In the second of our blog post series detailing fieldwork in the Arctic in summer 2023, UKCEH's Alex O’Brien explains more about efforts to understand algal communities in the Arctic. Plus, Alanna Grant describes a visit by the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage...

The abundance and growth rates of algae communities in the Arctic are not well known. In July 2023, we undertook a series of in-river experiments during our visit to Svalbard for the BIOPOLE programme.

Our floating basket experiment

We used floating baskets to determine the growth rates of river algae within their natural growing conditions. At each chosen site, a floating basket was set up containing samples of river water and associated algae within bags made from semi-permeable membrane tubing. The algae are trapped within these bags, but nutrients can diffuse into the bag from surrounding river water.

As the algae grow and take up nutrients within the bag, fresh nutrients from the river water diffuse across the membrane, maintaining constant water quality conditions. 

In total, we successfully deployed four baskets in rivers flowing into the Kongsfjord, two glacial meltwater streams and two non-glacial. We anchored a fifth basket in the fjord itself to assess the growth rates of marine algae, and to determine how river algae entering the fjord would grow in higher salinities. 

To keep the baskets in place in the fast-flowing rivers around Ny Ålesund, we had to be creative. Our methods included pinning them to the underlying sediment and setting up rock anchors in tarpaulin sheets to prevent them from being washed away. 

After nine days, we collected the baskets and brought them back to the lab at the UK Arctic Research Station. Here we removed the bags and sampled for algal flow cytometry and chlorophyll analyses, to determine how the algal communities within the river had increased and changed in community composition. 

Setting up these experimental baskets in Arctic rivers provided a unique challenge, far removed from our regular work in British rivers. But it will give us greater insights into algal activity in the rivers of Svalbard. We couldn't have done it without the help of Chris, Iain, Alanna, and Nathan in the field helping to cycle the baskets and algae from site to site and back again.

Alex O'Brien

UKCEH scientist Alex O'Brien setting up algae dialysis bag on fieldwork in Svalbard

Alex setting up the algae dialysis bags to deploy on the floating baskets (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

UKCEH scientist Alex O'Brien deploying a floating basket in the marine fjord

Alex deploying a floating basket experiment in the marine fjord (Photo: Nathan Callaghan)

Poet Laureate in the Arctic

Alanna Grant takes up the story... Part way through our campaign we were joined by Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, and Sue Roberts, BBC radio 4 producer.  Simon and Sue were there for four days to create a documentary series for BBC Radio 4, Poet Laureate in the Arctic, now being broadcast (October 2023). They accompanied us on fieldwork to gain a deeper understanding of what’s really going on in this important part of the world. They were even kind enough to help with some of the greenhouse gas sampling. 

One day stands out as being especially memorable. As we headed by boat towards our intended sampling site, we spotted a polar bear on the shoreline of Blomstrandhalvøya, an island in the middle of the fjord. It was particularly special as this was the first polar bear we’d seen on the trip. It was a large male walking with pace around the perimeter of the island. We stopped a safe distance away and watched it for a while. The experience was elevated from memorable to unforgettable as we listened to Simon poetically narrate the encounter. 

What a pleasure to share the moment we saw our first polar bear with the Poet Laureate. 

Polar bear on the shoreline of Blomstrandhalvøya

Polar bear on the shoreline of Blomstrandhalvøya (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

Drone view of small boat in Arctic waters

A scenic boat ride through recently calved icebergs (Photo: Alanna Grant)

Later that same day, we headed towards an area of new icebergs that had recently calved from a sea-terminating glacier in the fjord. We slowly nosed our way into the field of icy boulders, some as small as pebbles, others the size of a small building; all in various states of melt. 

We sat in silence for some time as Sue recorded the sounds of the melting ice. The sound is louder than you might expect and includes various popping, bubbling, and fizzing notes. I could have sat for hours, happily hypnotised by nature’s playlist. But, as mesmerising as it is to listen to, it’s also the soundtrack to a potentially ice-free world and a reminder of the importance of the science taking place in the Arctic. I look forward to hearing Simon’s take in his programme.

Two weeks in, we said goodbye to UKCEH colleagues Chris Evans and Alex O’Brien, and were joined by Work Package 1 co-leads, Prof Kate Hendry (British Antarctic Survey), and Prof Bryan Spears (UKCEH). Unfortunately for them, the fresh food supply was running low and the delicious mangos, avocados, and salads were slowly being replaced with tinned fruit, frozen vegetables, and sliced cabbage. With the next ship not due until after we’d left, we had to make do for the next two weeks. 

