TSP-Norway launches new IPY-course in Svalbard and Greenland

14. August - 6 September 2008

Contact person for additional information: Hanne H. Christiansen

Text and photos by Hanne H. Christiansen


Drilling into the permafrost below the UNISCALM site in Adventdalen, Spitsbergen, with a handheld drilling machine.


14 August 2008; Svalbard-Greenland permafrost course started !

In the IPY spirit of international collaboration we have just started the International University Course on High Arctic Permafrost Landscape Dynamics in Svalbard and Greenland with 10 students and two lecturers. We are three Norwegian, three Danish, one Icelandic, one German and two Swiss students, in addition to Prof. Bo Elberling (University of Copenhagen & UNIS) and Ass. Prof. Hanne H. Christiansen (UNIS) the two course lecturers. We are collaborating with a Japanese IPY permafrost course run also at Svalbard now led by Prof. Norikazu Matsuoka, University of Tsukuba , working on periglacial process monitoring.

Click here to read about the course (AG 333) structure.

We are going to spend 3 intensive weeks doing field investigations of the permafrost conditions in Svalbard and NE Greenland . In this special UNIS course we combine research and teaching to investigate high arctic landscape variability across the steepest high arctic climatic gradient on the northern hemisphere, from maritime Svalbard (78ºN) to continental NE Greenland at Zackenberg (74º30’N).

The aim is to provide data to models for quantifying the sensitivity of maximum active layer depths in different landforms with respect to climate change and the corresponding changes in soil element cycling, including emission of greenhouse gasses. The main goal is to integrate field-based teaching and key research questions addressing current and future sensitivity of polar permafrost landscapes to climate changes and to produce datasets that are relevant for teaching Earth system science.

We will have at least 11 days of fieldwork. First 6 days in Svalbard in Adventdalen next to Longyearbyen and at Kapp Linne close to Isfjord Radio, and then 6 days in Greenland at the Zackenberg station. These sites both holds relevant monitoring data that we can use in addition to the data we collect during the course. The course will end with a 3 day workshop in Iceland at the University of Reykjavik .

Saturday 16 August was our first fieldwork day in Adventdalen. We are working in two groups and both did active layer registration in the UNISCALM grid, which holds data of the active layer thaw progression since 2000. So we can study how this summer 2008 fits into the thaw depth variation of the last 9 years. Both groups also did profile studies in two pits of the active layer and obtained cores from the lower active layer and top permafrost down to 2.4 ms depth ! We are very happy the drilling technology worked almost as we had hoped....

Only thanks to funding from the Nordic Council of Ministers, the TSP Norway IPY project and UNIS are we able to run this course.


Obtaining the first permafrost core is intensive and hard work !


19-21 August 2008; Fieldwork at Kapp Linne, the west coast of Spitsbergen, Svalbard

We are now working intensively with obtaining samples from the permafrost from different landforms in the Kapp Linne area on the west coast of Svalbard . Today (20/8) we have found up to almost 50 cm of organic matter accumulated in depressions in beach ridges on the strandflat 1 km south of Isfjord Radio. The lower part of this organic matter is in the top permafrost so we had to drill to get samples.

Today we also had visited the TSP solifluction station and the nearby rock glacier, both close to the Griegaksla mountain. At these sites permafrost temperatures and soil movement data are being collected. On our way back to Isfjord station, a polar bear suddenly crossed our path just some 200-300m away.


Polar bear in front of our group at the moment when it suddenly showed up from nowhere. Photo: Arild Bakke.


By now we have studied the active layer thickness, permafrost conditions and sediments in a loess terrace, low-centered ice-wedge polygons in the Adventdalen valley in central Svalbard just outside Longyearbyen. The Adventdalen site represents the most continental parts of Svalbard . In contrast, at Isfjord Radio we study the permafrost conditions in the warmest part of Svalbard. We have seen that during the previous winter the ground temperature in the upper 1 m never fell below -1ºC beneath a very large snowdrift site, because of a very early and thick snow cover. Tomorrow we hope to drill deeper into the permafrost at this site and install thermistors in the top 1-2 m of the permafrost. This, however, all depends on where the polar bear will be tomorrow.


The AG-333 team and Japanese collaborating IPY permafrost course at one of the TSP Norway boreholes at Kapp Linne right after installation of thermistorstring. Photo: Hanne H. Christiansen.


21 August 2008: The polar bear day !

Our large visiting polar bear just 100 m south of Isfjord Radio. Photo Hanne H. Christiansen.


Today just when we were ready to leave for fieldwork in the morning the polar bear showed up on the beach east of Isfjord Radio station. It simply walked straight towards us at the station. We got inside the buildings, and had just 3 persons outside trying to scare the bear away from the buildings. The same bear had broken into a hut some km west of here last night. He did not react to us firing the flare gun, but finally we managed to get him to turn around and not walk into the station.

