Svalbard Blog

Europlanet Blog 


During August 2010, Professor Liane Benning will be investigating the organisms that thrive in the snow fields and glaciers around Ny-Ålesund, on the island of Svalbard.  Learning more about the survival strategies that life adopts in extreme environments gives us a better chance of detecting life on other planets with similarly extreme conditions.”

AMASE has established Svalbard as a test bed for life-detection technology to fly on future NASA and ESA ‘Search for Life’ missions to Mars (i.e., MSL, EXOMars). These expeditions have run since 2003 and are managed by Hans E.F. Amundsen (EPX, Norway), Andrew Steele and Marilyn Fogel (Carnegie Institution of Washington), Pamela Conrad (NASA,JPL) and Liane G. Benning (University of Leeds). AMASE 2010 is comprised of more than 33 scientists, engineers, media and safety people from different backgrunds (microbiology, geology, biogeochemistry, robotics, electronics, photography etc.).

Blog No 3: Ice Babes and Snow Men

August 9th to 16th
Almost a week has passed since my last blog but I have been very busy. Between Monday and Wednesday last week the rest of the AMASE team arrived in Ny Alesund. The AMASE “newbies” had to first do the Arctic Safety training course which included polar bear awareness as well as rifle shooting training and on Friday they also all had to go on a ‘short’ 12 km walk to evaluate their field worthiness etc. All passed both the shooting training and the walk. Once that was done then the teams had Friday evening and Saturday for setting up and testing their equipment and instruments for field or laboratory deployment.

As I had arrived earlier and had done all these tasks before, that meant for the Snow and Ice work we were lucky: on Tuesday in absolutely fabulous and sunny but cold weather together with Dominique Tobler (University of Glasgow) and 2 other AMASE ‘oldies’ (Marilyn Fogel, and Verena Starke a biogeochemist and a microbiologist from the Carnegie Institution of Washington) we went on an additional sampling trip to Midre Lovénbreen.  We dubbed this trip the “Ice Babes” trip and besides having a great day and learning a lot about changing ice conditions we collected a whole bunch of new samples, which upon return to the labs Dominique and I processed immediately.


The “Ice Babes” Verena Starke, Liane G. Benning, Marilyn Fogel and Dominique Tober on a sampling trip to Midre Lovénbreen. Credit: Dominique Tobler


A sunny day in Ny Alesund; old coal train, now a cultural heritage site with the Kongsvegen glacier in the background: Credit: Liane G. Benning

Then on Thursday although the weather turned and the clouds, a cold wind and rain arrived we went out again.  This is the Arctic but we were prepared.  We visited Austre Brøggerbreen and this time Dominique, Marilyn and myself also got company from Steve Squires (Cornell University, Mars Exporation Rover PI) and Dave Pots (Safety and Videographer from Manchester). This glacier was very different. The surface was very ‘dirty’ due to the surrounding rocks being grey and red and easier weathered, and in addition this glacier has a massive Moulin, which is a tubular hole in the glacier where the water from a runoff channel disappears.


(Above) Massive Moulin on Austre Brøggerbreen (size of hole is ~ 8 m). Credit: Dominique Tobler

(Right) Steve Squires exploring a passage around the Moulin. Credit: Liane G. Benning


We found, however, very interesting and exciting fields of snow algae and cryoconites which were safe to sample and collected a 3rd series of samples that were immediately processed.


Red snow algae field ( ~ 3 x 2 m) on side of a runoff channel on Austre Brøggerbreen. Credit: Dominique Tobler

OK, so now we arrived to Saturday, the weather was still cloudy and cold but we had planned the first helicopter outing to our remote field site - a volcanic centre in Bockfjorden in the north of the island. However, our target site was snowed in and, at -3°C and on an exposed ridge, camping or deployment of instruments was not realistic. So after taking pictures and collecting some samples, the scout team returned to Ny Alesund with bad news but they also just made it back and it started snowing and snowing and snowing. Nevertheless we continued working in the labs and processed a first set of samples that we had collected at a site close to Longyearbyen. By Saturday evening we had 6 cm of fresh snow on the ground and temperatures dropped even more and the wind picked up. Saturday therefore we naturally ad hoc organised a snowball fight (at midnight) and built a snowman while also enjoying a few hours in the pub. 


