Exploring Ice Caves in the Arctic Wilderness

By Bill Andrews | March 26, 2015 2:02 pm


The climax of my trip to Svalbard may have already taken place with Friday’s spectacular total solar eclipse, but that didn’t mean the adventure was over. We still had one full day left before having to return to Oslo, and I got to spend it doing particularly Svalbard-y things.

First up, I went ice caving in the morning. A group of about 15 of us rode up to a nearby glacier in a bumpy old army transport vehicle (“It’s built for safety, not comfort,” the tour guide warned us), and descended down into its depths. They provided us metal cleats for our boots and headlamp helmets, and soon we were climbing down ladders and sliding down icy paths with nothing but ropes and each other to steady us.

The pathway we wended down formed when rushing water carved it out in the summer months, only to freeze anew in winter. This means that every year it’s a different path, a different cave to explore with different sights and destinations. In fact, last year they couldn’t offer this trip because the cave that formed was too unsafe for travelers.

Among other things, we spotted a variety of ices and stones, frozen stalactites and stalagmites, a variety of formations we nicknamed handlebars, chandeliers and curtains, and even a chunk of decades-old Styrofoam that had washed down into depths of the cavern. Even here, miles away from any settlements in a pristine cave, mankind’s trash made an appearance. The best part was the air down there was a by-now-comfortable freezing, much warmer than the outside air temperature. As we descended and climbed, some of us actually had to take off our winter gear because we were working up such a sweat!

Our group makes its way through the ice caves.

Our group makes its way through the ice caves. Credit Bill Andrews, Discover

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MORE ABOUT: arctic & antarctic

The Stunning Experience of a Total Solar Eclipse

By Bill Andrews | March 20, 2015 10:01 am
Photo by Valerie Hwang

The eclipse as seen from the group’s viewing site outside Longyearbyen. Photo by Valerie Hwang

In a word, this morning’s solar eclipse was perfect.

As part of Discover‘s partnership with TravelQuest International, I’ve been here in snowy Svalbard for the last few days  an amazing journey full of reindeer, answering questions and snow.

And now, my first-ever solar eclipse.

We had to get up early to catch an 8 a.m. bus (many of us still jet-lagged) and it was ridiculously cold (-4 degrees Fahrenheit, down to -13 during totality, when things got dark), but even still, the eclipse was just perfect from our site about 4 miles south of Longyearbyen. It looked like someone had Photoshopped the sky to make it look brighter, crisper, and more surreal than should be possible in real life. And, as I hear is always the case, it was over much too quickly.

Even seasoned eclipse-chasers, folks who have eight or 10 or more under their belt, all said this year’s Svalbard eclipse will be the one to beat. The conditions were superb. The air was crystal clear, so the sun and moon’s edges were sharp lines, making the famous “diamond ring” patterns appear bright and razor-edged. The extreme northern latitude (our observing site was above 78° N) meant the sun hung low in the sky, framing it perfectly in a gap in the mountains and even adding the illusion of greater size that occurs when the moon or sun are near the horizon.

And with the east and west directions being almost entirely snowy plains, we could see not just the approaching darkness, but also the elusive shadow bands rippling on the flat white ground.

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Clams’ Climate Secrets Prove Elusive in the Arctic

By Randall Hyman | September 4, 2014 3:07 pm

This is the third is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.


As fieldwork drew to a close last week off the northern tip of Norway, stormy seas flattened to a silvery smoothness and hungry fulmars swam about our fishing boat waiting for juicy leftovers. All we had to offer, though, were dead shells.

The team of scientists I accompanied had still not achieved one of its prize goals: the discovery of live, deep-water clams of a very special kind. The confidence we brought at the beginning of the week was wearing thin. Dead shells dredged from 600-foot depths proved our prey were tantalizingly close, but elusive. For days we had successfully collected living samples in 50-foot waters, but the Arctica islandica clam, the oldest living multicellular animal in the world, is at the extreme reach of its range where the North Atlantic meets the Arctic.

We needed live clams, and we needed them from the deepest possible waters at the edge of the continental shelf. Data gleaned from annual growth increments in shells at those depths reflect pure Gulf Stream waters (North Atlantic Current) where Atlantic current meets the Barents Sea, a critical intersection in the Arctic climate system. With this information the scientists on our team can reconstruct the triggers of ancient climate shifts and compare them to the present, as Arctic temperatures rise at twice the global average and sea ice dwindles to historic lows.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dead Clams Talking, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: climate change, ocean

To See Past Climate, Read Between the Clam’s Lines

By Randall Hyman | August 27, 2014 2:46 pm

This is the second is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.

