Smeerenburg, the Dutch Whaling Settlement

We spent a couple of days in the thrall of the astounding Smeerenburgbreen, the glacier named for the nearby 16th century Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg. This was possibly the largest glacier we saw during our trip but it certainly had the greatest presence; muffled thunder and sudden cracks sounded out a few times an hour, and calving ice rocked our ship all through the nights.

 

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The Antigua at Smeerenburgbreen. For scale, the ship’s mainmast is 31.5 meters tall and the face of the glacier is ~60 meters

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Being such an active glacier meant stunning blue ice and water full of icebergs and littler bergs, hissing and crackling like effervescent soda pop in the ocean. The contrast between the quiet, still moments where you could hear the soft lapping of the water at the edges of the ice and the sudden cracks and crashes of the calves… it was really a magical place.

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Two of our guides and Nemo at one of our landings

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A sunset at Smeerenburgbreen

The area provided several great spots to land, lots of floebergs (beached icebergs) for the art residents to work with, and some quiet time where we got to stay in place for more than a day. After our stay at the glacier, we visited what was left of the settlement of Smeerenburg, which translates to “Blubber Town”. Located on the little island of Amsterdamøya, not much remains aside from scattered logs and bricks. A single whale vertebrae, a couple decrepit blubber ovens and the yellow, fat-saturated ground still oily with the remnants of the whales.

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Leaving Smeerenburgbreen in the fog and clouds

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Smeerenburg whaling settlement

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What’s left of the blubber ovens

Here’s an updated map of our trip so far! Coming up, some epic mountains and equally epic disappointment when the weather turns against us.

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Farmhamna, Respite After the Night of the Waves

Our first night out to sea was a truly epic experience. We sailed from the sheltered, mirror-still Isfjord and headed north, sailing from the later afternoon all through the night to arrive in Farmhamna the following day. As we passed the small mining town of Barentsburg, twinkling in the distance, the swells from the open sea finally hit the Antigua. Turns out what can be described as a “small swell” in the context of the ocean is, in the context of land-lubbers like myself, a massive upset. Three-meter swells hit our little boat, and while many of my comrades head below deck to their bunks I joined a small group on deck. The boat was rocking so violently you simply had to hold on to something unless you felt comfortable sliding around uncontrollably! Waves crashed over the front of the ship, once choice swell drenching a few residents who seemed to quite enjoy the authenticity of the experience. After a while, the waves got the better of me (and most others onboard, including the crew and wilderness guides and even the poor dog Nemo). I got sick overboard, and then felt worlds better.

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Our trip from Longyearbyen to Farmhamna, roughly

As a reward to those of us toughing it out in the misty, cold outdoors, an outstanding aurora came out! Green with a red band at its bottom, the aurora wrapped around the ship from east through north to the northwest, and at one point a separate band flashed into the south (quite rare!) A group of towering, electric-like white shards shot out right above the ship, dancing above the mast. It was staggering in its beauty. Unfortunately, it also kept me out on deck long enough to become quite ill a second, and then a third, time! Definitely worth it, though at a high cost. Late in the night we switched from the motor to the sails, which meant everything on board smoothed out substantially. The peace was overwhelming.

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The Antigua under sail

While I didn’t get to take any images of the aurora, there appears to be one taken of it from the International Space Station! The date is correct and the station was over northern Europe at that time, able to record a pretty staggering Kp7 aurora. Though I can’t 100% verify that this is the exact aurora I saw, it certainly looks familiar!

 

Landing at Farmhamna was  a super beautiful but deeply haunting respite from the ocean. The area was an abandoned (for a few years) trapper station, and as such was absolutely littered with animal bones, knives, sleds and other trapper necessities. There was also a tall wooden structure used for hanging animal carcasses from as they were processed by the trapper, under which the earth was saturated in a greasy brown mixture of fats and blood. The low golden light of the arctic autumn made for some difficult but breathtaking photo ops, accentuating the colorful tundra and the contrast between it and the dark, heavy clouds on the horizon.

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We then continued on to Smeerenburgbreen in the afternoon after landing in Famrhamna. Awaiting us up there was a massive glacier at the very tip top of the archipelago. All told it was quite a haul! The greatest blessing though was that from that night on, which we liked to call “the night of the waves,” the sailing was a lot of sailing rather than motoring and we managed to avoid any more “little swells”.

