Weeks 2 & 3 – Sorry, I got busy having fun

Hello again, with lots of updates since I’ve been slacking off and not putting together anything to share for a while now. If you get tired of me droning on, skip to the end for some cool links to blogs written by friends (who are much better photographers than I am) and some cool websites about Svalbard to check out.
Classes continue to feature really cool looks at the local geology, which often touch on topics that are totally new to me, since this place is so different from anywhere I’ve studied geology before. Last Friday we did sandbox analogue modeling, which led to some really cool fault models. Photos and a video link are posted below. On Wednesday my group got driven out to the airport and walked the few km back to UNIS with a data logger recording temperature and taking notes on the weather every few minutes. This was an exercise to show us how much the weather here can vary even in a small area right near sea level. Weather varies even more and more quickly at altitude – not exactly a new concept to me, but important for those of us who like to hike and ski. On Friday, we had an afternoon exercise in core logging, with some very cool (at least to geo nerds like me) features, a few of which I tried to get pictures of. We came back to class today and finished discussing, tying all of our (mostly) contiguous core segments together into one big section. This week we’ve started talking about surveying and mapping – things I really enjoy – and we’ll be getting some practice in tomorrow and Friday.
Time lapse video of the extensional setting sandbox model here: https://www.facebook.com/DepartmentofArcticGeologyUNIS/?fref=ts
End result of the compressional setting sandbox model
Recrystalization in fracture within a small, heterolithically layered segment of our core
A fun puzzle of a core
Since the last time I wrote an update, we’ve really settled in here, getting to know Longyearbyen much better and establishing some routines. Class during the day, followed by relaxing a bit and often sharing cooking duties with friends on weeknights. This has been especially true in roughly the last week, since the remainder of my neighbors have finally been allowed to move into their rooms permanently, following some repairs which had been ongoing through the first few weeks we were here. Now we frequently have our doors open when we’re sitting in our rooms, and converse with one another as we pass each other’s doors, and our kitchen has become known as “The Clubhouse,” and frequently serves as a gathering spot for our big crew of native English-speaking friends (a bunch of Brits, an Aussie, and a couple Americans). The light is coming back, and it seems to last longer and shine more brightly each day. This has led to much more productive photography than we had the first few weeks, some of which you can see at the end of this post.
Now that the lottery for student rifles has begun, I’ve had the chance to go on trips on the weekends. Two weekends ago there was pretty nasty weather on Saturday, which put off our plans for a longer hike, but Heather (American, goes to Bowdoin), Jack (Brit, generally pleasant fellow), and I wandered out into the valley northeast of town because we were feeling a bit cabin feverish and had a short but pleasant stroll in the very flat valley floor while it was too dark to see much of interest. On Sunday the weather cleared up and many of our Anglophone crew, plus some western Europeans (Andorra, France) hiked up onto the (aptly-named) “plateau mountain” just west of town. Our route took us down the road to the airport, past the Global Seed Vault (your post-apocalypse source for any and all plant-related needs!), and up onto the plateau, where we at lunch sheltering from the wind behind the KSAT satellite observatory, which has a large array of very sciencey-looking domes housing very expensive and impressive satellite dishes which keep us in touch with many of our various satellites in polar orbits. The Brits, who are her for the geophysics master’s program, studying astrophysics, were especially impressed. After eating, the light had disappeared (around 1 or 2 pm) and we began the long slog across the plateau, postholing in mid-shin-deep, crusty snow the whole way. For those of you who have never potholed before, it is neither the most efficient nor the least tiring way to travel. Everyone took the slog very well though, even those who had never hiked before, snow or not. After several dull, dark hours of this slog, we finally reached the edge of the plateau and took the much-needed easy way down, sledding on our avalanche shovels and small, compact sliding boards. Afterwards, we headed to Coal Miners’ Bar and Grill, the pub across the street from our student housing, for some well-deserved burgers and beers.
In addition to weekend trips, the course schedules here are arranged so that there are usually one or two days per week when you get either a half- or full-day break, and several of us who shared one such stretch of free time went skiing (up with climbing skins, then down normally) on Trollsteinen, the best mountain for local (entirely human-powered) skiing. I look forward to as many more mid-week ski trips as I can squeeze in.
