Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby are taking citizen science to
In August, the two women moved into a tiny hunting cabin on the
high-Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The hut, dubbed Bamsebu, is the
only shelter for 140 kilometers. Polar bears prowl the area. It’s not unusual
for the winter chill to reach around –30° Celsius.
The conditions are so harsh that few polar scientists themselves
collect field data from the area during winter. That’s where Fålun Strøm and
Sorby come in — gathering observations about wildlife and the environment that
could help scientists’ understand how rapid
warming is changing Arctic ecosystems (SN: 12/11/19).
Both Fålun Strøm and Sorby were inspired to support climate
research with this nine-month Arctic sojourn after seeing how climate change was
affecting polar regions. For example, Fålun Strøm, who has lived for 23 years in
Svalbard, has watched the land get greener while glaciers have
retreated and average temperatures risen.
Both women, who call themselves the Bamsebu team, have
experience treading frozen grounds. Sorby, who has worked more than two decades
as a historian and guide in Antarctica, has skied the Greenland ice cap and
across Antarctica to the South Pole. Meanwhile, Fålun Strøm, who has spent more
than a year total in trappers’ huts across the Arctic, is versed in dogsledding
and big-game hunting.
“It’s as if all of my years in
Svalbard have prepared me for this overwintering,” Fålun Strøm says. But even for
her, the Bamsebu experience is rough. There is no running water, so the women thaw
chunks of ice hacked from a block outside their hut. They chop wood to keep the
oven ablaze for cooking and heating the cabin. Venturing outside requires layers
of clothing and a gun to guard against polar bears.
“We photograph incessantly,” snapping
foxes, reindeer, polar bears and beluga whales as part of the women’s wildlife
observations for the Norwegian
Polar Institute, Sorby says. Those observations may give insight into how animals
in the region are adapting to warmer weather.
In November, the women encountered a
polar bear that had recently hunted a reindeer. That was odd, because polar
bears normally eat seals. Scientists suspect bears may be forced to change
eating habits because warmer ocean currents are drastically
shrinking sea ice where bears hunt seals (SN: 9/25/19).
For NASA, the women are photographing
different types of clouds, such as shimmery
noctilucent clouds (SN: 7/16/19), as well as helping observe
auroras visible only in 24-hour darkness (SN: 2/7/20).
And the women are collecting
phytoplankton samples for the FjordPhyto citizen science project, which usually
relies on tourist ships to collect samples from fjords in Antarctica. The project’s
goal is to uncover how phytoplankton near the poles are reacting to glaciers
melting, and sending more freshwater into marine environments. Some studies in
the Antarctic show a shift from bigger phytoplankton to smaller phytoplankton, which
leaves less algae for animals like fish and krill to eat, says FjordPhyto
leader Allison Cusick, a biological oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. The samples from the Bamsebu team could
indicate whether a similar shift is happening in the north.
“This type of endeavor … is a
fantastic example of citizen science that’s generating data that we just simply
haven’t seen before,” says remote-sensing researcher Eric Saczuk at the British
Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby, Canada. Saczuk equipped the two
women with a drone to take aerial observations around Bamsebu — something
that’s rarely been tried before in polar science, he says.
The long winter night, stretching from
sunset in October to sunrise in February, presented a new challenge for Sorby,
who had never before lived through months of darkness. Outdoors, the pair could
only see as far as the beams of their head lamps. But that darkness also opened
up another world to Sorby. “When the night sky is full of stars, planets,
satellites and the aurora … I feel showered with lights.”
The original plan was for the Bamsebu team
to return home in early May, greeted by family, friends and their international
science partners — although the ongoing
coronavirus pandemic has put those plans on hold (SN: 3/4/20).
“We are not sure how long we will be here,” Sorby says. “It will be surreal to
think of leaving this simple, purposeful life and coming back to a world that
has been turned upside down.”