Antigua Antigua, Katherine

I’ve returned, with all my digits, to an exceedingly autumnal New York City. My time in Svalbard was everything I had hoped but nothing like what I had expected. I’m going to write a few posts over the next weeks telling you about the trip itself, where we went, what we saw and learned, and hopefully after some time has passed and the experience has sunk in a bit more I’ll start to process my photos and impressions into some more eloquent and interesting pieces.

Despite my laptop dying at the end of the trip and one pretty epic bout of seasickness, the trip was a total success. I’m really looking forward to getting film processed this week and to brainstorming with my friend and collaborator Emilie Lundstrøm as we bring a show together.

View from the Antigua

View from the Antigua

So, here’s a little intro to what my trip was like! I lived aboard a barkentine sailboat with about thirty other people, including a wonderfully funny crew and four passionate, kind wilderness guides. Oh, and don’t forget Nemo, our guard dog! He was so good at his job we didn’t see a single polar bear during our trip. The ship, the Antigua, was a beautiful place to call home for a few weeks. We even had the weather in our favor a few times and were able to help the crew hoist the sails so we could sail rather than run the motor!

The view from my bunk's porthole

The view from my bunk’s porthole

Our very first stop was at a glacier, which met all of my highest expectations immediately. The glacier, Sveabreen, was fairly active but also had an inactive end that we could land right near, allowing us to touch the glacier in safety. It was a spectacular way to start the trip.

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Nemo and the Antigua at Sveabreen

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Touching a glacier for the first time!

I’ll write more about our following landings and travels soon. Again, I simply must give thanks to all of the people who supported my trip, including those who helped get me to Svalbard as well as the guides and companions who helped make the experience so wonderful.

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Sveabreen glacier

The Moon and Other Questions

One of the most dramatic and unique parts of the environment at the poles is the unusual cycle of the sun. We all know about the 24-hour darkness and the 24-hour sunlight experienced in those areas, but I recently was asked a very interesting question: what about the moon?

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At ~80° North, the archipelago of Svalbard experiences roughly 141 days of polar night and 128 days of midnight sun every year. During the month of October while I will be in Svalbard, the Sun will be above the horizon about ~15-30 minutes less every day. At the same time, it will be rising to lower and lower apexes at its highest during the day. The affect is sort of like slipping from a recognizable day/night cycle to a slowly drawn out sunrise/sunset cycle with no true “day”.

The moon is a bit more complex an issue. As it waxes and wanes, the moon at the poles has a much longer cycle of rise and set than anywhere else on the planet. At the poles, and in high latitudes like Svalbard, the moon will rise and stay up for days at a time, generally about a week but it can stay up for much longer. Then it goes into a rise/set cycle for about a week, and then stays set for a week. Mystery solved!

Longyearbyen at night

Longyearbyen at night from Kairo Studios

Do you have any questions about Svalbard, prepping for cold weather travel, photography, my upcoming project plans, the history of polar exploration, or anything else? Let me know! I’d love to do a post answering your questions.

When Tourism Meets Science

I had the pleasure of meeting with fellow Explorers Club member and Polar Expedition photographer Lauren Farmer recently. Lauren lives her life between multiple tourist vessels that travel to the North Pole, Antarctica, Greenland and Svalbard. She takes amazing photographs of her trips, which you can check out on her website.

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Lauren just set out on an Explorers Club Flag Expedition, a distinction you have to apply for through the club for the honor of carrying one of their many flags on a groundbreaking journey. She is carrying flag #69, which took its first expedition in the total solar eclipse of 1937 to the Andes. Since then, it has explored the Raikot Glacier, Antarctica as part of a whale song study, South Georgia and the shipwreck of the Titanic.

Yesterday I was given @the_explorers_club flag we'll be carrying during our sea ice data collection program this summer. To be awarded a flag for your expedition means your efforts have been recognized by The Explorers Club as furthering the cause of exploration and field science. Flag #69 took its first expedition during the total solar eclipse of 1937 in the Andes. Since then, it has been to the Himalayas to explore the Raikot Glacier, to Antarctica for a whale song study, to South Georgia and even to the shipwreck of the Titanic. And now, @cowanalex and I will take it to the Geographic North Pole. It's an incredible honor and yes, I will be treating our flag like a baby! A very, very old and fragile baby. #Arctic

