Field science: water sampling


“There’s no point in doing oceanography if you don’t know what the temperature and salinity are doing. It sets the scene for all the other measurements and samples you take,” remarks Dr Helen Findlay.

We are out in the boat again on Kongsfjorden, the inlet running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Kongsbreen glacier and edging past the science village of Ny Ålesund.

It is easy to forget that the ocean is not just a massive bathtub, but contains different layers of water with different properties at different depths. Internal waves ripple through it and internal rivers run through our seas and oceans. There are two main instruments used for water sampling and they allow scientists to map the water column.


The first instrument is a niskin bottle. To the untrained eye, it looks like a length of drainpipe with elasticated ends. The niskin bottle has been used for sampling in the polar waters since 1910, when it was designed by Fritjof Nansen and Otto Sverdrup.

The bottle is lowered into the cold dark waters of the fjord on the winch, ends held back, to the desired sampling depth. At each waypoint along the fjord, Helen would take samples at a variety of depths, surface, 15 metres, 25 metres, etc. When the niskin bottle is at the desired depth, a small brass weight, known as a ‘messenger’ is sent down the wire to snap the ends closed and capture a sample of seawater at specific depths.

This is then drawn back to the surface and carefully decanted into obsessively labelled bottles. Helen is studying the carbonate and nutrient (e.g. nitrates and phosphates) content of the water samples. Helen adds mercuric chloride to the samples, which kills any microorganisms, to ensure that the levels of carbonate do not change after sampling has take place.


The other instrument that is used is a CTD, standing for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. Again lowered over the side of the boat using a winch, the CTD is used to create a profile of the water column and its important physical properties.

These samples and data sets will then be analysed later to give Helen and the team a better understanding of the waters of Kongsfjorden.

Interactive krill lab

Reflections on field science


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.


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.


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.

Real science: searching for krill

The science team are investigating the impact that ocean acidification might have on the krill population in the Arctic. Investigating small marine invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain is important as these lay the foundation for all the larger life in the marine environment here.


The first step for the research is to find the krill. Then in the next days and weeks they will be exposed to different pH levels, replicating potential future changes caused by ocean acidification. The first couple of trawls hadn’t been great, and the team need between 350-400 individuals to make sure that the sample size is large enough.


The support team at King’s Bay (the managing company for the science bases at Ny Alesund) had a boat ready at short notice, and so with Helen, Piero and Theresa, we headed out into the waters of Kongsfjorden. It was eerily calm, and still light from 6.30pm through to 9.30pm to search for krill. The first two trawls yielded a few, thirty at best, but the last has given the science team a decent batch. There is a fair bit of luck involved as no one on the boat was an excellent krill fisher.


The krill were carefully collected from the net and placed in sample boxes to be transported back to the lab. Over the next few days, we’ll be following the science experiments.

See Digital Explorer resource bank for more classroom resources and background on ocean acidification.

Flying north

The Arctic is a long way away both physically and in the lands of the imagination. From the Digital Explorer offices in London to the science base at Ny Alesund is a one and a half day journey, flying via Oslo and then to the Svalbard archipelago and a night in the town of Longyearbyen.


At this time of year, with the Arctic sun not due to set again until the end of August, the journey is odder still. Growing up in temperate climates like the UK, I have etched on my mind that the North is cold and sunless, dark days and nights and endless winter. Likewise, the sun is something that rises in the East and sets in the West, transcribing a high arc through dawn, noon and dusk.


The flight from Oslo left towards nine in the evening and the sun had already set. But flying north over the land then sea, the sun got brighter and brighter as we neared midnight. This was so contrary to all my experience. Flying north towards the sun.


We look forward to having you with us on the #FrozenOceansLive journey as we share life and science with schools around the world.

London2London with Sarah Outen


The Journey of a Lifetime

One of Digital Explorer’s good friends and British adventurer Sarah Outen has embarked on a journey of a life time. The expedition is from London to London via the world, a human powered loop of the planet. Sarah was appointed an MBE in 2011 and continues to support charities, inspiring young people to take on their own adventures and challenges.

