Holocene and Modern Climate Change in the High Arctic, Svalbard, Norway

What: This project focuses on climate change in the High Arctic. Because of the ice-albedo feedback the Arctic is experiencing warming at more than twice the rate of lower latitude sites. To put these changes in a longer-term perspective we are attempting to use the varved sediment record in glacier-fed Lake Linné and we are studying what factors influence annual sedimentation in the Lake. Summer work includes work on the Linné Glacier, the sediment flux and temperature of the inflow stream and the physical and sedimentological conditions in Lake Linné.

When: The program will run from 10 July to 10 August and will consist of a field component in Svalbard, Norway and a lab component at Mt. Holyoke College, Massachusetts.

Where: We will convene in Massachusetts for a few days of equipment organizing and background lectures and then travel as a group to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Prior to heading to the field site we will spend a few days in town for safety training and orientation. We will then travel by small boat out to Isfjord Radio, a former weather station at Kapp Linné which we will use as a base of operations. After two weeks of field work we will travel back to Longyearbyen and then back to Massachusetts where we will work with data and samples in the lab.

Who: You will join a group of highly motivated students from other colleges and you will work closely with this group sometimes directing the field work and sometimes working as a field assistant. Al Werner (Mt. Holyoke College) and Mike Retelle (Bates College) will lead the field excursion and will direct the lab component of the summer experience.

Project Overview and Goals

Our goal is to introduce students to the Arctic and to engage them in meaningful geoscience-based climate change research. Each student will take-on an aspect of the research that they (with the help of their colleagues) will pursue in the field and subsequently during the following academic year.

Geologic Background

This program is tailored to rising seniors who have completed most of their geology curriculum and have a demonstrated interest in the Arctic, Quaternary studies and the issue of climate change.

Potential Student Projects

The overarching goal of this summer’s work will be to document and reconstruct conditions in the Linné Valley during the 2012/2013 sedimentation year. We have lots of environmental monitoring instrumentation deployed in the Linné Valley. Students (with the help of Al and Mike) will pick their project which could include one of the following:

  • Glacier mass balance/factors influencing glacier ablation.
  • Characterization of the spring melt event using weather station data, stream temperature data and daily automated camera images.
  • Characterization of sedimentation events during the 2012/2013 sedimentation year using CTD data, temperature sensor data, current velocity sensors and daily automated camera images.
  • Interpretation of sediment trap samples using visual and X-ray stratigraphy, particle size data and automated sediment trap data.
  • Sediment cores will be recovered to allow a comparison of lamination stratigraphy throughout the lake and to compare with the long term weather record for Svalbard.
  • Other projects are possible depending on student interest and analytical resources at their home institution.

Logistics/Field Conditions

The Arctic is a special place – it will captivate you! But it can also be a difficult and dangerous place. Since we are working in polar bear country, we carry high powered rifles, we work long days in the driving rain and we often carry heavy packs on long strenuous (25km) hikes over steep and rugged terrain.

For its high latitude location, Svalbard is relatively warm. The average temperature during July is +6º C (43º F). While most days we will be working in rain suits, there will be days when we could potentially work in tee-shirts and other days when we could use all of our warm layers and rain suits when on land. The northern arm of the Gulf Stream passes the west coast of Svalbard bringing relatively warm water and warm air from the south, to Svalbard. At the same time this often creates sharp gradients in temperature, which lead to high winds and rapidly changing weather. Rainy and cloudy weather are common. Because Svalbard is well above the Arctic Circle, you will experience 24 hours of daylight during the entire field season.

You will be working outdoors continuously for 12-16 hours in potentially cold, rainy weather five to seven days each week. You will often be working out of small boats on icy lakes. On some days, you will be hiking 15 km (10 miles) or more over rocky ground every day carrying a 15-25 kg (35-50 lb) backpack. We will be hiking on glaciers, loose rocky talus slopes and ice-cored moraines, and crossing meltwater rivers up to 0.5 m (2 ft) deep. The group will return to indoor dormitory facilities every night with catered food, showers, and shared dorm rooms. You will not likely be able to receive mail while in the field but a telephone may be available (at your own expense). We expect to have some shared internet access.

Svalbard is home to Polar Bears (Ursus martimus), a marine mammal weighing over 450 kg (1,000 lbs) and standing over 3m (9 feet) tall. Despite its size and awesome strength the polar bear is swift and agile, moves easily on rough ice and steep slopes, and is an excellent swimmer. They typically hunt seals among the sea ice and icebergs but also wander the land and are known to stalk and kill humans, although this is rare. Polar bears are curious, and often investigate any strange object, smell, or noise. They have an acute sense of smell that will lead any bear to a food source many kilometers away. Its eyesight is thought to equal that of a human.

Our first line of protection against polar bears is avoiding them! At all times outdoors, everyone must keep constant watch for bears. If we see a bear, we leave the area immediately. NO ONE travels ANYWHERE alone (not even to wander out-of-sight to pee). We will also carry firearms (flare guns and high powered rifles) as last-resort protection against a charging polar bear. You will receive firearm training in Svalbard and everyone will be required to learn to safely handle and accurately shoot these firearms. Even with all precautions, we cannot guarantee that you will not be injured, dismembered, killed, and eaten by a polar bear.

Recommended Courses/Prerequisites

Successful applicants typically have completed their coursework for a geology major and have a demonstrated interest in climate change and arctic geology.