Ny Alesund on Aug 14th at 2 am with ~ 6 cm fresh snow. Credit: Liane G. Benning


The Snowman we built on the terrace of the pub. Credit: Liane G. Benning

Sunday morning – the Sun returned and with the snow on the ground Ny Alesund turned into a wonderland of snow and ice.


Kongs bay and Ny Alesund in snow. Credit: Liane G. Benning

Sadly on Sunday, although the weather was fabulous the snow on the ground (and thus the fresh snow also on the glaciers) prevented us from doing field work on the other sites. Although a fresh snow sample would be interesting for other scientific reasons, it was not quite on our plan to have snow on Aug 14th. But that is the Arctic and we adapted. 

Today is Monday. I am writing the blog and it is much colder and very windy (-10°C), although the Sun sort of returned. However, today albeit two trials of flying to our remote site - landing proved impossible due to cloud cover and thus we focus on the samples we have.  These prove to be more interesting and challenging than expected due to the various requirements of the 13 different instrument teams.  We have everything from full microbiological analyses (DNA and PCR), to geochemistry (both inorganic chemistry as well as a whole series of mass spectrometers that analyse organics), to full and quantitative mineralogical identification by diffraction (XRD) and vibrational spectroscopic methods (Raman, FTIR), and all the way to analysing pigments in the rocks. However, none of these are useful unless we have the context of the samples and thus our imaging team (both 3D with various filters as well as the close up high resolution cameras) have done a fantastic job to deliver the best images with context and spectral information.  In addition, we have a 3-person team that makes sure that the samples are curated and handled following procedures that avoid cross-contamination for the microbiologists or organic geochemistry teams. So we are busy and have many more samples in the pipeline and hope that in the next day or two the sampling of the volcanic site is feasible.

Blog No 2: First Field and Lab Days
August 7th & 8th

It is Saturday morning (I know that looking by the clock as the light is ‘on’ all the time) and it is a cold but not windy day – perfect for fieldwork. As it is Saturday, breakfast in the dinning room is actually a brunch and it starts at 10.00 am.  I have prepared yesterday all the sampling equipment and my field gear so after the brunch I am heading out to Midre Lovénbreen.  But before going in the field in the Arctic one has to be prepared, not just for dealing with the cold or long walking distances but of paramount importance one has to be safe.  And by safe I mean one has to be prepared in the case of encounters with the local big white furry inhabitant – the polar bear. This is polar bear country and every time we leave the settlement we have to carry a rifle, a signal pistol and a radio and have to make sure that someone knows where we go and roughly when we will return. Naturally in order to do this, Arctic safety courses and rifle shooting courses are a must.  In addition, I am not going alone but am walking to the glacier with Jakub Zarsky, a student who is doing his PhD a the University of Innsbruck.
Midre Lovénbreen as seen from Ny Alesund – note distance is ~ 5 km but in the Arctic clean air it is normal to misjudge distances. Credit: Liane G. Benning

After ~ 1 hour we arrive at the base of the glacier and start walking up the not so steep glacier tongue. Midre Lovénbreen is a relatively well-studied glacier and for orientation we follow a stake line (a traverse following the length of the glacier with poles at set positions that record various physical properties and are positioning markers). We walk up all the way past stake 6 as this way we survey the various features I am interested in and also go to sites where Jakub has his experiments running. 
We come across the usual glacial features that one has to be careful about – for example runoff channels that can be many, many meters deep and several meters wide.  We have to walk along them until we find safe ways to pass but we have been doing this safely for many years now and Midre Lovénbreen is not that difficult. 
One of the runoff Channel on Midre Lovénbreen that we have to cross. Credit: Liane G. Benning

Once we arrive at the top most part of our glacier transect the weather turns into fog and light rain but at least there is no wind so it is actually Ok; We do not waste time, as it can get worse, and identify sites for sampling.
Our first site is in the superimposed ice zone of the glacier where we identify cryoconites as a target for both Jakub and myself.
Picture of cryoconites on Midre Lovebreen. The large cryoconite  ‘hole’ is ~ 4 cm in diameter and they are all  ~ 20 cm deep. Credit: Liane G. Benning

