Lights in the dark

Life is good in Ny-Ålesund!

The high north is famous for northern lights, something that the first few days in Ny-Ålesund showed us. We were lucky enough to enjoy clear skies, stars and spectacular northern lights ranging from red to green.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights. Photo: Geir Johnsen

Surprisingly this was not the only place we observed stunning lights.

« … When you strike the sea with a rod by night, and the water is seen to shine. » Aristotle 350 BC

If you take a stroll down the pier in Ny-Ålesund in complete darkness, and stirr the water with your hand you will see amazing glowing colors. Life in the sea during the polar night you ask? When you turn back on your headlamp, you can see all the living creatures, including those responsible for the glowing ocean.


Bioluminescence. Photo: Geir Johnsen

The water is so clear that we can actually identify several species of zooplankton. What strikes the eye is heaps of ctenophores (comb jellies). These are also the ones who contribute the most to the northern lights of the sea: bioluminescence.

Text : Eirik Kommedal and Lauris Boissonnot

Super Trouper

Fieldwork for the Underwater Robotics course in Ny-Ålesund is coming to an end and most of Saturday was spent packing. Luckily, during the afternoon, we got to play with the tiniest ROV a Homo sapiens has ever encountered. Nevertheless, it is probably worth something around 200 000 NOK. And yes Jørgen, it is still alive! The purpose of the ROV launching was to have a competition between the three student groups, in which the groups would try to spot and record (every scientist needs proof!) any fish that might hide around the pier. Group B and C saw a juvenile Black Guillemot, some krill and a single crab, but no fish. However, group A, also named the ROV killers, saw lots of polar cods and become the lucky winner of the ROV contest. They got two choices for the winner price; either a nice umbrella drink, or listen to a certain professor performing his version of ABBA “Super Trouper”. The choice was easy and definitely the most entertaining way to end, yet, another glories day in Ny-Ålesund!

Marthe ROV

Marthe S. has full control over the ROV. (Photo: Ingvild Andersson)

Timelapse video: A feast

Piotr Balazy, one of the Marine Night partners from the Polish IOPAS, deployed a time lapse camera for a short term test in the harbour in Ny Ålesund. Below you can see a result of 3 day deployment. After the successful test, he deployed four cameras of the same type for long term study of barnacles. All being well and the cameras holding the promise of the manufacturer, they will take pictures every 15 minutes for more than half a year from now on. You will find an example of the results on the Marine Night homepage in about half a year.

Time lapse video: Piotr Balazy

Text: Daniel Vogedes

Broken promises of nice weather

The AUV, sitting on the lab bench waiting for input

The AUV, sitting on the lab bench waiting for input. Photo: Marthe Austad

We embarked on this campaign in good spirit and were promised good meteorological conditions throughout the whole field work period. Foolishly, we believed our supervisor, the “bio-meteorologist”, little knowing that a storm would hit upon us on Wednesday. Wednesday started out calm as dead jelly (Scyphozoan) on the beach, giving the plankton group a chance to sample the daily snack for the microscope. As the day got older, the wind got stronger. The group working with light also got some of their measurements, enough to make a day out of it, together with data sorting. An AUV-mission was planned for the third group. Scheduled for launch around 11:00 am, local time. It was supposed to make a transect 2 km long and about 75 m deep, but the wind would not have it this way. Because of waves the Homo sapiens, dressed in the gorgeous emergency suits, had to abort the mission and head back to the marine lab to wash an AUV who had been in the water for 12 minutes. Needless to say, the third group felt that the weather was having favourites.

None the less, life in Ny-Ålesund goes on, and it’s still, like, pretty cool stuff, actually.

Text: Sverre Julian Hekmersen Håpnes, June Jakobsen, Sander Verbiest

Homo sapiens and the emergency suit

When doing underwater robotics and marine biology related field work, you have to expect to spend some time in a boat. The boat in question during this period of field work, is not the biggest boat you could have found on Svalbard. The boat we were using was a small, open boat, with room for seven organisms of the species Homo sapiens and some equipment. The individuals in question are not of a marine species, but rather a terrestrial one. This calls for some extra gear for survival if one would fall into the water. The extra gear used for increased hope of survival, is called an emergency suit. The suit itself, when not put on an individual, looks harmless enough. The orange colour is maybe not the colour Homo sapiens would wear to go out and look for a mate during Saturday evenings, but it is functional when it comes to spotting the individual who has fallen into the water – after which mating might still occur.

