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Reflections on field science

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We head out on a small research vessel. Spray hits the deck riming instantly. Views slide past, slightly bleached in the head-on sun. Busyness and chatter. Helen and Alexey, two of the researchers at Ny Ålesund, labelling bottles for the water sampling that we’ll be collecting.

It will be good to get up further into the fjord beyond the vicinity of the base. A mini-expedition in itself. Small team, set purpose, easy camaraderie cut with reflective silence and concentration.

Normality and extremity nestle naturally. The cabin is warm. The table strewn with the necessities of our job. Radios, log-book, balaclavas, tea and biscuits.

The windows are salt sprayed and the pristine view grimy, but it will be a pleasure more so to step back into cold and clarity. A sharpness for all the senses.

The scene still resides in the realm of academia. Talk of funding applications, grant programmes, pan-European initiatives and studentships. For those who come here on a regular basis, this must seem normal, no distractions by the landscape. Maybe a pod of beluga would turn eyes and imaginations for a moment.

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It’s their focus that is admirable. Single-minded, chirpy, rhythmic filling of sample bottles, obsessive labelling, routines whetted through hard-won experience. No complaining, no drama, a quiet everydayness about their actions.

This is how your newspaper science headlines are made. Through a series of measurements taken by very unassuming men and women going about their daily work in extreme places.

The head of the fjord is divided into sections, the crystal blue sharp-edged snout of the main glacier, peaks, ridges and cliffs. More bird life out here and the waters are gently rippled. Auks, fulmars and eiders scud along the waves, searching for food.

The rumble of the generator, a constant acoustic judder, even when stationary and engines off. There was a short time knocking against bergy bits, a mildly alarming thwack, but Trond, our skipper laughs and noses carefully on.

Alexey comes into the cabin every couple of minutes with a small sample bottle that is then hidden under a black polystyrene lid, Norwegian Polar Institute, Centre for Ice, Climate and Ecosystems emblazoned on the side.

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Helen has her bottles. Small difficulties caused by the cold. The roll of insulating tape to bind up the samples has frozen and the plastic is now brittle and snaps. Almost impossible to peel a strip without it just becoming a collection of black plastic flecks under your fingernail. Trond looks to help and holds the tape in the warmth of the generator exhaust, but the problem persists.

The warmth of the cabin and the lull of the waters, allow me some much needed rest, and then it is out again, filming, photographing, recording. Making some sense of this extraordinary routine.

4 Responses to “Reflections on field science”

  1. Cindy Nickodam says:

    Thank you Jamie for an interesting Skype with my 8th graders today. Good luck with your research and future expeditions. The students loved it!

    Mrs. Nickodam
    Jonesville Middle School
    Jonesville, Virginia

  2. Shaunagh Lavery says:

    Do the results of these experiments follow the normal procedures of journal submission and peer review or due to the urgency of the situation in the Arctic is there a quicker route to get the results noticed?

  3. Digital Explorer says:

    A real pleasure speaking with your class today and great that the students enjoyed it.

  4. Digital Explorer says:

    Previous researchers I have worked with have gone through the normal procedures of journal submission and peer review. The current krill research is actually the basis for a Master’s thesis by Theresa Venello from Plymouth Marine Laboratory and so slightly different, but still rigour is needed! And eventually published (fingers crossed).

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