Eyes down!

by Chris Searston

During the warmer months in the arctic, when some of the ground-covering snow has disappeared, a treasure trove of fossils can be revealed. In some areas you can be literally walking over them with almost every step you take. My personal favourite fossil was picked up during my very first trip in 1991.

We were walking in single file over the Bakaninbreen glacier and I was directly behind the ARG leader Ian Frearson when he mentioned it was worth keeping your eyes down on the ground for fossils as we crossed over moraine patches (in between keeping a more important lookout for the large white fauna that frequents these areas – the polar bear). Moments after he said that, I spotted a fossil of a starfish – very rare as in life it was a soft tissue creature.

It has been our long running, but friendly tease since then as he must have stepped over it a second before I saw it – and he missed it! I have never found another starfish fossil, despite earnest searching over the intervening years, but often wonder how many impressive fossil specimens are missed because they happen to be ‘upside down’ when we pass them…

24 Hour Sunlight (Republished)

by Dan Clarke

The occurrence of the ‘midnight sun’ comes from the tilting of the earths’ axis. This phenomenon occurs during the summer months in places south of the Antarctic circle and north of the Arctic circle. Svalbard is one of these places.

Around the 19th April – 23rd August every year there is no sunset. Of course the exact opposite occurs where there is no direct sunlight for about three months, we generally don’t run our expeditions at this time of year, although the sight of the sun just kissing the horizon is a fantastic common feature of previous expeditions.

It is strange and can be incredibly beautiful creating oranges and gold colours like you’ve never seen before.

Midnight sun also can have an adverse effect on your natural rhythms of the body and mind. Mainly your sleep patterns go slightly awry which can lead to being irritable, a bit moody and also fatigue.

We have a light receptor that sends messages along nerves to our internal clock, not even via your vision centre, it is this which causes humans/animals some trouble initially until we can adapt to the situation.

Your internal clock sets biological rhythms for the day; getting up/eating/sleeping. We confuse these rhythms already to some extent by surrounding ourselves with all types of artificial light to prolong the waking hours and we need darkness to re-set our clocks. In particular blue light stimulates the brain more so than other colours, so ease off television or laptops before going to sleep.

Practical things to do on expedition in these circumstances are relaxation exercises before sleep time, wearing eye patches/mask when going to sleep or line the inside of the tent with dark fabric.

Having a good balanced diet and cutting down on sugary items, getting plenty of exercise for the brain and the body, maintaining a fairly strict daily routine and talking about any problems that may be occurring, for sure it won’t be just you being affected.

Being on an expedition creates its own daily routines which are essential to living, cooking, eating personal hygiene and keeping an eye out for bears. Added to these in time come making improvements to your basic living area and completing projects of all people involved on expedition.

Moments in Time – Rocks Awash (Republished)

by Mike Haynes

In 1983 with the Polar Exploration Group advance party of Ian Frearson and Chris ‘RIP’ Garner, we were on board the chartered ship Plancius heading out from Longyearbyen, West towards six weeks in Tempelfjorden. Also on board were the two tonnes of expedition resources and research equipment that had been freighted out to Svalbard for the main expedition.

Little did we know that as we headed into the forepeak to change out of our travel clothes and into our arctic gear, the crew seemingly had set the automatic pilot on a course and either left the bridge or chose not to check where the ship was heading. As we were getting changed we were suddenly thrown from our feet as Plancius came to a juddering stop and grabbing life jackets, we dashed through the bulkhead and up the companion way to emerge on deck as quickly as we could.

The ship had struck a reef of rocks which could be easily seen in the clear arctic water from the bow and she was aground and listing hard to port within sight of Longyearbyen.As we were on a rising tide, the Sysselmann’s vessel Polar Star came to the assistance of the Plancius and after we had disembarked in tenders, a tow rope was made fast and the Plancius was freed and able to make it’s own way back to Longyearbyen.

As we later discovered, the rocks were indicated on the land maps of the area as ‘Rocks Awash’ which at low tides, they would be.After inspection by a diver, the Plancius was deemed fit to steam for repairs and our expedition plans had to be reset – of which more another time.

Moments in Time – Contrast (Republished)

by Mike Haynes

Technical knowledge has come a long way in a short amount of time. Thirty years ago, lap top computers were new and an exciting part of one of our most technical projects. A large part of the challenge was having electronics working in the Arctic environment.

A huge amount of effort had gone into the project preparations and when at last it was working in the field, the team had established the installation on a rock outcrop high above the surging glacier. The lap top had a state of the art liquid crystal display and during the first hours of operation it seemed not to be able to function in the cold as it had progressively become harder and harder to make out what was being displayed on the screen.

Extremely frustrated at this irritating apparent malfunction, the team returned in an arduous trip from the mountain side back to base camp near sea level, hoping that the warmth of the base tent would allow the screen to recover and be seen.

Gathered around the machine expectantly hoping it would be clear, everyone was disappointed as it appeared not to have improved at all. In this moment in time, a suggestion was made to turn a knurled wheel seen on the computer side and see if it was a contrast control. As the wheel was turned, the image on screen came instantly clearer, relief and frustration in equal measure was expressed by those involved.

Sometimes trying the most obvious solution can lead to success and it can also be very frustrating when you can’t see the obvious.

Moments in Time – Counting Birds (Republished)

by Mike Haynes

I have been privileged to have nature deliver a moment in time that sticks in the memory.  One of the animals that can often achieve this is the arctic fox and a favourite moment of mine to recall is this. 