Survival suit gang

Ready to survive. Photo: Marthe Austad

Text: Sverre Julian Hekmersen Håpnes, June Jakobsen, Sander Verbiest


ROV pilots for one day!

After a day of counting zooplankton in microscopes, the technology students were looking forward to doing AUV surveys in Kongsfjorden outside Ny-Ålesund. Unfortunately, bad weather prevented running the AUV mission, so an alternative ROV training operation was performed inside the harbour basin.

The day started with planning security issues we carefully checked that the ROV was in good shape and good to go. That last part did take some time since there is a lot of cables o think about, and to many hands wanting to plug them, perhaps we were too enthusiastic.


Let us present: Our gadget of the day! Photo: Stefanie Liefmann

After an hour the vehicle was packed and off to the pier we went. Weather conditions were not the best, but moral and enthusiasm remained high, even after another long round of plugging cables.

The ROV was finally deployed at 15:18 UTC time, we experienced some power problems that where easily fixed. The sea was rough, and our driving was not all that good, thus we are not bothering putting any videos in here. Everybody in our group to drive the vehicle. As every inexperienced pilots we entangled the engine in sea weed which meant that our fun mission was over.

Not much actual research was done during the day, but the experience and the learning outcome were amazing.


Light day for our group, even though it was nowhere to be seen. The all sky camera was retrieved, and the pictures from previous days downloaded. The weather forecast was not very good thus we stayed inside analyzing pictures. After a few shuts it was evident that light pollution influenced our measurements , especially when the sky was covered. After taking a group picture the all sky camera was put back into position for another day of measurements.

At the end of the day we took inside the E-PAR sensor, which had been left on land to take some measurements, and prove the theory that it might be sensitive to the cold. As expected it had shut down after a few hours outside. On the bright side, we discovered with the few measurements it took , that the prototype is not as sensitive as we first expected it to be. Again not much data was retrieved, but a lot new information for our student brains.

The group, fish-eyed

The group, fish-eyed. Photo: Geir Johnsen

Text: Stefan Vilsen, and Stephanie Liefmann.

About the Brazilian-South African Svalbard transition

After absorbing the theory at UNIS, Longyearbyen and arriving safely at Ny-Ålesund on the 15th of January the chance finally arrived to use the knowledge and jump into action mode. Many things needed to be done: from the moving of equipment through to diving into the technical manuals to set the instrumentation before sampling.

Working in the unforgivable winter of Svalbard requires careful attention. From the small but not to be forgotten details such as clothing, head lamps and reflectors, rifles (when leaving the settlement, so to avoid to become a delicious polar bear meal) up to the problem solving of using the instrumentation in such harsh weather conditions. Everything takes longer in these conditions and replanning becomes no exemption.

These experiences are especially noticed by the two of us, both foreigners, one born and raised in Brazil and the other in South Africa. Even the simplest task becomes an issue such as using gloves and increasing the clumsiness or barely managing the tying of ones shoes: a lot of lessons to learn here.

The state of the art technology

As a student of aerospace engineering the preparation and usage of the robots is straight forward, with manuals full of pictures, like an adult Lego, yet the problem solving fried many a brain cell.

The polar night was never studied deeply, is a hard environment and never before (in our knowledge) one was able to work in such conditions as we do now. With autonomous underwater vehicles, remotely operated vehicles and different sensors with a level of sensitivity to measure light even in the darkest conditions. Polar night was previously thought as a dead or hibernated environment and we are on a mission to redefine this statement.

In remembrance of L. de Broglie

Sometimes science might be complicated even when answering mundane questions such as: which species live here? Where? How do they feed themselves?
It is important to keep track and consistency of the data. For every measurement, we need to guarantee that we have instrument characteristics controlled, so we can discriminate real values from noise.  Science needs precision in order to produce meaningful data. Sometimes this includes boring or monotonic work, but its quality is highly dependent on careful set up and testing.

