The First All-Woman Research Team to Overwinter in the Arctic

Svalbard, Norway – Bamsebu: an historic ice trappers’ hut, and Sunniva and Hilde’s shelter. (Photo credit: Hearts in the Ice Team, Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm)

 

Hearts in the Ice is a citizen science project conducted by the first all-woman team to overwinter in the Arctic, composed of Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm. Both women are skilled polar explorers, with years of collective experience in the Arctic and Antarctica. Sunniva was part of the first all-woman team to ski to the South Pole at the age of thirty during a multi-month expedition. This project is a citizen science effort to collect data pertaining to climate change impacts in polar regions, and to create a platform for engagement between scientists, students, environmental groups, and the public.

Hilde has lived in Svalbard for twenty-five years and has extensive survival experience in remote polar regions. The two, along with Ettra the malamute, are staying in a 250-square-foot trappers’ lodge called Bamsebu in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, ninety road-free miles from the nearest town. Svalbard has fiercely harsh winters, with twenty-four hours of darkness and average temperatures of 8 to -4 °F. This is Sunniva and Hilde’s second winter in Bamsebu.

I first met Sunniva when I worked for a local travel company specializing in small ship sailings to remote destinations. Sunniva’s position was Global Director of Sales at an expeditionary travel company which partners with scientists conducting research during ecotourism voyages to Antarctica. After Sunniva connected with Hearts in the Ice co-founder Hilde at an Adventure Travel Association event, the idea for the project was born. I have been following the stories and successes of Hearts in the Ice since winter of 2019, and Sunniva graciously agreed to connect with me via satellite internet from their hut in Bamsebu for a glimpse into the otherworldly experience of overwintering in the Arctic.

Svalbard, Norway – Hilde and Sunniva pose with Bamsebu in the background. (Photo credit: Hearts in the Ice Team, Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm)

What inspired the Hearts in the Ice project?

The idea for Hearts in the Ice (HITI) originated in 2017, after Hilde and I met at a trade show in Alaska the previous year. Between us, we have over fifty years of experience in polar regions. My first trip to Antarctica was in 1992-1993, as a team member of the first all-women’s expedition to the South Pole. This trip was sixty-seven days, 700 miles, and we each pulled a 200-pound sled. It was akin to going to the moon, which oddly enough was a childhood dream I had when I was ten.

My entire life’s work and experiences prepared me for Hearts in the Ice. We named this project as a testament to our shared love for the Arctic and Antarctic, and with an effort to raise awareness about climate change in our polar regions and to inspire a world dialogue around it. Our goal is to take people out of climate despair, a form of depression, and into climate optimism, which is about hope and action.

Hearts in the Ice has been described as a citizen science project. In what ways do you think citizen science benefits climate change research?

 Citizen science is a term given to any project that involves public collaboration in contribution to scientific research. The goal is to engage the public and use the data collected to increase the overall knowledge of a given subject. A challenge in allowing science to be more accessible to the public is that people can find it difficult to connect to big-picture, global data. To quote Børge Damsgård, head of Arctic Biology at the University Centre in Svalbard and one of the lead scientists for HITI, “Citizen science is a way to close the gap between people’s perception and the scientists monitoring climate changes.” Additionally, these long-term projects allow for more comprehensive data collection than most individual scientists can capture.

What can studying polar regions tell us about climate change? Can you share some of the projects you and Hilde are working on to advance these efforts?

The polar regions are like mirrors for the rest of the world, thought to be early indicators of global climate change. In Antarctica, key issues of concern are overfishing of krill, melting ice, and rapid fracturing of the ice shelf. In the Arctic, top concerns are temperature rise, which is four times faster than any other place on the planet, and the threats many species are facing.

We are working with the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) to capture color and thermal imagery using drone technology. The use of drone technology (from InDro Robotics) is a relatively new concept. It is even rarer to have specific data collected in High Arctic latitudes. Professor Eric Saczuk at BCIT, an expert in remote sensing and geospatial technologies, says, “It [provides] tremendous value to determine whether drones can effectively be deployed into harsh polar areas to gather data related to climate change.”

Svalbard, Norway – Hilde, Ettra, and Sunniva collect ice core samples. (Photo credit: Hearts in the Ice Team, Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm)

 

We are also working on collecting microscopic marine life observations with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Phytoplankton, at the base of the food chain, are critical to ecosystem health in polar regions. We are observing phytoplankton in the waters surrounding Bamsebu, using a Secchi disk, a plankton net, and a CTD device to measure temperature and chlorophyll.

Another project is collecting aurora borealis observations for the NASA Aurorasaurus program. Our remote location, away from light pollution and at a high altitude, offers a unique opportunity to observe the northern lights consecutively over a long period of time. We are monitoring when we see the aurora borealis, their appearance and form, and where in the night sky they are showing up. Our observations will aid scientists in gaining a better understanding of the structure of the aurora borealis and the environmental conditions in which they occur. We were also able to photograph a rocket launch for NASA, as we were in the most ideal location for this event.

We make sure to track all wildlife encounters, which we have had with Arctic fox, polar bears, belugas, reindeer, seals, walrus, ptarmigan, and more. We collect microplastics by inspecting the stomachs of dead fulmars, who ingest the plastic sensing it is food. This plastic makes it impossible for them to digest anything, and they eventually starve to death. We also collect ice core samples for the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and cloud observation data for NASA’s GLOBE Program.