A post shared by Lauren Farmer (@laurenfarmer) on

Now, Lauren and her comrade Alex Cowan are taking the flag to the geographic north pole as part of citizen science project they are spearheading. Working on vessels in the far reaches of our planet for years, surrounded by the natural beauty and grace of those regions, Lauren began to wonder how she could help give back to the geographies that she loved so much. She knew that it can take scientists years of grants writing and planning to raise enough money to visit the poles for a few weeks at a time, whereas she had access for months at a time several times a year by working onboard tourist vessels. Wanting to help, she reached out to sea ice scientists and devised a plan. She and her comrade Alex were trained to take measurements for the scientists, and this current expedition of theirs will serve as a test run for the system they’ve developed along with the scientists. Should things go well, Lauren may be able to help crew (and passengers!) on touring ships all over the poles take measurements for scientists on an unprecedented scale.

Learn more at the project’s website and by watching the video below!

Svalbard: Breakdown

W_W_Svalbard_LandSat7_21.14475E_78.71545NSvalbard is an archipelago, a clumpy chain of islands in the far north of the arctic ocean. It’s made up of 11 sizeable islands and many additional small skerries. The area boasts many hundreds of rivers, fjords and glaciers, and has many eerie former settlements sprinkled across the islands, too. The islands also became the launching point for a number of Arctic explorers, including William Edward Parry, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Otto Martin Torell, Alfred Gabriel Nathorst, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard and the only truly permanently populated settlement, Longyearbyen, is located there. Although some weather and research stations exist on the other islands, none of them have a population over 10 nor are they permanent communities.DeGeerdalen, SpitsbergenSettled in the 17th century as an ideal location for whaling and then coal mining, Spitsbergen is a cold, mountainous place. Besides Longyearbyen, with a population of around 3,000, Ny-Ålesund isa former mining town, permanently settled around scientific research. Ny-Ålesund has a winter population of 35 and a summer population of 180. 

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Longyearbyen

Barentsburg is the only remaining Russian settlement since Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998. All facilities are owned by Arktikugol, who operate a coal mine (operations have, however, been stopped since 2006). Pyramiden is a tourist favorite for taking creepy, ruin-porn photos of the abandoned town.

A scene from Pyramiden

A scene from Pyramiden

Nordaustlandet is more northely in the chain and is mostly covered in ice caps. Another island in Svalbard, it had previously been the site of walrus hunting, and to this day is still populated by reindeer and walrus. Edgeøya, an island further south in the chain, has within it the massive glacier Edgeøyjøkulen. Barentsøya, located in between Edgøya and Spitsbergen, has some truly incredible scenes of the beauty of the arctic desert.

A Nordaustlandet walrus

A Nordaustlandet walrus

Kvitøya is the island I am most excited to visit. Known as White Island, Kvitøya is the site of S.A. Andree’s death, where his and his comrades’ bodies were recovered forty years after he first set sail in a balloon from Danskøya, Svalbard in 1897. I’ve written about S.A. Andree and his failed ballooning attempt to reach the North Pole; his story, and that of his two companions, is amongst the greatest and saddest in the whole saga of Polar Exploration.

Andree sets off from Danskøya

Andree sets off from Danskøya

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya

“Freezing to… Death?”

In the long history of polar exploration, there’s a handful of common factors that brought brave explorers to their deaths. For a very long time scurvy was a scourge the intrepid polar travelers could not escape, even after it had been effectively eradicated from the world’s navies. Although the great British Navy had long figured out that keeping fresh fruits onboard kept scurvy at bay, like limes and oranges. These fruits, however, don’t keep 7e9a03a56b757525d288989a7e99e3a5well in the harsh conditions of the arctic, nor did the navy’s normal lime concentrate, which was a liquid. So the expeditions concentrated the fruits’ juices into a powder form that could be later reconstituted.
This, unfortunately, denatured the vitamins in the fruit juice that kept scurvy out of the picture, so despite drinking all the powdered lime juice they could, many sledging parties in the history of polar exploration suffered gravely from scurvy. Starvation and dehydration were also a huge problem, and not a small number of explorers died from Trichninosis, a parasite you can get from consuming infected Polar Bear meat.

Amongst the scariest way to go, of course, is to freeze to death. But what exactly happens to your body when you freeze to death, and can you be saved from a deep hypothermia? (it sucks, to the former, and yes! to the latter)

If you’d like to find out, you can read an article over at PhDish, Freezing to… Death?

