Science & Tech

Q&A: How isolation in the remote High Arctic can have valuable lessons for our changing world

Adventurers Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm, founders of Hearts in the Ice, return to Svalbard, Norway, for a second overwintering to build on their citizen science work

  • Nov 12, 2020
  • 2,013 words
  • 9 minutes
Bamsebu cabin in Svalbard, Norway Expand Image

Many of us have been spending a lot more time at home due to COVID-19, but could you imagine enduring a whole winter in a remote cabin in the High Arctic, with only one other person for company? Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm spent more than nine months doing just that, and this week, they will return for round two.

Sorby and Fålun Strøm founded the Hearts in the Ice project as a way to create dialogue and raise awareness about climate change in polar regions. They are returning to Bamsebu, a cabin located on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, about 78 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, to continue their citizen science work and collect data for climate change research. They plan to stay at Bamsebu until May 2021.

Over the course of their original stay, they engaged with thousands of students on various topics, such as ocean health and biodiversity, through live video sessions via Explore By the Seat of Your Pants, and they plan to produce even more content for this year while reaching out to a broader audience. Sorby and Fålun Strøm are also working on a book about their experience as an account of being the first women to overwinter in Svalbard unassisted.

Before their return to Bamsebu, Sorby and Fålun Strøm spoke with Canadian Geographic about what they learned from their first expedition and what they hope to accomplish going forward.

On how COVID-19 framed their experience

HFS: I think in so many ways that we’ve been able to connect with people because we were at Bamsebu and we were isolated and vulnerable. We put words to that and people could understand themselves in the same such situation, especially when COVID-19 happened, and they felt vulnerable and isolated. What gives me hope is that we saw that the whole world was able to make changes fast. And we need to try to use that to do the same thing with climate change. We need leaders, but it starts with you and I. I think we’ve really connected with people and managed to inspire people to commit to take action in their own lives.

SS: While we were there, we were operating from a place of deep connectedness to our environment. And we cleaned out all the cobwebs in our own emotional mental closet, and so when we wrote our blogs together, we wrote from a place of clarity, and a place of authenticity. I think just by showing our vulnerable selves and what we were experiencing, especially in March, many people have since said that we were like the little light at the end of the tunnel for them, which is nice to hear. Coming back has reinforced our purpose up there because now the whole world understands isolation and understands crisis. It’s just a different one that that the pandemic is putting attention on right now. It was a hard decision in some ways to go back, but in some ways not because we were some of the only field researchers up in Svalbard. And so it really reinforced how important citizen science is for science and connecting people. It’s really strengthened our mission. It’s not a happy circumstance, but it’s sort of highlighted why we’re doing what we’re doing.

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Polar bear mother and cub spotted not far from Bamsebu. (Photo: Hearts in the Ice)

On the challenges they encountered

HFS: Just having a boat trip to collect phytoplankton in the High Arctic is really a huge operation with a lot of risks involved. It’s only the two of us and everything has to be safe, the sea has to be calm enough, and we have to tug the boat out. We have to make sure that we have thought of everything. If the engines fail, we need to have everything with us that we can to survive for a couple of days—we need the flare gun, we need a weapon, we need a communication unit—so we had a lot of challenges out in the boats. Or being outside taking pictures for NASA through the polar nights in an area where we had polar bears. When we were all excited about seeing a corona, the inner part of the northern lights that you see coming down like a circle of energy like pouring down on us. And I’m totally lost, it’s a stunning feeling. At that time, you don’t think about freezing, getting frostbite, or any polar bears. I mean, one week, during the polar night, we had 10 polar bears coming up to our house. They don’t knock on the door or call in advance and tell us they’re coming. It was challenging collecting the data in so many ways.

SS: I think what kept us alive out there is having reading material to understand why it was worth freezing our fingers off while we’ve got a four-foot-tall drill that we had use to manually drill two holes into the ice to collect ice core samples. It’s that curiosity about why that three-centimetre section at the very bottom matters. And patience — it required a great deal of patience for us to actually engage in these activities and follow the protocol. You either do it right or you shouldn’t do it at all. And I think that’s something that we gain credibility around is that when we were collecting the data, we followed the protocol. Another thing is problem solving. We had so many issues with our equipment, from the camera, to the drone, to our boat, to the pump for the phytoplankton. Things failed on us a lot, but we managed, with deep patience, to problem solve just about everything that went wrong. Our circumstances were very extreme and I think that gave us even a greater appreciation for how valuable what we were doing is. It gave us great purpose.

