The summer is finally upon us. There have been many sunny days so far and the sun is bright especially in the evenings and nights. The incredible variety of wild life here on Svalbard is absurd and we can now see more of it than when we first arrived. The snow is almost gone and only the white tips of some of the mountains around us remind us of the frozen Svalbard to which we arrived five weeks ago. The colourful moss that used to be covered by snow and ice is now covered in small patches of the mountains avens and purple saxifrage flowers.

mountain avens

purple saxifrage

Between these you can see occasionally reindeer with their antlers now fully developed. But along with this wildlife comes also great danger. And the danger does not come from the scary beast of the north the polar bear, that is nowhere to be found, but from the birds.


  There are many bird species here spread out over several sanctuaries and protected areas. The Arctic tern is the one worth paying attention to. This tiny little white bird with a red beak is believed to be doing every year one of the longest migratory routes known (almost 15000 km).It breeds here in the Arctic and winters in Antarctica. Its nests can be found everywhere in Ny- Alesund, even in unconventional places such as the middle of the road.

Arctic tern

 I am not a birds’ expert but most birds I have heard of up until know nest their eggs somewhere sheltered or in a distance from human activity. This is obviously a problem here in the Arctic where there are no trees. The eggs of the Arctic tern are very small and you need to be very close to them in order to be able to spot them. As most birds, the Arctic tern is very protective of its offspring and often attacks people when they pass near their eggs. Sometimes it even feels like in a Hitchcock movie.

They attack the highest point of the body- the head. Therefore you can imagine a very funny picture: people, walking on the roads waving one hand or the other above their heads, punching the air, trying to scare away sometimes more than two or three birds. The lucky once that have a license to carry a gun as a polar bear protection don’t have to wave any body parts in the air but simply need to carry their gun on their back with the tip of their barrel higher than their heads. This way the birds attack the gun and not the head.  

This amusing situation amongst others is something that is very much needed here in Ny- Alesund. The work we do as part of the mesocoms experiment is usually the same and can get very monotonous.  A few days ago our colleges here reported that there was a chance of a bloom developing in our mesocosms after the nutrient addition, which could be exciting. However, we will only know the exact results once we have looked at our metagenomic data along with everyone else’s data.

Either way, we have two more sampling days left after which we will have to start the complicated process of packing all our samples and getting our gear back into the container boxes in order to make them ready for pick up by the Greenpeace boat. The experiment will officially end on the 7th of July however I will be leaving the island together with the rest of the group from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory on the 8th. This is indeed very sad in a way as I really got used to being here and doing interesting science despite all the hard work and the sometimes annoying birds. Also, being here is like being in a big family, everyone knows each other and the thought of going back to the city life with thousands of people on the streets, shops and the constant use of mobile phones is almost terrifying. We will be surrounded by concrete buildings and the smell of gasoline, instead of crystal clear water and a refreshing breeze from the fjord. But all good things like always come to an end. This wonderful experience of being here will have to be over. We will have to get back to our laboratories and work again under the white light of the fluorescent lamps. It is under these lights that we will be analysing the hundreds of samples we have collected here and under these lights we will try to understand the other CO2 problem and its impact on the Arctic. So it is not all bad news for us and there are still some exciting times ahead of us. There is light at the end of the mesocosm and the journey just begins.



Work, work, work…and a little bit of play

We are now on day 15 of the experiment, and the last few weeks have blurred into one big sampling/filtering/analysing fest, with little time for, well, anything else really. We haven’t had much time to enjoy and appreciate our stunning location, and you know what they say about all work and no play….

The view that teases us from our lab

However, last Wednesday, we were treated to a day off – a very exciting prospect for a bunch of hard-working scientists! Myself and Susan took the opportunity to escape Ny-Ålesund, and headed off on a soggy stomp across the rapidly thawing tundra. We saw lots of lovely Arctic fauna (reindeer, snow buntings, Arctic skuas, terns, fulmars, guillemots, eiders, purple sandpipers, ringed plovers…) and some very colourful flora. Luckily, we did not come across any hungry polar bears…..

making our escape....