On this most recent weekend, Heather and I planned to (re-)teach Jack to ski by going up the relatively low-angle Longyearbreen glacier and skiing back down, but we discovered as we got about halfway up the icy, uneven snowmobile track that Jack’s ski bindings hadn’t been adjusted to fit his boots, though it’s something we should have thought of. He’s a good sport though, and he walked down and filmed Heather and me as we skied down. While we didn’t do all the skiing we’d hoped to, we did get some wonderful views with the increased light levels. Sunday was the highlight of my time here so far, when we went to the ice caves down inside Larsbreen glacier. From the elegant curves of the meltwater-carved channel through the glacier to the wide variety of entrained rock, sediment, and different varieties and textures of ice, it was a dream for me to be down there. It’s rare and cool for those of us interested in glaciers and glacial geology to be ON a glacier, much less inside one. My geophysics friends found my enthusiasm for the englacial geology very entertaining. A group of us with some experience on climbing ropes but little to no experience with climbing on ice will be going back to the ice caves with a mother friend who knows what he’s doing and rappelling all the way down to the bedrock underneath the glacier this weekend, as we could only get part of the way down on foot before coming to a steep dropoff which requires ropes and harnesses to descend. I can’t wait to get all the way down there. We’re also supposed to have less than ideal weather this weekend, which makes it a perfect time to go to the ice caves, which are a consistent 32°F and sheltered from the wind. That’s downright warm compared to what the conditions outside can be like here sometimes. See my mediocre pictures of this glorious adventure below.
Even our “less interesting” days and evenings are pretty great – some of the Norwegian students are generously volunteering their time to teach a beginner Norwegian course a couple nights a week, the gym has a nice climbing wall open a few nights a week, there’s kayak polo on Sunday nights, and a student group for those of us interested in rugby is meeting one night a week to practice and/or teach those who are new to the game. And yes, we play outdoors. In the Arctic. In winter. Rugby isn’t a game designed for the cold, but we make it work anyway. All of this is in addition to the supplemental courses UNIS is offering in the evenings during the dark season (see below).
Well, that’s all for now. I’ll try to be better about updating more often in the future, but no promises. Sorry for the jumbled nature of this post. I hope the pictures and links at the end make up for it. There are also a few random things I forgot to add as I was writing this listed below.
So long for now!
Other tidbits:
-Heather and I are looking for a snowmobile to buy jointly, to be resold after we leave
-I’ve submitted my application to stay here through early August and do field work over the summer which will become my thesis in the fall
– Last week was the end of a 2-week course not he history of Svalbard, and this week is the first week of a 2-week course about the northern lights and some of the physics and astronomy behind them. I’ve been going off and on to the lectures for both, missing some, but going when I can
– We’ve seen the aurora several times now, but my camera and the camera on my phone are nowhere near good enough to get good pictures. Some of my geophysics friends have good cameras and take great pictures of the aurora. See the links below
Check out Jack’s blog here, including a video and some great photos of our trip to the ice caves: http://arcticastrophysics.blogspot.com
Check out Lucy’s blog here, including more great pictures: https://geeksandglaciers.wordpress.com
Ryan and Miriam’s blog here: http://whyaremyfeetcold.blogspot.com
Kieran’s blog here. Many of you will appreciate his humor: http://icepunsarenotcool.blogspot.co.uk
Click on the “Data” tab here and you can check out some cool webcams of the sky and other instruments related to aurorae and space weather here on Svalbard. I especially recommend checking out the skycaps between about noon and 6 or 8pm Eastern time to look for the aurora: http://kho.unis.no
If you’re more of a physics nerd than I am, this page has lots of fancy data and some pretty pictures: http://mirl.sr.unh.edu/projects_renu2/renu2_FC_links.html
TopoSvalbard is a great interactive map of Svalbard, where you can also find old photos, airphotos, and even a 3D model of Svalbard: http://toposvalbard.npolar.no
This page has detailed weather forecasts for Longyearbyen: http://www.yr.no/place/Norway/Svalbard/Longyearbyen/hour_by_hour.html
This is the webpage for the History of Svalbard course, including the lecture slideshows and lecture summaries available as .PDFs: http://www.unis.no/history-svalbard-course-page-2016/
This is the page for the course on the northern lights, including .PDFs of the lecture slideshows (the complete set won’t be up until Feb. 19th, when the course ends): http://www.unis.no/course/agf-216-the-stormy-sun-and-the-northern-lights/
This page features some of the long-term research being done by the geology department here at UNIS: http://www.unis.no/research/arctic-geology/
Now, enjoy a jumbled assortment of my pictures from the last 2.5 weeks:
Reindeer right outside UNIS!
Jack being majestic
Group selfie at the famous polar bear sign at the edge of town




