Citizen Science is a growing outdoor trend, where enthusiasts collect data on the ground for researchers. Two Norwegian adventurers have taken this concept a long step further, spending eighteen months – including two winters – in a cabin without electricity or water in the Arctic wilderness of Svalbard.

The voice shouting outside the house breathes panic and Hilde immediately understands why. Sunniva had gone out to check for the northern lights and there, right next to the woodshed and only two meters from her, stands a polar bear.

“It turned around and wandered away,” recalls Sunniva afterwards,

“But I managed to be struck by how indescribably handsome this animal was, despite being terrified to stand so near to it. That’s a feeling I will never forget.”

When the pandemic first struck, making people all over the world realize what the term “self-isolation” means, Hilde Fålun Ström and Sunniva Sörby had already isolated themselves for several months – completely voluntarily – in the remote Arctic archipelago Svalbard. The place they chose, the small cabin Bamsebu on the Van Keulen Fjord on the island Spitsbergen, is no stranger to polar bears regularly roaming by. 140 kilometers of extreme wilderness stands between the cabin and its nearest neighbor. In winter, when the sun doesn’t creep over the horizon for several months, the temperature can drop to below -30° Celsius.

“In the ‘ordinary’ world, you can allow yourself to go half-speed sometimes,” says Sunniva.

“In Bamsebu, we had to give one hundred percent of ourselves in all situations.”

The cabin Bamsebu was built in 1930 to house whalers. Nowadays, it is culturally marked and privately owned.

More than just an adventure

The origins of Hilde and Sunniva’s almost twoyear stay in Bamsebu and the project they call Hearts in the Ice were formed during an unusually mild winter in Longyearbyen, the main town on Svalbard with about 2,600 inhabitants. This is also where Hilde and her husband Steinar normally call home.

Just before Christmas 2015, in what would later be described as the worst storm in thirty years, an unprecedented avalanche hit a dozen or so residential buildings, killing a man and a young girl. Hilde actively participated in the rescue work.

“Those who died were close friends of mine,” she recalls, before continuing:

“When the shock eventually subsided, I realized that climate change concerns me personally. The avalanche was a consequence of the kind of mild winter that previously never occurred on Svalbard. I asked myself how can we live more conscious lives? How can we change our approach to travel, plastic, food, clothing and more? If a lot of people begin to ask such questions, this can have an impact.”

It may seem strange, but the avalanche and its tragic consequences motivated Hilde to realize a long-held dream:

“I’ve wanted to spend the winter in roadless wilderness since I came to Svalbard 26 years ago. Preferably with Steinar, but he wasn’t interested.”

Her friend Sunniva, meanwhile, was more than happy to join in. Both Hilde and Sunniva had solid knowledge and previous experience of the polar regions. Before her stay in Bamsebu, for example, Hilde had spent a total of one year in various hunting cabins in the Arctic, including as a weather observer on Jan Mayen and Björnön. Sunniva participated in the first female ski expedition to the South Pole and has also worked as a guide in Antarctica for many years.

“What attracted us was not just the adventure itself. With our project Hearts in the Ice, we also wanted to create debate and engagement around climate change,” explains Hilde.

This usually goes by the name “citizen science,” whereby private individuals help various types of research projects by collecting data. As citizen scientists, Hilde and Sunniva would report to nine different international research projects on everything from sea ice, phytoplankton and aurora borealis to clouds and the amount of microplastics in the ice. Previously, similar studies were only done during the summer.

As citizen scientists, Hilde and Sunniva contributed to various international research projects and collected data for, among others, the Norwegian Polar Institute and NASA.

No Plan B

In August 2019, Hilde, Sunniva and the dog Ettra boarded a specially chartered ship in Longyearbyen for a four-day trip to the Van Keulen fjord and the cabin Bamsebu. Autumn was approaching and the peaks of the mountains were already shining white. At first, they brought equipment and provisions for ten months. Basic goods such as flour, groats and spices, dried vegetables, coffee, two moving boxes of chips and fifty cases of beer. Hilde had also shot a reindeer that she had butchered, packaged and froze.

“We had no plan B,” recalls Hilde.

“We had everything we needed but had to work hard every day to survive. Giving up was not an option. Despite the dangers and the effort, it was a wishful existence.”

Collecting data for the various research projects was both challenging and time-consuming.

“Just taking a boat trip and collecting phytoplankton in these areas is fraught with risk. It is important to have thought through everything beforehand. What do we do if the engine breaks down? We must always and in all weathers have equipment, provisions, and a signal gun to scare away polar bears and communication equipment for several days.”

