Sampling on Longyearbreen, Svalbard in August © Naomi Hart
Our £10,000 Walters Kundert Fellowship enabled Dr Arwyn Edwards to make multiple trips to Svalbard in Norway between 2017 and 2018. The burning research question that forced him to endure -20°C temperatures: are microbes active in Arctic winters? We caught up with Dr Edwards to find out more.
How did you find yourself in the dark, on Svalbard, researching microscopic beings that not even the naked eye can see?
I’m a bit of a fraud geographer, as I’m actually a microbiologist. I study the microbiology of glaciers and ice sheets following the discovery 10-15 years ago that many microbes do in fact survive in glaciers.
I’m very interested in how extreme life can survive, with some relevance to astrobiology and the potential of life on other planets. At the moment, important glacial interactions are taking place due to the impacts and mechanisms of climate change.
As microbes grow, they produce slime which contains a lot of pigment. This in turn makes the ice darker, which makes the ice melt faster. This pigment means that glaciers are absorbing solar energy more quickly. Essentially, microbes are helping kill glaciers.
That’s fascinating; do tell us some more about this particular research?
The fundamental thing that all living forms need to survive is water as a liquid. For this reason, it was assumed that microbial activity on glaciers only occurs when ice melts during the summer. So for 300, non-summer days of the year, people assumed that there was no life present in glaciers.
However I discovered that life can be sustained even with very thin films of water which means microbial activity is taking place below zero degrees. The requirement for liquid water isn’t being breached, but the amount of water needed is much smaller than previously thought.
In addition, microbe survival is strong as Arctic winters are not as cold as they used to be. For example, the recent ‘Beast from the East’ caused hot air in the Arctic, which lasted for 5 days. Average temperatures at the time should have been around -20°C but instead were +4°C. The hot blast was prolonged enough to strip snow, meaning even reindeer could feed on the tundra. However the freeze returned very rapidly and temperatures dropped from +4°C to -20°C in only 6 hours. There was a moment during my December trip when it was -6 in Wales but -1°C to +1°C in Svalbard, so Wales was colder than the most Northern inhabited place on Earth.
As events like this are increasingly frequent and severe, I’m interested in monitoring these changing patterns.
Sampling on Longyearbreen, Svalbard in June © Ingeborg Klarenberg
What was most challenging?
To be honest with you, everything went to plan! This was partly by design as we purposefully picked our field site knowing that we could do our work with less trouble and risks than other sites we had in mind. The biggest challenge was adapting techniques for summer to be used in winter. That required improvisation to ensure clean samples were recovered.
Some best bits?
Doing this research has been fascinating, and a privilege. I want to thank the RGS for the opportunity. I normally get to go to Svalbard in the summer, but this grant has allowed me to see what it’s like to work in the polar dark.
I was trying to time visits with the full moon, but Svalbard is notoriously cloudy and it didn’t happen. We had strong head torches, to try and spot any threatening polar bears, as they don’t hibernate.
Why should people apply for the Walters Kundert Fellowship?
It’s the only scheme, as far as I know, which supports small to medium size Arctic and mountain projects. Opportunities for funding for early to mid-career researchers are very thin on the ground.
Why should young people choose to study geography?
I’m not a geographer by degree training, but I work in the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences and definitely have a geographer hat on. It’s never been more important to understand this planet as its changing so rapidly. Unless we go out and look into the world, we’re not going to be able to take the right steps to build a more sustainable planet.
The Walters Kundert Fellowship offers awards of £10,000 annually to support field research in physical geography within Arctic and/or high mountain environments.
The deadline for the 2019 Walters Kundert Fellowship is 23 November 2018. Find out more and how to apply.
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