These Women Are Living Off-Grid in the High Arctic for Citizen Science

The two explorers are isolating to study, educate, and raise awareness about climate change.

Sunniva Sorby (left) and Hilde Fålun Strøm with Ettra in Svalbard.
Sunniva Sorby (left) and Hilde Fålun Strøm with Ettra in Svalbard.

Hearts in the Ice

Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm are isolating themselves in the High Arctic of Svalbard, Norway, about 78 degrees north of the Arctic Circle. It’s the second winter these explorers will spend in a remote cabin with no running water or electricity to study, educate, and raise awareness about climate change.

Last year, Sorby and Strøm were the first women to overwinter in Svalbard solo, with their stay lengthened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not deterred by their extended trip, they’ve returned to the 20-square-meter (215-square-foot) trapper’s cabin called Bamsebu with no running water or electricity where they’ll continue their citizen science work until May 2021.

They have an online Hearts in the Ice platform which connects students, scientists, environmental organizations, businesses, and anyone who cares about the planet. Last winter, they held live video sessions via a digital classroom and plan to do the same this year with a specific theme each month. The first kicks off on Dec.10 and 15 with programs on polar bears.

Sorby was born in Norway and raised in Canada and was part of the first team of women to ski to the South Pole in 1993. She has traveled to Antarctica more than 100 times as a history lecturer and naturalist/guide. Also born in Norway, Strom has been living in Svalbard for 25 years. She has had more than 250 polar bear encounters and has made so many trips on a snowmobile that it equals a trip around the world.

The pair share their adventures with 3-year-old Ettra, who is part Greenlandic husky and part Alaska Malamute.

Treehugger sent questions to the team via email and they answered via Bamsebu’s spotty internet service. 

Treehugger: What was the original goal of your expedition?

Sunniva Sorby: We started Hearts in the Ice (HITI) to raise awareness about climate change in our polar regions and to inspire a global dialogue around it. We are using our time at the remote cabin Bamsebu to contribute to projects from organizations around the world as citizen scientists.

The original plan was to spend nine months at Bamsebu from Sept 2019 to May 2020 to connect with kids from around the world with satellite video calls two times/month and serve as citizen scientists collecting data for a total of seven on-going research projects related to climate change.

A quote from one of our science partners: “Hearts in the Ice is more than a project, more than two brave women managing to stay on their own during a polar winter. It is a model for how scientists, industrial partners, explorers, artists and other stakeholders can meet in a common action to focus on polar climate changes. They are following in the footsteps of other polar pioneers, but his time not hunting for fur and skins, but knowledge and wisdom” — Borge Damsgard, director of University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS)

How did your plans change due to the pandemic?

We extended our stay from May 2020 to September 2020 and then planned our return back here late October 2020 and will stay until May 2021 so it has upended our lives and has given us a stronger anchor around the purpose of our mission. Everything changed but climate change is not taking a break, so neither are we.

You were already cut off from civilization. Did it make it easier or more difficult to know that your isolation would last even longer?

Mixed emotions. It was surreal to think that our self-imposed isolation was now a word that the entire world was familiar with: isolation. It gave us more drive and impetus to share stories and inspiration and be in the “good news department” as much as possible. We were sought out as experts on coping, isolation, and living in confined spaces.

Hearts in the Ice hut
Their hut has no running water or electricity.

Hearts in the Ice

What is daily life there like? What are some of the hardest things you face? 

No two days are the same, our life here is determined by the weather and the temperatures.

The first priority in the morning is to warm up the hut, and that takes hours! Bamsebu was built in 1930 and is not isolated. The temperature dropped to -3 C (27 F) inside the hut. It's cold enough to make you want to stay under the covers for a long time.

We heat with a wood stove, but no trees grow on Spitsbergen. We collect the firewood on the beaches with our Lynx Snowmobile, it drifts to us from Siberia across the sea.

Most things here are done "old school" because there is no running water or electricity.

