A team of UK scientists travelled to Svalbard in the Arctic recently to carry out fieldwork as part of the BIOPOLE programme. Over the course of two blog posts, Alanna Grant, with help from Alex O'Brien and Bryan Spears, tells us more...

It’s been a month since our return to the UK from Ny Ålesund, Svalbard and, after a much-needed holiday, I'm able to put our epic BIOPOLE adventure into words. After re-reading the daily journal that I kept during the trip, I realised that my ramblings completely failed to capture the utter privilege it was to call this incredible place home for a month. So, in this blog post, I’ll try to paint a picture that gives readers a small window into a month of thrilling polar science. It’s a tale of an Arctic escapade involving impossibly good weather, a heroic label printer, the Poet Laureate, a squeaky winch, and fetching orange boat suits. 

We received our first notification of the field campaign as far back as May 2022 and discussions about logistics began soon after. Fast forward to spring 2023 and the team had already completed a pilot field study in Loch Etive, Scotland (more on that here), and had a good idea of what we needed to accomplish in Ny Ålesund and how we would achieve it. 

Our research questions

One major question in BIOPOLE is whether nutrient delivery from land-based sources is sensitive to climate change. If the balance of nutrients entering the sea changes in a warmer climate, then the impacts of climate change on polar marine ecosystems could be significant. To answer this question in Ny Ålesund, we need to track nutrients as they travel from land and glacial meltwaters, through rivers, into the Kongsfjorden inlet and out to the open ocean.

The data we collect here should tell us where the nutrients are coming from, how they are transformed as they travel through the environment, and how much of this makes it out to sea.

With six months to go until our fieldwork, we ramped up our planning. This spanned everything from rifle permits (mandatory due to polar bear threats), medical exams, and navigating the Research in Svalbard portal, to creating lab protocols, and acid-washing a mind-boggling amount of bottles and containers. I should say that none of this planning would have been possible without the help of the UK Arctic Research Station manager, Iain Rudkin, who was a lighthouse in our planning storm, always steering us in the right direction with his advice and guidance as we battered him with email after email of frantic questions. 

By May we had packed up our five pallets of cargo to start their journey by ship from Bangor, Wales, to Ny Ålesund, Svalbard. By the end of June our meticulous planning was paying off and we were almost ready to depart with everything under control. That was until I was asked, with two and a half weeks notice, if I could purchase a drone for measuring river discharge, learn how to fly it, and apply for special permission to use it in Ny Ålesund, all before we left. My typical technician response to this question? Absolutely! 

Come the beginning of July, I had the drone (affectionately named Droney McDroneface) packed in my bag (and one day of practice flying under my belt), and was ready to leave an admittedly less than sunny summer in the UK to travel to the world’s most northerly community.

The first four field team members met up in Longyearbyen, including Prof Chris Evans MBE, Dr Nathan Callaghan, Alex O’Brien and myself (all from UKCEH), and we journeyed further north on a plane not meant for those who suffer from aviophobia. Luckily, I’m not one of those people and I was treated to breathtaking views over mountains that rise up and ripple out of the ground, glaciers that stretch as far as the eye can see, and stunning blue-green glacial lakes that dazzled in the July sun.

View of mountains, glaciers and lakes from the plane window

View of mountains, glaciers, and lakes from the plane window (Photo: Alex O’Brien)

Three people and a boat standing beside a river in Svalbard

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

On arrival in Ny Ålesund we were met by our host, Iain, who showed us around the station and to our rooms. Mine was number three; a small room with a comfortable single bed, a wardrobe, a desk and two chairs - a cosy place to call home for a month. The station itself had everything needed for a successful field campaign. Not only was it our living quarters but it also housed several excellent lab spaces. We also had use of the garage to store our mountains of bottles, plus fridges and a freezer to keep our samples preserved. 

Our month kicked off with several days of training to ensure we would be safe and competent working in the field and in the station. Once this was complete, the real fun began. We worked tirelessly for the first week with Chris, who brings a wealth of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem biogeochemistry knowledge, leading the campaign. Our goal was to sample as many of the rivers that drain into the fjord as possible. These were an even mix of glacial melt rivers and non-glacial rivers. We sampled for a wide range of determinands including phosphorus, dissolved organic carbon, chlorophyll, oxygen isotopes, metals, and greenhouse gases. 