Ny-Ålesund was not a random choice. The purpose was not to make the northernmost research in the world (LoL). Aiming for an undisturbed condition, the lack of human inhabitants here, allows us to have a gigantic lab, where we are able to control almost everything, from the quantity of light emission through to the activities around the harbor: ensuring that one does not measure human presence.

We daily face the cold with smiles and bearing in our minds that “the actual state of our knowledge is always provisional and … there must be, beyond what is actually known, immense new regions to discover” (Louis de Broglie, 1892 – 1987)

Written by: Fabienne Fichtner and Michel Klüger

Video by Fabienne Fichtner

The newest diet: P-NED

Carl, ready dressed for poo work. Picture courtesy of  Irene Quaile, see her Ice blog here:

Carl, ready dressed for poop work. Picture courtesy of Irene Quaile. Visit her Ice blog, link in right panel (“Marine Night in DW”)

It’s that time again where everyone has finished with the indulging of the Christmas food, the fridges are getting empty and the gyms are getting full with people trying to loose their extra Christmas pounds. In association with new gym memberships the newest diets are also being posted in almost every media form showing how to achieve the perfect body size and shape, yet those that know me know that “diet” is not really in my vocabulary. Yet on this research cruise I really think I have found one diet that I have to spread the word about, and may even try myself. It’s the “Polar Night Euphausiid Diet” or P-NED, for those who like acronyms. The background to this diet is based upon the results from numerous faecal pellet (krill shit) experiments conducted on different euphausiid (krill) species caught in Kongsfjord at this time of year. The experiments are firstly run for one hour and then the water in which they have been swimming is checked under a microscope to see if they have expelled their bowels, if not they are kept for 12 hours and checked again. Upon checking many samples I have found no signs of them excreting and when I was giving up hope I found something in one of them. I was super excited thinking I had finally found a small bit of poop, sounds very strange to write that I was excited about some poop, but I honestly was! This excitement however was short lived as I was told that it was in fact not that at all but just a bit of detritus. After these negative results from this experiment, I have come up with this new diet in which the slogan will be “Winter is coming”. The diet follows what I believe is the way of these euphausiids, which consists of eating as much as you can in order to put on fat over the short summer period followed by fasting when food abundance is scarce during the long Polar Night lasting only on your fat reserves. Of course I am still hopeful to prove that these organisms are opportunistic and will feed if they get the chance (so to try and relieve the worries about missing the festive indulgence), so I will continue with the poop experiments. Yet if all else fails we can either move Christmas to a summer holiday or alternatively just alter the fasting period to spring.

Text: Carl Ballantine

When fieldwork becomes addicting

In my mind, the past few days on the Helmer Hansen have been unlike any academic experience I have ever encountered.  Of course, I have spent long nights in the lab, or studying for exams, but those nights have left me mentally drained and eager to move and get outside. These last few nights on the Helmer Hansen have been an entirely different matter. In my mind, the closest comparable experience is running a marathon. As an endurance athlete, I am very familiar with the long grind of the marathon. It feels great the first eight miles; things start to hurt around mile ten, and by mile 18 I’m really starting to worry….but then something magical happens (if I’m lucky). Right around mile twenty, after hours of pushing firmly on the wall forming in my head, I seem to fall through it, and my mind settles in a peaceful place somewhere on the trail in front of me and I no longer think about my aching achilles or upset stomach. At this point, I am completely absorbed in the movement of running. My thoughts are gone, and I feel like I could go forever. Some people call this ‘flow.’

Epibenthic sledge recovered from a haul. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

Epibenthic sledge recovered from a haul. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

