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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Fat city

Like dutiful little soldiers, we filed up to the bridge. Jørgen had called a meeting, forcing us to leave our microscopes for a minute. We expected some sort of lesson or exercise, but instead we were greeted by an incredible view. We were in Magdalenefjorden, on the northwest corner of Spitsbergen. 

Glacier in Smeerenburgfjorden
Magdalenefjorden has actually been voted the best place on Svalbard, and I have no trouble understanding why. It’s a short fjord, and it has steep sides dotted by glaciers. The glacier at the head of the fjord had a dramatic, high wall that was bright blue and jagged. Paul, the course leader, told us that if we just watched it for a few minutes, we were bound to see a piece break off.

We didn’t spend much time in Magdalenefjorden – just enough to take some sediment samples, enjoy the view, and move on. I would have happily stayed much longer, but alas, we had work to do.

Our next stop was Smeerenburgfjorden, which is named after the now-defunct Dutch whaling settlement that once sat at the mouth of the fjord. Smeerenburg translates to “fat city” because of all the whale blubber that was processed there. Apparently, in its day, Smeerenburg had about 300-400 people, and the town was surounded by giant boilers. Whale blubber was used as fuel to heat the whale meat, thereby releasing all the fat from it and making it edible. 

Walruses at Smeerenburg.
Most people lived in Smeerenburg during the summers, but a small faction stayed behind in the winters to defend the Dutch territory against attacks by the neighboring British and Danish settlements. Whaling was big business, and nations would do anything to increase their profits - including waging war in the Arctic. According to Jørgen, though, the Dutch crown had a hard time finding volunteers to overwinter in Smeerenburg, so they offered a deal to inmates on death row: survive one winter in Smeerengburg, and receive full pardon. The inmates refused the deal. 

While we were in Smeerenburgfjorden, we found a little fat of our own: a group of walruses were lounging on a sandbar in the middle of the fjord. The sandbar was actually the former site of Smeerenburg, the whaling settlement, as marked by the orange tent in the photo. It was really neat to watch them, and this was the first time I've ever seen walruses in person. Northwest Spitsbergen is a beautiful corner of the world. 

Hard day's night

“It’s been a hard day’s night
And I’ve been working like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night
I should be sleeping like a log”
- “Hard day’s night” by the Beatles

This post is actually a little delayed, since as you may imagine, I didn’t take the time to write a blog post while I was in the thick of my settlement plate analysis. I was swimming in settlement plates for a few days there, but oh, was it worth it.

My results for this experiment are going to rock. After my last post, settlement plates were successfully retrieved from Kvadehuken and Ny-Ålesund. In case you don’t remember, Kvadehuken was the location where no plates could be recovered last January because the dive mission was aborted. Kvadehuken is actually a pretty incredible place – it’s a cape at the mouth of Kongsfjorden, and the seafloor is exposed bedrock covered in calcareous red algae, anemones, and sea urchins. The cape has been the location for several studies on Arctic hard-bottom communities. I really expected to have a high diversity of species on my Kvadehuken settlement plates because there’s such high diversity and abundance of adult organisms, but that hasn’t been the case. I only found the two most common species of invertebrates – a spirorbid and a bryozoan – plus a bunch of algal detritus. One of the many findings of this project that makes me go “Hm.”

Kongsfjorden, seen from the ship. Ny-Ålesund is that
collection of  buildings on the shore.
Even before I was finished with the Kvadehuken plates, another set was recovered from the Ny-Ålesund pier. Ny-Ålesund is the tiny settlement where I spent some time last January, and it’s on the southern shore of Kongsfjorden. When the divers returned to the ship with my settlement plates, Jørgen, one of the leaders for my class, found me in the lab of the Helmer Hanssen and met my eyes with a serious expression.

“I have good news for you and bad news,” Jørgen said, “Which would you like first?”

I chose the bad news.

“You have a lot of work to do,” he continued, “but the good news is, the divers are back, and your plates are outside in the boat.”

I threw on a jacket and some rubber boots and headed outside. Actually, it wasn’t until I reached the upper deck, where the zodiac is stored, that I realized this was the first time I had been outside in two days (remember, this was the height of my settlement plate mania). Peter stood beside the zodiac in his wet diving suit, patiently rinsing his gear in freshwater.

One of my plates from Ny-Ålesund, looking
suspiciously like Cousin It.
I stopped short. Inside the zodiac was a black plastic bin, and in the black plastic bin were four racks of settlement plates, and on the plates were what I can only estimate are kilos and kilos of stringy black algae. Desmerestia aculeata, if I had to make a guess. So. Much. Algae.