During this first week we had excellent weather and spent several days out on the boat. At each river, we spent several minutes surveying the coastline for any sign of polar bears before Iain expertly landed the boat on the shore. Some sampling sites were fairly open, so you could be reasonably sure you weren’t sneaking up on a sleeping bear, while others were more enclosed and felt like places that we didn’t want to hang around in for too long. At these sites, after some further bear-scouting on land, we collected our samples as quickly as we could and returned to the boat, lest a furry visitor came ambling into view. Luckily for us the only polar bears we saw in the field were from the safety of the boat. 

Three scientists in orange jackets walking on Svalbard

Left to right: Alex, Nathan and Chris visiting a sampling site in Ny London (Photo: Alanna Grant)

Four scientists taking measurements on Svalbard

Nathan laughing at Chris who has fallen over. Just kidding. The team taking samples and measurements from a river. (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

While at these river outflows, we also deployed the drone in an attempt to quantify river discharge, a vital measurement when trying to calculate nutrient outputs. This involved flying the drone over an area of the river that was un-braided and deep enough so as not to have rocks breaking the surface, which would skew the surface velocity measurement. This proved more difficult than anticipated because rivers meeting these requirements were few and far between. However, we persisted and managed to get measurements at several sites and now have a better understanding of how this novel approach could be used in the future. And Droney McDroneface managed to get some fantastic photos and videos too. 

Ny Ålesund is a radio silence zone which means no WiFi, phone reception, or Bluetooth allowed. This isn’t ideal for using a drone so this work was made possible with collaboration from the Norwegian Mapping Authority and NKOM, who kindly worked with us to ensure our drone would not interfere with their sensitive observatory measurements. 

After each day sampling from the boat (or by bike/foot if possible) we returned to the station with our bulk water samples to sub-sample and filter. This was no easy task, as we needed a specific sized acid-washed container for each determinand, as well as different filtering requirements. Nathan expertly handled the challenge with a system that allowed him to keep track of each sample while spending many hours hand-filtering with a syringe. Nathan’s toil in the lab gained him much admiration, as did his work in the field where he was always the first to jump out of the boat to undertake bear watch; risking his life for the science -  a true polar hero! 

Drone view of a braided river on Svalbard

A braided glacial river that made it very difficult to take discharge measurements using the drone (Photo: Alanna Grant)

Lone person standing on a rocky Arctic surface

Nathan stands guard on bear watch as the team takes samples out of shot. (Photo: Alanna Grant)

We generated an impressive amount of samples each day and if we were to handwrite each label it would have taken several extra hours. This is where Printy Mcprintface came in. The ultimate label printer who became the fifth member of the team and saved us from a month of cramped, ink-stained hands. In my opinion, this was easily the best thing we bought for the project and I would highly recommend one to anyone undertaking a highly intensive field campaign! 

While Nathan worked in the main lab, I was in the wet lab next door with a six-rig filtering manifold which I used to filter sample water for multiple determinands at once, with the purpose of keeping the filters rather than the water. This involved filtering anything from 50ml to 2000ml of water, depending on the sediment load of the sample, through a filter until it clogged or I ran out of water. Initially, it took several hours to get through only three or four samples, but soon it was like playing a melody on the piano; my hands would do the work while my mind wandered onto other things. After a few days I could get through six samples in two hours. This was handy because we were often on the boat for most of the day, returning in the early evening for dinner, before spending the rest of the evening filtering up to 12 samples. We didn’t stop until all the samples collected that day were filtered. This was made easier by the 24-hour sunlight so it never felt late, and our music playlists kept us entertained. 

Also during this first week, Alex deployed the algal growth experiment baskets that were designed by the freshwater team at UKCEH Wallingford. But more about that and the visit by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage in part two of our blog post series!

Alanna Grant

Additional information

BIOPOLE website

UKCEH Nathan Callaghan preparing bottles in the lab

Nathan prepares bottles in the lab for the day’s water samples (Photo: Alanna Grant)

6-rig filtration manifold used for sample filtering

6-rig filtration manifold used for sample filtering (filter funnel #6 and wastewater container not pictured). Photo: Alanna Grant