The reason why I am interested in cryoconites is because they represent a cold loving microbial ecosystem that is specialized and adapted to these extreme glacier surface environments. This is also a good site for Jakub who has been out here in Ny Alesund for many weeks now and his PhD topic deals with nitrogen cycling in cryoconites.
So what are cryoconites - well they are sort of frozen cones. They were first named by the arctic explorer Nils A. E. Nordenskiöld during his visit to the Greenland ice sheet in 1870. The Cryoconite itself is the dark material that fills cylindrical wells on a glacier. Cryoconites can start off with a small speck of rock or most often with a blown in dust particle of variable composition. Once these particles are deposited on the ice, due to the differences in albedo, the dark material absorbs solar radiation more than its surrounding white glacier, the ice around and under the particle melts faster; over time it forms a hole and in it a specialized microbial community develops that thrives under these extreme nutrient limited conditions. In the case of this particular glacier, cryoconites are an important contributor to carbon fixation and nutrient cycling and according to one study 6% of the glacier surface is covered with cryoconites.


Jakub Zarsky sampling the water from one of his cryoconite holes on Midre Lovénbreen with the help of a hand pump. Credit: Liane G. Benning

My second target is red or green snow-fields – these are fields covered with snow algae – (will write about these more later). Sometimes these are called “watermelon snow” as they can turn very red due to the pigments that the algae make to protect themselves against UV radiation. Snow algae are again a specialized community that only lives on snow and ice in high alpine or polar regions. We have some difficulty finding lots of snow as the majority has melted, but after a search along the cannels we spot a very good site and I collect a sample.  Naturally, I also collect visibly ‘clean’ snow, runoff water from a nearly shallow channel and several other surface samples.  The goal is to collect as many varied samples of ‘life’ signals and also background samples to obtain an overview of the diversity of the glacial communities.  At each site I measure in situ the pH, conductivity and temperature and collect samples for inorganic and organic analyses of the waters but also materials for metagenomic, isotopic, pigment and live/dead analyses of the microbial communities. In my prepared bags I have all sorts of specializes vials and containers to even bring samples back in their nascent state (e.g., so that they do not melt) or to fix them on site with specific chemicals to preserve specific signatures.

Red snow algae along a channel; After sampling Liane is filling a thermos with snow to insert the sample vials for transport back to the lab without melting; Credit: Jakub Zarsky

After ~ 3 hours or so we have all our glacial surface samples and measurements and we start walking back. One last sample I need to collect is from a subglacial stream and that is not trivial as the outflows are often mixed with surface water and I would like a clean subglacial signal.  However, based on the in situ measurements I think I have found a good sample – but the detailed analyses in the more lab will tell more.
With all these samples in the backpack we return to Ny Alesund just before dinner. It was a short day but with the focussed approach we achieved all our goals and I am happy.  After dinner I immediately go back to the lab to start processing, correctly storing (in the fridge, or freezer or on ice) and if necessary to preserve some of the samples.
However, it is Saturday and thus Pub time – the one “pub” in Ny Alesund  - “ Mellageret Kafe” is open only on Saturday from ~ 10 pm to 3 am and it is the weekly social gathering where permanent staff as well as scientists alike come for some fun, drinks, dancing and chatting – a nice end of a first field day.  Although I am tired from the walk in the fresh air - I am happy and looking forward to more to come. 

Sunday morning. I get up as soon as possible and look outside - the weather is vile – fog and rain – but not to worry - at least for me it is lab day.  I spend most of the day in the lab (interrupted only by the brunch, coffee and dinner) as I have to process and analyse all the samples that I collected yesterday. This takes the whole day and I barely finish with the samples before dinner. After dinner I write this blog and than will go back to the lab to prepare the next set of sample bags for the next glacial field trip. Tomorrow will be a busy day as several other AMASE team members will arrive and also - hopefully - the last set of our instruments will be delivered. The aim tomorrow will also be to set up a second lab for all the big (non-microbiology) instrumentation and discuss the future plans with the other team members.
Note: future blogs may be less frequent or long as once the team is assembled and we start some remote site work I will have less possibilities to write or get Internet access.

Blog No 1:Travel, Arrival and First Day

Friday August 6th

This is my first blog about the work I will carry out in the next two weeks as part of the Europlanet Research Infrastructure’s Transnational Access Programme and as part of AMASE 2010 (Arctic Mars Svalbard Expeditions).

