Expedition to Spitsbergen: useful and relatively inexpensive

/ October 16, 2015/ Ice and Climate, IMAU

“I would recommend coming along to every scientist”

Among the 50 researchers who went on an expedition to Spitsbergen this summer were seven scientists from Utrecht. Researchers Wim Hoek (Physical Geography) and Willem Jan van de Berg (IMAU) came back with enthusiastic stories to tell.

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“It would be great if these kinds of broad multi-disciplinary expeditions were organised more often, and I would recommend coming along to anyone”, said earth scientist Wim Hoek.


Although the researchers study the climate on a daily basis, the scientists were still shocked by the effects of climate change on Spitsbergen. The photo taken of an emaciated polar bear by one of the expedition members has become an iconic image, but the reindeer there are also suffering, explains climatologist Willem Jan van de Berg. “During the cold winters of the past, the reindeer could push aside the snow to graze on the moss underneath. Now that the snow often melts and then re-freezes, the animals cannot reach the moss, so we saw much fewer reindeer than in the past. Explaining the consequences of climate change is not our main job, but after a trip like this we feel a responsibility to do so anyway.”


Hoek studies the climate of the past by examining the archive of the soil. “When we do this work in the Netherlands, we miss the data from the Roman era and the Middle Ages, because the peat from that time has been dug up and burnt for fuel”, he explains. “Spitsbergen is a pristine climate archive, because humans have never settled there. During the expedition I took core samples of lake bottoms that went back more than 2,000 years. Together with measurements that provide more recent climate information and other benchmarks, hopefully we will be able to reconstruct the climate of the past two millennia.”


Van de Berg conducts research into the climate above the polar ice caps, including the interaction between the weather conditions and the ice cap itself. “The condition on the surface of the ice cap is very important for those interactions”, he explains. “Snow is white, so it reflects light. When the snow melts and clumps together, it becomes darker and absorbs more light – and therefore heat – so the ice melts faster. During the expedition, we set up a new weather station on Spitsbergen in order to better understand how glaciers melt. The station will allow us to register the weather conditions, but also how much heat makes it to the surface of the glacier. We will also be able to measure how much the station sinks over time. That will allow us to reconstruct the effects of the weather conditions on the glacier.”


The cooperation between the researchers felt natural, says Van den Berg. “Once we put up our weather station, we didn’t have much more to do for the rest of the expedition, so it was fun to help other people.” Hoek: “You need a whole team of people to take core samples, so Stefan Ligtenberg from IMAU joined us for a day to help drill cores. Plus, a joint expedition is relatively inexpensive, because you can share the logistical costs with lots of other researchers.


The researchers were pleasantly surprised about the effect of an expedition together with people from other specialisms. Hoek: “I enjoyed explaining our work to researchers from other disciplines. You actually learn more from those interactions than from colleagues from our own field, whom you normally work with every day. And the tourists who came along for the ride asked completely different questions. It’s great to realise how many people are interested in your research. I am pleased with the attention the media paid to our expedition. It lets you talk about your research in a more natural manner.”


The expedition also led to unexpected cross-pollinations of one anothers’ work. Van de Berg: “We do projects where we look back into the past, and during the expedition we realised that we can benchmark the information we collected on Spitsbergen to Wim Hoek’s data.” Hoek: “I talked to some biologists, who say that they see clear differences with observations from the 1970s. We should be able to see those differences in our results as well.” Van de Berg: “Strangely enough, we found that there was actually little change over the past 50 years. It will be interesting to find out why that is.”


SEES-blog by Willem Jan van de Berg

SEES-blog by Wim Hoek

NOS-blog by Peter Kuipers Munneke