Peter stepped up beside me, his suit still dripping wet. “I almost couldn’t find them,” he said. “They blended in with the dock, so I had to feel around to locate them.”

I shook my head and sighed. Those long, black strings would take a while to count. Peter picked up his dive knife, leaned in toward the boat, and motioned as if he was going to scrape off the algae. “You see, I could just make it a bit easier for you…” he began, but I launched myself toward his hand, babbling something about not ruining my hard-won samples. He laughed.

I started to fear the number of hours I would have to spend at the microscope to analyze the Ny-Ålesund plates, but now that I’m on the other side of the equation, I can tell you it wasn’t that bad. I found a very high diversity and abundance of organisms, which corresponds with my results from January. I obviously still have a lot more work to do before I fully understand the data, but I can tell you I’m excited to figure out what it all means. Onward!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Break time

Right now, I am sitting on the black leather couch in the lounge of the Helmer Hanssen. It's just past midnight, and even though I was planning to stay up much later, my night has been cut short by a power outage. We blew a fuse in the main lab (too many microscope lights plugged in at once), and the crew is working to fix it. Looks like I’ll have to rest until morning.

To be honest, rest is a very welcome thing right now, since I've been working at breakneck pace all cruise. We’ve only been at sea for five days, but it feels like it’s been a decade. My days have been full of coursework – sampling for class projects, sorting and identifying animals, analyzing data – leaving me to analyze my settlement plates in any remaining spare moment. Truth be told, I really shouldn’t be complaining, because I've gotten 4 sets of plates back successfully in as many days, which is impressive and encouraging. At a certain, point, though, I do start to wear down.

One of the more common bryozoans on my plates, called
Lichenopora sp., magnified 25 times.
I'm so excited that my experiment is working out, because the data I’m collecting are both rare and valuable. The first set of plates from Longyearbyen had an impressive variety of animals, including numerous bryozoans. Bryozoans are colloquially known as moss animals, and they consist of colonies of little clones encased in calcium carbonate housings. Thankfully, one of the leaders of my class is a bryozoan expert, so I've been routinely asking him to look over my shoulder and help me identify the species on my plates. Piotr has been extremely helpful, and in fact, my first few days on the cruise essentially consisted of a crash course in bryozoan taxonomy. I'm thankful to be able to draw on his expertise.

One of the bryozoans on my settlement plates, called Cribrilina
, surrounded by barnacles and spirorbid worms.
Magnified 25 times.
Even before I finished my Longyearbyen plates, the next set was recovered from a mooring in Kongsfjorden, at 79° N. I was actually out on a class field trip when the mooring was recovered, so when I stepped back on board, I was surprised to see a large white tub of seawater on the deck with my plates in it. It was a bit funny because within 5 minutes of me finding the plates, two other course leaders approached me independently to proudly announce that the plates had been recovered. I'm afraid I disappointed them by saying that I already knew.

The plates from the mooring are actually really interesting, because they have much lower diversity than those attached to the shallow docks. One set of plates, deployed at the bottom of the mooring at 215 m depth, contains exactly one species, a hydrozoan. Hm.

I still have a lot more to learn from my settlement plates – more species to identify, more individuals to count. The data have a lot of important things to say to me, so I’m keeping my eyes and ears open. It's almost certain that I'll discover something new.  

Saturday, September 12, 2015

So there I was

So there I was, riding on the bow of an orange zodiac, holding onto the side with all my might, racing toward the mountainous shore of a fjord. I was wearing a drysuit, but the sea still managed to sting my face with frigid saltwater every few minutes. I was happy.

My group landed on a pebble-covered beach between two rocky hills. Above the high tide line, chunks of ice the size of milk crates were haphazardly strewn about. We were surrounded by steep terrain, so after emptying the boat of all our gear, we half-loaded the polar bear rifle. Just in case. I threw a metal quadrat frame over my shoulder, adjusted the neckline of my drysuit, and followed the group leader up and over one of the cliffs.

Sampling in the Kongsfjorden intertidal. Photo by Adrian Pop.
So there I was, making my way down a marble knoll, watching the waves and trying to gauge the texture of the ground through my neoprene booties. We needed one person to brace themselves in the knee-high water and hold the quadrat in place while others cleared the 0.25 m2 area of its flora and fauna, so of course I volunteered. I smashed one foot in a pile of kelp, set the other one on the rocky slope, and set about scraping the algae. We ended up having to pull most of the algae off with our hands, since the marble cliff had perpendicular angles that refused to cooperate with our scraper. We counted barnacles. We noted the presence of kelp just below our sampling spot.

