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!


Ice, Ice Baby

“Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!” Dr. Seuss

And the safety training course continues!

Thursday was the day of avalanche rescue followed by sea ice. The avalanche rescue involved a lecture followed by learning the most effective way to search for a victim with and also without a beacon, and the most effective way to dig for a victim once located. The sea ice session is the most dreaded session by all participants of the safety course, we all know that it involves jumping into a pool of ice and climb out using ice picks. Again, we began with a lecture and we were then suited up in snowmobile suits and wellies and given ice picks to put round our necks and into top pockets. We were all taken over to the ice pool area where we first had to practice rescuing a victim from the water using a waterproof survival suit and dragging the person out, taking off their wellies and suit and putting them in the hypothermia wrap. Then, we all had a go at sliding into the pool ourselves, swimming to the other side and climbing out using the picks and kicking as much as we could to lift ourselves out of the water. The suit delayed the water reaching your body, slowly filling up as you swam. I surprisingly really enjoyed this challenge, I handled it quite well and felt like I was now getting used to the arctic once I had achieved this part of the course.

Thursday also marked the first day we witnessed a full on dump of snow in Longyearbyen. When we woke up there was heavy snow, which continued all day and most of the night.

Enjoying the snow on the way to UNIS.

Friday was the final day of the rotations and we were left with glaciers and GPS. Glacier was in the morning, a lecture followed by how to rescue a conscious person who has fallen down a crevasse. We then went outside and were on top of storage containers, where we practiced the set up and rescue of someone a few times (rotating each time to allow everyone to try different roles) who was at the base of the storage containers. After lunch, we had the GPS course, where we learnt how to read UMT coordinates on the map and how to use the provided GPS devices, along with radios and the satellite phone. A nice quiet task to end a crazy round of safety courses.

Saturday was the big finale to the safety course. Approximately 6 hours of practical exercises outdoors followed by a 1 hour exam which we need to pass to pass the full AS-101 safety course. We met at the top of Nybyen (the location of the barracks where I am staying, out the back of Longyearbyen) at 8am ready to walk up to the activity area. As there were 5 exercises to split amongst 8 groups, three of the groups were split up and spread out between the other 5 groups. 7 new members joined our group for the day. The 5 activities of the day were emergency camp, avalanche search, practical ways of using equipment in emergency situations (eg. using rucksacks as a stretcher), glacier rescue and first aid. In each station, we got to practice the skills we’d learnt in a situation which was designed to be more realistic that the situations we’d practiced in around UNIS. We were also located outside of the town and so the only light was the light from head lamps, adding an extra challenge to all situations. Following this, we got to watch a helicopter search rescue, including firing flares for the helicopter.

Glacier rescue where I was the victim just about to be pulled up to safety.
Improvising with emergency equipment to keep warm.
Fired flare as the helicopter approached. Bright light above the town on the left is the approaching helicopter.
Part of the exercise area. Taken at midday when the sunlight is creeping over the mountains.

We all headed back to UNIS and had a bit of time to relax before going in for the exam. Following the exam, we had student council elections and then a Saturday gathering in the canteen. We stayed for a few drinks until it finished at 10, but had to go home rather than go out for more drinks so that we could get some revision done on Sunday ready for Monday’s exam.

Sunday was the day to move into my permanent home. We had an email a couple of days earlier saying that barrack 11 was ready from Saturday afternoon, but with such a busy Saturday, we waited until Sunday to move. The new barrack is quite different to barrack 3, with smaller bedrooms and no sink or mirror in the rooms. There are two kitchens per floor though as opposed to the one kitchen in barrack 3. Once the exams are over, I’ll be able to fully unpack and settle into my new home.

Next time, see how the new home is working out, find out how the exams went and how the new modules are going.


On Top Of The World

“Keep focused on that tiny ray of light because that is the beginning of magic”- My wonderful mother

We made it! A journey which included 4 take-offs in only 16 hours (London, Stockholm, Oslo and Tromsø). We managed to cause drama before even reaching Svalbard, by getting slightly confused in Oslo airport and turning up at the wrong baggage collection point when we only had 1 hour to find our bags, check them in again and get on the next plane. Turned out the flight was already slightly delayed, but the whole plane was informed of a delay also caused by some late luggage (which I then spotted arriving on a truck straight after the announcement and recognised my bags on the top, oops). 

Ready for take off from Tromsø!

From Oslo, we flew to Longyearbyen with a stop at Tromsø on the way, where we had to get off the plane for a passport check and reboard in half an hour. It was then onto Svalbard. During this section of the flight, we plunged into 24 hour darkness and arrived at Svalbard at about 2:30pm in complete darkness. See my full time lapse video of us flying into the darkness 24 hour darkness of the arctic circle at about 1pm (local time) on 8th January here.

