Located in the Svalbard archipelago, the small Norwegian community of Ny-Ålesund is home to the world’s northernmost year-round research station. The North Pole is only about 760 miles away.
The polar night is a time when the sun never rises above the horizon, making it possible to see the aurora borealis at any time of day. At this latitude, the polar night lasts approximately four months.
Until rather recently, it was believed that little to no activity took place in the ocean during the polar night, since phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, can’t grow without sunlight.
When an accidental discovery proved otherwise, targeted research into polar night ecology began in 2009. Now this growing discipline includes scientists Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, Ph.D. (far right) and her Ph.D. Student Kharis Schrage (middle) from the U.S.-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, Ph.D. (front) and her Ph.D. Student Kharis Schrage study meroplankton – the larvae of invertebrates that live on the seafloor. These larvae occur during the polar night, and the experts are trying to figure out how they survive without their primary food source present.
Zooplankton comes in a variety of fascinating forms. Pictured here is a species of holoplankton, which spends its entire life in the water column.
Prior to preserving specimens in ethanol, Ph.D. Student Kharis Schrage takes pictures of the meroplankton the researchers collected in the local fjord.
The scientists also want to know if the larvae can metamorphose and settle on the seafloor this time of year. Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, Ph.D. provides larvae with a piece of kelp to simulate a natural settlement surface in the lab.
To better understand settlement in the wild, Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, Ph.D., together with the engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, invented a camera system that acts as a settlement surface for larvae and can photograph settlement in real time.
Called CATAIN, which stands for “Camera to Analyze Invertebrates,” this camera takes a photo every 24 hours. To preserve battery power in near freezing waters, the computer inside CATAIN goes to sleep and only powers on when it’s time to take a picture.
Heavy rocks will help to secure CATAIN in place on the seafloor.
The team makes final preparations before deploying CATAIN. The camera will record data that was previously impossible to obtain.
After years of planning and field trials back in the U.S., the time has come to deploy CATAIN in Kongsfjorden, the local fjord. Lab Manager Marine Ilg and Ph.D. Student Kharis Schrage carefully lower it to the ocean floor.
CATAIN was deployed at 15 meters depth, which has the highest abundance and diversity of bottom organisms in Kongsfjorden. Located near the old pier, divers will retrieve the camera system after it has collected data for several months.
The Changing Seas crew traded their usual dive gear for exposure suits to film in this remote location. From left to right, camera operators David Diez and Jackie Hurtado with Series Producer Alexa Elliott.
While CATAIN will gather information about organisms that settle and live on hard bottom surfaces, the researchers also wanted to learn about species living in mud. To do so, they used a sediment grab to collected samples at five stations ranging between 5 to 30 meters in depth.
Back in the lab the researchers sift the mud through fine mesh to collect tiny organisms that live on the seafloor.
The animals that are caught in the sieve will be sorted and identified under a microscope.
The polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet and are already experiencing impacts of climate change. The fjords on the western side of Svalbard haven’t iced up in nearly two decades.
Long-term data collected in Ny-Ålesund is crucial to understanding our changing climate. The Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILO), in partnership with the Norwegian Polar Institute and others, has been continuously taking measurements at the Zeppelin Air Observatory on the mountain above Ny-Ålesund.
The Zeppelin Air Observatory is part of a global network of stations that all take long-term measurements. NILO Senior Scientist Ove Hermansen (pictured) says greenhouse gas measurements at this location began in the 1980s.
The view of Ny-Ålesund and Kongsfjorden from the Zeppelin Air Observatory.
A long exposure showcases the stunning view of the fjord and surrounding areas from the Zeppelin Air Observatory.
Given its close proximity to the North Pole, Ny-Ålesund has also served as an expedition base. Famous Norwegian Polar Explorer Roald Amundsen and his team departed from here when in 1926 they became the first to fly over the North Pole in an airship.
A display in the communal service building provides an aurora forecast as well as counts down the days until the sun appears again.
Despite its state of the art research infrastructure, the research station is in the wilderness, and polar bear safety training and precautions are mandatory.
While the Norwegian Polar Institute implements the research strategy on site, ten other institutions run by eleven countries also have a permanent or semi-permanent presence in Ny-Ålesund, making this an international community.
The polar night is very beautiful, described by many as a time for rest and reflection.