Arctic flowers

The weather has shown some improvement over the past few days, which means we can make the most of the endless evenings that we benefit from at this latitude. On Sunday night, in glorious sunshine, we took a boat out to our local glacier Kongsbreen – one of the largest glaciers on Svalbard.

captain john at the helm

The drive to the glacier front was a bit of an iceberg-dodging exercise, as the fjord is scattered with beautiful, sculptural bergs at this time of year. And when we were within about 1 km of the glacier, a huge townhouse-size chunk of glacier spectacularly crashed into the fjord, sending a boom echoing around the mountains, and followed moments later by some subtle but noticeable tsunami waves. A perfect way to spend a Sunday evening 🙂


Ny-Ålesund nestled in the mountains

Another feature of summer life in Ny-Ålesund are the ship-loads of tourists that arrive on a fairly regular basis. On Saturday, 3500 people descended on us – which is a bit of a shock when you are used to about only 100 people! It is a good people-watching opportunity though, and it is quite amusing to see hundreds of people in matching jackets all patiently queuing up to buy their souvenirs in the world’s most northerly shop….

the huuuuge cruise ship and strange people-carrying pods

polar bear-themed souvenirs all round...

Changing mesocosms or artificial intelligence?

I always find it very funny and somewhat very strange how certain instruments have the tendency to behave differently from one day to another. After two weeks of sampling and filtering water I have almost started to believe that our pumps have what some will call artificial intelligence. We have seven lines of filtration, six going through a single multi-channel pump and the seventh line goes through a separate single pump. This way we filter mesocsoms the seven we chose to concentrate on in our metagenomic study at the same time and try to avoid the bias that is often related to the time that elapse from the actual Mesocosm sampling and the time it takes to filter the water and store the filters in the-80C fridge. It is important to treat all seven mesocosms in the same way and a crucial step in our experimental procedure is to quickly filter the first few hundreds of millilitres of water from each Mesocosm at the same time. This is because RNA, which is one of the things we are looking for in our filters, is stable only for short periods of time once it is outside its natural system

The carboys we use to collect our water

But the filtration experience changes every time even though the filters we use are the same filters, the pumps are the same pumps, and the pumping speed and pressure we use are therefore the same. Some lines go faster than others and this is probably due to some unknown natural to us aspects of the mechanical pump. For instance line number 1 is the slowest, whilst line number 6 on the same pump is the fastest. But this is not constant and for some reason the situation often changes and we see the opposite. Thank god that the separate line, number 7 has been a good worker and so far has not presented any particular moods. So the question is why do some lines “decide” to have a lazy day one day and then work harder in the next. Could it actually be that they too just like us the operators need a day off every once and again and decide to misbehave? I must admit that as a scientist I do not like that explanation. Machines are our tools and their sole purpose is to make our life easier. Therefore, we gathered our big brains and tried to think of a different explanation.

The filtration pump lines

As the experiment progresses we expect to see some differences between Mesocosm one to another. One of the aims of the experiment is to see how different CO2 concentrations affect the biological productivity of the water. In other words will there be fewer or more organisms with different CO2 various levels and how these organisms will be. So one possible explanation is that due to the different treatments of each Mesocosm, the density of the organisms per millilitre of seawater each differs from one to another Mesocosm. Single celled organisms in addition such as bacteria and phytoplankton self replicate and this takes time. With their numbers in the replication Mesocosm increases. However we can not tell at the moment how nearly they replicate and what the effect of the added CO2 on this process is. Therefore some mesocosms might be denser and more packed with organisms than others and this can explain why now some lines on our pumps work faster than others and why their behavior is different than what we observed at the beginning of the experiment. Naturally our filters will clog faster and the time it takes to filter the same volume of water will increase as the experiment progresses. I expect to even worse behavior of our pumps once they add nutrients into the mesocosms. These nutrients will increase the productivity of the water and as a result our filtration will go even slower.

midnight at the fjord

So in conclusion, although I was a science fiction geek long before I came into science I am more inclined to accept the logical explanation for the phenomena our brains came up with. I do not believe that our pumps show evidence of artificial intelligence. They are not advanced enough and have not evolved to that level yet. We will have to wait patiently till the end of the experiment and even much longer for our filters to be analyzed in order to be able to give a real answer to why our pumps behave the way they do.


