Nine months in the ArcticNine months in the Arctic

Story: icebreaker
Photos: Hearts in the Ice

August 8, 2019

Heading off into the constant dark of the Arctic winter is a challenge like no other. Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm will live in a cabin with no electricity or running water for nine months, to collect samples for science and join the dialogue around climate change. We met Sorby as the team prepared to leave on the Hearts in the Ice overwintering project in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.

Tell us about how you discovered your love of the ice.
I was on my way from Chile to Antarctica to start the South Pole Expedition and I just remember looking at the ice from the air and all the fissures and crevasses… it was empty and barren and beautiful. It was absolutely a turning point for me. I was the fourth person on a four-woman team to trek to the South Pole. I had spent time on small expeditions for maybe two weeks, three weeks at a time but I had never done anything so long, so remote and so internally, physically and spiritually uprooting as that expedition.

What have these polar experiences taught you as a human being?
I feel that these experiences have taught me all about connectivity. How odd it is that in a place like Antarctica, where it’s completely barren and white, you can feel the most connected to the natural world and to your senses, your source and your being, out of anywhere else in the world. It’s a beautiful thing.

Tell us about the Hearts in the Ice Project.
It was born out of mine and my expedition partner, Hilde’s, love of the Polar regions. We both had spent close to 24 years working in either Antarctica or the Arctic, and we’ve seen so much change. I’m not 30 anymore but I still want to be relevant in this conversation around protecting our planet. So, we decided together that we would create a dialogue around climate change, what’s happening and why people should care.

How did it specifically come about?
Hilde was living in a town called Longyearbyen in Norway. It was 10 o’clock in the morning and there had been snowfall all night, and then the wind came in. The ground underneath is permafrost and it should be permanently frozen but it’s been warming up over many, many years now. The ground had warmed up with so much volume of snow, so much wind, and it created an avalanche in town. It took out 12 homes next to where Hilde lives and she and her husband were first on the scene. She was part of the rescue effort. It became a real, very personal thing for her, the warming up of the climate. Two people lost their lives in that avalanche; one man and a two-year-old girl. I was up there last year and it was really… it was really heart-breaking.

Clearly this was a pivotal moment for Hilde and both of you to make this expedition.
Yes. The avalanche for Hilde was a real turning point for her to want to do something to elevate people’s awareness around a place that so many tourists visit – the Svalbard region. Tourism is on the increase up there and people only go and get little sound bites of the beautiful, natural world and the wildlife that exists up there. We’re both in the expedition cruise industry and we thought, what could we do together, as technically Polar opposites, but with a kindred love for our icy regions? So, we created Hearts in the Ice. We’re going to collect data for scientists who are studying climate change; we’re working with NASA, the Scripps Institute and the Norwegian Polar Institute. We’re going to be collecting salt-water samples, doing cloud observations, wildlife observations and sampling for microplastics and airborne particles.

We feel that this is what we can do. We can actually become relevant to the scientists who are studying this and then we as two explorers can share what it is that they are finding and somehow connect the dots. I mean, our intention is really to inspire people, not depress them. We want them to get outside and fall in love with their backyard. You don’t have to travel all the way to the Arctic or Antarctica to make some change.

How do you prepare for a mission like this?
Preparing for a mission like this is huge, overwhelming and daunting. It’s getting the funding and securing the support with transportation. All the equipment for nine months – food and everything – will need to come in in August. We’ve got to pack and figure out how to ship it all in and then how to get it to the hut. The part that is most overwhelming and daunting for me is the emotional, mental part of what we will be doing. I mean, who in their right mind would go away from all of their comfort, and live in a 20sq m cabin with no running water, no electricity for nine months? I’m not sure what that will do to me. I know myself well enough to know that I will survive; I’ll come back alive. I’m sure I will be very humbled by this expedition.

How important are wildlife encounters as part of this journey?
Wildlife is going to be one of our biggest dangers, actually. We’re going to be in a place where we can’t get away from the polar bears, they’re going to be living around us. I think nobody has really lived at Bamsebu hut for any longer than a few weeks at a time, and so I think the smell of my cooking might attract the polar bears and so we have to be very careful. Our intention is to live in harmony with the wildlife there and to share our observations. We are trying to bring in electric snowmobiles as well because noise has a huge impact on the concentration of wildlife and where they actually breed or nest; so we’re trying to lessen that impact too.

"We're going to be collecting salt-water samples, doing cloud observations, wildlife observations and sampling for microplastics and airborne particles."

An avalanche in Longyearbyen, Norway, in 2015, that occurred as a result of climate change.

An avalanche in Longyearbyen, Norway, in 2015, that occurred as a result of climate change.

Hilde Fålun Strøm was one of the first people on the scene of the disaster, which claimed two lives.

Hilde Fålun Strøm was one of the first people on the scene of the disaster, which claimed two lives.

Bamsebu, an historic trappers’ hut in Arctic Norway; Hilde and Sunniva will live in the 20 sq m cabin for nine months over winter.

Bamsebu, an historic trappers’ hut in Arctic Norway; Hilde and Sunniva will live in the 20 sq m cabin for nine months over winter.