Marine ecologists Rob Witbaard and Michael Carroll help Captain Thorleif Hanssen redeploy clam experiment

Marine ecologists Rob Witbaard and Michael Carroll help Captain Thorleif Hanssen redeploy Witbaard’s clam experiment.

Fieldwork anywhere in the world is risky business, no less so here at the island of Ingøya off the north tip of Norway, where Arctic storms can blow up out of nowhere and prevent scientists from going to sea for days at a time.

After arriving Monday evening in a wash of golden sunlight that poured like honey across the green tundra, our team of scientists has watched weather steadily worsen. It was a non-issue on land, where we battled wind and cold with layers of wool and Gore-Tex, but another story at sea, where waves and huge swells can toss you overboard into frigid waters.

Despite three days of productive shoreline work, paleoclimatologist Al Wanamaker of Iowa State University has grown antsy waiting to sail far off shore. There sits the mother lode: Arctica islandica clams never before collected this far north nor this deep, at 71 degrees latitude and up to 600-foot depths. If Wanamaker scores, he’ll have a solid basis for tracking the climate impact of the northward-flowing Gulf Stream (North Atlantic Current), free of the influence of the freshwater runoff in coastal currents.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dead Clams Talking, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: climate change, ocean

Dead Clams Talking

By Randall Hyman | August 21, 2014 11:35 am

This is the first is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.

Growth increments on these common clams hold untold insights into past climate.

Growth increments on these common clams hold untold insights into past climate.

This past Sunday, as I was setting sail with a team of scientists aboard a coastal steamer bound from Tromsø, Norway, to a tiny island near the northernmost tip of the country, paleoclimatologist Al Wanamaker surprised me with a bit of news.

“I guess you heard about our Ming nightmare,” he had said as brisk Arctic winds chiselled white caps across the frigid seas before us. We had only met by email up till then and he wanted to broach this sensitive subject in person. At the center of the storm was a tiny clam: Arctica islandica, or the “Ming clam.” In 2007, Wanamaker and colleagues at Bangor University discovered it was the world’s longest living non-colonial animal.

Handful of Arctica islandica.

Handful of Arctica islandica.

After that discovery, “I was shaking in my boots when I walked out of the lab,” says Wanamaker. “Before I knew it, friends were calling me from all over the world.” But then things changed. “When others realized we had to kill individuals to date them, everything went haywire and headlines changed to ‘Scientist kills world’s oldest living animal.‘ It was a nightmare. There were even crazy stories about me clubbing and shucking them overboard. It took some coverage from National Geographic and other good journalists to set the record straight.”

Wanamaker and I were on the same page. We both wanted to focus on the science and get any distractions out of the way. The straight dope is that, if there’s one amazingly old Arctica islandica, there are many others happily living nearby. And where we’re headed, the coastal ocean is teeming with them.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dead Clams Talking, Top posts

What Wiped Out the American West? Investigating a Triassic Extinction

By Douglas Fox | February 10, 2014 2:30 pm


Strewn across the dusty ground is the wreckage of a wetland forest that suddenly wilted and died 215 million years ago. Paul Olsen gestures at the broken lumps of white, red, and black quartz scattered about. “You see how it looks ropey?” he asks. He holds up a piece. “It looks like someone took little pieces of rope, snipped them up, and laid them down.”

Olsen believes that these scattered rocks mark the moment of a mass extinction that wiped out many species across North America. He would like to identify the calamity that triggered this extinction. But as I stand beside him in the midday sun, I’m unable to see the subtle clues that his trained eye perceives so easily. As I look at the rocks all about, I simply don’t see the ropey, cylindrical shapes that he’s talking about.

Olsen is a white-haired paleontologist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. He’s brought me to this mysterious spot in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona — not the famous part of the park dotted with petrified logs two feet across, but instead a part that most tourists never glance at. The water-eroded badlands surrounding us are striped in pale, anemic layers of beige, pink, and white clay that doesn’t support more than a few clumps of grass. The ground is bare aside from thousands of quartz lumps lying around.

