A glimpse into the world of polar fieldwork 

From 20 April every year, Svalbard experiences “polar day”, with the sun not setting again until August

Rebecca Murray-Watson, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership and member of Imperial’s Space and Atmospheric Physics Group, shares her experiences of participating in the NERC Introduction to Polar Fieldwork training course run by the British Antarctic Survey in Svalbard, and the effect climate change is having on this unique landscape.

The Arctic is changing rapidly. Air temperatures in this region are rising much faster than other parts of the planet and sea ice cover is shrinking at unprecedented rates. As this fragile environment changes, global powers are vying for access to its rich resources. New mining facilities and the expansion of trade routes further north increase local pollution levels, putting pressure on this already vulnerable environment. At the same time, researchers are urgently trying to understand what the future looks like for this precious region.  

My PhD focuses on one part of the vast and complicated Arctic climate system: how different factors influence the properties and development of Arctic clouds. Clouds play a vital role in the Arctic because they regulate what is known as the ‘energy budget’. They can have a cooling effect by reflecting incoming solar energy back to space (therefore stopping it from reaching and heating the earth’s surface), or can effectively act as a blanket by preventing heat from escaping, which has a warming effect. How much energy the earth’s surface absorbs is key for understanding things like sea ice loss, so changes in cloud properties can have knock-on effects on the Arctic environment. 

Arctic clouds as seen from Austre Lovénbreen glacier

Field work at the northernmost civilian settlement in the world

To research this I normally use data collected by satellites, which I can access from London, and provide a huge amount of information over large areas. However, there are some things that satellites can’t measure, particularly processes that happen at small scales, and so scientists often have to go into the field to take the measurements themselves. When I learned that the British Antarctic Survey was running a training course to teach early-career polar researchers how to conduct fieldwork in this extreme environment, I jumped at the chance to get involved.    

The training required us to travel to Svalbard, a remote archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole. We were primarily based at Ny-Ålesund, an international research hub with the distinction of being the northernmost civilian settlement in the world (although you’ll find Svalbard has quite a few “northernmost” records; church, observatory, post office, circus…). Located at 79°N and home to research stations operated by ten countries, it is an utterly unique location to monitor and study the Arctic. 

The Arctic is a challenging place to work, and our training ranged from frostbite prevention to polar bear safety. The lowest temperatures we experienced were near -15°C, but when the wind was strong, the windchill reached about -30°C. Ensuring you were wrapped up was essential! The course leaders’ expertise ranged from field guiding to marine biology, and hearing about their experiences was enlightening. 

Arctic glaciers are shrinking alarmingly quickly due to rising temperatures. We spent most of the time in the field collecting data on the health of local glaciers, particularly Midtre Lovénbreen, only a short skidoo ride away from Ny-Ålesund. One set of measurements involved us towing a radar behind a skidoo as we drove about 10km/h up and down the glacier – exciting despite the slow pace! Radars allow you to measure ice thickness to estimate how much mass has been lost over time. We also used precise GPS measurements to find the end (‘terminus’) of the glacier. Compared to recent years, we could see Midtre Lovénbreen has retreated dozens of metres from the coastline, a sobering reminder that climate change has already had devastating effects on such a delicate environment. 

Rebecca Murray-Watson on site in Svalbard with a skidoo

Seeing Arctic clouds first-hand

While cloud research wasn’t a core part of the programme, it was incredible to see in person what I have been studying for several years. It was especially poignant as I started my PhD during the COVID-19 pandemic – working in my small London flat for a year and about as far removed from the stunning Arctic landscape as you can imagine. I even had the chance to give a short talk on my Arctic clouds research while standing on a glacier, which still feels surreal! 

The Arctic is especially sensitive to climate change and the trip drove home the importance of protecting such a pristine region from further degradation. I’ve gained a new perspective on the importance of my work and, after having a taste of life in the field, I would love to return to Svalbard to continue my research in one of the most unique locations on Earth. 

The Grantham Institute is running the 2023 Grantham Climate Art Prize to draw attention to the climate crisis, with a chance for young people aged 12 – 25-years-old to design a mural envisaging a more sustainable future world. The event will be sponsored by Octopus Energy and more details will follow soon.

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