Svalbard: an unusual field trial

Geoff Evatt | 14 Mar 2019
Hello from Svalbard [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Good evening from 79º North (more informally: that’s very far North). It’s freezing. Proper freezing: –20ºC air temperature, plus a hint of moist wind, and with a sun barely popping over the surrounding mountain tops. And just before I left the house to fly here (whilst doing my last-second packing), I realised that I had left most of my thermal clothes on a washing line down in Antarctica in January……..

The view on arrival at Ny- Ålesund [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Anyhow, things are progressing here in somewhat a slightly unusual manner. This is because we have a team from the BBC working from here as well (for the Today programme on Radio 4), who are darting around  compiling stories about research and life conducted up here. And also because there is a team from the UK Research Councils who are also darting around, making sure the BBC people don’t slip up — in both senses. It’s great and fascinating to have the BBC guys here, who have shown genuine interest in matters, and we’re utterly impressed by how hard they work. As we await for the programme’s live broadcast tomorrow morning, where some tedious Brexit story will likely supplant our (we like to think) far more interesting meteorite story, we do have the consolation prize that we’ve set the last two Puzzles for Today on their programme.

Liam, John and Wouter setting up the metal detectors [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

As for the meteorite project: things are going rather well (I say this even as John, Liam and Wouter stand 2m away from me studying a severely broken metal detector). This is because we’re getting excellent and repeatable results from our main metal detector, where we’re ‘seeing’ objects being detected in real time at the depths we hope to find the meteorites, across a range of skidoo speeds. The one big caveat however is that ‘down’ South we’ll be searching over solid glacial ice, whereas ‘up’ North we’re testing over soft fresh snow. The former has the potential to give more vibrations to the system than the snow, and, if not accounted for,  has the potential to swamp meteorite signals.


Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

As for the wildlife? There’s a couple of Svalbard reindeer hanging around the camp, but the Arctic foxes from last year seem to have moved on. Maybe this will change shortly, as sunlight is increasing by almost 25 minutes a day at the moment!

We’ll be back in touch with the latest Brexit, I mean meteorite, update, later in the week.

Svalbard: first day in the field

— Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

Today has been a busy day for the team here in Svalbard. We were accompanied by Henry Burgess from the NERC Arctic Office as we spent out first day in the field setting up the test site for the next few days of testing. The test area is approximately six times larger than the one we used when we were here last year; this time we have an overall track length of around 200m, and a width which is capable of accommodating three panels.

The test site near Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard [Credit: Liam Marsh]

We have placed 20 dummy meteorites at seven different depths throughout the test area, which is sufficient for testing one detector. As the trial continues, we will place a further 19 which will allow us to test all three. Each pair of flags/poles in the image below represents target locations, which have all been carefully positioned and buried (some requiring quite a lot of excavation!) It was slow going, and hard work, but thankfully here on Svalbard there is always a very nice view waiting when we get the chance to look up and enjoy it.

Tomorrow morning we will be getting the equipment outside for the first time. We will be accompanied by the team from BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who are here to find out about NERC, BAS, and the UK’s involvement in Arctic research; including the Lost Meteorites of Antarctica. We plan to test a single detector, with the main aim of determining the sensitivity of the detector to the dummy meteorites, characterising the vibration associated with dragging the detector system, and testing of the user interface.

‘Dummy’ meteorites before being buried at the test site. [Credit Wouter van Verre]

Tomorrow evening we expect to be joined by our University of Manchester colleague, and Lost Meteorites PI, Geoff Evatt. Sadly for him, if all goes to plan he will arrive to find us having completed a full set of measurements and facing a day indoors processing all the data. As the week progresses there will be plenty more work to do as we tweak the system and scale up to the three detectors that we have with us.

Made it to Halley

Katie Joy | 04 Feb 2019

After 11 days in the tent at the end of our season Julie and I arrived back at Halley this afternoon (via a great stop en route close to the mountains). It is so warm here compared to our field camp — it feels like the tropics. Captain Vicky, our Twin Otter pilot, has done an amazing job of making use of weather windows to get us home and to a very much needed warm shower. We will start to wing our way west to Rothera in the next day or so, and then onwards to the UK.

Our overnight camp on our way back to Halley [Credit: K H Joy]
Me, Vicky and Julie at the field depot site. [Credit: K H Joy]

Mike Rose, who has been helping Geoff with the panel setup at Sky Blu is also at Halley and we have had a quick catch up about that part of the project. We also have caught up with the team here who have been doing our nightly scheduled chats (thanks very much Sarah, Alan, Barney and Rich — it has been really good to talk each evening through the season) and those who have helped co-pilot our flights all season (thanks Josh and Tom for doing the last two). We have even had time to do a bit of washing and drink a few more cups of tea before the bag repacking starts all over again. Pizza for lunch was amazing.

I am looking forward to having a proper bed for the night, although will miss both the quiet and the loud of being in the field.