Dry on the water, wet in the lab

The Greenpeace boat Esperanza left on Sunday afternoon and with it also several really nice people. Many of the crew members on board are volunteers from all over the world that often quit their job or take a long absence leave in order to come on board for several months and take part of something bigger than themselves. They invited us for a farewell party that included spontaneous blues jamming and improvised singing by everyone present about ocean acidification. Their help in the experiment is indisputable and it would have been very difficult to do such a large scale study in this remote location without their logistic support. We will see them again in July for when they come to pick up our instruments once the experiment is finished. Most of our samples need to be stored constantly at very low temperatures and occupy a lot of space. Therefore they cannot be transported by air and their distribution to the different institutes in Europe for analysis is difficult. In addition most of the equipment we brought here arrived in heavy chunky boxes.

As far as the mesocosm experiment goes, we are all very happy that it is finally on its way. We already have several days’ worth of samples and CO2 enrichment has been performed and more will be added soon. Sampling also takes less time now as everyone knows the job and each person on the boat knows what his task is once we attach ourselves to the mesocosms. The initial water volume requirements of people have also changed and this allows a bit more flexibility in regards to the sampling shifts that take place in the morning and afternoon.

The weather has also improved. The surrounding ice melts in an incredible speed and we can see it disappearing in front of our eyes on a daily bases. The wind has also stopped, allowing to the fjords water to become crystal clear, completely flat, making it look like a lake made up by mercury.  These conditions off course mean that we only get a few splashes of cold water from the engine of the zodiac and get slightly wet from lowering the integrated depth samplers into the mesocosms. To my surprise this is not the case in the big “filtration factory” where I am working most of the time once we return from the fjord. When filtering water through different pumps and complicated ramified tubing systems it is almost impossible to prevent leakage. Sometimes due to the pressure of the pumped water some of the tubes give up and water sprays everywhere. As a result you end up with wet socks until you have finished your filtration and have time to return to your room to change. Having said that we hardly had any such incidents today and generally speaking the pumps have been behaving extremely well recently.

Finally something astonishing happened the other night. On my way to my room a little after midnight someone said that there were whales just outside the harbour. I quickly ran to the harbour and was able to spot between 10 and 15 white whales only 50 metres away. They were calmly swimming on the surface for several minutes and then they suddenly disappeared. I waited 10 more minutes to see if they surface again and then decided to retire for some sleep. On the way back just when I was approaching my hut I took one last glimpse towards the not so distant shore. I saw the whales again swimming at the surface, this time between our mesocosms. I guess they too were interested in ocean acidification. Personally speaking if someone is to promise me such an encounter every night I will be happy to wear wet socks from now and till the end of the experiment.


Calibration, calibration, calibration

It has been a busy few days getting the analysers working and calibrated. It is always the same when an expensive and highly sensitive bit of electronics is taken from its home laboratory where it is working perfectly after weeks of preparation and put into a crate and shipped out to a new laboratory on a ship or like ours – to a lab in the arctic. The instrument seems to develop a mind of its own and will not join in the fun. I have been using instrumentation at sea and on land based research projects for many years and have never had something work properly first time. Luckily we have had a few days to sort out any faults and I’ve had a few that have made me sit down and read a manual, not an ideal approach. Anyway all is well now and calibrations are successfully completed, and both Frances and myself can relax a little as we begin routine mesocosm sampling.

John and his Magic Machine (a.k.a. Gas chromatograph-pulsed flame photometric detector)

We have to help all the other EPOCA scientists with the sampling and boat driving as this is very much a team effort and we were issued with our survival suits in preparation. We had safety talks regarding boat operations in waters that are very close to freezing and what to do in the event of engine failure. There are up to five sampling boats out at most times so there will is a lot of backup support. We will also have to take turns doing an ice-watch, looking out for ice floes that break off the two glaciers in the fjord and heading out to sea. Luckily it is 24 hour daylight so they will be easy to see and if they look like they are going to head for the mesocosms then we can send a boat out to move them. It going to get a lot busier for us but the German team have already been working flat out for a week setting the whole infrastructure up.