And plenty went wrong. They had technical issues with the cameras, the drone, the boat and the pump that picked up the phytoplankton.

“But we managed to solve everything as time went by, and that strengthened us,” says Hilde.

“When we were going to document the aurora borealis for NASA, we were completely enchanted by the shifting veils of light in the sky and forgot for a moment about the risk of getting frostbite on our fingers or that there could be polar bears in the vicinity,” continues Sunniva.

“Within one week, we had ten polar bears come very close to the cabin. It’s not like they knock on the door and announce their arrival. We were very vulnerable and had to be constantly on our guard.”

Climate change is particularly evident in the Arctic. The researchers fear that these changes are happening so quickly that the polar bears will not have time to adapt. Their significantly altered behavior already stood out:

“We saw with our own eyes how the polar bears try to adapt to melting sea ice and rising temperatures,” says Hilde.

“Their main source of food is seals, and the seals live on the ice. We saw how polar bears now try to hunt reindeer by lying down at high altitude and then attack the reindeer passing below. With a few hundred years they might be able to adapt, but they use up a lot more energy hunting reindeer and these don’t have as much fat as seals.”

While this data is useful, it wasn’t only the researchers who got to share in their observations. With satellite communication and live broadcasts, thousands of children and young people were also reached in classrooms all over the world.

The importance of gratitude

News of the pandemic reached Hilde and Sunniva via satellite, and when in the spring of 2020 it sunk in how serious the consequences were, they decided to replenish their provisions and carry out another wintering in Bamsebu.

“We had mixed feelings returning in the dark for another winter,” says Sunniva. Ahead of them lay nine more months, three of which were without daylight.

“But once we had re-established ourselves, the research that we could contribute and the live broadcasts via satellite felt more meaningful than before. And seeing the world take such measures to manage a global crisis, in a way this gave hope.”

To cope with the extreme conditions in Bamsebu, Hilde and Sunniva stuck to their daily routines. In addition to keeping a close eye on the implementation of the various research projects, the wood and water supplies needed to be constantly attended to and the stove kept warm. They were also careful to maintain their circadian rhythm, with daily outdoor exercise and yoga.

“One thing I will remember most from this time are all the funny inventions, especially when it came to a crisis,” says Hilde, who continues:

“Like dressing up on Halloween and when Sunniva was Santa on Christmas Eve. Or when there was so much snow that we couldn’t get the front door open or when a storm blew it right off.”

But both Hilde and Sunniva agree that the greatest challenge was living so close to each other for such a long time.

“Of course, we haven’t been best friends all the time, that would be unreasonable, but we have managed to communicate through all situations. It’s about constantly double-checking and asking the other ‘is this what you mean?’ before you react with counter attacks. It is so easy to misunderstand. We have also been careful to show gratitude towards each other. Saying ‘thank you for chopping wood.’ Showing gratitude might sound obvious, but it’s super important to remember to show it. And we are still best friends,” says Hilde.

Sunniva shares the same sentiments:

“You don’t always have to agree. But it’s important that there is room to openly share thoughts and reflections. It’s important to be able to listen to each other. In this way, we have learned a lot, both about each other and about ourselves.”

The Svalbard archipelago is located ca. 700 km due north of the Norwegian mainland, halfway to the North Pole.

New wintering awaits

In the summer of 2021, Hilde and Sunniva left Bamsebu after a combined total of eighteen months in the roadless wilderness.

“It was completely shocking to come back to civilization,” says Hilde.

“It was wonderful to meet family and friends again, of course, but it was difficult to take in all the sounds and smells, all the noise. Everything we did in Bamsebu had a meaning. Both for our own survival and in the satellite calls about climate change and what we can all contribute.”

And Hilde and Sunniva’s icy research journey continues. Beginning autumn 2022, they have now set out to spend another winter in the wilderness. This time in the Canadian Arctic. But as Sunniva explains, the mission remains the same:

“We want to continue communicating with people around the world and calling for action. We must address climate change for the serious crisis it is. Now. We need strong leaders, but it starts with you and me.”

 

THE HEARTS IN THE ICE PROJECT

During two long winters isolated in the wilderness on Svalbard, Hilde and Sunniva have conducted citizen research and communicated the climate changes affecting the Arctic. Citizen Science is research that is carried out with the help of the public. Participants can collect materials, act as assistants, partners, project managers or initiators. During eighteen months on Svalbard, Hilde and Sunniva participated in nine international research projects. During the winter of 2022-2023, they will continue the same adventure in northern Canada.

heartsintheice.com

Photos: Hearts in the Ice

 

 

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jonathan.eidse@norragency.com
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