So this became a day without any fieldwork, as the unpredictable polar bear is still on the beach about 1 km from us here. We have to leave Kapp Linne today sailing back to Longyearbyen to do our laboratory work before leaving for Greenland in the night to Monday !

Todays permafrost joke, served at the breakfast table by Kjersti: So what does a permafrost researcher do in his/her free time ? He/she goes to a CALM site.. And another one..also heard today during the polar bear watch: Where does permafrost researchers eat ? At the permafrost table !


24 August 2008: Svalbard permafrost samples studied, packed and partly processed – ready for the Greenlandic permafrost

We have now finished the Svalbard sampling part of the course. So the last two days have been focused on preparing the around 12 m of permafrost and active layer samples we have collected from 3 different sites in Longyearbyen and from Kapp Linne !  Half a day was spent in the freezing lab at the University Centre in Svalbard, UNIS, to study in detail our frozen samples obtained from down to almost 3 m below terrain, through the active layer and into the top of the permafrost.


Studying the 2.4 m long core from Adventdalen in -15oC in the freezing lab at UNIS. We have found very ice rich permafrost in our cores.  Photos: Hanne H. Christiansen.


After describing, photographing, sub sampling our samples in the freezer, we moved to the warm laboratory for deciding the ice content, pH and grain sizes of our samples.


Preparing samples for grain size measurements in the UNIS laboratory.  Photo: Hanne H. Christiansen.

We also searched for organic material from the lower parts of our samples to obtain ages of the sediment studied. Samples will be dated using the 14C AMS method. We also have collected several samples for OSL (Optically stimulated Luminescence) dating, allowing us to date sediment directly.


Preparing samples for grain size measurements in the UNIS laboratory (left). Searching for organic material under the microscope (right). Photos: Hanne H. Christiansen.


Now we have almost finished the packing for the last 2 weeks of the course. Tonight we will travel south from Longyearbyen here in Svalbard to Oslo, then west to Keflavik and Akureyri both in Iceland, before we fly north again finally reaching Zackenberg at 74 N in NE Greeland according to our plan on Tuesday 26 August.


26 August 2008:  Winter approaching – stopover in Iceland

North Atlantic weather 26 August 2008. A deep low is centred over NW Iceland, slowly moving east. The warm front is moving north over the North Atlantic with precipitation, while cold air with showers is moving east, south of Iceland. Meteorological map to the left. Satelite picture (Dundee) to the right; East Greenland is seen to the upper left, Norway to the right.

The first deep autumn depression is today located NW of Iceland with a very well developed front running all the way from E Greenland to Norway. This cause strong winds and a very wet runway in Constable Pynt in East Greenland , where we are going to land on our way to Zackenberg. So we are awaiting better conditions for allowing landing in Greenland , and therefore staying in the town of Akureyri in northern Iceland . The weather forecast for Zackenberg tells us that we will experience the start of winter in the days to come, with temperatures around 0ºC and a bit of freezing. This is interesting as we will dig into the active layer and freezing air temperatures means that the ground may start to freeze. Anyway, we bring along our drilling machines and are eager to see the permafrost in Zackenberg.

You can check updated weather conditions in East Greenland and in the Arctic on the three links below:

  • Click here to open a map showing the latest surface wind and air temperatures in the Arctic.

  • Click here to open a map showing the latest surface air pressure and air temperatures in the Arctic.

  • Click here to open the gateway to satellite pictures from the Dundee Satellite Receiving Station. The service is free, but you have to register.


We are flying Dash 8 within Iceland and most likely also from Iceland to East Greenland. The last part of our journey from Mestersvig in East Greenland to Zackenberg will be by a Twinotter, which is able to land and takeoff on very short runways, or even without a prepared runway. Photo: Dominique Langhammer. 


This morning some Northern Bottlenose whales have entertained us in the fiord only a few meters from land, and so we now also met some of the larger arctic animals from the sea. See photos below.


Whale showing its tail. Part of the city Akureyri is seen in the background. Photo: Bo Elberling.

Svimming with the whales (left). Close up of Northern Bottlenose whale (right). Photos: Dominique Langhammer.



27-31 August 2008: Permafrost coring in Zackenberg, NE Greenland

Text: Bo Elberling, photos: Hanne H. Christiansen


The Twinotter on the final approach to the small runway in Zackenberg. The mountains on Clavering Island is seen in the background. August 27, 2008.


For two of us the flight to Zackenberg gave many good memories from the early start of Zackenberg Research Station in the 1990ies. But for most of the students in the Twinotter - this was the very first visit to Greenland . Soon the blue Zackenberg buildings appeared, and after a few hours all were introduced to the station and surroundings and we already probed the two CALM sites near the Station the first evening.

The group enjoying life outside one of the Zackenberg Station buildings. 