Susan and Frances suited, booted, and ready for the fjord


Sunny sampling

Having now had a few days to perfect our sampling routine, it has become a fairly slick operation. Every morning at 09:00 about 12 or 13 of us head out to take the daily water samples, with 5 or 6 on a large powerboat known as the Wasserman, and 3 Zodiacs each carrying 2 to 3 intrepid scientists. The role of the Wasserman is to act as a sampling platform to take the more delicate samples, such as those for trace gases, and to enable those on the Zodiacs to offload their samples once they have collected them from the mecocosms. The Wasserman team also sample from mesocosms 1, 2 and 3, while the other Zodiacs deal with the rest.

Heading out on the Wasserman

Our first target

The mesocosms. Not comfy seats for seagulls.

Zodiac sampling teams: like bees on flowers.

Queuing up with water samples for the Wasserman

Tim performing the tricky sampler retrieval manoeuvre.

To collect our samples, we use some very clever contraptions called integrated water samplers. These samplers are slowly lowered down through the water, and are programmed to collect water continuously for 12m, thereby giving us samples that are representative of almost the whole water column inside the mesocosms. It’s quite hard work though – lowering the samplers is fairly easy, but hauling them back up and out of the mesocosms and onto the boats is a bit more tricky! And on some days up to 6 hauls are required per mesocosm. I think we will have some impressive muscles in a few weeks…

Andrea and Anna carefully taking samples…

…whilst Sebastian ponders the mesocosms…

Today was a particularly fine day for sampling – soon after heading out the sky cleared, the sun came out, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. In fact, it was actually rather warm, something I thought I would never think in the Arctic! 

We were back on shore by 11:30, with enough time to distribute all the samples to the relevant labs, stop for some lunch, then spend the afternoon filtering and analysing the precious water….

On the water

Being on the water is always very enjoyable for me and today was no different despite wearing a heavy orange survival suit. This astronaut looking suit is essential if anyone is to fall into the freezing waters of the fjord.

It is equipped with safety gadgets to enable boats to easily detect you and its design allows you to maintain on the waters’ surface completely buoyant without losing heat at the rate you might have if you were not wearing it. This is very important if you find yourself swimming in the currently almost freezing 0.5° C water. However the fact that you wear several layers of thermal clothes under the suit doesn’t mean that it is warm on the small zodiac boat. The wind chill factor decreases the air temperature or at least what the body feels dramatically and the suit does not cover the face or your hands. Special gloves need to be worn when working on the boats as you always get wet when working at sea no matter how calm it is. So today was a practice day for me, and the rest of the scientists that will be going on a daily bases to the mesocosm bags. It was a practice to learn how to deploy the integrated water samplers inside the already closed bags and also for me personally a practice in driving the little zodiac. I haven’t driven such a boat in nearly seven years and felt a bit rusty at first. However I quickly remembered the basics due to the help of the much more experienced drivers that were present with me: Jean-Pierre Gattuso and Lucie Bittner.

Once I felt comfortable with the drive, I even managed to enjoy the 10 minute long drive and the view that consisted of crystal clear waters and frozen mountains on both sides of the fjord. I will never forget this first drive in this frozen kingdom of beauty.

 Today was easy but I wonder how it will be if it gets windy and if we start getting iceberg pieces through which we will have to make our way. We estimate that it will take us at least two to three hours to get our samples from the mesocosm back to the laboratory, and this is only an estimate as there are often unpredictable problems that can suddenly appear.  Then we will have to start our filtration, something that will take four more hours.

Finally the filtered samples will need to be stored in temperature as low as -80° C and all the equipment that we have used will have to be cleaned and prepared for the following day. So there are long days ahead of us but hopefully the tiredness will be worth it because we all love what we do as scientists. There is one thing that is more important than sleep and warmth at the moment for all of us: to start the experiment and get good reliable results for this extremely important other CO2 problem named ocean acidification.