Making our way back over the marble island, we found one more spot to sample. I wasn’t the deepest-standing one this time, but I still took my fair share of waves. When it came time to measure the width of the intertidal, I scooted as far down the slope as I dared, flung the end of the transect tape toward the nearest kelp, and yelled at my partners up-slope to measure quickly. I heard an “OK!” from behind me, pulled up the tape, and gathered my feet, just as a wave washed over my lap.

So there I was, gear in a pile, sampling complete, sipping warm water on the pebble beach and silently thanking the man who invented drysuits. We watched as the boat driver made circles in the fjord and his two remaining passengers fiddled with gear. We had some time, so we donned hoods, gloves, masks, and flippers, and decided to go for a snorkel.

Taking a break on the icy beach. Photo by Adrian Pop.
So there I was, face-down in frigid water, reminding myself to breathe through my mouth. I could feel a little water seeping in at my wrist, but honestly, it wasn’t as cold as I had expected. I was too busy watching the kelp, watching it sway back and forth in the waves. It leaned one way, and I could see a colony of hydroids underneath. It leaned the other way, and my view was filled with calcareous red algae. My head was barely even below the surface, but my mind was in a completely different world. Underwater, everything was calm, even lazy. I could feel cold water climbing up my arm, so I started swimming back to the beach. My companions followed, and a few minutes later, we were loading the boat again, heading back to the ship.

So there I was, feeling like a soggy marshmallow woman, embracing the wind on my face and the taste of salt in my mouth. As we approached the ship, we disturbed a flock of fulmars, and they flew all around and above our boat. Then we drew closer, and we could see the faint line of a fishing pole protruding from the side of the hull. Yes, another scientist was fishing, and I couldn't help but smile at his chosen pastime. Life is good at 79° N.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Have sample, will travel

I sat cross-legged on the break room couch, my computer on my lap, engrossed in a scientific paper. Piotr, sitting in a lounge chair next to me, scrolled through e-mails on his phone. Piotr looked up. "Well, there he is!" he called, breaking into a smile. I too looked up from my computer screen and peered down the hall. Sure enough, Peter was coming towards us, his jacket unzipped, a heavy duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

"Did you walk?" Piotr joked. Peter nodded. I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Peter to walk himself into town from the airport. I closed my laptop and stood up, just as he encircled me in a hug. It was good to see him again.

It was a busy day at Longyearbyen Bykaia.
With Peter's arrival, the cast of characters for the upcoming research cruise was complete. More importantly for me, his arrival made it possible to retrieve my settlement plates, since a team of 3 is required for scientific dives, and I don't count. We spent a few minutes catching up before one of the other scientists, Jørgen, delivered the news that I was reluctant to voice myself: the dive for my settlement plates had to happen that night, because there wouldn't be any time the next day. I felt bad asking Peter to dive right away because he had just stepped off a plane, so I was glad Jørgen said the words, not me. Peter shrugged. "Let's go."

After about an hour of gathering and assembling equipment, we drove out to the Longyearbyen pier to find (drumroll please) we couldn't dive. An Italian ship was in port, and they weren't willing to let us dive next to their vessel. So we headed back to the lab, camped out with our computers, and watched the port webcam. Two hours later, the ship had left, so we drove out to the pier and found - you guessed it - another ship had just arrived. Thankfully, the powers-that-be on this second ship were willing to let us dive, so the guys suited up, and Peter jumped in.

There is life on my plates!
I spent the dive on the dock, standing close enough to Daniel that I could overhear his conversation through the headset with Peter. Two frames found, then four. The dive was a success! Waving his hands to avoid using words, Daniel signaled for me to grab the green rope at my feet and lower it down to Peter. Before long, I could feel a bit of weight on the line, and Daniel told me to tie it off. Peter came out of the water, and I pulled up the rope - four frames of settlement plates hung on the end. Unlike in January, I could see macroscopic colonies of encrusting organisms on the plates. Bryozoans and barnacles and spirorbids appeared before my eyes. Perfect.

We decided to leave the frames hanging from the dock until I had a chance to analyze them, and I arranged with Daniel to pick them up the next day. We all returned to UNIS, rinsed off the diving gear, and headed home, exhausted.

The next day, I was obligated to attend lectures at UNIS until about 3 pm, but I couldn't stop thinking about my plates. Before heading home for a break, I touched base with Daniel to make sure they would get picked up. We knew how it would happen, just not when. He would call me, he said, so I left.

