Students’ impressions from geological fieldwork in Svalbard

7 Aug 2014 at 1:18 am Leave a comment

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Markéta Šamánková in Svalbard Fieldcamp

In July 2012 we spent one month in a field camp in northern Prins Karls Forland, Svalbard, as a part of NPI’s geological mapping programme. Our team consisted of two geologists and two master students from Italy and the Czech Republic. The students joined under the umbrella of the European Union’s Erasmus Programme for student exchange.

August 30 2012


Their task was not to collect data for a thesis, but to gain work experience from joining geologists during their work. Both will stay with us until the end of September and work mainly on data collected during the expedition.

None of them had been in Arctic areas before. We have asked them to write down their experiences from this first trip to an area so far from civilization. The outcome was exciting reading. We realized that many aspects of our fieldwork that has become a routine we hardly think of anymore, were experienced as stunning and out-of-normal by them.

Markéta Šamánková, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic:

When I realized I had been invited to take part in a geological expedition to Svalbard I was very excited and couldn’t wait to leave. However, the closer the date of my departure, the more worried I became. I had never been so far in the north, and although I found out information about Svalbard, I did not really know what to expect, both as for the weather conditions and also for the job of a field geologist.

The adventure began at the Longyearbyen airport where I encountered the first polar bear. That one was just stuffed, fortunately. Many things that are natural for people staying in Svalbard were all very new for me, first of all to handle a rifle. It was a real gun, something that can save my life or as well kill. I felt a strong respect every time I carried it. Second, the use of a helicopter in the field, probably very normal in Norway, extraordinary in the Czech Republic, where bicycles are used in the field instead. And third, wearing survival suits whenever driving a rubber boat. When we landed with the boat on the shore and pulled ourselves out of the suits, it made me laugh every time looking at them, they seemed to be big orange monkey bodies lying on the beach.

The first days in Svalbard and especially on Prins Karls Forland I felt like being on a different planet. The countryside all around was grey and almost without vegetation. Only with difficulties I was able to estimate distances, for there were no trees as scale. I was surprised how many animals inhabited that inhospitable land though and how curious they all were. Reindeer approached our camp to see what we were doing, seals followed us when driving the rubber boat, and foxes fearlessly came to steal our food while Arctic terns were attacking them making annoying, loud screams.

I really wanted to see a polar bear, on the other hand it was what I feared most. The first days we anxiously kept looking around for the sign of of a bear, but it didn’t appear. Every time I was falling asleep I was thinking that I only have a couple of seconds to get off my tent after the tripwire explodes before the bear comes and eats me. Once it really exploded in the middle of the night and I was so nervous that I couldn’t unzip my sleeping bag. By the time I was crawling from the tent Winfried already called not to worry, it was just a fox. What a relieve! Since that incident I have been dreaming about a tripwire explosion from time to time.

However we did see a polar bear. It appeared like a huge monster on the horizon and vanished. For a better feeling we kept a polar bear watch in turns that night, but the animal was gone for good only leaving its footprints on the beach.

I was very mistaken if I thought we would be on instant Chinese food all month long in the field. It seems Norwegian geologists are also very good cooks. I have never eaten better Thai curry, Mexican tortillas or Indonesian nasi goreng. All in all living in the camp was much more comfortable and enjoyable than I expected.

The mapping itself was very interesting and beneficial. I saw extensive outcrops of rocks with structures I have only learned about in theory, for there are rarely naked outcrops convenient for geological investigation in my country. I realized geology is hardly ever served right under one’ s very nose, but there are mostly just indications that suggest there is something going on in the rock and it is up to the geologist to interpret them.

Fieldparty on the cliff of Fuglehukfjellet. Photo by Tommaso Trentini

Before the expedition I was not really sure if I did right choosing to study geology. I had just a vague idea about what a geologist does. After the field I feel more confident about the future. I have become aware of my knowledge weaknesses and I know how to work on them. Now I know it is not just studying for nothing. Every single knowledge is like a piece of a puzzle which altogether with experience connects into understanding. I only regret that I didn’t experience the internship earlier, I’d have been more motivated to study and had more time to focus on areas in geology which I find both interesting and important after participating in the expedition.

Tommaso Trentini, University of Ferrara, Italy:

Already from the first e-mail I received from NPI I thought I was a lucky boy, but when they confirmed that I could be a field assistant for a geological field party in Svalbard, I thought I was the luckiest boy of the world. Everybody knows that the Svalbard archipelago is something unique because of its landscapes, its glaciers, its fresh wind, its wild nature, its animals, and its peculiar geological history, so every of these things would have been enough to convince an Italian master student with an Erasmus placement scholarship to accept this work. But, for a student in geological sciences, Svalbard is much more, there is the perfect environment to study – and to learn how to study – rock exposures: no vegetation, no big human settlement, no big soil formation, and so continuous, huge outcrops all around you.

I thought that it would be a very difficult work, in quite extreme conditions instead of the field work and excursions you do with your own university, so I felt quite scared about it. But after some time I decided that such opportunities come only once in life.

I arrived in Longyearbyen the 25th of June after a day’s journey. There was no good weather, but the landscape was so beautiful that caught me immediately. After a few days I met three marvelous people, Marketa, Winfried and Synnove, and on the 29th of June we were ready to start our adventure: first we left Longyearbyen by boat, RV “Lance”, then after 4-5 hours we take a helicopter flight to the place of our campsite. It was my first helicopter flight, an amazing experience, and fortunately it wasn`t the last one during this field work. Excited for the flight, when I reached the fantastic place of the campsite I understood that all my doubts had disappeared. We spent a long, sunny night building up the campsite with the kitchen tent, the storage tent, the personal tents, digging a hole for our “fridge”, building up our toilet on the shore (just in front of the ocean), putting the trip wire and the explosives around the camp against wild animals. We worked hard for two days to build up the camp, to prepare all the stuffs we needed for field work, all the time worked with our rifles close to us, with the fear to see a polar bear close to the camp.

I had never tried to shoot before I came to Longyearbyen and the shooting exercise we took before to go to the field made me quite nervous, I didn’t feel good with a rifle on a shoulder. I thought I didn’t need it; in the field after some time all my troubles disappeared and I started to consider also the rifle as a good friend, every time ready to help me if I needed.

Markéta and Tommaso in their “monkey suits”.

So at the 1st of July everything was ready and we start to work in the field in Prins Karl Forland; we took our safety “monkey” suites for the first time and we went by boat (the good Zodiak). We started to find the typical rocks that crop out in the island, like black slates, quartzitic meta-psammites and conglomerates, and started to work with the compass in one pocket, lenses and notebook in the other one, GPS, binoculars, and maps. From that day we spent on the north side of the island we moved step by step to the south until Millerbreen and we went across all the east-west running valleys that cut the mountain belt of the island, looking at the big overturned folds (really amazing), to the stratigraphic relations between rock formations, to the thrust zones.

Our camp at Vernodden, Prins Karls Forland. Photo By Tommaso Trentini

Day by day I was more used to do our kind of hard work: when the sea was calm I already knew that I had to load the work and safety stuffs on the boat, to put on the safety suite (that takes more time that you can expect), to take the rubber boots; when the sea was too wavy for boating I already knew that probably I had to take my mountain boots instead of the rubber boots, for walking across the mountains. So we walked around our campsite, north, east and south, and we discovered interesting things everyday. Geology is not boring in Svalbard! Every day we found new points of view, new landscapes, new weather conditions (the weather changes very quickly there), and even when you come back to the camp most of the time you could find something new because the sunlight and the clouds painted the sky in very different and wonderful ways.

The first week I spent in the field was very difficult because I had to get used to the weather, the work conditions, and also to the strange animal sounds I could hear at night, and to the sound of explosives that were triggered by foxes that try to get into the camp to rob your meat from the fridge. After that time I started to feel like at my home, but only more dirty: the only thing that you really want when you come back to the camp is that a big shower with hot water appears in front of you. It`s quite difficult for the human mind to realize that you have a lot of water all around you and you can`t have a shower. Fortunately there were other ways to get clean: we had a personal washing bowl, we could heat water, so it was all right.

A frequent visitor. Photo by Markéta Šamánková

About the water; we started to take it from a hole in the shore: it was like a natural filter made by sand and gravel and the water was very clean, also because the springs were just few meters above the hole. Unfortunately we could take water from the shore only for the first ten days, because after this time, day by day due the increasing temperatures and the decreasing snow melt made the groundwater level sink. So we moved our place to collect water from the shore to the land. First we took it from small ponds just behind the campsite, but then we had to move farther away to the “lakes” that were between the campsite and the mountains, and the last days we were quite unable to collect water even from these lakes, so we left just in time.

To work hard in quite the same way everyday would normally be tiring, especially if you walk in the same place that you have just seen some days before. But this never happened, because every day there was something new to see or to look for. Also, when we reached the 15th of July, the middle of the field stay, and things could became less interesting, we had the marvelous surprise of a field work day by helicopter. When I move by helicopter in the field I didn’t like only the sensation of the flight or the fact that after some days I could rest my legs, but I liked the new perspective with which I can see the topography, the shapes of the landscape and the obvious geological structures.

Through this experience more than others I understood how important it is to change the view angle for studying the geology of an area. Several times we had the opportunity to get a look from near and far at the same place and to think about different possible interpretations of the geology. Or, when we were doubtful about an interpretation, sometimes a change of perspective solved any doubt. Probably, if a geologist reads what I just wrote, he would consider it obvious. The problem is that not everywhere you can observe every outcrop from many angles, but here you can.

We finished our field work work on the 29th of July after about 23-24 days of work and 5-6 day that we spent at the campsite because the weather conditions were too bad for working (fog, cold wind, rain), but I’m sure that we had good weather overall. As Winfried and Synnove told us, we got really bad weather only the last morning when we were finishing to pack all our stuff and when the fog, the rain and the real strong and cold wind made us think that the helicopter couldn’t come to reach us in the field (it was a very terrifying thought), and when I was losing my hat because of the wind (I’m sure it was a funny thing to watch me running behind my hat when it was flowing with the wind).

When I came back to Longyearbyen and the tiredness arrived, I felt very strange because I was happy to return to civilization, to sleep in a bed, to have a warm shower, but I was also sad because I left a relaxing place with incredible views and nature. I think I had an amazing experience during this long field work, useful not only for work reasons, but also for my everyday life; I would recommend to anyone, if he/she could, to make such an experience as I did.

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