Kate’s goal for the trip was to reach eight sites along a transect line down the middle of the fjord, and deploy an instrument called a CTD  at various depths at each site. This involved lowering a CTD and a water-sampling bottle on a winch to depths of up to 300 meters and winching it back up, by hand. I’ve been reliably informed that, unfortunately for those on the boat, this happened to be the world’s squeakiest winch, which haunts those who had the misfortune to use it to this day. 

Scientist on boat lowering a device into Arctic water

Kate on the work boat launching the CTD in the fjord using the winch (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

Looking down on four scientists standing beside glacier river

The team beside a glacial river (Photo: Alanna Grant)

Nevertheless, the team persevered and Kate now has an impressive dataset that is already promising exciting results.  She also collected water samples at these marine sites for some of the biogeochemistry determinands, and collected sediment samples from the bottom of the fjord, over 300m into the abyss.

Bryan’s main task for the campaign was to produce a sediment sample archive across our many catchments and deep-water areas of the fjord. He committed himself with glee and gusto, quite literally like a kid making mud pies and absolutely loving it. I’ve never seen someone sniffing sediment as if it were an expensive cheese or a fine wine!
In the end, he was very successful and we left with several kilos of dried marine sediment for use in process experiments back in the UK. This will be opened up to the wider community – hopefully it will save others time and money in their pursuit of the black (sometimes red, sometimes white etc.) gold.
Bryan was also a great help to the team overall, jumping in to help wherever possible, and always with a smile (and even a cheery song on occasion). The only exception was when he waded out from the beach with a bucket, hunting for the salinity gradient with a probe, and overtopped his wellies. Much to the amusement of a nearby curious seal who, Bryan swears, laughed maliciously at this misfortune.

Arctic fox

An Arctic fox exploring our sampling site (Photo: Alanna Grant)


A reindeer in the Bayelva catchment (Photo: Alanna Grant)

Arctic animals

It wasn’t just seals and polar bears that we spotted, but a plethora of other iconic Arctic species. We saw several Arctic foxes, in their brown summer coats, darting about town chasing goslings, as well as many reindeer that seemed mostly untroubled by human presence. 

While out on the boat we were treated to sightings of guillemots that weave like spitfires, puffins that look as if they’re perpetually struggling to stay airborne, as well as fulmars, kittiwakes, ivory gulls, arctic skuas and many more. But there was one bird in particular that really made the trip memorable: the Arctic terns… 

While lovely birds to look at with their red lipstick and black cap, Arctic terns are vicious. I think they took a particular disliking to me, always seeming to going straight for me every time I walked or cycled past, even if I was part of a group. Back in the comfort of the station, I did watch unsuspecting tourists being similarly attacked, pleased that I wasn’t the target for once. 

View towards Arctic river with a boat and three people standing on the river edge

The team sampling a non-glacial river in the fjord (Photo: Alex O’Brien)

Alanna Grant probing water as it melts from the glacier in the background

Testing the pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity of the water as it melts from the glacier in the background (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

With the month drawing to a close and the fieldwork component of the trip complete, we bid farewell to Bryan and Kate who headed back to the UK laden with aqueous scientific treasures. Overall, we collected more than 1500 samples including water, sediment, greenhouse gas, and eDNA samples which will make an impressive dataset. 

Nathan and I spent the next three days repacking the kit and equipment back onto pallets and tidying and cleaning the lab spaces. There was a sense of quiet contentment around the station knowing our job was complete and had gone as well as it could have. But there was also, for me anyway, a sense of sadness at having to leave this vibrant science community and head back to the real world. 

Being in Ny Ålesund felt very strange at first; remembering to take your shoes off in every building was difficult and getting used to the strangely early meal times even more so (dinner at 16:50?). But by the end of the month the thought of seeing paved roads and driving to Tesco for the weekly food shop felt absolutely foreign. 

I feel fortunate that I experienced this place and met so many talented and diverse scientists from across the world. The Polar Regions are experiencing some of the most rapidly changing environmental conditions in the world and the science done here is vital. 

Wonderful support

Our campaign wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of those back in the UK: Amy Pickard, Mike Bowes, Stephen Lofts, Chris Barry, Justyna Olszewska, Rebecca McKenzie and many others; as well as crucial support from boat driving, photographer extraordinaire, Iain Rudkin.
Thank you also to all the visitors that helped with our sampling throughout the month: Jenny Forster Davidson, Simon Armitage, Sue Roberts, and Jane Francis. It was a pleasure to meet you all and share a gin and tonic with you. 

When asked by a friend if this trip had scratched my adventure itch, my reply was ‘it’s only made me itchier’. I think I may have just caught the Polar bug…

Alanna Grant

Related links

See part one of the blog post series: UKCEH dips its toes into Arctic waters

BBC Radio 4 series: Poet Laureate in the Arctic

BIOPOLE programme