Still waiting to leave the field

Katie Joy | 28 Jan 2019

We are waiting for a break in the weather for pilot Vicky to come from Halley research station to bring in a plane load of equipment to be depoted for next season, and then make another flight to pick us up and take us back to Halley to start our journey home. It has been cloudy and snowy the last couple of days – down to –18 ºC yesterday with 5 to 10 knot winds, we have had a couple of inches or snow that has drifted to be 6 inches or so in some places, and at night it has been below zero in the tent with our water bottles freezing up. The weather is forecast to continue to be cloudy and snowy with some occasional cloud breaks for the next couple of days, and we are not sure when the surface contrast will be good enough for the plane to get in. We are waiting for satellite pictures and are doing local weather observations to help planning.

In celebration of Burns night, we listened in via radio to Halley’s folk night the other night where staff on station came together to play music they have written and covers of bands. Thanks guys for helping us listen in, we are sad not to have been able to join in person and enjoy the music and haggis. We sent over a meteorite search themed prose that James (thanks for stepping up!) read out for us – inspired by the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet:

Meteorite, meteorite wherefore art thou meteorite,
Do not hide in the ice and refuse thy seekers,
Come to the surface and be collected by giant tweezers
And you’ll no longer be a forgotten rock.
Tis but a hard landing that is the enemy,
Thou art a hunter, but a scientist also.
What’s a meteorite? It’s not granite nor sandstone,
Nor basalt nor limestone nor any other rock belonging to earth.
Oh be not a meteorite wrong.
What is a meteorite? That which has a fusion crusted by any other appearance would not be as sweet.
So a meteorite core is full of surprises
With crystals, chondrules, and clasts a plenty.
Meteorite doff thy hiding place and for the sake of science, show us thy secrets.
And give all thy self.

Also we would like to thank vehicle mech Jack for sending us his own meteorite inspired poem:

Searching for the smallest trace
Of rocks that fell from space
But you knew where to go
And under the snow
You would find them all over the place

Hopefully the next blog will be from Halley as I am not sure how many more updates from the field can involve the words tent day, cloudy and snowy… In the meantime, we are sitting tight keeping warm with lots of hot drinks and food and are doing a lot of reading and watching some TV series and dreaming of when we will able to have a hot shower. The biggest worry is that we have only three teas bags left… 😦

— Sledge Victor Out.

Monday Morning

Geoff Evatt | 26 Jan 2019

Arriving back in the UK, here’s some final thoughts on this year’s field season – plus a peaceful soundscape from the Antarctic peninsula. Recorded with binaural headphones / microphones, I encourage you to find a quiet room to get the best listening experience.


Click to listen


And here’s the soundscape:


Click to listen


Seals and icebergs at Rothera [Credit: G W Evatt]

It’s beginning to feel a lot like tent time

Katie Joy | 26 Jan 2019

Two days ago we managed to get out and about over to one of the icefields we had visited before (our big blue ice wave area) to finish off exploring a couple of places. We set off just as it was getting cloudy following our previous traverse route. Upon arrival the contrast was pretty low, which on the blue ice surface is pretty good for spotting dark coloured objects. We drove around and managed to find two small meteorites — one on the open ice and one along the firn edge. We also found a route into a nice new area of ice we hadn’t been to before which had some large sediment bands snaking across the surface where we could see up to mm sized particles of dust trapped within the ice. We have seen lots of sediment bands before in places we have driven — some are very obvious brown coloured like moats 50 cm to 1 m wide, others are much more subtle changes where the blue ice suddenly turns a bit brown for a few tens of metres and then back to clear and blue (these wide bands are also easy to see on satellite photos).

The sediment band — blue ice to the right. [Credit: K H Joy]

However, by early afternoon some snow showers were threatening and we headed back to camp. By the time we arrived home the air felt pretty damp, it had started snowing, and it was –13 °C air temperature — inside the tent was –2 °C. The snow showers really set in, although the wind has completely dropped off (it is strange to see our flags around camp hanging down rather than flapping around), and we spent yesterday in the tent.

With so much snow and little wind it has really settled on the icefields by now covering up the surface. It looks like as soon as the clouds lift and we get some good surface contrast we will be heading back to Halley with our 36 meteorites secured for the season, feeling pretty good that we have explored some blue ice new areas and have some great — and hopefully of diverse types — samples to be studied, and their origins unlocked.

Before we go there is work to be done and we have been out with the shovel and ice chopper for the past couple of hours digging to try and loosen a few bumps in our skiway and to dig out the tent from some of the snow drifts that have formed. A lot of Antarctic field work is digging snow, moving stuff from one place to another (and sometimes back again), and watching the weather… Julie has been working with the field teams at Halley and Rothera to prepare for bringing some more kit into the field for our next season — it will be depoted for the winter so that we are ready to go next time we come down with the detector panel array.

In the meantime, it is just a case of hurrying up and waiting for the clouds to clear — we can see a break on the horizon to the northwest and until it clears near us we will be having some more tent days drinking hot chocolate and watching a couple of movies.