For research purposes I was counting barnacle geese that were flying overhead in their thousands. They were all going in the same general direction and heading presumably for their nesting grounds or perhaps for a particularly abundant food source.  Wherever it was they were heading, they passed overhead in formations, each of hundreds of birds, for several hours.

 I found a comfortable spot, out of the wind, facing the right way between some boulders and settled down on a piece of driftwood, padded with a piece of closed cell foam mat and began to count.  Every few minutes, I’d pause the count, get up and look around carefully for any signs of polar bear.  Nothing seen, I’d settle down again and count some more.  I thought I had established a safe working procedure.

We both stared at each other for what seems now in memory to be several minutes and perhaps was even less than one.  It was certainly longer than I had expected of this usually wary creature. 

Quite some time into the counting, I was startled by the sight of an inquisitive arctic fox who just appeared, from nowhere, just a few feet from me.  My first thought, alarmingly I realised soon after, wasn’t ‘this could have been a polar bear’.  My first thought was how beautiful the arctic fox was and how privileged I was to be so close to it, I could see every detail. 

I moved first, as I realised that in fact, I hadn’t looked around for some minutes and perhaps that unseen polar bear could be getting closer.  When I settled back down again, to my surprise the arctic fox was still there, exactly in the same place, with what I imagined to be a curious look that just made me smile.  I suspected then that had a polar bear been heading our way, more than likely the arctic fox wouldn’t have been hanging around, watching a human being.  After a short time more, perhaps even a minute or two, the arctic fox went on it’s way.  Never looking back.

Just to confirm, I decreased the length of the counting times and increased the frequency of looking out for polar bear.  Thank you arctic fox.

Short Tales #6 (Republished)

Shackleton’s Compass by Ian Frearson

I was on one occasion asked to stand in for BBC’s John Simpson who was booked to deliver a lecture at Leicester University. Naturally mine was on the Arctic and not War regions of the Middle East. One of the items I took to pass round at the dinner table as an ice breaker was a prismatic compass that I claimed had belonged to and been used by Shackleton. As it happened I was telling the truth.

This is a lovely piece of kit manufactured by Stanley of London, with locking mechanism, sighting prism and a pair of glass screens, one neutral density, one green. This made a major impression on those there, which was a good job since the audience were not told of John Simpson’s replacement until the actual time for delivery.

On hearing the sad news four people immediately got up & walked out of the lecture hall. Admittedly they were Afghanistan students so it was not unexpected and my lecture did seem to go down alright. John did invite me to dinner with him the following year by way of thanks.

Oh yes, the compass. Well it was owned and used by Shackleton – Michael Shackleton of Bristol University, on a field trip to Svalbard in 1977. Pity he was not related to the great Sir Earnest though. Ah well, perhaps a little more interesting words next time.

Short Tales #5 (Republished)

Folding rocks by Ian Frearson

During one memorable journey to our Base Camp site we passed a huge rock face containing one massive fold and were all impressed by the sight, considering the millions of tonnes of rock being folded into this perfect circular shape.

Some years later, in another location completely, I happened to find the very centre of a fold in some Proterozoic rock formations and could not resist the urge for bring it back for closer examination. 

It still impresses me no end, despite its small size and reminds me of the immeasurable forces that were experienced when these original rock formations were created.

Short Tales #4 (Republished)

Dry bones by Ian Frearson

Along the shores of Bellsund are relics of a bygone way of life – that of taking marine mammals for their hide, blubber, flesh and bone.  One can often find isolated bones or in some cases, almost whole skeletons of mammals ranging from young whales, walrus and seal skeletons and sometimes the remains of huge whales, a moving and impressive sight. 

I found this vertebra on a trek to visit a surging glacier and it made as much of an impression on me as did the latter.  The reindeer antler may be picked up anywhere as they shed each year.  You should see the others, some are enormous, but not as big as something I’ll talk about, next time…

Short Tales #3 (Republished)

Nature’s nail file by Ian Frearson

Between 1989 and 2005 we were making forays into the area at the head of Rindersbukta, the very end of Van-Mijenfjorden.  During that time we visited several different areas with a variety of Geological epochs.

In one, the Tertiary Sandstones of the Carolinefjellet, I picked up a small triangle of rock that showed more clearly than I have ever seen before the various layers as they were laid down some 70 million years ago.  Taking it back to camp I showed it round and one of the team commented “it looks like nature’s nail file”.

Over 500 million years of geology

Amongst the many rocks encountered we have found everything from marble to muck, the left hand sample being the former, the right hand being a gold bearing ore found in 1996, and the centre one of course is nature’s nail file.  Younger than the rocks there are calcium items to pick up & examine, of which more next time…

Short Tales #2 (Republished)

Whittle away by Ian Frearson

It was June 1983 and three of us were revisiting my old survey stations from 1975 in order to recalculate the position of a glacial front.  Like an idiot I had left my eating iron (a spoon) at Base Camp and was forced by necessity to seek an alternative or go hungry. Luckily there is no shortage of timber around the shores of Spitsbergen so, locating a suitable small piece, I took to my knife and whittled myself one for the duration. 

So chuffed with the outcome after less than half an hours work, I brought it home and have introduced it as a talking point at dinners to confuse and entertain diners who have been asked to guess the age of this crude implement. 

One of the things I keep reminding myself about this item is that without my trusty bowie knife I would not have been able to either make it or eat in relative comfort. Luckily, some 70 million year old sandstone did provide me with some comfort, which I’ll explain next time…