During a year in which self-isolation became the norm out of necessity, two women deliberately chose to separate from the rest of the world for the last 18 months.
And, during their self-imposed isolation, staying at a small, uninsulated trapper’s cabin in the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard — about 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole — the pair made history.
Sunniva Sorby, from B.C., and Hilde Fålun Strøm, from Norway, both self-titled scientists, are the first known women to embark upon such a lengthy research expedition in this region without men. They documented their mission, which they called Hearts in the Ice, online.
The remote cabin they stayed in, built in 1930 and called “Bamsebu,” is about 140 kilometres from the nearest community and has solar and wind power, but no running water.
But, their time at the encampment was about more than adventure.
Between them, the pair has 46 years of polar travel and expedition experience and they used their skills in the northern climate to gather data for research.
The initial trip, which started in 2019, was meant to last nine months, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the midst of their journey, the pair opted to stay for another winter.
During the 18-month stay, they collected data on sea ice, water, phytoplankton, auroras, clouds, microplastics, animals and “everything observable in the Arctic world.”
“Climate change is happening twice as fast up here in the Arctic,” Fålun Strøm said. “So, we are sort of climate witnesses.”
Those changes they witnessed were seen in ice conditions, animals and the atmosphere. They handed over the data they collected to nine organizations, including the Norwegian Polar Institute and NASA.
“It’s funny because so much of what we’re doing, people can’t really see. It’s like we’re collecting things that normally you wouldn’t observe if you’re just passing by. But over time, we’re able to see the changes,” Sorby said.
Fålun Strøm noted that there was “such a warm winter,” with much more rain.
“We didn’t have rain at all last year,” Fålun Strøm said. “And all this makes challenges for the wildlife around here, especially seals, polar bears and reindeers.”
The women weren’t just gazing at the wildlife — they were watching out for it. The pair had nearly 90 polar bear sightings from their cabin and a couple of close calls.
Sorby said one night, while going to look for northern lights, she opened the door, turned on a little floodlight outside, and went to close the wooden shutters (complete with nail spikes on the outside for polar bear safety), and there one was, just to her right.
“I apparently startled the polar bear,” Sorby said. “[It] came around the corner, right in front of me and stopped for what felt like a full minute.
“My heart was immediately in my throat.… It’s absolutely a beautiful, magnificent, magnificent marine mammal. And in the same breath, it was just horrifying that I was standing two metres away from this polar bear.”
She said the bear pushed off on its hind legs and left.
“I’ll never, ever forget that.”
Connecting the world to science
One of the duo’s goals is to engage the global community in a conversation about climate change, and what each person can do to help. Their outreach has connected them with thousands of students.
World conservation leaders joined the conversation too, including famed primatologist Jane Goodall, who joined the women in a live satellite video call.
Goodall said science has changed over the years as people who are not formally scientists have been able to contribute with technology. Now, she said, it’s important to include children too.
“I think when you involve children, it’s so desperately important to help them understand the natural world and to learn that actually, we’re part of this amazing tapestry of life, that we depend on it. And the more they learn about it and interact with it, the more likely they are to fall in love with the natural world and want to help protect it,” Goodall said.
“So, that’s the key thing now. We’ve made a right mess of this planet of ours. It’s our only home…. We’re in a dark time right now, and so it’s really important for everybody to get together and try and slow down climate change and the loss of biodiversity.”
Paloma Ruiz De La Orden, a 16-year-old student at Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal, was among the students who met the pair virtually.
“Just hearing about their passion for the project is really just inspiring and creates a lot of ambition for young people like me,” said Ruiz De La Orden.
“I’ve been educating myself and others about what we can do to help the climate. Obviously, we can’t necessarily go to the Arctic right now, but we can still do small things in order to make a huge impact.”
While Fålun Strøm and Sorby were studying the Arctic world around them, scientists, curious about how the pair weathered all those months of isolation, were studying them as well. NASA is studying their coping and isolation techniques, which could add valuable insight for future space exploration expeditions.
“It’s not easy being here with just one person. It wouldn’t be easy for anybody, but we’re pretty confident that had it been two men, that they might have punched each other out about now,” Sorby said.
“We have great routines and … we have so much physical work that we need to do, chopping wood and collecting ice and snow for water,” Fålun Strøm said.
At the end of May, Fålun Strøm and Sorby prepared to leave. They hitched a ride on a Norwegian coast guard vessel.
The women are already thinking about their next adventure — being citizen scientists in the Canadian Arctic.
“None of us are smart enough to solve the problems of the world, but together, if we collaborate and we leverage each other’s skills and interests and abilities, we’re able to actually move in union,” Sorby said.
“I mean, the heartbeats, the co-operative part of our project, has been the success.”