One can only imagine the harsh conditions of overwintering in the Arctic. What are some of the benefits of conducting this research during the polar winter rather than the more accessible summer months?

This area has been investigated for effects of ongoing climate change by a number of projects that have usually been of short duration, and mainly during summer seasons. Hearts in the Ice allows for year-round observations that can strengthen and enhance scientists’ ability to utilize remote sensing data to evaluate climatic changes in the region.

Curiosity and interest were the catalysts for our getting involved. We also knew that to collect data for such an extended period of time, and from one place, was an absolute rarity and something scientists were eager to have us do. We are in such an extreme location that data is scarce during the dark period, and there are many questions around wildlife and coping. For instance, do phytoplankton bloom in the polar night? What effect does the sea ice temperature change have on phytoplankton? Can an infrared drone be used for non-invasive wildlife observation, and what can a drone tell us about changes in surface ice and land temperature over time? These are some of the questions we are exploring.

Svalbard, Norway – A photo sent to Olivia on New Year’s Eve with the following comment: “[The kayaks] were frozen in the snow so we had to dig them out, put our drysuits on top of down pants and jackets, pack our weapons, headlamps, spotting scope, our phytoplankton kit, and our ten-kilogram CTD device, and [then] we headed out.” (Photo credit: Sunniva Sorby)

How has it felt to be so deeply immersed in the darkness, quiet and isolation of Bamsebu? What mental health practices have you and Hilde adopted to manage these severe conditions?

Overwintering and the transition to the long polar night is considered to be one of the greatest seasonal events to take place on earth. Polar bears go into hibernation with their young, Arctic foxes change color, ptarmigans lose their spots, and everything freezes.

Our daily routine is to train six days a week, practice yoga six days a week, and create content for our education and citizen science work. We pile on our layers and head outside for a walk to the spit; it is twilight now so with a little light we feel a bit safer considering the many polar bear tracks around. We collect plastic bits and kelp from the beach, and just yesterday we collected a polar bear poop sample. We count the wildlife we have seen and keep a record. We have dinner with a candle—always a candle. We always celebrate the small joys here, every single day, and we make sure to acknowledge each other’s efforts. Kind words and a smile go a long way in a world of isolation.

To live here in the Arctic, to overwinter and experience time standing still, is to lose your thinking mind and to regain your senses. It is to live as one with the cold, dark, simple existence, to understand that the wind is beyond taming—that it tames you. It is to clean out the dark, unresolved, unrequited parts of your soul and stand in the presence of this immense stillness and beauty, to understand in this place of quiet and calm, for perhaps the first time, how deeply connected we all are. It is to survive and thrive isolated and alone through an entire winter, depending on only what you have. Just living takes a long time here in the Arctic.

Svalbard, Norway – The aurora borealis over Bamsebu. (Photo credit: Hearts in the Ice Team, Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm)

Any unanticipated or surprising rewards from your time in Bamsebu?

Life here is chaotic, calm, surreal, dark, cold, expansive, harsh, barren, peaceful, magical, and ever-changing. It is full of surprises, with random polar bear visits and the aurora lighting up the sky. We are living in a twenty-square-meter hut that was built in 1930 for beluga hunting. It is bare bones, but sheltered from the cold. It is not insulated and there is no running water or electricity, so every day comes with a lot of chores and physical labor: chopping wood, chopping ice for fresh water, and making sure all equipment stored outside is fastened down as random wind gusts are frequent. The entire experience is a daily surprise.

To be here is to be tested in all ways. Mentally, physically, spiritually. It is so isolated, harsh and remote. You must exercise patience, pack a sense of humor, be rigorous with daily routine, possess a sense of calm in the incessant storms, be able to take care of yourself in the extreme cold, handle weapons and safety gear, and be a master problem-solver.

Everything here is concerned with simply being. We are living in complete freedom, with an absence of any restraint.

Svalbard, Norway – A polar bear mother with her cub. (Photo credit: Hearts in the Ice Team, Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm)

This is your second time being part of a “first all-woman team” in a polar endeavor! How do you envision this project uniting and empowering women?

Svalbard has a long history of traditions around overwintering, and it has been male-dominated despite the fact that women have played major roles. This is an exciting time to celebrate our experience, our leadership abilities, and our deep concern for the natural spaces we love. We are happy to contribute to history as polar pioneers and ambassadors!

Women in science and exploration are expanding our knowledge of the world every day. Ample research shows us that women have great strength in collaborative, inclusive, and legacy-minded leadership skills, yet we encounter gender bias at every turn. Even as our planet faces new, unprecedented challenges, our work is underfunded and cited less than men’s work of equal merit. This must change. Mother Nature needs her daughters, and we have answered the call.

Svalbard, Norway – Hilde and Sunniva celebrate their surroundings. (Photo credit: Hearts in the Ice Team, Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm)

Author’s note: Since my interview, I have read that some people have recently begun using the term “community science” instead of “citizen science.” I believe the discourse surrounding this terminology is important, but have used the latter term to stay consistent with my interview transcript and minimize confusion.