124 days into the expedition and there have been some changes in course. The original plan was to head towards Vancouver before winter. However due to safety reasons Sarah has changed course and is heading north towards Adak, which is the nearest Aleutian Island. As autumn approaches Sarah would have had to face a great deal of adverse weather conditions that would have put her and her crew members at risk. The new plan for this expedition offers Sarah the chance to see a new part of the world and to continue her L2L journey next year. The safety of Sarah and the crew are of the utmost importance and here at Digital Explorer we are wishing Sarah the best of luck on the rest of her voyage. Keep up to date with the expedition by checking out her blog.

Digital Explorer has a whole collection of resources from Sarah, including lessons and activities for Science students, suitable for ages 8-11. These resources allow the world to be bought to your classroom and engage students with global issues. Topics include adaption and variation, biodiversity, ecosystems, environment, food, health and humans and the environment. You can download these resources from Digital Explorer.

Sarah has a small laptop with satellite link up so if you want to talk to her about the expedition or ask her a question you can book this through her website or via Sarah’s Skype in the Classroom lesson page.

London to London via the world is a 3.5 year expedition and here at Digital Explorer we are wishing Sarah the best of luck on her round the world trip. Get in touch with Sarah, ask her questions and send her some encouragement on Twitter @SarahOuten or Facebook.

Digital Explorer is also on Twitter follow us: @de_updates
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Lake Ellsworth drilling waits for another day

Credit to The Guardian for the great graphic (

News from the Lake Ellsworth team in Antarctica that drilling down to the subglacial lake will have to wait for another year.

It must be a huge disappointment to the team, but as an observer currently in the relative warmth of London, it the project remains a massive inspiration. Projects like this show that geographical exploration is alive and well and focused on understanding and learning about our planet.

There are many polar expeditions nowadays – fastest, least supported, etc. – but this expedition was more than these. It showed the determination, initiative and daring of a team of people to try something on the edge of human ability, not for the sake of it, but to find out more about our planet. All power to them and I am sure that they will succeed in the end.

To put this mission in perspective, the first expedition to attempt to summit Mount Everest was in 1922, and the first successful expedition to reach the summit and come back down again was in 1953. I hope we will not have to wait another 31 years, but the very fact that there are people who put everything on the line to explore our planet is fantastic.

To the team at Lake Ellsworth, a massive ‘thank you’ for providing an example to the rest of us.

My new brothers and sisters

During the last two weeks of this trip, I learned a lot of things that I can not write in a few paragraphs, or even a book. Sharing my ideas with others, being inspired by many things. I saw different sides of technology and innovation which I think will help most of Saudis.

The best was getting to know all my new sisters and brothers from different nationalities. Especially my sisters and brothers in the trip: Omaima, Rahaf, Sarah Khalid, Sarah Hobbs, Maryam, Ali and Jamie.

I think all the things that I benefited from this trip, will stay with me wherever I go. I will try and motivate and inspire the people I know back in Saudi.


My last blog

It is not easy for me to write this last blog! It is hard just to think that this is the last night I hold my iPad and put all my thoughts and feeling down.

My last blog will wrap this expedition up, but at the same time it reveals a new chapter in my life. Starting with traveling alone, passing by priceless experiences and opportunities, ending with bringing my dream project to reality. This expedition is a highlighted bookmark in my lifetime. I will go back to Riyadh with a different perspective of my goals, things around me and even of myself. I’ll go back to Saudi Arabia, and to my community with a more powerful project, and with more determination to thrive. I’ll go back with a more competitive soul I aimed to gain.


These past two weeks

First of all, I need to say that this trip was one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever had. I learned many things. Personally, I learned how to communicate with others and share my ideas. I made new friends. I learned to think in a positive way, and to take advantage of every opportunity. I learned that everything is possible, and not to give up. Whenever I start a project, to take my time and think about it step by step.

On the technical side, when I visited Cisco and watched how technology has developed very quickly. I saw an amazing group of deaf people and tried to see how technology can improve their lives, and to solve their problem. To say everything that I want, it’ll take a whole report.

When I’m back in Saudi, I’ll do many things; among them is:

  • Complete my project which is “<3 my future”.
  • Start working on apps that help deaf people and solve their problems


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