Source to Sink: Undergrads Study Svalbard’s Glacial Systems

Terra Hittson, out standing in her field site. She's smiling because she knows what is causing the glacier to melt and make that meltwater stream below her feet. All photos courtesy REU participants

**Applications for the 2011 Svalbard REU are currently being accepted (due no later than January 15, 2011). For more information visit **

Terra Hittson, an Environmental Science major at the University of Chicago, says her favorite day in Svalbard was one of the worst, at least as far as the weather was concerned.

“One day it was raining all day long and really, really cold. We hiked the eight miles up to the glacier to set up meter-by-meter plots for my experiment. When we got close to the glacier, we realized that the outwash streams had flooded. This added another three miles to the hike each way because we had to go around. We arrived much later than usual and we all knew we were going to be there all day and then have to hike the eleven miles back. When we got to the glacier the snow had all melted and the surface was SO slick. We had no crampons so we were slipping and sliding all over the place trying to clear the glacier surface of rock debris. We were wet and freezing but, still, for some reason we had the best time!”

Challenges In The Wilderness

Hittson’s reminiscence is typical of students who have attended the Svalbard Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU): a really great time despite (or maybe because of) the physical, intellectual, and environmental challenges that make the experience. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds REU programs in many fields and in many locations.

Scientists In Training

What all REUs have in common is the R-E-U; undergraduates form their own research questions, collect field data, and complete individual research projects under the mentorship of academic faculty.

What makes the Svalbard REU unique is, in part, location: the Svalbard REU offers students an experience in the High Arctic. They also get to study how an entire glacial system is responding to climate change. Following the Svalbard REU, students complete their projects as senior theses with faculty mentors at their home institutions and present their results at national meetings and at a spring symposium.

From The Classroom To The World

The Svalbard REU accepts six American students to the five-week program each year. Since 2004, co-directors Steve Roof (Hampshire College) and Al Werner (Mount Holyoke College) along with colleagues Mike Retelle (Bates College), Julie Brigham-Grette (University of Massachusetts) and Ross Powell (Northern Illinois University) have brought fledgling scholars to Kongsfjorden and Lake Linné on the Norwegian island.

Together they make their way from the U.S. to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital. In 2010 they were joined by Hittson, Simon Pendleton (Whitman College), Diana Zamora (Univ Texas a El Paso), Cara Magnabosco (USC), Andrew Parker (Univ Colorado), Jeremy Wei (Tufts Univ) and Bates College student, Greg DewWet, and three students from UNIS, the University Centre in Svalbard.

Studying The Sink

Last summer, the group spent five weeks working in Linné Valley. In the upper reaches of the valley, Linné Glacier provides summer glacial outwash which flows nine miles down valley to Lake Linné. In the valley, students can study modern processes from source to sink while considering the links between climate and environment.

A Long Way From The Dorm Room

The group bunked at the Basecamp Isfjord Radio - Kapp Linné , one of Basecamp Explorer’s destinations. During the four-week stay, they used a small out-building from the original station for a lab. Students admit they expected more rustic field accommodations.

“We would come back from the field super tired, especially on days we hiked sixteen miles to the glacier. Sometimes [we] would be out all day in bad weather,” said Environmental Science major Diana Zamora (University of Texas at El Paso), who found out about the program from her brother, Hector Zamora, who attended in 2009. “It was really nice to have somewhere to come home to. We could take a shower every day and dinner would be ready for us when we came in from the field.”

Cramming—For The Field, Not For Exams

Prior to leaving for Svalbard, students reviewed relevant research papers. Once in the field students spent the first few days getting oriented to their surroundings. They helped set up field instrumentation like weather stations, downloaded data from loggers, and changed instrument batteries. Roof and Werner gave a few lectures to synthesize science objectives and spent one-on-one time mentoring students both in the field and back in the lab. Students gave periodic presentations geared toward collaboration and idea exchange.

Once students chose projects and designed their field experiments at the end of the first week, they worked together in the field to accomplish their goals. Each morning after breakfast, the group loaded up and headed out. Everyone hiked three miles to the lake, and the glacier group hiked the additional five miles up to the glacier.

Workday Rigors

Hittson, an Alaska native, was thrilled to spend five weeks working at Linné Glacier. Hittson studied cryoconite, windblown dust which collects on the glacier surface. Each day she measured changes in the size of the cryconite and whether it melted into the glacier. In conjunction with a similar experiment in which she measured larger sediments in three meter-by-meter plots, Hittson hopes to learn more about how different sediments affect the glacier’s melting rate.

Whitman College Geology major Simon Pendleton collected water samples from the glacier’s meltwater system every two hours using automatic samplers. In addition to recording temperature, conductivity, and glacial stream discharge, he programmed the samplers to take water samples at certain times. Every other day he and Hittson would hike up to the glacier and bring back 24 half-liter water samples (usually with the help of a couple others).

As soon as he returned to Isfjord Radio, Pendleton started filtering his water samples, which he dried to determine sediment flux and for subsequent grain size analyses. When his samples were all filtered, he would head back up to the glacier to retrieve the next batch. By looking at sediment fluxes in the glacier’s outwash channels along with weather conditions around the glacier, he’ll understand how the glacier reacts to local climate and glacier melting. Pendleton also wants to extrapolate his findings downstream to Linné Lake where the paleoclimate is recorded in lake-bottom sediments.

Pendleton, who claims he “never thought of polar science,” says, “I’ve never done this kind of research. It was very cool—not only because it was the Arctic—to live and work in the same area. It was great to see the whole process and to come away with a data set that is all mine. I did it!”

Down at Linné Lake, Zamora put out and collected sediment traps and temperature loggers. She’ll work with Greg DeWet correlating lake temperature data and sediment size to weather station data (air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and photographs) recorded near the lake. Zamora plans to get at the factors driving lake sedimentation.

Zamora, who spent the summer of 2009 teasing climate signals out of cave speleothems (mineral formations deposited by water) during a University of Texas internship, says her experience in Svalbard solidified her decision to continue studying arctic paleoclimatology in graduate school. She also says the REU has given her a ‘boost’ ahead of her classmates when it comes to the future.

“The Arctic has lured me away from the tropics! These glacial lakes are very interesting and one of the most sensitive areas. We need to study past climate to understand the climate now and in the future,” she says. “Not a lot of undergraduates get to do stuff like this. I'm ahead of them for going to graduate school because I've been to the field and I'm working with the data. The REU opened a lot of doors for me. I'm so grateful for the experience!”--Marcy Davis