Here on the Helmer Hansen, I reached this place around 4am in the fish lab on the 13th. After a few hours of stumbling through the motions, longing for my bed and cursing the dying fish in my hands, everything changed in what would have felt like a very short period of time, had I noticed. Suddenly, all thoughts of sleep, food, and tea vanished and my arms and hands moved automatically, and my mind entered the peaceful state of flow. I knew exactly what needed to be done, and suddenly I knew exactly how to complete it in the most thorough and efficient manner. Hours went by in minutes.
This is why I live for the marathon. The months of training, the injuries, the gruesome miles between eight and eighteen, all of these unpleasant things are eclipsed by the forty blissful minutes from mile 20 to 26. Of course, things do not end after the finish line. Leaving flow can be as painful as entering it. Things are great (and I mean really great) for a few hours until the endorphins wear off. Then comes the nausea, and the headaches and the deep sad sense of loss as you realize that it’s over. This is when, of course, you start planning for the next one….the next time you can enter that brief, yet blissful state of existence.
Here on the Helmer Hansen we had a packed four days of sampling. Day and night were consumed by filtering water and processing Trawls and Epibenthic sleds. There was no time to sleep or even think about food or water. I was completely lost in the moment, and specifically in the physical movements of the process. Of course, as with running, all things must come to an end. First, things felt really good, as I was consumed by the relief of being finished, but then I was reminded

Sledge catch. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

Sledge catch. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

that the return to the real world can be quite painful. First, the basic human needs that I had been neglecting made themselves heard: sleep and water being at the top of the list, then came that inevitable and intense feeling of loss as I was wrenched from my hours of intense focus. There is no way to just flip the switch; it is too hard to let go, and when you do, a short mourning period seems to be necessary. But then soon enough, just like when I finish a marathon, came the plans for my next cruise and the thoughts about the next time I can reach the state of flow. Who could have guessed that the hours of sieving muddy samples on the deck of the HH in the cold and dark of the Arctic winter, or the hours spent with a pair of tweezers hand-picking amphipods from a bucket could elicit such an emotional response? People say that marathons are addicting, and I think I can now say the same for field work. No wonder scientists keep coming back; I certainly know that I will, and as a young masters student just entering the world of research, I find that notion comforting.

Text: Maeve McGovern

It’s never too dark to settle

Somewhere out there, in an Arctic fjord draped in darkness, a lone ship rolls through the freezing waves. Inside the ship, in a chamber lit by bright fluorescent lights and filled with computer screens, a group of scientists document their most recent findings. It is the modern age, and we are the best brand of explorers. The surface of the earth may have been crisscrossed by man plenty of times, but the body of undiscovered knowledge remains vast. It is our job to simultaneously push the boundaries of geography and science, taking that which is unknown and making it known.

In my case, that unknown is how factors like temperature and sedimentation affect what animals (and how many) settle on hard surfaces in Arctic fjords. We actually know a lot about how benthic (bottom-dwelling) animals are distributed in Svalbard waters. You can find plenty of papers about what animals live on rocks, what animals live on algae, and how the communities vary in different parts of the fjords. We know comparatively a lot less about how those animals get there.

Most bottom-dwelling animals like barnacles, hydroids, and bryozoans spend their entire lives in one place. In order to reproduce and distribute their young to new places, they have a larval stage in their life cycle. Larvae often look very different from the adults, and they’re carried around by ocean currents until they find a good spot to settle. It’s the same idea as caterpillars and butterflies – well, if caterpillars could fly and butterflies spent their adult lives permanently attached to trees.

In most parts of the ocean, animals reproduce in the spring, and the larvae settle through the spring and summer. What I want to find out is if any larvae will settle during the winter, in the polar night. Conditions during the Arctic winter are anything but luxurious – it’s the cold, dark, and there’s not a lot to eat. Would anything be able to settle and metamorphose during this time of year?

Settlement plates before deployment

Settlement plates before deployment

My goal during the Marine Night campaign is to answer this question. Last September, I outplanted plastic plates in the fjords with the help of two SCUBA divers, and the divers are recovering the plates for me during the cruise. I got the first set back earlier this week. At first, it didn’t look like anything was on them, but when I looked under a microscope, I could see hundreds of tiny worms on the plates. The worms are called spirorbids, and they live in calcium carbonate tubes. I also found a number of bryozoans, or moss animals. Bryozoans live in colonizes of hundreds or even thousands of individuals, but the colonies I found only had one or two individuals, indicating they were very young.

Polychaete on settlement plate

Polychaete on settlement plate

I was astounded by my results! On just 8 settlement plates, I found a total of 1400 individuals. Can larvae settle and metamorphose during the polar night? You bet they can. Text and photos: Kirstin Meyer

See also Kirstin’s own blog here: