August 10, 2011 Farewell to Ny Ålesund and Thank You to Kings Bay!
Closing up Shop
We've just packed up all the science equipment and are heading off to Longyearbyen where we'll spend our last two days before coming back to the U.S.
I want to take the opportunity to close out my time in Ny Ålesund by writing a bit about this remarkable community. We all shout out a huge "THANKS!" to our hosts here from Kings Bay and the Norwegian Polar Institute who have helped make this a wonderful month! Given how comfortable this little town is, it's not that hard to forget that you're in the Arctic. (That is, until you realize the sun isn't setting and you see glaciers everywhere...)
Recently I was invited to spend some time with Hallvar Gisnås, who as "Research Advisor" coordinates the scientific research here in Ny Ålesund. He gave me an overview of the town, some of which I include below. Like just about everyone else I have met here, Hallvar has an interesting story about coming here. He had worked as a software engineer in Southern Norway, and had always been fascinated by the Arctic. When the job opened up, he jumped at the chance. A nice connection for him is that his father had been here in 1965 as a field assistant with the Nowegian Polar Institute – he has kept his father's diary of that time, so it was a special experience for him to come here. Hallvar also talked to me a bit about what it's like to live here in winter. His description of living here in the 24-hour night made it sound a lot more interesting than I would have thought. He described seeing the Northern Lights and how amazing it is to see the town by moonlight all day long. He mentioned that, because of the Gulf Stream, it doesn't get as cold here in the winter as one might think.
Ny Ålesund has some history – it began as a coal mining town back around a hundred years ago. You can still see remnants of the coal mining days when hiking up behind the town, and there's a little train preserved here, that presumably brought coal down from the hills to the port.
The coal mining facility here came to an abrupt end in 1962 after a disastrous accident that killed 21 miners. (Apparently this accident became a nationwide scandal; in fact the prime minister of Norway had to resign as a result of this incident.)
The coal mining operation was run by a government-run company called "King's Bay". (The name of the fjord here, Kongsfjorden, means King's Bay.) During the height of the coal mining days, there were up to 400 people living here.
After the accident closed down the mining operation, Ny Ålesund was transformed into a research base for polar research. Initially it was the Norwegian Polar Institute doing the research here, but over time the scientific community grew to include researchers from many countries.
A Truly International Community
Because access to polar research is so easy here, at least 12 countries have a permanent "base" here. This means that they run their own living and laboratory space, with an agreement from King's Bay, which still runs Ny Ålesund.
For a variety of reasons, the United States does not have its own permanent base here; instead American researchers can rent space from the Norwegian Polar Institute, which is our group has done.
At the height of summer, around 150 people can be housed here. Throughout the year there are 26 permanent employees of King's Bay plus the Nowegians, French and Germans have a few permanent employees themselves, for a total of around 36 people.
This town is restricted to people connected in some way to scientific research being conducted here, and in order to be accepted to base your project here there are some rigorous standards that must be met. Most scientists and employees of King's Bay come in and out via the small airport, flying in from Longyearbyen.
(Tourists can come by boat but there are many restrictions on what they can do and where they can go in town – so as not to disturb the fragile ecology here and the scientists at work. We've become used to seeing groups of tourists milling around looking at the various historical markers in town, and then leaving after an hour or so.)
A Melting Pot of Exciting Science
There's so much great research going on here – I wish I had time to see it all! In a previous post I wrote about my experience with the international group of bird researchers, and also about seeing the Italian atmospheric monitoring station.
Today Liz and I went up to the Ny Ålesund "Geodetic Observatory", which includes a lage radio antenna next to the airport (you may have noticed this landmark in some of my photos). This impressive-looking installation is part of a worldwide network to monitor the shape of the Earth. That's right – the shape of the Earth is not a static sphere, but changes over time as its mass shifts. Factors that might affect the shifting of mass include the motion of the molten material deep inside the Earth, plate tectonic activity (the movement of the Earth's continental plates), ocean currents, and simply the wobble of the Earth's orbit. They also monitor the Earth's rotation rate and the position of its axis, both of which vary slightly over time.
The way they do this is by choosing a star (a pulsar, which is a pulsing star, to be precise), and recording the radio waves emitted by this star. They then compare the signal received with the same signal received by other radio antennae around the world. Each antenna will receive the signal at a slightly different time – this corresponds to the difference in distance between the star and the different positions on Earth. From this data they can detect changes in the Earth's shape and rotation. Pretty cool stuff! They spent over an hour chatting with us about their research and about the international community that they are a part of.
For me as a physics guy I found this place fascinating. They even have an old atomic clock from NASA!
This evening we were treated to a little celebration of the 20th anniversary of the German weather observatory. They let off two weather balloons in celebration (along with a little champagne!)
All the comforts of home, and then some!
As for the hospitality here in Ny Ålesund, I was so impressed by the welcome we received from the King's Bay employees – I felt like I was checking into nice hotel! My room is modern and clean and I have my own bathroom. It even has an ethernet port for the internet. It has been nice after a long day to unwind in my room and to check email or skype my family.
The dining facility is also amazing. At every meal there were many delicious options, and since it's served buffet style I somehow always managed to eat too much! A supply ship delivers fresh food only about once a month, and it's really quite incredible to see how the chefs manage to keep the food tasty and fresh with lots of variety – even at the end of the month! Of course we noticed the abundance of lettuce and fresh fruit after the supply ship came in last week, but I am impressed at how good the food was even at the end of the last month.
One of the side effects of eating so well is that I think I've gained a little weight... well, all the more reason that I've tried to go to the little gym here on occasion. Most days I haven't had time to go, but this week as things have wound down I've found time to do a little running - either in the gym, or outside (if someone is willing to be my 'polar bear guard' and ride along with me on a bike carrying a rifle).
Reducing our Footprint
King's Bay makes a strong effort to limit its environmental footprint. This is certainly a challenge up here in the Arctic, as the land itself is extremely fragile. This is Arctic Tundra; the ground below is permafrost, which means that below a foot or so it remains frozen all year round. Anything that grows on the tundra is extremely fragile. There are clearly marked paths and we are expected to stay on those paths. Surrounding the town are bird sanctuaries for Snow Geese, Arctic Terns and other birds. The only people allowed in the sanctuary are scientists studying those particular birds.
Any solid waste produced here must be shipped out. To that end, the town recycles just about anything you can imagine. There is a very complicated system of recycling which I found very impressive.
A Shout Out to the People of Kings Bay!
Overall, I am going to remember this remarkable little town quite fondly - I didn't get a chance to get to know as many people as I would have liked, but everyone we have come in contact with here has been wonderful. Thank you to everyone who helps to make it a comfortable and fun place to do research!