After staring at the rocks for 10 minutes, something in my brain finally clicks into place — like one of those brain teasers where you stare at a grid of dots without focusing, and suddenly out pops the shape of a spaceship or cartoon character. I realize in an instant that most of these rocks really are shaped like cylinders —  some of them squished, some branched, some bent, some of them stuck together — but most of them, inescapably, cylinders. These rocks hold a great mystery, says Olsen.

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MORE ABOUT: paleontology

HI-SEAS Wraps, But More Mars Simulations to Come

By Kate Greene | August 28, 2013 11:56 am
release celebration from Mars

Upon leaving the habitat the crew was greeted with their first fresh meal in four months. Image courtesy HI-SEAS.

Two weeks ago the HI-SEAS mission ended and the crew stepped beyond the dome into the morning sun. For the first time in four months, we were able to walk outside, unencumbered by spacesuit simulators. My crewmates talked about a newly recognized visual crispness they saw. Pebbles underfoot and distant mountains seemed to pop, they told me. I can’t say I saw this phenomenon. But I was acutely aware of the cool breeze against my skin.

We were greeted by reporters, held a brief question-and-answer session, and were treated to a buffet of fresh fruits and vegetables. There were breads, donuts, and egg casseroles too, but I couldn’t stop eating carrots and celery. Their crunch in my mouth was addictive. The next couple of days were spent in “debrief” mode, where we talked about the mission with Kim Binsted, one of the principal investigators on the project. Then the crew scattered for vacation and travel back home.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts

Designing Spaceships to Take Us to Distant Solar Systems

By Kate Greene | August 9, 2013 11:50 am

This is the sixteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

seeker spaceship

A proto-starship built in Belgium in 2013. Credit: Kristof Vrancken

On Tuesday, the HI-SEAS crew will step outside our habitat unprotected by mock spacesuits for the first time in four months. The breeze will kiss our cheeks, fresh air will fill our noses and lungs, and if the weather holds, bright light from the sun will shine into our eyes. We’ll have arrived back on Earth.

But an interesting thing has happened in the build-up to our reentry. Paradoxically, some of our conversations have veered away from Earth, and even past Mars. We’ve discussed what it would take to build, operate and live on a starship, the kind of craft that steers toward neighbor suns, all the while sustaining generations of people for tens or hundreds of years.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select

Why Astronauts Struggle to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

By Kate Greene | August 5, 2013 12:06 pm

This is the fifteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

sleep study

Crewmember Yajaira Sierra-Sastre receiving a dose of morning light. Credit: Sian Proctor

There are less than two weeks left in the mission, and sleep is still at a premium. Many of us net less than seven hours a night, constantly trying to pay off sleep debt. I should know better than anyone: my research here investigates the quality and quantity of HI-SEAS crewmember sleep—or, evidently, the lack thereof.

Sleep is an intimate part of our lives, and the crew has been generous enough to donate data on theirs to help me answer some questions. Simply put, I wanted to know how a 45-minute dose of morning light affects crewmembers’ sleep the subsequent night. Will it help them fall asleep faster? Will it increase time spent in REM or deep sleep? Will they feel more rested overall?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts

Tropical Storm Flossie on Track for Hawaii—and Mars

By Kate Greene | July 29, 2013 10:53 am

This is the fourteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

flossie animated

UPDATE 3:03PM CDT | Early Monday morning Hawaii time, Tropical Storm Flossie tracked north and then west, just glancing the Big Island, on a path for Maui. At the habitat, all is calm, safe and sound.

Winds on the Red Planet can rage up to 100 miles per hour—hurricane speeds on Earth. But thanks to an atmosphere about 1 percent as dense as our planet’s, such gusts don’t pack a punch. And while the wind is often sandy, the grains are fine. It’s less sandblast and more smoke cloud.

The problem, however, is that these clouds can expand to cover areas the size of Earth’s continents and last weeks or months, blocking energy from the sun and potentially damaging joints on rovers or other equipment.

On Earth, our storms are smaller in scale and shorter in duration, but significantly more powerful. As I type this, one of these is bearing down on Hawaii, home to our four-month HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. The storm’s name is Flossie, and she is forecast to bring significant rain and wind speeds up to 45 miles per hour—which could spell havoc for our tiny outpost.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: tropical storm, weather

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