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Byrd Polar Research Center

I recently had the extreme pleasure of visiting the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. Founded in 1960, the center has been a bastion of scientific excellence and a home for some of the best scientists in the field of polar study. The center focuses on an broad sweep of polar study, including climatic reconstruction of glacial and post-glacial times, polar ice-sheets (their dynamics, history and ice-atmosphere interactions), high-altitude landform evolution, soils and hydrology, the geologic evolution of Antarctica, investigations of ocean dynamics and environmental-chemical processes, and the history of polar exploration. The center actually earned its name from Admiral Byrd, a famous and very important polar explorer and naval officer. Upon his death many of his personal papers found their way, along with his name, to the polar center at OSU. Their Polar Library is very thorough, and I wish I had had more time to visit it!

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Display for visiting students in the Polar Rock Repository

While I was there I was given a very entertaining tour of two very unique and impressive collections at the center. The first was the Polar Rock Repository, basically a library for rocks gathered from all over the world by a multitude of researchers. The rocks are stored on shelves that can, in the future, roll to accommodate even more specimens. There are about 30,000 individual rocks catalogued at the repository currently.

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The “stacks” at the repository

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Samples waiting to be catalogued

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Gear and some rock samples at the repository

The second collection I was able to visit at the center was the ice core deep freeze! Polar researchers frequently use ice cores in their work, boring deep into glaciers and ice fields from all over the world; these ice cores provide high resolution climatic and environmental histories that help scientists understanding of the complex and very longterm histories of our planet’s climate. The Byrd Polar Research Center has ice cores from every continent on earth, many from high alpine glaciers. In fact, the center has ice cores from mountain glaciers that no longer exist, making them an even more valuable reference material than they already were to begin with. The freezer that the cores are kept in is about -30 to -40oC, ensuring the cores won’t thaw and melt away anytime soon.

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Some core drills

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Ice cores in the deep freeze freezer

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One of the ice cores on a light box, illuminating the striations in the ice

It was wonderful to meet some of the scientists working so hard to better understand our world by studying in these amazing parts of our planet. I highly encourage you to check out the research being done by the professionals there! From paleoceanography to glacier dynamics, they do it all and they do it well.

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Admiral Byrd

Thanks to Dr. Joel Barker, Dr. Kirstin Werner and Jason Cervenec for spending the time with me and for the fabulous tour. 

Google in Greenland (and Iceland, and Svalbard)

Google Street View is a truly amazing resource. Recently Google, with its legion of trekkers, has been creating street view assets in increasingly more remote parts of the world. A recent addition of particular interest to this blog and my preparations is that of Greenland!

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Ilulissat icefjord

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 10.59.49 AMOnly a small part of Greenland has been made into street viewable material, but you can view the Ilulissat icefjord, a UNESCO world heritage sight and a true wonder to behold. You can visit the best preserved Norse ruins in all of Greenland, the Hvalsey Church, and meander along winding roads lined with slabs of rock and glacial plains. Google Views has some of the greatest hits set up and ready for you. Greenland has some of the most beautiful fjords, glaciers and tundra forests on the planet, and lucky you, you can take a peek without getting your Sorels on!

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Google has a much more extensive street view collection for Iceland, which of course is much smaller than Greenland and much easier to travel. every single view of Iceland is stunning; it’s seemingly impossible to take a bad photo there!

There’s only one small view of Svalbard, that of the town of Longyearbyen, but it’s worth taking a peek below if you’re curious!

PS: There’s a few peeks at Antarctica, too!

Imaging the Arctic

Imaging the Arctic is an interdisciplinary exhibit on view through February 22, 2015 at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA. The exhibit explores the impact of climate change on West Greenland’s ecology and culture through the works of three talented women from a diversity of professions: marine mammal biologist Dr. Kristin Laidre, expeditionary artist Maria Coryell-Martin and Finnish photographer Tiina Itkonen.

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From the museum’s website, “In the spring of 2013, Coryell-Martin accompanied Dr. Laidre to West Greenland where she created a collection of field art and stories about scientific research in the Arctic environment. Itkonen’s evocative photographs of the Greenland landscape and Inuit add an additional perspective on the rhythm of life in the Arctic.”

They have a wonderfully beautiful, informative interactive website set up, which you should check out. Below are a few examples of work from Coryell-Martin and Itkonen.

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