Oxonians Retrace Paths Through Spitsbergen 93 Years Later

The team and their guide on the summit of Poincarétoppen (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced
The team and their guide on the summit of Poincarétoppen (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

During summer, a team of four students from Oxford University, led by undergraduate James Lam, completed a 184-mile expedition across the Ny-Friesland ice cap in Spitsbergen, Norway. Accompanied by a guide, Endre Før Gjermundsen, they skied across the ice cap from July 31 to August 29, retracing the route of a similar expedition conducted by four Oxford University undergraduates in 1923, and collecting scientific data about glaciers along the way.

Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, a territory located within the Arctic circle. Svalbard has more than 2,100 glaciers, constituting 60 percent of its land area, many of which are found on Spitsbergen. The island is also home to many mountains and fjords, giving rise to its name, which means ‘pointed mountains’ in Dutch.

Chydeniusbreen as seen in a photograph taken in 1923 (Source: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal)
Chydeniusbreen as seen in a photograph taken in 1923 (Source: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal).

Ny-Friesland in east Spitsbergen has received limited attention from scientists, with little data having been recorded since the 1923 expedition. As such, the team of undergraduates worked with researchers from Oxford University and the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) to collect different forms of data on the island’s environment, glaciers and climate.

The expedition was inspired by the discovery of original maps and photos from the 1923 expedition in the archives of the Oxford University Exploration Club. All of the team members, James Lam, Jamie Gardiner, Will Hartz and Liam Garrison, have personal skiing and mountaineering experience spanning three different continents. Nevertheless, they undertook nine months of rigorous training and extensive preparations to ensure the success of both the scientific and physically strenuous aspects of the expedition.

Apart from skiing trips, the training regime included tyre-dragging in Port Meadow, Oxford. (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
Apart from skiing trips, the training regime included tyre-dragging in Port Meadow, Oxford (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

During the trip, the students photographed, recorded and collected DNA samples from vascular plants encountered at ten different locations between Duym point in the east and the terminus of Nordernskiold glacier in the west. These samples are currently being analyzed at UNIS and will be added to the Svalbard Flora database. They will provide valuable contributions to understandings of dispersal patterns on glaciers, particularly as there is only one other set of biological data for East Spitsbergen.

The camps of the teams on the 1923 and 2016 expeditions (Sources: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal and Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
The camps of the teams on the 1923 and 2016 expeditions (Sources: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal and Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

Using a drone, the students successfully mapped three sections of the Chydeniusbreen glacier. This will be used to create 3D maps of these areas, which will be compared to satellite data and the Norwegian Polar Institute’s models of the glacier to measure glacial change. The team was also able to successfully repeat 25 of the landscape photographs taken on the 1923 expedition. These will be used to practice photogrammetry, the science of measurements done using photographs, to be used in conjunction with the 3-D maps and satellite data to track glacial change in Ny-Friesland.

Two team members ascending the unclimbed west ridge of Newtontoppen (Source: Endre Før Gjermundsen/Spitsbergen Retraced)
Two team members ascending the unclimbed west ridge of Newtontoppen (Source: Endre Før Gjermundsen/Spitsbergen Retraced)

One of the aims of the 1923 expedition was to summit hitherto unclimbed peaks. In the same vein, the 2016 team summitted 8 different peaks, including a number of mountains climbed by the original expedition, such as Poincarétoppen, Mount Chernishev and Mount Irvine. The students also made the first ever ascent of the West Ridge of Newtontoppen, Svalbard’s highest mountain (5,666 ft). These efforts were carried out alongside the scientific aims of the expedition, with the team remaining camped in the base camp of Loven Plateau for a week in order to pursue repeat photography and data collection.

GlacierHub caught up with two of the team members for a short interview about the expedition and what the team intends to do now that they have returned.

GlacierHub: What happens now that the expedition is over?

James Lam, team leader: Now that the expedition is over, I am working to process the data that we collected. I’m collaborating with the Earth Sciences Department in Oxford as well as UNIS and the Norwegian Polar Institute. We hope to be able to publish our findings in due course. We are currently also working with Talesmith (a London-based production company specializing in natural history) to create a film or television series about the expedition.

GH: What was one of the most memorable things about this expedition?

James attempting to recover equipment in a storm (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
James attempting to recover equipment in a storm (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)

JL: One of the most memorable parts of the expedition was a storm that we were caught in for about three weeks. Despite spending five hours digging into the glacier for shelter and building six foot walls with 100 km/h gusts, it was still too windy to put up the tents, so we were forced to spend the night in a survival shelter. After nine hours huddled together in the shelter, the wind finally died down enough to be able to put up the tents. Luckily, no critical equipment was broken, and we were able to continue after a rest day.

GH: How did it feel embarking on an expedition like this, given the somewhat controversial history of exploration by the British Empire?

A note that the 1923 expedition team left in a thermometer case on the summit of Mt Chernishev (Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
A note that the 1923 expedition team left in a thermometer case on the summit of Mt Chernishev (Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

Jamie Gardiner, team historian: There is quite an anti-intellectual tendency in some quarters to indiscriminately equate the history of exploration with that of imperialism. In 1923, Svalbard was not only terra incognita but terra nulla. Accordingly, it’s rather hard to construct any kind of narrative of exploitation of native peoples. As it happens, in 1925, Britain acted as a signatory of the Svalbard Treaty, which placed Svalbard under Norwegian sovereignty. The treaty expressly forbade militarization and granted unilateral rights to mineral exploitation provided the environmental priorities enshrined were upheld. [The treaty was crafted] without first understanding what it is that is conserved. Therein the mapping of Svalbard had such a key importance.

 

The team will be releasing a publicly available report about their expedition, along with a documentary to share their journey with a wider audience and compare their polar narrative with that found in excerpts of three diaries from the original expedition. The trailer can be viewed here. Updates about their progress and more spectacular photographs can also be viewed on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

 

Please follow, share and like us:

Share your thoughts