Svalbard Archipelago
Photo credit: Laura Kehrle

By Theodore Barnhart ’10

I step off of the plane into the blinding arctic sunlight after three grueling days of travel. Somewhere during that travel, between Boston and Reykjavík, I saw the sun set for the last time for five weeks. Where am I? Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the biggest town on the Svalbard archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole. I still have one more flight to take me still farther north to a research station, but that is after polar bear rifle training and learning to use properly a survival suit against the frigid Arctic Ocean.

When I decided to study geology I did not intend for it to bring me to a place like Svalbard, but I must admit that it is a nice bonus. Halfway through my junior year I applied to the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in Svalbard based out of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. 

The program’s goal is to provide undergraduate students with an opportunity to conduct research on projects of their own design. Professors Julie Bringham-Grette and Ross Powell from, respectively, The University of Massachusetts Amherst and Northern Illinois University, accompanied five other students and me to Svalbard during July and August 2009. Julie and Ross, as I came to know them, were more than just professors telling us how to conduct research. They became mentors guiding us through the difficult process of designing our own projects and working with us to accomplish all of them before our time in the field ran out. 

Along the way we came up with an acronym for our team – TUSK (Training Undergraduate Scientists in Kongsfjorden) – after walruses, one of the many marine mammals we did not see in the arctic.

Gallery thumbnail Click to view a gallery of images from Theo Barnhart's research trip.

Participating in this REU program represented the beginning of a capstone experience for me at Whitman College. With the support of Professor Robert Carson, I will use the data I collected for my senior thesis. Working in Svalbard allowed me to bridge the gap between geology and environmental studies by studying a geologic system that will likely respond relatively rapidly to climate change. Thesis research aside, my work at Svalbard would not have been possible without the strong background in geology and the skills I learned at Whitman College that allowed me to work effectively in the arctic. 

After training in Longyearbyen we boarded a small two-prop plane for a one-hour jaunt over Spitsbergen (the largest island in Svalbard) to Ny-Ålesund, a research station nestled away from the open ocean on Kongsfjorden, one of the many slits of ocean that penetrates into the islands of Svalbard. Ny-Ålesund is a former coal mining town retrofitted into a premier arctic research station at 79 degrees north latitude. 

Living in Ny-Ålesund was like staying in a 160-person town. At first we were the new American team, but after a few days and the weekly night-out we fit right in. I found that aside from the opportunity to conduct my own research the true beauty of Ny-Ålesund lay in having so many teams from so many nations in such close proximity. 

Ny-Ålesund was our base, but we conducted field work 12 kilometers south in front of a 60-meter ice face made from two coalescing glaciers, Kronebreen and Kongvegan, terminating in the ocean. 

We worked to characterize a high-latitude tidewater glacier as baseline data that could be revisited in the future to examine the effects of global climate change. I designed a project using sediment traps suspended in the ocean in front of the glacier to examine modern sedimentation rates and patterns from the glacier and to see if they would correlate with meteorological data gathered by a nearby weather station. Other projects ranged from examining iceberg calving rates to studying the bathymetry of the newly exposed seafloor in front of the retreating glacier.

I fully realized how in control we were of our projects when Julie and Ross let us do field work on our own for a day. I found myself hunched over the side of an aluminum skiff holding a nylon rope loaded with a set of my sediment traps – holding precious thesis data – and an 18-kilogram rock when the glacier began to calve, which happens when an iceberg cleaves off of the glacier’s front. We had become accustomed to the calving over the past few weeks, but now the stakes were high. We were running out of field days, and my data from this area was a little thin. 

The danger was not so much the mini-tsunami generated by the calving, but losing hold of the sediment traps as the boat rode over the waves, which could be up to 9 meters high. Luckily we all knew our parts to play in this situation. My colleague at the helm swiftly turned the skiff into the oncoming waves, and I hooked the line onto the skiff’s winch to securely tether the line. A minute later, after the waves had passed, we hauled up the traps and rejoiced at the thick plugs of sediment they held. Back in the lab that night I drained and packaged these samples for analysis back in the states.

Going to Svalbard truly showed me the realm of research and that anyone committed to it can investigate scientific questions. Svalbard also provided me with the once in a lifetime opportunity to live, for a short time, in the most northern permanent settlement in the world. When the inevitable day came to pack our bags and board the miniature plane I was both sad and excited. Five weeks of field work with no days off wears you down, but the wonder and uniqueness of my experience in Svalbard was too much to leave without a thought.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Theo Barnhart is a senior geology-environmental studies major from Seattle. He is excited by research that allows him to study the immediate effects of climate change. After graduation in May of 2010 he plans to work in the geo-consulting industry.