Patterns on the ice from windblown snow – think sandblasting, but with ice and snow
Longyearbyen from above from a different angle
Panorama taken just outside UNIS
KSAT Observatory
Going up Trollsteinen in the blowing snow
Global Seed Vault plus scenery
Jack and Heather head up towards Longyearbreen
The view down from Longyearbreen
The view up from and across Longyearbreen
Heather being a goof, part 1
Heather being a goof, part 2
Skier friends going down as we came up to the ice caves
The view from the entrance to the ice caves
Sediment! Inside a glacier!
More from inside the ice caves


Swirly fine sediments inside the glacier ice
More sediment swirls in the glacier ice


This is how much darker it got in the few hours we were inside the cave
Inside the ice cave, slightly edited to try to show what we were seeing

Week 2 – Settling in

This week has been no less exciting than the first, though it has gone by at a more relaxed pace. With safety training finished, we began our courses this week. For me, that means AG-204, concerning the surficial and geomorphic processes that are shaping Svalbard’s landscape today and have shaped it in the past, and AG-209, concerning the bedrock geology (mostly focusing on the sedimentary aspects) and tectonic history of Svalbard. Lectures this week have mostly covered background information, including course introductions, a grueling and information-packed two-hour lecture on the tectonic history and setting of Svalbard, an introduction to some basic principles of sedimentology (aimed more at those members of the class who have never taken a course in sedimentology than at me), and introductions to the climate and weather factors at work on the landscape here. While our time in lectures is perhaps slightly more than I’m used to at Bates, especially the two-hour long lectures, but the general lack of homework and chance to have evenings to myself most of the time more than makes up for it.
On Wednesday, AG-204 had a walking excursion around town in Longyearbyen, during which we learned about many of the challenges of building and sustaining a town in an Arctic environment, including permafrost, snow and slush avalanches, solifluction (thawed soils moving downhill over the frozen permafrost underneath), and the spring flooding of the glacially-fed river running through town. We also heard about some of Longyearbyen’s history, including mining, use as a meteorological, shipping, and coal-mining base in the far north during WWII, and a scientific exhumation of victim of the 1918 Spanish flu buried in the town cemetery, whose body was preserved well enough by the cold for the scientists to isolate and study the Spanish flu virus. For me, the most interesting part of the excursion was seeing the rock glacier on the western side of the valley where Longyearbyen sits. Unlike the Galena Creek Rock Glacier in Wyoming, where I did some field work last summer with my dad and several other Bates geology majors, this rock glacier is rocky throughout (instead of just having rocky debris on the surface) and formed when rocky debris was swept downhill in snow avalanches and insulated snow beneath it. Its composition is closer to alternating layers of ice and debris, rather than one thick ice layer and one thick debris layer. I’m sure I’ll be exploring the rock glaciers here more in the coming weeks and months.
The only lecture scheduled for Thursday was postponed, so some classmates and I found a few others who were free and had rifles (access to a rifle is often the limiting factor in our ability to go on outdoor adventures, especially now before the lottery for student rifles has begun) and went for a ski trip. We climbed up Trollsteinen (you can find it just south of Longyearbyen on this great online map: toposvalbard.npolar.no) using climbing skins before skiing down across Larsbreen glacier and back to town. I was going more slowly than my more experienced companions, and tired legs led to bad turns and a few falls on the way down, but nothing more than my pride was hurt. This Pennsylvania boy feels no shame in not being able to keep up with Scandinavians (and a few Germans) on skis. Nevertheless, it was a great trip and we had just enough light filtering up from the south and being reflected by southern clouds to get a sense of how beautiful those views will be when we start to get some real light.
