In July of 2016 I left the summer behind to do some fieldwork in the Svalbard Archipelago in the High Arctic; a land of 24-hour summer daylight, perpetual ice and not a tree in sight. Arriving in the only real ‘town’ of Longyearbyen, I had to adjust to a complete lack of scent in the air (no pollen or road fumes) and the knowledge that I wasn’t allowed to leave the confines of the town without training and a rifle (polar bears). I was there to collect driftwood samples for my PhD research into Arctic Sea Ice changes over the Holocene, and so was lucky enough to go and see this environment up close and personal, along with all the hazards this extreme environment entails.
Although I was in the Arctic along with my supervisor to collect samples, I also took part in a field course run by the University Centre in Svalbard UNIS (yes, there is a whole university centre on this remote archipelago). They ran a really smooth operation and knew exactly all the safety preparations needed, and so the priority as soon as we arrived was to have a day of safety training. This consisted of rifle and flare training at a gun range in the morning. Before I knew it we were crouched down taking fire at targets with large 30 calibre hunting rifles, which had a strong kickback and would be deafening without ear defenders. Thankfully I passed the training, and probably enjoyed it more than I thought I would! We were also trained to use flare guns, which are always the first line of defence against polar bears, as the red flare or flashbang ammunition is often enough to scare off most polar bears if done correctly. One hazard that should be avoided is overshooting, as this can cause the bear to run towards you!
The second half of the day’s training was for survival suits. These are heavyweight, fully waterproof full body suits that keep you dry and warm should you fall into the Arctic seas, where otherwise you would survive only 2-3 minutes in the icy waters. They are necessary for all landings in Svalbard, as without roads or harbours, transport to shore is by rib boat to the beach, which can be a bumpy ride. We were taken to the ‘logistics’ wing, and fitted with a suit, and driven out to the harbour where we were told we would be jumping in! The last part of the safety training was a briefing about all the many ways we could be killed out in the field, whether by bears, guns or water. This in-depth and thorough training, given by clearly very experienced people, assuaged any fears I had. They also ran through the exhaustive background safety provisions for any expedition, with all journeys logged and detailed with UNIS, and each trip provided with an emergency safety beacon, as well as a satellite phone to check in with UNIS every evening of the expedition.
We set sail later in the week for a 36-hour voyage to the Seven Islands, lying at 80⁰ north, forming the northernmost part of the Svalbard archipelago. The last scientific expedition here was in 1996, making it both an exciting destination with new observations to be had, but even more precarious for being a place with little-known risks, as well as reports of being a polar bear hotspot. The journey was certainly rough at times, giving a few unfortunate people seasickness, but thankfully the anchor spot for the rest of the trip was in calm waters between the islands. Throughout the fieldwork we would eat and sleep on the boat, while we would be out on land from 8am to around 5pm, come rain or shine. Though there were about twenty in the group, in the field we split into groups of four; each with a rifle, two flare guns, and a communications radio. Along with my saw for sampling wood and a rock-saw for sampling boulders, we felt very well kitted out. Such precautions soon felt appreciated, as on our first day our group stumbled across some large polar bear tracks on the beach, indicating a polar bear was present within the last couple of days! Thankfully we never had any encounters with bears in the field, and I had to wait for a boat trip once back in Longyearbyen to see three of them.
Safety in the field was not only well prepared for before we set sail, but also taken very seriously by the field leaders; with regular check ins by radio, remaining within sight when possible, and always having one person within each group as the assigned ‘polar bear watcher’ (also the gun carrier). This meant that no unnecessary risks were taken and that we were able to get on with the fieldwork and data collection, and appreciate the beautiful environment we were in, which was often spectacular with the good weather we experienced. We had a very successful expedition, with ample samples collected, and completely new observations of the glacial history that will hopefully lead to some interesting publications. I had been dreaming of visiting the Arctic for many years, and not only did I fulfil that wish, but I also learnt so much more than expected, both about glacial environments and the human capability of dealing with such seemingly hostile environments through careful planning and precautions.
Emergency first aid training for fieldworkers, and Fieldwork Safety Overseas training is available from the University Safety Office.