Under Pressure

Two week fieldwork special, as promised.

Week 1: The Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO).

The Geophysics Masters 17 squashed into the back of the belt wagon. Photo credit: Mikko Syrjäsuo

KHO is an optical observatory which contains more than 25 optical instruments and also has more non-optical instruments on site. The instruments here study the middle to upper polar atmosphere and monitor the aurora. It’s located at an altitude of 520m some distance from town. The last bit of the journey had to be completed by belt wagon due to the conditions further up the mountain. This was done in two shifts due to the size of the group, but we obviously all tried squeezing in after the last trip of the week.


It wasn’t that bad, we had a sofa to chill on whilst we were waiting for the second belt wagon shift. Photo credit: Lloyd Woodham.

We learnt how to use the ACE data to predict the time it would take for an aurora to reach us after the necessary criteria were fulfilled in the data chart. The main criterion we look for is the Bz component to turn South i.e the red line at the top dips below the dotted line (to see the data more clearly, change the duration to 2 hours). Monday and Tuesday were spent touring all the equipment in the observatory and learning all about them and how they work and monitoring the aurora in the downtime (amongst other activities, eg: hangman).

Me predicting aurora (maybe). Photo credit: Jack Jenkins

Wednesday was calibration day. We had the daunting task of helping to calibrate 3 of the instruments at KHO, a job which is only done once a year on these instruments! This also meant lots of outside time on the roof moving a big white board (it was a little more sophisticated than simply a white board, but I can’t remember the correct name) over the instruments in need of calibration. It went well though, the report back from Pål was that the numbers indicated a good calibration (thankfully, as they told us before that a calibration had never had to be redone thanks to student’s incompetence, something we didn’t want to buck the trend on). The meridian scanning photometer (MSP) was calibrated on Thursday. We didn’t have too much to do with this one (and it’s calibrated once a week anyway). We then got to look at pretty aurora and eclipse pictures and videos.

Team photo under the aurora. Photo credit: Mikko Syrjäsuo

During the week, we saw aurora 3 out of the 4 nights we were there (all pretty much correctly predicted after our practice on Monday night). Tuesday night, it began to cloud over later on and we unfortunately missed a pretty would-have-been spectacular auroral substorm, but we still had some pretty good views up at the KHO anyway. We also got some incredible sightings of the Milky Way from up there. Due to equipment sensitivity, we weren’t allowed to use headlamps and there are no outdoor lights so there was no light pollution from out immediate surroundings.

Week 2: EISCAT Svalbard Radar

The European Incoherent Scatter (EISCAT) radar in Svalbard, one of 10 incoherent scatter radars, and one of three highest standard facilities operated by the EISCAT Scientific Association. The EISCAT Svalbard Radar has a stationary 42m diameter dish which is field aligned and a movable 32m dish.


We were able to get to EISCAT by car only, so this cut the travel time down as we could all get straight there in one go. For this week, we had to split into groups of 3 and decide on an experiment. Throughout the week, everyone got to run their experiments for two hours using the radar. One group would always be in the control room with the group doing to experiment to run the computers controlling the data, whilst everyone else would stay in the kitchen and watch analyse the data coming through (and cook pizza).

It was cloudy all week so we didn’t see any aurora, but my group experiment was to point the radar South and monitor the auroral oval and we managed to pick up the expected data for an aurora during our two hour experiment through the clouds. Getting to choose an experiment to run, then use this radar to collect our own data was a really incredible experience. I felt so lucky to have been given that opportunity whilst I am here.

I got to move that 32m radar during my experiment, I felt powerful (if not also slightly terrified). I also got to turn off a couple of the transmitters (it involved turning a switch and pulling a big leaver, this also made me feel powerful).

We would always arrive about an hour before transmitting begun (the radar would run between 18:00 and 22:00 UT every evening). On one of the evenings, we were allowed to go and climb inside the 42m dish!

Most of AGF-304 standing inside the 42m dish. Photo credit: Lloyd Woodham.

It was a pretty special two weeks, filled with Physics and fun (and pizza and partybrus).

Here’s a group photo at the EISCAT Radar control room with Kjellmar and and Anja:

Ice nerds with Anja and Kjellmar. Photo credit: Anja Strømme.

Next time, hear all about my last two weekends of trips. I don’t want to overload too much in one post!

For now, enjoy my incredibly cheesy video of my time so far in Svalbard. Svalbard: The Journey So Far.



