Hearts in the Ice: Citizen Science in the Arctic

If you turn on the news for very long, you’re likely to hear about some of the changes our planet is going through. Temperatures are on the rise, glaciers are receding, precipitation patterns are changing ⁠— and many of these developments are most obvious in the polar regions. 

A formidable two-woman team is heading to Bamsebu (a small, remote cabin in the Arctic with no electricity or running water) to gather data that will help us understand more about climate change what’s going on, why it matters and what we can do about it.

Bamsebu (1)

The tiny Bamsebu cabin is seen pictured here in its austere environment (notice all the whale bones in the foreground). Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby are both seasoned expeditioners. Their mission, called Hearts in the Ice, involves overwintering at Bamsebu to focus on citizen science and educational outreach to raise awareness of climate change. The pair will observe clouds, auroras,and plankton, test new technology, conduct wildlife observations, collect plastic waste, and gather data for other ongoing research activities. The pair will be alone through the long winter months on the Svalbard islands, about a 100 miles from the nearest settlement. They will literally be closer to the edge of the aurora than to any other people! 

“I feel so connected and at home in the Arctic,” said Strøm. “Finding ways to protect this fragile, harsh land seems natural to me. We protect what we love.”

Some of the data Strøm and Sorby will collect over their nine-month stay will be used by NASA in tandem with satellite observations to provide a more complete understanding of the role clouds play in climate change. Scientists know that different types of clouds and degrees of coverage can influence the environment in different ways, whether it’s through soaking up sunlight, blocking it, or scattering it. Clouds don’t just do this to visible light, though — they also affect a kind of light our eyes can’t detect, called infrared. While we can’t see it, we feel infrared light as heat. Clouds can trap it in, which can lead to global warming.

Citizen scientists play an important role in this project because clouds are very dynamic, constantly shifting and changing, and they’re scattered all across the globe. That makes it difficult to gather a steady stream of accurate data, which is why citizen scientists are so important — they extend the reach of the project by providing far more observations than scientists would be able to gather alone. These observations help scientists interpret cloud data from satellites, maximizing their usefulness. 

“Having explored and borne witness to the changes in the polar regions for over two decades, Hearts in the Ice is my way of highlighting the changes and engaging action – in a positive way!” said Sorby.

At Bamsebu, Sorby and Strøm will contribute as citizen scientists with the Aurorasaurus project. Aurorasaurus is sponsored by NASA and NSF and has collected thousands of observations of aurora from people all over the globe since 2014. The Hearts in the Ice duo will collect the same data as other Aurorasaurus participants, but with a few modifications due to limited internet access and their special location. They won’t be providing real-time data, since their connectivity will be limited to when satellites pass overhead (when they’ll have precious little bandwidth). The team won’t have access to alerts or solar wind data, so they will have to use their best observation skills and other low-tech equipment (like a compass).


The Northern Lights dance over a wintry nighttime cityscape. Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach.

An exciting possible use of their observations is with studies of the cusp aurora. The cusp is the only place where dayside auroras are VISIBLE — a special version of northern and southern lights, formed by a different process than the more familiar nighttime aurora. Observing the cusp aurora is rare because there are not many locations where it can be observed from the ground.

The Aurorasaurus team will fuse Bamsebu observations with other ground-based observations at other latitudes across Svalbard to build a better picture of the distribution and dynamics of this type of activity. In doing so, they will pave the way for future explorers to demonstrate scientific contributions to the study of aurora from Svalbard and other remote expeditions. They will also inspire others to contribute around the world to both aurora citizen science and other projects.

“I am excited about this historic expedition for many reasons and am very grateful that aurora observations will be collected along with environmental information,” said Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald, Aurorasaurus founder. “In particular, the aurora information they collect may help pave the way, demonstrating value for ‘extreme citizen science’ expeditions to complement our extremely rare observations of particular events. Hilde and Sunniva are not ordinary women by any means, and not ordinary citizen scientists either! We wish them well and know they are inspiring change.”

Follow along with us for updates on the Hearts in the Ice aurora observations. You can even get involved by contributing your own observations, which will be combined with observations from halfway around the world to provide a better picture of the drivers and their effects globally.



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