Tracy Staedter

Jul 17th 2020

Extreme Citizen Science Underway in the Arctic


From school children to retired couples, everyday people around the world are participating in citizen science projects. Some help count migrating birds, monitor litter in their neighborhood, spot honeybees infected with a parasite or observe and report cloud cover. Now, two Norwegian women, Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby, are taking citizen science to new heights.

The adventurers began a nine-month project called Hearts in the Ice in August 2019 to live on a remote island in the Arctic and collect a range of climate change research data. Since then, they’ve been observing wildlife, collecting water samples, photographing different types of clouds and daytime auroras, field-testing new technology and inspiring others to minimize their carbon footprint. Strøm and Sorby, who are the first women to overwinter in Svalbard without any men, say they draw inspiration from other female pioneers and hope their act will encourage others to take action against climate change.

“It’s overwhelming to be so vulnerable as we are, yet so meaningful to play a role in helping people around the world understand that mother nature needs us all right now,” Sorby said in a January 2020 press statement via satellite phone from their small trapper cabin, named Bamsebu, which was built in 1930 and is about 86 miles south of Longyearbyen, the nearest town.

From Phytoplankton to Polar Bears

Strøm and Sorby are undertaking seven different citizen science projects, while also managing to survive a long, dark winter, isolation, occasional hurricane-force winds, temperatures of -22 degrees Fahrenheit and polar bear visits.

In addition to conducting climate change research, Strøm and Sorby have been spending their free time picking up plastics that wash up on shore and photographing the wildlife, including Svalbard Reindeer, Arctic foxes, walruses, seals and whales, as well as thousands of migrating birds. There are also polar bears. About eight weeks into their expedition, they encountered two polar bears within a 12-hour period. “It was so sudden! I opened the door and 3 seconds later – there she was! My heart was racing! She glanced at me and then pushed off her hind legs and ran down the hill and south towards the fjord,” Sorby wrote in a Hearts in the Ice blog post dated Nov. 13, 2019.

The next day, while out for a walk, the women saw a large polar bear running off and found that it had killed a reindeer. Such behavior is not normal for polar bears, who almost exclusively hunt seals on sea ice. But with ice taking longer to freeze and melting sooner in the year, polar bears have to find other prey, the team wrote. “Reindeer is a great alternative, but the polar bears need to learn to hunt them. The polar bear we saw run away from its kill had clearly been lying in wait behind a knoll above where the reindeer was. She waited until it was close enough and then slid down the hill — we saw the skid marks,” they write.

Female Pioneers

Strøm and Sorby are no strangers to extreme environments. Strøm, who was fascinated by stories of polar explorers as a child, moved to Svalbard more than 23 years ago. She has experience hunting, dog sledding, skiing, has lived for months at a time in remote huts and has had 200 polar bear encounters. Sorby is an experienced expeditioner, who has spent more than two decades working in Antarctica as a guide and historian. She has skied across the Greenland icecap, across King George Island and was among the first all-women team to ski across Antarctica to the South Pole in 1993. That expedition was led by Ann Bancroft, who was the first woman to cross Arctic ice to the North Pole, the first woman to reach the South Pole, and the leader of the first American women’s east-west crossing of Greenland.

Strøm and Sorby say they draw inspiration for their nine-month overwintering expedition from two women pioneers. The first is Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen, a Norwegian botanist born in 1873. She went on an expedition to Svalbard in 1907 led by the oceanographer Prince Albert, and the following year went again — this time alone — to take photographs. Her photos and botanical observations were published in scientific journals. She advocated strongly for the protection of Svalbard and the entire natural world.

The second pioneer is the American nature writer, scientist and ecologist Rachel Carson, born in 1907, whose book “Silent Spring” confronted the issue of the destruction of nature and is credited with advancing the global environmental movement. “She remains an example of what one committed individual can do to change the direction of society. Never doubt the power of one!” say Strøm and Sorby.

In March, as the end of their project came into view, Strøm and Sorby heard of the coronavirus pandemic overtaking the world. They wrote a post to the world offering encouragement and tips for living in isolation. They suggest staying connected, reaching out to people you care about and working to resolve differences. They suggest ways for solving problems that draw from patience, collaboration and adaptability, using all possible resources and reducing waste. They suggest self-care and creativity to infuse those around you with love.

From the beginning Strøm and Sorby had a wish for what they might see when their time at Bamsebu came to a close. “We hope that every single person out there understands that they matter and can make an invaluable contribution. We hope individuals would step up to their own leadership abilities, discover a science project in nature they are passionately curious about and become a citizen scientist. Only then will we all embrace the planet!”