I arrived yesterday afternoon in Ny-Ålesund after the usual very long multi flight trip.  Leaving from Manchester on the 4th of August, then via Copenhagen, Oslo, Tromso and finally Longyearbyen –  the capital of Svalbard  –  and arriving on the 5th early afternoon.  Sadly during the flight in it was very cloudy so I could not see much of the marvellous landscape of massive glaciers and spiky mountains while flying over Svalbard. The main island of the Svalbard archipelago is not called Spitzbergen (German for spiky mountains) for nothing – it is a vast expanse of ice fields and glaciers that have shaped the mountains into towering peaks.

Upon arrival to Longyearbyen – a nice surprise – an old friend of mine, Kjell Ove Storvik, a professional photographer who is joining us this year on the AMASE expedition, greeted me. Kjell Ove was spending some days hiking before joining the expedition (you may see some of his images in future blogs). However, I had a two hours stopover, just long enough for a nice chat and another coffee – before taking the last leg of my trip with a 12 seater plane up to Ny-Ålesund. Again the ride was great but it was cloudy. Just before landing at the small airport we dipped under the clouds and I glimpsed some of the glaciers that we will be working on – Austre Brøggerbreen and Vestre Brøggerbreen – you will get used to the wonderful Norwegian names.


View from the air just before landing of some of the glaciers that we will be working on. Credit: Liane G. Benning

I am now at the end of the world so to speak.  Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost permanent settlement that is just ~ 1200 km from the North Pole. Ny-Ålesund is basically a science park. Here, each year many scientists from all over the world carry out research on fields as diverse as physics, hydrology, geochemistry, geophysics, glaciology microbiology, ecology… They do this in various research stations that are run by 10 different nations. Ny Alesund is located at 78° 55’ N, 11° 56’ E – so pretty far north.  Once I arrived and checked into my room I immediately went to the Marine Laboratory where in the next few weeks we have access to a laboratory to process our samples.

It is 11 pm and I am in my room and looking out through the window. It is naturally not dark as the Sun never sets at this time of the year and I see the most marvellous site – glaciers peaks and water… this for me is like Manna from Heaven – I have the feeling I arrived home. 

kongsvegen glacier small

A view from Ny Alesund towards Kongsvegen glacier. Credit: Liane G. Benning

I have been coming to Svalbard every summer since 2003 as part of AMASE and every time it is the best time of my year. No phone, restricted or no Internet, few people, the most marvellous landscapes, working outside in the best field area one can imagine … what more could I want. It is a nice – and every year long awaited – break from the usual University life.  Not that I don’t enjoy that also but this is so different that at times words do not do it justice. You have to be there to experience it. However  –  as you are not here – I will with this blog do my best to give you a glimpse of the research we do, the people who I work with and the places I will visit.

So tomorrow – Saturday (we do not have weekends here)  –  we go on the first field trip to a glacier and thus today I prepared my gear and experimental equipment. I also collected the first set of samples and processed them in the lab – these are the blanks that will provide us with an idea of the background signals we have to monitor. Thus I prepared all glass vials, test tubes, played with a fluorescence microscope that we will use for imaging and in general prepared and tested all protocols with a water sample taken from the MilliQ system in the lab – the blank. However, tomorrow after breakfast, together with a PhD student from Innsbruck University, I will go up to Midre Lovénbreen – a glacier located ~ 5 km away from the Ny Alesund. My aim is to collect a first set of real samples and in future blog entries I will explain our science goals but also exactly what we do and how we do it.  I'll also give some general feelings about how the time here is spent and thus give you a better idea of what it is to spend two weeks carrying out research in the most amazing Arctic environment.


Dr Liane Benning

Professor Liane Benning (University of Leeds) and Dr Dominique Tobler (University of Glasgow) are travelling to one of the coldest places on Earth to help them understand how life could exist on other planets in our Solar System

The team will spend two weeks on Svalbard from 6 to 20 August as part of Europlanet's Transnational Access Programme, which gives European scientists access to research facilities across Europe. The expedition is part of the larger international AMASE project, which uses extreme environments on Earth as a test-bed for technology that will be used on future NASA and ESA 'Search for Life' missions to Mars.


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