Dancing in the Moonlight

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” – Mae West

A slightly less eventful week this week. Now that the safety training is over, the UNIS lectures began. Although, we still had the tiny task of officially completing Semester 1 with two exams. These exams were Monday morning and Tuesday morning. A delightful start to the week…

Following our move to Barrack 11 on Sunday, we spent our first night in our permanent accommodation. We left Monday morning for the exam, Electromagnetic Theory. Not a great exam at all, but not much can be done about that now. At least it’s over! Just as we were about to leave, Jack and I decided to go and get our keys for our new rooms, only to find out the water damage was still there and we had to move back to Barrack 3. Baring in mind we had another exam the following day, this was not easy to take in. We’re supposed to move back to Barrack 11 by 5th Feb at the latest, a time limit set as there are other people moving into our rooms in Barrack 3 on this date! Fingers crossed they get it done in time.

Barrack 3, room 109. Only the temporary home!

Tuesday morning, Gøril (who had been extremely helpful and kind throughout the move) drove our stuff back down to Barrack 3 just before we left for the exam so that we saved a bit of time and could stay in Barrack 11 the night before the exam. We left for the Quantum Technology exam, this was better than the day before, just very long and I ran out of time in the exam.

It was now time to eat food and drink alcohol to celebrate the end of a hideously stressful semester! We went out for food and drinks after the exam and had a lovely few hours in a hotel restaurant completely  stuffed ourselves. It was then back to Barrack 3 to unpack (again) and then binge on Netflix.

Both Monday and Tuesday we had to go to lectures after our exams, Wednesday was our first day of being able to fully concentrate in our lectures. We have only begun the Upper Polar  Atmospheres course this week. We have a lecturer from the University of Oslo for this week, Jøran Moen. He’s been fantastic and appears to really enjoy what he’s talking about, which has kept everyone really interested in what we’re doing. Luckily for us (from Aberystwyth) most of the stuff this week has been stuff from our previous space plasmas and solar atmosphere and heliospheres module, making it nice start to the module. (Fun Fact: I refrain from using the word “easy”, I feel like it could be tempting fate.)

Friday is the day of the weekly social, the Friday Gathering (FG). This week, I spent the evening playing heads-up, beer pong, and chilling in front of the fire. The FG’s are held in the canteen at UNIS where we get to relax with other students and purchase incredibly cheap alcohol, win win.

Saturday, a group of us went to watch the new Star Wars film at the cinema in town. I managed to miss seeing it before I left home because I was so busy with coursework and then general partying at home over Christmas. It was fantastic to finally get to see it, great film! I had watched all of the previous films with my brother when we were younger (we even had light sabres and everything). Saturday night, myself and Katie went to the first meeting of the Fermentation Group. We ate rice paper rolls (they looked so weird, but tasted really good). And we then made out own onion, carrot and garlic thing in a jar to ferment for the next two weeks. I also had a bit to celebrate Saturday evening when Wasps managed to top the pool from hell in the European Championships!

Cheering on Wasps from the Arctic

Sunday was adventure day! I went for a walk with Katie, Jack and Kieran. We managed about 11km around town in the end. We went out to the polar bear sign on the edge of town, sat on the edge of Adventfjorden, saw tiny reindeer, played on swings, found the Santa post box, and had lasagne and coffee. It was a fantastic walk and has left me feeling pretty drained. Sitting on the edge of Adventfjorden was probably the highlight of the walk, it was absolutely stunning, and there was a gentle lapping sound of the water against the edge of the land and ice.

This week, we’ve managed to view a beautiful Moon over Longyearbyen. The entire first week I didn’t manage to spot it until Saturday evening, and it was pretty cloudy so we couldn’t see much. But this week, there have been plenty nights to see it shining over us. The midday sunlight is beginning to get a bit brighter. The constant darkness doesn’t seem to be bothering me anymore, it’s just a bit disorientating when I first wake up in the dark when I do get a bit of a lie in. Early starts are not so bizarre; I had plenty of early starts in October – December which began in the dark. Once I’m fully awake and functioning (post coffee), I feel absolutely fine, it’s all normal now.

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Moon rise over Barrack 13

One thing I am struggling with is the food. I am pretty much living on toast and pasta. I am massively missing Mexican food (although, I have managed to make a chilli, but it’s pricey to make so it’s not a regular meal anymore for me). I also have a massive craving for both McDonald’s and Domino’s… The pain! I also realised today (thank you Hayley) how much I am missing a good Sunday roast.

Next week, I’ll be continuing with Upper Polar Atmospheres and also beginning the second module, Radar Diagnostics. We’re also hoping to go on a hike and/or camp next weekend!