A couple hours later, back at Nybyen, I spotted a familiar face in the kitchen as I walked down the hall. It was Carl, a UNIS employee I had met in January.

"Kirstin!" he called to me, "I found you! Let's go get your settlement plates."

I actually thought he was joking at first, because Carl had just arrived in Longyearbyen himself, and I wasn't expecting to see him that day. Once I realized he was serious, though, I threw my hair into a bun, grabbed my boots, and followed him into a van outside. We swung by UNIS to pick up two giant trays to keep my settlement plates in seawater, then ran to the dock where I had left the plates suspended. It was a bit tricky to pull them out of the water and keep them straight in the wind, but we managed well enough. A short, bumpy ride and a few minutes later, we stashed my plates in the cold room on the ship.

Right now, I'm in the lounge of the Helmer Hanssen, awaiting our departure from port. Two decks below, in a room much colder and darker than I care to sit in, there are 16 squares of plastic waiting for me to uncover their tightly-held secrets. I'll start analyzing the plates as soon as I can tomorrow morning, and I most definitely look forward to seeing what they hold.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


Question: What are a group of biology students to do with a Sunday off?
Answer: Go on a hike! 

We went up the mountain right behind Nybyen, called Sarcofagen. To get there, we had to climb on the Longyearbreen glacier and zig-zag our way up the mountainside. Sarcofagen also has a long ridge down the middle, so we walked out to the tip for a spectacular view of Longyearbyen below. We came down the valley on the other side of the mountain, skirting another glacier, and ended back in Nybyen. It was a great hike!

The ridge on Sarcofagen. Longyearbreen is on the right,
and another glacier is off the picture on the left.
This mailbox, at the tip of Sarcofagen, had a
guest book inside. The idea is to sign your name
once you've reached the point.
This is as far was could safely walk on the ridge. 
View to Longyearbyen below.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Russian heaven

In one giant, chatty, amoeba-shaped crowd, we made our way down to the Longyearbyen pier. It was Friday afternoon, and the last lecture of the week was behind us. The sun still shone brightly, even though it tilted toward the horizon, and large red jellyfish littered the surface of the fjord. One by one, we boarded a small tourist ship and set sail for Barentsburg.

Seen on the way to Barentsburg.
Barentsburg is a small Russian mining town near the mouth of Isfjorden. There's not much traffic between it and Longyearbyen; in fact, I know very few people who have ever been there before. There's really no reason for a scientist to go to Barentsburg, since the town is entirely industry-based and doesn't have a research station. It's actually unique in that way, as far as modern Svalbard settlements go. Still, I've always been curious about Barentsburg, so as soon as another UNIS student suggested we go explore it, I was game. There were about 100 of us from UNIS on the cruise, and if I had to make a guess, I'd say we doubled Barentsburg's population when we arrived.

The drive out was absolutely spectacular. We had mountain views the whole way, and our boat was bathed in the slanted light of the sinking sun. It's late enough in the year that the sun does set each day, but it only stays down for about 30 minutes.

When we arrived at the Barentsburg dock, the first thing I remember thinking was "Why would you put a town here?" I mean, the location of Longyearbyen makes sense to me, since it's in a protected valley, but Barentsburg just sits on the side of a hill. The buildings are arranged in horizontal rows along the slope, and to be honest, they all looked very exposed. Most roads run parallel to the water, giving the town a distinct striped appearance. To get from the dock up to the town, we had to climb a long wooden staircase.

The town seemed a bit haphazard to me. There were numerous dilapidated wooden structures with peeling paint and boarded-up windows, but there were also several brand-new, colorful buildings that were so modern they almost looked fake. It seemed like when a building got old, instead being renovated, it was just replaced by a brand-new structure, and the old house was left to rot. The end result was a non-integrated salad of condemned structures and space-age buildings that overall seemed very strange to me. As soon as we arrived in the center of Barentsburg, we were greeted by a guide with hoop earrings and a thick accent. "Welcome to Barentsburg," he told us, "the Russian heaven."

Makeshift wooden tubes like this were ubiquitous in Barentsburg.
The guide showed us the local brewery, the restaurant, the hotel. He took us past the administrative headquarters of the mine, a modern red office building that, at least according to our guide, had the entrance to the mine inside of it. Everything in Barentsburg revolves around the mine. It's open 24 hours a day, and the workers rotate in 6-hour shifts. Everywhere we looked in town, there were makeshift wooden tubes, which, for all I can figure, are used to transport mined coal. Of course, I never got the chance to ask what they were, but they ran all the way along the hill above town, and I cannot imagine any other purpose for them. Our guide informed us that coal mined in Barentsburg contained a particular mineral that lowered its quality, so it had to be mixed with higher-quality coal before being burned. Most of the coal mined in Barentsburg is sold to various European countries.

