Journey into the Arctic Wilderness

This session, I had the incredible opportunity to enroll in the Arctic Ecology course at DIS, which has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. The highlight of this session was undoubtedly the study tour to Svalbard, Norway, where we ventured into the heart of the Arctic wilderness. Longyearbyen, the northernmost inhabited settlement in Svalbard, served as our base camp for an unforgettable journey.

The view from our boat on the first day

The study tour was meticulously designed to immerse us in the Arctic’s breathtaking beauty and unique ecosystem. We embarked on numerous 8-hour hikes that led us through mesmerizing landscapes and allowed us to witness the stunning Arctic wilderness up close. Along with these invigorating hikes, we were treated to several boat excursions, granting us the opportunity to spot marvelous marine wildlife, including walruses and beluga whales. The sight of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat was truly humbling and left an indelible mark on my mind.

On day one, we had the privilege of observing marine samples, appreciating the bird cliffs’ striking formations, and exploring an abandoned Russian settlement. Amidst the remnants of the past, we stumbled upon a reindeer carcass, providing insight into the ecosystem’s intricacies. The diverse flora we cataloged in the area also showcased the delicate balance of life in the Arctic.

Our Professor Peter Gravlund Nielsen setting up high power binoculars (Day 1)
Some of the flora spotted on Svalbard (photo credit Jacob Mull)

Another thrilling day brought us face to face with a group of inquisitive walruses during a hike to a prime location. While we were captivated by their presence, we made sure to maintain a quiet atmosphere, respecting their natural environment. This encounter also offered an opportunity to collect insects, including fascinating copepods, contributing to our ecological studies.

A collection of seaweed and Copepods
We got to take our lunch break with the walruses!

Beyond walrus encounters, day 3 also included an ascent up a steep cliff to witness the astounding bird cliffs. Swarms of little auks filled the sky as they flew over our heads, creating a surreal spectacle. An inquisitive male reindeer also approached our group, offering a glimpse of the Arctic’s incredible fauna. 

The reindeer came up quite close to us but
the dog to the right got very excited and they did not want to come closer

Our river crossing (photo credit Lia Cagnette)

We also had to cross a river to get onto our hike, so off the shoes went and we crossed a pretty rapid river with some part going up into our thighs. It was quite refreshing and the rocks gave a nice massage to our sore feet!

One of the most remarkable aspects of this study tour was our exploration of a glacier and the discovery of fossils from a tropical forest that thrived in the region 50-60 million years ago. It was a testament to the Arctic’s dynamic and ever-changing history. The glacier we were on is not part of a national park, so we were able to take home all the fossils we found.

One of the fossils we found on the glacier(photo credit Hunter Messick)

Comparing this study tour to my previous one in Sweden, I noticed some distinct differences in structure and focus. In Sweden, we were continuously on the move, moving locations and hotels every 1-2 days. Although this allowed us to cover more ground and experience different cultural aspects, it did lead to a more hectic pace. In contrast, our time in Svalbard was more contained because we only stayed in one hotel, allowing for a deeper immersion into the Arctic’s natural wonders. While the Swedish tour encompassed cultural experiences like Midsummer celebrations, the Svalbard trip centered on the pristine nature surrounding us. But we did have the opportunity to visit the Svalbard Museum, where we learned about the town’s history and the lives of the miners and trappers who once inhabited the area. This visit added depth to our understanding of the region and its intriguing past.

This Arctic Ecology course and study tour have been transformative experiences. They have deepened my appreciation for the delicate balance of Arctic ecosystems and the incredible adaptations of its wildlife. As we conclude this session, I am filled with gratitude for the chance to explore these remote and mesmerizing regions, and I carry with me a newfound sense of responsibility to protect and preserve the Arctic’s unique environment for future generations to come.

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