AG-832/ 332: Diary of a UNIS field school on Svalbard

I’ve recently come back from a few weeks in Svalbard during which I took part in a field school on Quaternary glacial stratigraphy with UNIS. Glacial stratigraphy is the study of the sediments left behind by glacial (ice age) and inter-glacial (warmer) events. Studying the patterns and distribution of these sediments helps us to understand the size of the ice cover during the various glacial and inter-glacial events of the Quaternary period, which spans the last 2 million years or so. The sediments and the fossils that are found in them can also tell us about the climate and ocean circulation of the past.

For those that don’t know, Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean directly north of Scandinavia. It’s owned by Norway and also has a Russian presence, although there are very few people overall – only around 2,500. Most live in the regional capital Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, which is the largest island of the Svalbard group. This was where I was based for much of my time on Svalbard, although I also spent several days at sea on a research cruise. The main claim to fame for the islands is the large and active population of polar bears, which are commonly claimed to out-number the people on Svalbard. For this reason it is a legal requirement to carry a rifle at all times when outside of the boundaries of town, in case of polar bear attack. Lends a bit of extra drama to the fieldwork when you have to lug a gun around all day!

Location of Svalbard and map of the islands. Satellite map from google Earth and inset map from TopoSvalbard.

Location of Svalbard and map of the islands. (Satellite map from Google Earth and inset map from TopoSvalbard)

Week 1

The first week of the course focused on getting everyone introduced and up to speed on the latest research about the glaciations of Svalbard during the Quaternary. There were 13 of us on the course, a mix of Masters and PhD students, plus three lecturers: Ólafur Ingólfsson; Helena Alexanderson; and Mona Henriksen.

Our first task was to complete the compulsory safety training. The two elements we needed to cover were weapons handling and using survival suits. The weapons stuff focused on learning to safely carry, store and load the anti-polar bear rifles and flare guns, as well as passing a rifle shooting accuracy test. This was completed at the rifle range on the outskirts of town. After a morning of shooting things, we were whisked off to ‘logistics’ (the UNIS equivalent of ‘Q branch’) and made to don highly attractive orange survival suits, which make you look like a Teletubbie that’s had a horrible fake-tanning accident. Once suitably attired we were driven down to the harbour and literally made to walk the plank. Aside from amusing the logistics staff, the point of this exercise was to learn how to float comfortably in a survival suit without getting wet or being separated from the group. This was preparation for the worst-case scenario of a ‘man overboard’ or sinking event on our research cruise.

After successfully not shooting each other or drowning, we had several days of lectures and presentations in UNIS. This included our first credit-worthy exercise – presenting a short seminar on an assigned topic to the group. The topics were designed to give everyone a solid grounding in the glacial history of Svalbard and the geology and stratigraphy of our fieldwork sites. We also had the chance to spend a day practicing stratigraphic logging at Bloterdalen, a valley around 30mins drive from Longyearbyen.

Having completed a week of lectures we were very glad to have a fairly free weekend, giving several of us the chance to get outside and do some hiking around Longyearbyen. Although the weather wasn’t fantastic a few of us made an ascent of Nordenskiöldfjellet and timed it just right to hit the summit as the cloud descended, robbing us of what is supposed to be a spectacular view. The cloud quickly cleared again as we were heading back down. Sod’s Law!

Week 2

Bright and early on Monday morning we were all up and packed to board the Stålbas, a research ship and our home for the next eight days.

Stålbas negotiating icebergs in Kongsfjorden

Stålbas negotiating icebergs in Kongsfjorden

We started out with a leisurely day at Linnédalen having a look at some permafrost features. But this was the end of the holiday – the next six days were very full-on with early starts followed by long days in the field, mostly digging, and then evenings of data entry and processing. By the end of the week everyone was exhausted. Definitely type-2 fun!

Cruise route. Start/ end at Longyearbyen.1) Linnédalen 2) Poolepynten 3) St Jonsfjorden 4) Kongsfjordhallet 5) Blomstrandhamna 6) Kronebreen 7) Ny Ålesund 8) Skilvika 9) Kapp Ekholm 10) Nordenskiöldbreen.

Cruise route. Start/ end at Longyearbyen.1) Linnédalen 2) Poolepynten 3) St Jonsfjorden 4) Kongsfjordhallet 5) Blomstrandhamna 6) Kronebreen 7) Ny Ålesund 8) Skilvika 9) Kapp Ekholm 10) Nordenskiöldbreen.

Our field sites were all over the western coast of Spitsbergen and gave us a great insight into the Quaternary glacial history of Svalbard. Most days involved rocking up at some sea cliffs and having a walk about as a group to get an overview before dividing into our fieldwork teams and digging out our assigned sections. My group (‘The Expendables’) always seemed to get the overhung, exposed, cliff-top or otherwise most dangerous sections. Not that this deterred us – we usually dug some of the more extensive excavations. Whilst everyone loves a good bit of digging, we also had to spend time logging the stratigraphy and discussing our observations and initial interpretations. And having tea breaks of course.

At the end of each field day we would group together to go around all the sections and see what the other groups had found. We’d then generally go on a longer hike to see more of the local landscape and glacial setting before heading back to the ship. The evening involved eating as much food as possible and getting our data into a more intelligible format before heading to bed ready for another day in the field.

We also got the chance to do a wee bit of sightseeing. The ship was always passing stunning landscapes, which some people spent rather more time looking at then they’d have liked during a particularly rough night of waves! But on a couple of occasions minor detours were made so we could have a closer look at more interesting things, notably the walrus colony at Poolepynten and the calving glacier front at Kronebreen.

Week 3

After disembarking the ship we were all hoping for a bit of time to catch up some sleep and chill out. No such luck! It was straight back to work as we had a tight timeframe to work up our data and prepare our final assessments. For the PhD students this meant researching and writing a paper on a topic of our choice linked to the course materials, whilst the Masters students worked in groups on posters and presentations exploring the field data.

We only had six days to work on these tasks, a tall order considering the amount of data to be processed, literature to be read, and writing up to do. Especially with everyone already knackered from the cruise. So there was little opportunity for getting out and about. Typically the weather decided to be fantastic for the duration of our writing up period before turning rubbish as soon as we had handed in. Another outing for Sod’s Law!

So was it worth doing?

Stratigraphic studies are often used alongside glacial geomorphology, which is my own field and involves reconstructing ice cover by using the landforms that the ice created. Having done my undergraduate degree in geography and not geology, I have not had much experience of stratigraphic fieldwork. This meant that I was missing out on information presented as stratigraphic diagrams in research articles because I didn’t always understand the symbols and couldn’t relate them to real-life examples. Taking this course has certainly addressed this issue and refreshed my understanding of glacial stratigraphy and stratigraphic methods in general. So the course was definitely worth taking for me personally in terms of academic gains. These sorts of courses and field schools are also great opportunities to meet other people in your field and get some new contacts. Plus you get to have a bit of fun out in the field and in this case you get a great opportunity to visit Svalbard.

Overall I’d thoroughly recommend the AG-832/332 course but be warned that it will be very hard work!