After lectures Friday we had our first regular Friday Gathering, in which UNIS students, staff, and faculty gather in the UNIS canteen for good company over beer and snacks. The cheap beer is cheap beer, but better than American cheap beer, and for a bit more we can get the quite good beer brewed right here in Longyearbyen at the Svalbard Brewery. Friday Gatherings are a great opportunity to socialize in a relaxed atmosphere with other students and with faculty and staff, highlighting the closeness of the small community we have here.
Over the weekend, with no rifle, things were fairly quiet, as friends and I went to see a free showing of Star Wars Episode VII, followed by a simple dinner and round of Cards Against Humanity at the pub across the street from student housing, followed in turn by a long-running snowball fight and general shenanigans in the open area at the southern edge of town, near student housing in Nybyen. Sunday was similarly quiet, though I did stop by the gym to visit the climbing wall in the evening. I still have to find a time when someone is there who can test my climbing knowledge and give me the Norwegian climbing certification so that I can do more than climb on pre-set towropes, but I should be able to do that sometime this week. After climbing, I decided to check out the kayak polo game being played in the pool, and decided I will definitely have to drop by the kayak polo session next week. It looks like a rollicking good time.
Next week I’m looking forward to continuing to delve into the geology in lectures, as well as taking the snowmobile safety course and the beginning of an extra, after school course about the history of Svalbard. There is an exam at the end of the two-week course, which you can take to receive credit, but I will likely skip the exam and just attend the lectures, as I don’t need the credit and wouldn’t receive a full credit for the course anyway. It’ll be nice to learn about the history without needing to stress about an exam.
The weather here has been surprisingly balmy, often warmer than the weather I would have back at Bates (I’ve been checking, Maine). This week was almost entirely in the mid-20s Fahrenheit, and it has even been above freezing this weekend, with rain forecasted for tomorrow (Monday). There are signs of light, as we’ve had twilight-like conditions for a few hours around midday since the middle of last week, with noticeably more light day by day. We’re getting close to actually seeing the sun! Of course, it’s coming back just as I’m finally getting my sleep schedule adjusted to the ‘round-the-clock darkness, but it is nice to finally have a somewhat normal sleep pattern.
A few things to check out before I share a few of my pictures: my friends Jack and Lucy each have blogs which you might also enjoy reading, and Jack’s features far more photos than I’ve taken, including some of me. Jack: http://arcticastrophysics.blogspot.no/… Lucy: https://geeksandglaciers.wordpress.com/…
Two other UNIS students who are far better videographers and video editors than I will ever be made a video of some of the things we did during safety training last week, which you can see here: https://drive.google.com/a/nextgena…


The light is slowly coming back – this was the view around midday.
I finally figured out how to use the long exposure settings on my camera.
A faint midday light backlights our trip up the ridge to the peak of Trollsteinen.
Kayak polo – I plan to try it out next week.

