paddle to shore facing backwards, holding onto one another with their legs and swimming with their arms. Pretty clever, right?

It was a long, detailed day, but it overall went very well. I now know all the ways I can die, but also all the ways I can stay alive. Bring it on, Svalbard. Bring it on.

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