Two Citizen Scientists Overwintered in the Arctic But Can’t Come Home Yet

Two dedicated citizen-scientists are nearing the end of a very long and difficult winter in the high arctic of Norway. After spending months living in a remote cabin where they have conducted research for a number of projects, Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby should be preparing to return home. Instead, they may have to stay a bit longer, extending their Arctic expedition due to the coronavirus pandemic that has broken out while they were away.

According to Science News, Fålun Strøm and Sorby began their research mission back in August of 2019. Their plan was to spend nine months in the Arctic, studying the impact of climate change there. Both women were spurred into action after witnessing how warming temperatures have impacted the polar regions of the planet. Fålun Strøm has lived on the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard for more than 20 years, while Sorby is an Antarctic guide who has skied to the South Pole. Both are well suited for life in cold places, so to that end they trekked to a remote cabin in northern Svalbard and have made it their base of operations for the past months. Just how remote is this cabin? Apparently, it is the only one for 140 km (87 miles) and is situated in a very wild region of the island.

Throughout their research project, the duo have been taking photos and observing the wildlife found in that area, including reindeer, polar bears, arctic foxes, beluga whales, and other creatures. They’ve also been collecting samples of phytoplankton, while making observations of cloud formations and patterns in the aurora borealis. All of their research would be turned over to various organizations when they get back, including some of the data going to NASA. The idea is that by living in the Arctic for months at a time, they can get a better sense of how things are evolving in this rapidly changing part of the world.

As you can imagine, spending the winter in the Arctic can be a challenging experience. Temperatures often dropped to -30ºC/-22ºF. They also endured the long polar night, with total darkness starting in October and the sun not returning until March. The cabin that they’ve lived in also has no running water, forcing them to melt ice even for simple cooking chores. A wood burning stove served as a source of heat, both for preparing meals and warming the place, which requires frequent wood chopping excursions out in the frigid conditions.

Of course, while they’ve been away the world has changed as well. When they set out for the cabin last summer, the coronavirus wasn’t even known to exist as of yet. Now, the world is on lockdown as nations look for ways to contain and control the virus. That includes Norway, which has taken measures to restrict travel and keep people in place. To that end, Fålun Strøm and Sorby are now unsure of when they’ll return home. The original plan was to end their research expedition in early May, but now they could find themselves extending their stay in the Arctic while they wait out the pandemic.

This is another fascinating story of people who are in remote places even as the world around us changes. For now, these two women are safe and isolated, but back home things have certainly changed while they’ve been away. Hopefully they’ll find a safe way to return on schedule, as it could be awhile before things get back to “normal.”