Svalbard Week 1 – Feeling Safe

I’ve made it through the first week here in Svalbard, which moved quickly through a wide-ranging safety course to prepare us for some of the risks and dangers of field work in the Arctic. I arrived last Friday and spent most of the weekend getting over my jet lag, a problem which was compounded by the fact that it’s currently dark here 24/7. I’ve adjusted to it by now, but until about the middle of last week the lack of light for marking time really threw off my internal clock. Every time you wake up, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s 8am, noon, 8pm, or midnight until you look at a clock. My super-bright “happy light” has been helping with the adjustment, used for 30 minutes every morning. After a few days of adjusting to the darkness, I began to notice slight differences, and now it’s pretty easy to notice the little bit of light reflected by clouds in the southern part of the sky, which happens to be over the mountains here in Longyearbyen. We also get some nice views of the moon over the mountains all around, as we’re so far north that the moon is always low in the sky and never straight overhead. I haven’t spotted the northern lights yet, but I’m keeping track on an iPhone app that shows data from the magnetosphere observatory run by UNIS.I’ll do my best to get a picture when I do see them. Surprisingly, the weather has been quite balmy, considering I’m in the high Arctic – temperatures have been about 15-30°F with no really biting winds. It feels no colder than the Maine winters I’ve experienced the past few years. When I got here, there wasn’t even any snow – just ice left over from the rainstorms Longyearbyen experienced not long before I arrived. We did get several inches of snow on Thursday, which has since drifted and packed down with the wind. It is now possible though to cross country ski the 3 km to school rather than walking, and many have been doing so, and every once in a while a snowmobile zips by going out to the mountains or across town.
Now on to the real excitement – safety training. We started Monday with introductions to UNIS and Svalbard from UNIS administrators and professors, Sysselmannen (the Governor of Svalbard), and her staff. Later in the day, we moved on to lectures about the basics of dressing for cold weather and cold weather first aid. For the rest of the week, we moved into two-a-day practical trainings, generally with some theoretical information before we tried out the skills. Topics covered included first aid, emergency camp set up, navigation and communications, orientation to the UNIS building, and several others I think are worth saying a bit more about. Whenever we leave town, groups carry at least one rifle and flare gun, in case of meeting a polar bear. Even with my relatively little experience with guns as part of American culture, the difference in knowledge about the rifles and about rifle safety between many of the European students and those relatively few of us who had been shooting before was distinct. UNIS does a good job of education though, and I’m confident that those who had been unfamiliar learned enough to handle the rifles safely, if not always comfortably or confidently. We also had to learn about dangers and rescue techniques particular to travel in an arctic environment, including rescues of people who have fallen into a crevasse on a glacier using climbing ropes and equipment, locating and rescuing those caught in an avalanche, and self-rescue and assisted rescues in the case of falling into holes in sea ice (this included a very chilly dip into a hole cut into a frozen lake, fortunately while wearing a big warm snowmobile suit). We went through all of these trainings with the same group of 15 throughout the week, allowing plenty of time to bond and get to know our diverse (in terms of academic interests and national origins) group before the practical exercises and exam on Saturday. The practical exercises tested and taught more about the skills we had learned throughout the week, in (somewhat) more realistic situations than those during the week. The exam that followed was not difficult, but did make sure we had been paying attention during the week. After the exam, students and professors gathered in the canteen at UNIS for a chili dinner and beers, including some from Svalbard’s own brewery, one of many “Northernmost” things we have here in Longyearbyen.
Sunday was a relatively quiet day – many went out on hikes, in the mountains around Longyearbyen – if they had a rifle or went with someone with a rifle. I’m sure I could have found someone, but I also had to move from the room I was in last week into my more permanent room. The rainstorms earlier in the winter, coupled with strong winds, caused water damage in my Barrack and destroyed another, which had its roof torn off before the rain. The student accommodations are up the valley, away from “downtown” Longyearbyen and UNIS, giving us a half-hour walk to school in the mornings and back home after classes, and fostering a sense of community within each Barrack and each floor or kitchen group within the Barracks. While I was able to move back into my room, several of my friends across the hall were told to move into their permanent rooms, then told again the next day that the repairs in their rooms were not in fact complete, and they would have to move out again for three more weeks. They are quite displeased, justifiably so. Sunday ended on a slightly adventurous note, as two friends and I took the short but steep hike halfway up the mountain above the barracks to the abandoned “Santa Claus Mine,” a 1930s-era coal mine which was the original reason for settling this area.
Today (Monday) was the real start of our classes, but so far we’ve only really had basic introductory classes and materials, so I’ll tell you more about that next time I write.
While the dark makes photography difficult, I have taken a few photos, the best of which I’ll do my best to attach.
Wishing you chill times always,