On how they dealt with crises

SS: We were very vulnerable for the entire duration of our stay and we were also very much in control of our thoughts, which happened over time simply because of how pure and simple our living was, with no TV and no outside stimulation, so it was very, very peaceful. You’re operating from a place of not being distracted when something happens to a place of immediate action. Your thoughts haven’t been taken over with fear. What they have done is run through the complete gamut of worst-case scenarios, and then you back up and think about what needs to be done to keep us safe. You realize how strong you feel when you accomplish something, if you don’t let yourself be paralyzed by fear, but instead, allow yourself to engage in a really thoughtful way to fix something or solve a problem. We both built both a tremendous amount of confidence and strength during our time at Bamsebu.

HFS: I think what we remember most is all the fun parts and the dangerous scary parts. What stands out is when we were in sort of small crises — when the door was ripped off by a hurricane, when we were locked inside the hut because of snow we couldn’t get out, when we thought Etra was taken by a polar bear, when Sunniva flipped over with the snowmobile — so many moments. I was scared several times during our stay. I was scared the moment that I understood that Sunniva had a polar bear just in front of her on the doorstep, because I heard when she was calling my name, I instantly understood. I had moments that I was scared, but I think we both have so much experience and knowledge that we just react calmly and go into a mode of “how shall we solve this.” I mean, when I was afraid that the roof that was going to blow off, I had a sack with all the equipment we needed under my bed. We were always prepared for a worst-case scenario. But we also had a lot of fun — Sunniva was Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and we dressed up on Halloween. It’s these incredible experiences, almost impossible to take in everything.

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(Photo: Hearts in the Ice)

On advice for maintaining relationships in close quarters

HFS: I’ve never lived with anyone this close for this long before. I think that is the biggest challenge that we have managed to navigate and we’re still best friends. We haven’t been best friends all the time obviously, anything else would be unnatural, but our way has been to communicate through all that. Double check and ask the other person “is that is this what you meant” or “did I understand you incorrectly” before you go into any reaction mode. Try to clarify what the other person said, because we very often misunderstand each other. One of our successes, is that we have been so grateful to each other, we have acknowledged each other’s work. Thank you for chopping wood, for making a delicious dinner or picking up ice from the shore. We really saw each other. And we were grateful, not just for each other, but for everything we ate, all our resources, our experiences — gratefulness sounds like a natural thing, but it’s very important to remember to say it.

SS: It’s a strange time with everybody living on top of each other 24/7. It’s important to really manage your emotions at this time, to take stock of yourself as a person — what do you value? Are you living in accordance with those values to yourself and your community? It’s so easy to get off track, so take care of yourself mentally and physically. And it’s about understanding that I don’t need somebody to agree with me but I need space for my own ideas to be aired, and that means having listening skills. We learned a lot about each other.

On the short and long-term study of climate change

HFS: Due to the lack of sea ice and rising temperatures, the polar bears are vulnerable, because their food source, the seals, are on the ice. What we saw is that polar bears are trying to adapt. They’re actually trying to hunt the reindeer. They lay down on a high ledge and then attack a reindeer that passes below. If they had maybe a few hundred years to go, they might be able to adapt, but they use a lot more energy and there is a lot less fat on the reindeer. And they would have to learn this through evolution and we don’t have time for that. The situation with climate change is going so fast that there’s no possibility for them to adapt that fast.

SS: When we are there, we’re seeing seasonal changes, but aside from the polar bears, we don’t see a visible sign of climate. What we are able to do is connect the dots from year to year, based on data that’s been collected from season to season. We’re hoping that we get some results from that in the next couple of months, from BCIT and Scripps, and that will add value to the longer-term understanding. What we’re going to do this coming year is use our success in collaborating with our partners in various industries to actually engage more people in an action-oriented way. We have the ability now to bring in more threads of how people might experience climate change in different ways, and how to use that experience, and build tools so that people can actually understand in their own personal way, depending on where they are geographically, why it matters that every single person on our planet needs to act.

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Sorby and Fålun Strøm watch the northern lights over Bamsebu. (Photo: Hearts in the Ice)

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