28. August our two groups made the first permafrost core drillings in East Greenland for sediment sampling and with temperature instrumentation. It was a very hard and really long day of work, but we were all very happy about getting almost 10 meter of cores from the permafrost and active layer– the deepest samples were obtained from 3.23 m below the surface. Three termistor strings were installed for permafrost temperature monitoring with 10 sensors from the ground surface down to 2.5 m depth.


Probing the active layer thickness, with interested Muskoxen in the background.


Inspecting a sediment core from the uppermost part of the permafrost.


A scientific nap after the hard drilling work.


Obtaining samples from the permafrost have long been a wish both from a soil scientific and geomorphological perspective, as such data in the future will provide information on landscape specific active layer development and permafrost ice content, as well as carbon and nitrogen dynamics in the permafrost with respect to climate changes.

Reaching a depth of three meters below the terrain surface.


Lecturing on carbon dynamics in permafrost regions.


Muskoxen are everywhere and add to the excitement – more than 150 muskoxen are scattered in the valley often in groups. This time of the year it is best to keep a good distance, as the males are busy keeping control over the small groups. However, the muskoxen seem to be attracted to our permafrost research sites.


10 September 2008: Data - data - data  and permafrost science !

Text and photos: Hanne H. Christiansen

Zackenberg Research Station in morning light in early September with new snow on the Clavering mountains.


Before leaving Zackenberg we all worked hard to get all the data collected both from the field and from the laboratory. Just as we got copies of the relevant data from the GeoBasis monitoring programme at Zackenberg. This monitoring programme, which has run for more than 10 years, provide us with important meteorological data and also more specific data on water content, active layer thawing from before we came to Greenland allowing us to compare this directly with the Svalbard values.

One of the legacies of the IPY is the data. Therefore we have spent 3 days at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik to organize the large amounts of data we have collected during our course activities comparing the permafrost conditions in Svalbard with NE Greenland. We returned from Greenland directly to a rather warm +16ºC Reykjavik, were the days were more than full with getting all the field and laboratory data out of the many field notebooks and into computers, but also to get our field equipment sent on to Svalbard. Finally, in the last evening in Iceland most of the data were ready for distribution to all participants.


Laboratory work on the obtained frozen cores were going on both outside (+2oC) and inside the laboratory buildings in the Zackenberg Research Station. 


The last day of the course we had oral presentations of all the data collected, and we started to consider the scientific questions each of the participants will study based on the collected data and the available background data. These studies will form the final course report, which will finished in November, consisting of individual papers on different scientific questions. Examples of research questions to be studied are: How large is the meteorological control on active layer thicknesses in Svalbard and Greenland compared to the control by local geomorphology and soil conditions ? Can we model the thaw progression correctly using available models now that we have improved field input data including soil physical conditions ?  How was the active layer and permafrost temperatures in different landforms in Svalbard compared to NE Greenland during the last polaryear ?

Some of the students of this course have already collected enough data also for their master or bachelor theses, or inspiration to include some of the data in their coming theses. So hopefully we have started some new arctic researchers who want to continue studying the permafrost of Svalbard and Greenland !

Muskoxen were present in large numbers close to our working sites in the Zackenberg lowlands.


Impressions about the course from two of the students:

What a wonderful experience being on course AG 333. Besides learning a lot about permafrost and the related fieldwork we are coming across one surprise after the other.

It is difficult to describe how it feels to swim next to the whales… just an amazing experience!! Dominik and I were waiting for the perfect moment to jump into the water where the whales were playing just a few meters away from the shore in front of Hotel Akureyri , Iceland , where we waited for our flight to Greenland . We also were hoping for the sun to shine through a blue spot between the fast mooving clouds of the fascinating Icelandic sky. That moment came pretty soon, we didn’t hesitate to take off our clothes. The whales came even closer as they noticed us in the water. At this moment everything around us seemed to disappear: The voices of people watching from the street, the nordic temperature of the water…A wonderful and unforgettable moment J

Zoe Lucia Lüthi, Swiss master student

It’s been such a great experience for me, to be able to join the AG-333 course.

I’ve met and worked with some very nice people, and I think we all have done a great work to contribute with expanding our knowledge concerning permafrost.

It’s been a very great experience for me to see parts of Svalbard , Iceland and Greenland for the first time. The nature has been stunning, and the wild life even more. Not only have we seen many curious reindeers, thinking of joining our fieldwork. But my very first big polarbear dropped by for a visit as well. WOW! We even saw whales in a fjord in Iceland , and at Zackenberg there were muskoxen everywhere. In Greenland I also experienced to climb my first mountain. The trip was long, but worth it, when we finally reached the top. –What a view!

All in all, I must say that my time on this course has been a life experience for me. Something I will always remember.

Louise Berg, Danish bachelor student

Getting used to work among muskoxen.