A Classroom at the Edge of the World
October 22, 2014
A journey to the Arctic, where polar bears outnumber people, the sun never sets, and the frozen tundra is a geologist’s paradise
By Rose Cahalan
There’s a pair of binoculars in my backpack, but I don’t need them. The slick head of a ringed seal breaks the water just a stone’s throw from the Zodiac boat. Our driver kills the motor so as not to disturb the animal, who watches us through impassive black eyes and a thick plume of whiskers.
He regards us coolly for a moment, blinks, and then sinks back into the gray waters of the Barents Sea. The Zodiac’s motor sputters to life again, and freezing raindrops fleck our coats and hats as we push on toward the rocky shore.
It’s just another day in Svalbard, the remote Arctic island chain where a group of UT graduate students and professors spent a week in August 2013. The trip’s aim was to teach geology and petroleum engineering skills in one of the world’s most rare and compelling research sites. But by the week’s end—after countless hikes and lectures and wildlife encounters and frost-nipped fingers—it would become about much more than that. It would be the adventure of a lifetime.
In 1908, when the explorer Frederick Cook claimed to reach the North Pole—historians are still arguing over whether he really made it—he wrote in his journal, “We were the only pulsating creatures in a dead world of ice.”
Cook missed Svalbard by a few hundred miles, but the sentiment still rings true. Step off the plane in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town and the jumping-off point for Svalbard expeditions, and you’re initially struck by two things: the cold and the quiet. In summer, temperatures rarely rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and in winter they tend to stay below zero. From April to August, the sun doesn’t set, while from October to February, the land is enveloped in total darkness. In the center of Longyearbyen, where there are shops and bars and restaurants, there’s an almost eerie stillness in the chilly air. People walk briskly with gloved hands buried deep in their pockets, and everyone carries a gun.
Carrying a firearm is required by law in Svalbard, because the archipelago’s 3,000 polar bears outnumber its 2,000 human residents—and the bears are the masters of the land. “We have a saying here,” a scientist at UNIS, the small university outpost in Svalbard, told our group. “If you don’t know what you’re doing in Svalbard, Svalbard will kill you.”
She wasn’t joking. In what is surely among the world’s most unusual college orientation programs, new students at UNIS spend their first day learning to handle a rifle at a shooting range. Step two is an intensive safety course covering all the technical gear and know-how needed to survive in a harsh environment—like how to avoid a fatal fall into a crevasse when hiking on a glacier. (Answer: use safety ropes, and be extremely careful.)
Luckily, our group wouldn’t face such dangers alone. We would be traveling in comfort aboard the M.S. Expedition, a cruise liner chartered by the Norwegian oil company Statoil. For the past 13 years, Statoil has hosted a field class called Svalex (for “Svalbard expedition”) aboard the Expedition. Every summer, the course brings Norwegian graduate students to Svalbard—a territory of Norway, located about halfway between the European mainland and the North Pole—to study the area’s unique geology up close.
In 2011, when UT inked a $5-million research partnership with Statoil, the university and the company were looking to strengthen their longtime ties. Scott Tinker, who directs UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology and serves as acting associate dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences, remembers the day it all began. As an afterthought at the end of a meeting, Statoil manager Brit Ragnhildstveit told Tinker about Svalex. Would Tinker be interested in talking about a UT version of the expedition? “I almost jumped over the table,” Tinker says. “Would we be interested? Of course we were interested!”
Two years and dozens of planning meetings later, our group of 76—including 58 UT grad students in geology or petroleum engineering, 17 faculty members, and one wide-eyed Alcalde reporter—boarded the first of three flights in a long journey from Austin to Svalbard. The big, boisterous, burnt-orange-wearing, hiking-boot-clad group attracted more than a few stares in the airport. As the plane backed away from the gate in Austin, the PA system crackled to life and the pilot said cheerfully, “Good luck to all you UT Longhorns!”
We would need it. After 30 hours in transit and a short first night’s sleep aboard the Expedition, we woke early for the first of many landings. The ship’s crew had already been up for hours, scouting the land where we would hike to make sure it was clear of polar bears. Armed guards would flank us during every hike, although needing to shoot a bear is a rare and tragic last resort. “There’s more paperwork in Svalbard if you kill a bear than if you kill a person,” crew member Kerstin Langenberger says, scanning the horizon through binoculars. “They are such incredible animals, and they are fiercely protected here.”
Seeing a bear in the summer is rare, since they head north in pursuit of polar ice, but summer encounters are also especially dangerous, since the bears are hungrier: less ice means bears have a harder time hunting seals. “I’m extra careful when we’re on the beach,” Langenberger says, “because unlike on land where you see them coming, they can pop up out of the water with no warning, and then we’re in trouble.”
But we weren’t there to see bears. We were there for the rocks.
Geologic Time Travel
“We just walked across 240 million years of history,” Ron Steel says. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where you can do that.”
A compact man with a Scottish brogue, silver hair, and twinkling eyes, Steel chairs UT’s Department of Geological Sciences. He has made 33 research trips to Svalbard over three decades. Although the Svalex class was officially (and expertly) led by a team of five Norwegian professors, with the UT faculty watching and contributing informally, Steel spoke with singular authority.