We were now in Longyearbyen and were taken to our accommodation. On the way over I had found out I had been temporarily moved our of my original block to a different block in the same accommodation. This is only for a week due to water damage in the flat. The barrack I was moved to is lovely and spacious, it’s unfortunate I can’t fully unpack and settle down until I’ve been moved back.

Welcome to Svalbard!

We had the weekend to get settled and work out where everything was and began to meet other people we were living with. On Saturday night, the group of us along with one of my new flatmates went across the road the “Coal Miners Bar & Grill”. It was absolutely incredible food and a lovely relaxed atmosphere (plus the local beer is only £1.80 for half a litre). The food prices at the supermarket are very high, something we’re all still struggling to deal with. But meals out seem to be similar to prices at home. 

On Monday, we began our safety training course. Monday consisted of a day of lectures which were from 9am – 6:45pm with short breaks dotted about the day. We learnt a lot of theory which will be applied later on in the week as we do rotations on the practical side of the safety training. We were told that we will have to face a few mental battles this week, so much truth. I have been struggling with the constant darkness here, my first mental battle (which I still don’t feel I’ve come out the other side of yet). I can’t pinpoint exactly what the problem is, I just want to see the Sun during the day! It’s just normal. Every day, at about midday (lasting for about an hour), there is a faint ray of light emerging over the mountains. This light is getting ever so slightly brighter each day as we edge towards the first sight of the Sun on the 16th Feb.

On Tuesday, my first course was the rifle training. I managed to cause a scene by going into (and coming out of) my second mental battle. I won’t go into full detail, so the short story is that I worked myself up about the rifle training (having never held a gun before and being nervous for the test) into such a that state I nearly passed out. (I also had very cold toes after seeing a number of graphic photos of frost bite the day before, not helping the situation.) 10 minutes later I stood up and passed the rifle target test allowing me to carry a UNIS gun. The rifles are, of course, a last resort. We have also been taught all about how to scare the polar bear with flares. After lunch, we had emergency camp training. We learnt how to light the gasoline stoves provided in the emergency boxes and set up the tents and trip wires outside in the snow. During the session outside, we managed to spot a beautiful and very clear aurora over our heads.

Wednesday was the first aid training followed by a lecture on UNIS general information and tours. The first aid training is something I was a bit on edge about, being slightly squeamish in some situations. Overall it wasn’t that bad, and we practiced some of the emergency situations outside in the dark and cold for two hours. I was lucky enough to be a demonstrator for the hypothermia wrap, and so I was cocooned in a sleeping mat, blizzard blanket, sleeping bag and windproof bag. (Photos below from Miriam Hogg). 

Still to come this week, I will be learning about avalanche and glacier safety, GPS equipment and I’ll be jumping into a pool of water in the ice. Saturday will be an early start to travel up to the glacier to practice all of our new skills followed by an exam to complete the AS-101 safety training course (also followed by drinks). 

Unfortunately, I also have two exams next week and so have been attempting to try and fit in revision every evening after a long, tough day out on the course. This time next week, it’ll all be over and I’ll be beginning my new modules here in Svalbard, and heading closer to the Sun reappearing over the mountains. 


Fly Me To The Moon

“I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams” – Eleventh Doctor

Well, not quite the Moon, but I’m still going on a pretty epic journey. And today, it officially begins! At about 4pm I’ll be leaving my lovely home in Pebworth with some of my family to make the trip down to Heathrow airport. Our flight takes off just after 9pm tonight and we travel to Stockholm. We will wait in Stockholm overnight, then fly to Oslo before flying on to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

This is a trip I first heard about when I was 17 on an open day to Aberystwyth University, and it was immediately a trip I wanted to be involved in. I am so lucky to be able to begin this trip today.

My lovely home in Pebworth

So, in this last week I’ve had to say my goodbyes to family and friends. WARNING: Soppy post time (sorry not sorry). The hardest of all was saying goodbye to my lovely boyfriend, Tom, and only a couple of weeks away our 1 year anniversary. I’m hoping my present will make up for my absence on the day.

Tom and I at Camp Nou in September


I’ve also had a lot of fun trying to pack my suitcase. My Mum bought me a new suitcase as most of our current ones are old, heavy and knackered. So now I was equipped with my new, lightweight and fully functional suitcase, it was time to go through the ordeal of deciding which of my clothes I had to spend the next 5 and a half months with and which wouldn’t make the cut. I also had to pack bed linen and towels, and try and fit in some pictures to try and decorate my new room when I arrive.

Earlier today I booked an extra bag in the hold. This was mainly to reduce my stress levels in the airport and allow me to be able to take a few more warm clothes and some other items.

Now I’m pretty much ready to leave, and it’s a daunting few days ahead. I’m a mixture of excited, nervous, and also a bit sad to be leaving behind so many great people for the next few months. I am incredibly happy that my immediate family and Tom will all be coming out to visit me in March, making the gap between seeing them slightly smaller and more bearable. 

Next week, hear all about my first few days in Svalbard. Hear how I’m settling into my new home and how the safety training course is going.