Everything takes its own time. We have an axe that we use to chop the wood, and we also use it to break the ice that we have outside in a huge 1,000-liter container. In the kitchen there are two smaller 60-liter tanks in which we melt snow and ice. We use this for drinking, cooking, washing dishes. Also for our personal hygiene and the occasional washing of clothes. Fortunately, wool hardly smells.

Depending on the weather, we decide on which task and project we will focus: Is it quiet enough to send the drone on its pre-programmed 15-minute flight? Can we collect ice and ice cores for UNIS with the snowmobile? Are there auroras for daytime photography for NASA? Should we collect phytoplankton in our ice hole? Are there reindeer, arctic fox, or polar bear sightings to report for the Norsk Polar Institute? Is there a conference call to prepare with students? Are there clouds to photograph and record for NASA? And also very practical things: Does something need to be repaired?

We go for walks with Ettra every day, always armed and fully packed. We write every day. We train six days a week, do pull-ups and sit-ups. We stretch, do yoga.

When did you realize the seriousness of what was going on in the outside world?

In March, March 12 to be exact, and it was through a few random emails from our communications team Maria and Pascale with the word “pandemic.” We were in a state of disbelief. On Sunniva’s birthday, March 17, we sent a letter to 100 friends, family, science partners, sponsors and Joss Stone — all of them were to join us for our pickup trip May 7 and on March 17 we cancelled the trip due to increased health and safety concerns for all. It was a really sad day — we were not sure how we would be picked up with all of our gear etc. It's a massive operation to get here — it's an expedition in itself.

Watching the Northern Lights from atop a snowmobile.
Watching the Northern Lights from atop a snowmobile.

Hearts in the Ice

Did it affect your ability to come home or did you decide it was more important for you to stay? 

In so many ways we’ve been able to connect with people because we were at Bamsebu and we were isolated and vulnerable. We put words to that and people could understand themselves in the same situation, especially when COVID-19 happened, and they felt vulnerable and isolated.

What gives us hope is that we saw that the whole world was able to make changes fast. And we need to try to use that to do the same thing with climate change. We need leaders, but it starts with you and I. I think we've really connected with people and managed to inspire people to commit to take action in their own lives.

While we are here, we were operating from a place of deep connectedness to our environment.

And we cleaned out all the cobwebs in our own emotional mental closet, and so when we wrote our blogs together, we wrote from a place of clarity, and a place of authenticity. I think just by showing our vulnerable selves and what we were experiencing, especially in March, many people have since said that we were like the little light at the end of the tunnel for them, which is nice to hear.

Coming back has reinforced our purpose up there because now the whole world understands isolation and understands crisis. It's just a different one that the pandemic is putting attention on right now. It was a hard decision in some ways to come back, but in some ways not because we were some of the only field researchers up in Svalbard. And so it really reinforced how important citizen science is for science and connecting people. It's really strengthened our mission. It’s not a happy circumstance, but it's sort of highlighted why we're doing what we're doing.

Last winter, they had more than 50 close polar bear sightings.
Last winter, they had more than 50 close polar bear sightings.

Hearts in the Ice

What work are you doing?

In 2020, we collected 12 sea ice cores from February to May, for the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), to investigate the microscopic animals that live within the ice (“sympagic meiofauna”).

Although sea ice might look relatively lifeless from above, its interior can be teeming with microscopic life. A labyrinth of so-called “brine channels” (usually < 1 mm) offer a refuge and feeding ground to various small animals, from the seafloor and water column, and their offspring in the spring. They mainly feed on the high concentrations of nutritious microscopic algae that also live within the ice. As many as 400,000 animals per square meter have been found in sea ice, but little is known about the identity of these small critters.

Seeing as sea ice in the Arctic and especially Svalbard is diminishing much faster than anticipated, it is important to understand the ecological role of sea ice in Arctic coastal ecosystems.

With the Expedition Cruise Industry coming to a complete halt due to Covid our work in the field as citizen scientists has become even more prevalent as we have been the only ones actually in the field.