I wandered for about an hour with two classmates, absorbing the strange and ramshackle town. In the center of Barentsburg, we found a grassy area flanked by a run-down, boarded-up government-looking building and a fresh-out-of-the-plastic bright orange one. Surrounded by a pedestrian path in the middle of the grass was a statue of Lenin, which our guide informed us was the second-northernmost Lenin statue in the world. The first is at Pyramiden, another Russian mining town in Isfjorden that has now been abandoned.

Barentsburg chapel
My two companions and I also explored the closest thing Barentsburg has to a church, a circular wooden chapel towards one end of town. The form of the cross on top indicates the chapel is Russian Orthodox. We found the door unlocked and the lights on, so we respectfully stepped inside. I assume the door must be left open regularly for parishioners wanting to pray. I can't imagine holding a church service inside, considering the chapel was barely large enough for the three of us, much less a congregation. There were no seats, just a small altar in the middle of the room and a couple of side tables around the edge. The walls were covered in images of Mary and Jesus, depicted in the Russian Orthodox style. Over the door was a framed picture of a man in ornate robes, whom I can only assume is the Orthodox equivalent of the Pope.

Slowly, the sun sank down to the horizon, tilting its face toward Barentsburg and bathing the town in slanted light. As I stood on at the top of the giant staircase, on what I can only call Barentsburg's Main Street, I looked out to the mountains and tried to imagine what life in this place would be like. A large part of me wanted to sit down with a local, ask them about their life, about their family, about their town. Instead, I spotted a lone woman standing on the cliff edge and looking out to the mountains like me. She looked so small against the majestic backdrop, and it occurred to me then what was the best part about Barentsburg. This place, so small, so lonely, so exposed - and yet doing just fine - makes you think about your place in the world, and it makes you realize how little is actually in your control. Having a warm house in a beautiful location and approaching your life with serenity? Sounds like heaven to me.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

House of benthos

Barrack 11, just about as high up the valley
as you can get without having to carry a rifle.
My third full day of coursework in Longyearbyen is complete, and it's been pretty laid-back so far. We've had introductory lectures from a few different professors, and several pages in my notebook have already filled with notes. We actually had a short day today, so I used most of my afternoon to read. We have 450 pages of scientific papers to make it through in 5 weeks, so I definitely have to stay on top of my reading!

You might be wondering where students live in Longyearbyen, since the town is so small and remote. Well, thankfully, UNIS has student housing, and everyone is guaranteed a spot. Most of the student housing is at Nybyen, a cluster of dormitories and hotels at the head of the valley where Longyearbyen sits. There's also one dorm right next to UNIS. I stayed in Nybyen when I was up here last fall, and even though it's 3 km away from UNIS, I don't mind the distance. In fact, I requested to live in Nybyen again just because I love the long walk up and down the valley. Each morning, my day begins with a 3 km walk downhill to UNIS, and every night, I walk that same distance back. Granted, the evenings are a bit more difficult, since I'm going uphill, up-valley, and often against the wind, but even so, the trek is one of the best parts of my day.

Our fossil find
There are 17 people in my class, and UNIS put almost all of us in the same Nybyen barrack. Yes, barrack. That's the direct translation from Norwegian, though a more accurate word in English is actually "dormitory." There's a series of single bedrooms in a long hallway, and we share bathroom and kitchen space. It's plenty roomy. I call it the House of Benthos.

I'm sure I'll get to know my classmates very well over the next few weeks, considering that we spend all day at UNIS together, then hang out in the evenings. We hail from 11 countries on 3 continents, but we share a love of the ocean and a sense of adventure.

Tonight, we met after dinner for a nice evening stroll. It's possible to stay outdoors quite late around here because even though the sun sets this time of year, it usually stays right below the horizon, and the sky never really gets dark. We borrowed a rifle and headed up the valley, past Nybyen, to the foot of Longyearbreen glacier. The location is known for having fossils, and if you hammer something sharp into the sedimentary rocks, they'll split to reveal the impressions of ancient leaves. A few in our group spent about an hour hammering, and they came back to the barrack with a good 10 fossils. I was pretty impressed. The rest of us explored the glacier. There were frozen meltwater streams at the edge - well, frozen on top, but with cold water running underneath. We didn't get too close, because we didn't have the proper shoes and didn't want to break through the ice.

Life is good in the House of Benthos.

Us with Longyearbyen in the background