To call Steel unflappable would be an understatement. In 1980, he slipped and broke his knee while doing fieldwork late into the sunny polar night on a Svalbard slope. His graduate students had to carry him down the mountain to spend two excruciating days in a hut awaiting a helicopter rescue from their remote research site. Ask Steel what that was like, and he shrugs it off: “Oh, it wasn’t pleasant,” he deadpans.
Bounding across a moss-carpeted valley in the Festningen site of Svalbard, Steel looks far younger than his 68 years. He has a bounce in his step, and it’s not just the springy permafrost underfoot, which feels a bit like walking on a very large mattress. As students walk up to the outcrops and sketch geologic formations in yellow field notebooks, Steel hovers, always with a question or a few words of encouragement, pushing the students to get even closer to their subject. “Beyond looking at the rocks,” he says, “you should feel them in your hands, hold them, even smell them.”
Svalbard is a mecca for geologists because it offers unparalleled access to the earth’s history. A full 30 percent of Svalbard is exposed rock, while 60 percent is glaciers, and only 10 percent has vegetation. Since there are few plants on the Arctic tundra, the rocks are there for the taking—a researcher can simply walk right up and see millions of years worth of strata. Fossilized leaves and ferns from the warm Carboniferous period, roughly 350 million years ago, trace Svalbard’s continental drift north from the Equator. Touching a leaf fossil in a land that has been treeless for eons somehow makes the mind-bending concept of geologic time easier to grasp.
And while photos and diagrams can depict geologic formations in great detail, nothing beats the muscle memory that comes from the real thing. “Photos help, but you never really understand until you touch the rocks,” says Isaac Smith, a doctoral student in geology. “And once you do, it sticks with you for a long time.”
In addition to hands-on experience, the trip also aimed to bridge the gap between geologists and petroleum engineers. Although the two work closely in the oil industry—where most of these students will end up—they use different jargon and often struggle to relate. So the class paired geologists and engineers together in small groups and gave them interdisciplinary tasks. What are the features of a particular outcrop, and what would be the safest, most efficient way to drill for oil there? It takes both a geologist and an engineer to answer those questions, and they did, in presentations delivered at the end of long days—as late as 10 p.m.—over tea and cookies in the Expedition’s cozy meeting room.
But the diversity on the ship went far beyond geologists and engineers. It was, as Tinker says, “like a U.N. meeting.” Reflecting the composition of UT’s graduate school, the students hailed from at least 13 countries, from Taiwan to Argentina to Indonesia to Italy. And the list of professors along for the ride reads like a Who’s Who of the energy world. A twenty-something student might find herself chatting about biofuels over dinner with an engineering and policy expert (Tad Patzek), looking at a glacier with a climate scientist (Rong Fu) or hiking up a mountain with the state geologist of Texas (Tinker). With no phones, no Internet and no distractions, there were only the students, their teachers and the landscape. And we haven’t even arrived at the Soviet ghost town.
Guy Esparon hoists his rifle over his shoulder, tugs his red knit cap down over his ears and cups his hands around his mouth. “Listen up,” he shouts. “I need everyone to stay together. No wandering off. Even though we’re in the middle of town, there could be a bear waiting around the next corner.”
Esparon—a nature guide working on the Expedition—hails from the tropical Seychelles Islands, and he has an accent that evokes coconuts and sunshine. I feel warmer just standing near him. Back on the ship, he’s a jokester, passing around his recipe for the perfect pineapple cocktail, but now he’s all business.
We are in Pyramiden, a former Soviet coal-mining town that was abandoned in 1998. From a junkyard heaped with rusted scrap metal, much of it still covered with Cyrillic writing, we follow a creaking boardwalk past faded 1940s-era apartment buildings and an elementary school with its once-cheery mural of a farmer in traditional Russian dress strolling through a verdant forest. The swings on a half-collapsed jungle gym are still swaying. Beyond the crunch of boots on the ground, the only sound is the cawing of hundreds of seagulls as they coast on the wind above our heads.
Pyramiden once had more than 1,000 residents: men who worked (and died, if they were unlucky) in rickety mineshafts, and women and children who tried to eke out as normal an existence as possible in a lonely settlement at the world’s end. The cavernous cultural center at the top of the town square still holds a grand piano and an empty swimming pool. A towering statue of Vladimir Lenin, with his characteristic scowl, passes silent judgment on us all.
It is with this backdrop that our group does what we came to do: learn geology. Our blackboard is a rusted shipping container, onto which a professor tacks up a diagram of a rock formation, and our classroom is the mountains, the sea and the glaciers that surround us. Everyone starts shivering if we stand still too long, but I’ve never seen a more riveted audience during each half-hour lecture.
The Arctic light—as warm and radiant as the air is cold—casts a luminous, pastel glow over everything. In his book Arctic Dreams, nature writer Barry Lopez calls it “a healing light.” I had rolled my eyes at that phrase, thinking it hyperbolic, but as I stand in Pyramiden, feeling a deep calm in this strangest of places, I finally understand what Lopez meant. I will never forget that light as long as I live.
Two days later, we wake to sunlight at 2 a.m. to begin our long journey home. On a bus to the airport, even while we are half-asleep and exhausted, Jackson School of Geosciences professor Daniel Stockli points out a rock formation: “Look at that beautiful Carboniferous outcrop!” Someone teases him—“Aren’t we done?” Stockli shakes his head. “We’re geologists. We’re never done.”
—This article first appeared in Alcalde.