We will continue to collect marine debris — fishing nets and plastics, salt water samples, phytoplankton, drone flights over ice and glaciers, wildlife observation and recording, inspecting stomach lining of dead fulmars for microplastics, icecore sampling in April, snow samples and psychological studies on isolation and coping.

The remote, historic trapper’s cabin “Bamsebu” in the High Arctic -78°N. in Svalbard, Norway, offers a unique vantage point of the Earth. It is located in the van Keulenfjord — one of the only two fjords (with van Mijen’s) in the West coast of Spitsbergen that still experience sea ice formation. This area has been investigated for effects of ongoing climate change by a number of projects that usually have been of short duration and mainly in summer seasons.

Hearts in the Ice allows for year-round observations that can strengthen and enhance scientists’ ability to utilize remote sensing data to evaluate that climatic state in the region.

Last winter, they provided observations and data for NASA, the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and the the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Their research included more than 50 close polar bear encounters with two poop samples, more than 22 pre-programmed drone flights, 16 ice core samples, 16 saltwater samples, 10 phytoplankton samples, more than 21 cloud observations for NASA, and a rocket launch photo capture. They observed wildlife ranging from Arctic foxes and caribou to beluga and minke whales, puffins and bearded seals.

All this precious data has been conveyed to our world-renowned, invaluable science partners for analysis. By collecting samples over such an extended period, we have been able to contribute to a greater dataset that helps scientists deconvolve the connections between climate and ecosystems in the region and interpret large-scale changes that simply speaking will decide not only the fate of polar nature, but presumably the existence of the world as we know it.

caribou or reindeer
Caribou photographed by the team.

Hearts in the Ice

What is Hearts in Ice and what do you do during your video hangouts with students and teachers?

Educators want to bring meaningful, experiential learning into their classrooms and they are constantly seeking resources that can help them facilitate these experiences for their students. The issues can be that it might involve expensive technology, they don’t always engage the students or the resources often aren’t relevant or lacking variety around current issues.

Scientists — like the many partners through Hearts in the Ice and explorers like us — Sunniva and Hilde, are incredible educators. Our passion for our subject matter is unmatched and can’t help but draw students in. We’re at the frontline of pressing global issues and can share powerful firsthand stories and experiences with students. We understand the importance of connecting with the current generation and sharing our work.

We are two driven, passionate women with over 25 years each of experience in the Polar Regions. We are explorers, adventurers, polar ambassadors and citizen scientists.

Every month from now until May 2021 we have different themes that all relate to climate change. Our goal is to engage and inspire youth — our future leaders — to stay curious, informed and engage in the climate care conversation — be thoughtful users. Citizen science is one way to accomplish that — and for the past year we have been active citizen scientists collecting data and observations for a group of international researchers studying climate change.

Citizen Science or community science is contributing to research around the world. We may not be able to reverse or stop these processes but we can research them and understand what they mean for our lives. All youth can be active citizen scientists. 

Sorby and Strøm say they have remained great friends in isolation.
Sorby and Strøm say they have remained great friends in isolation.

Hearts in the Ice

How has your friendship lasted through this?

We are stronger than ever as friends. We have ridden many waves and have shed tears, argued, disagreed and have made it work with a willingness to make it work, a sense of urgency to keep the space we are living in “positive and nourishing” and have operated from a place of love, deep care and concern and mutual respect.

Will you do anything differently this next time around?

We have a new satellite communication partner, Marlink, that has provided us with data and equipment for our stay. This is different from last year and a huge improvement in our ability to receive and send emails and host our twice-monthly global school calls around climate change topics.

We have gone from 55 sponsors to 12 dedicated sponsors/partners. This enables us to do a deeper dive into what information we share and enabled us to create far more engaging content for both the kids and adults.

We brought an infrared night vision scope this year — enabling us to see for kilometers away — this is both safety and security and peace of mind.

I (Sunniva) brought a golf club, a five iron, with bright red golf balls so we’ll have the world’s most northernmost driving range when the ice is here. We brought more books, movies and plan to have more time to have fun this year.