Why these two women quit their jobs for the ultimate Arctic adventure

Norwegian explorer, right, Hilde Fålun Strøm and Canadian explorer Sunniva Sorby collect ice core samples to identify organisms living in the ice.

For more than 20 years, Norwegian explorer Hilde Falun Strom searched for “the one.” Not a romantic partner, but someone to accompany her on an overwinter expedition in the Arctic. Her husband wasn’t interested, nor were her colleagues at Hurtigruten Expeditions, a cruise company.

“And it’s not something you ask just anybody,” Strom says.

Then, in 2016, she met Norwegian-Canadian explorer Sunniva Sorby at an adventure conference in Anchorage, Alaska. They bonded over their passion for the polar regions – Sorby for Antarctica, Strom for the Arctic – and traded stories about their expedition experience. Sorby was part of the first all-female team to ski to the South Pole in 1993; Strom had travelled more than 60,000 kilometres on a snowmobile, among other exploits.

When they discovered they both owned a ring crafted by an artisan in Sisimiut, Greenland, there was no denying the “magic synchronicity” between them. Strom didn’t waste a second making her feelings known; she proposed a meeting in Oslo one month later.

“That’s when I popped the question,” she jokes.

Her proposition: to quit their jobs, pack their bags and spend nine months holed up in an uninsulated 215-square-foot trapper’s cabin in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, a few hundred miles from the North Pole. There wouldn’t be any electricity or running water, and they’d be in darkness for a total of three months during the polar night. But if successful, Strom and Sorby would become the first women to overwinter alone in Svalbard without men.

It wasn’t an immediate “yes” from Sorby. Embarking on the adventure would mean walking away from a senior leadership position at Polar Latitudes, an expedition company that operates small cruises to Antarctica, and saying goodbye to her family and friends in Squamish, B.C. But the more the two talked, the more Sorby became convinced that the timing was right.

“At that point in my life, I was doing small, thoughtful things to inspire change in my community,” says Sorby, who grew up in Montreal. “But I wasn’t an activist, and I wasn’t participating on a global level or using my skill set to effect change.”

Fålun Strøm and Sorby spent 19 months in a trapper’s cabin and doubled down on their citizen science research, filling in for the scientists who couldn’t make their usual rounds because of pandemic restrictions.

Strom was also looking to make a difference. In 2015, an avalanche buried 12 neighbours’ homes in the town of Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, one of the fastest-warming places on the planet. She was actively involved in digging out the 17 survivors; two people, including a two-year-old girl, died.

“I had seen huge changes in the climate for a decade leading up to that day,” Strom says. “The avalanche was a major wake-up call – it was as if we needed our homes to be destroyed to do something.”

If they were to go through with the overwinter mission, Sorby and Strom agreed that they’d want it to be in the service of a higher purpose – specifically, the advancement of citizen science and education. Both women were passionate about photography and storytelling, and they’d each given lectures about climate change and the history of polar exploration aboard cruise ships.

“Still, like most people, I don’t understand the abstracts scientists write – I read the summaries,” Sorby says. “So, it’s always been a goal of ours to understand and articulate science in a more narrative way, so that we can share it with the public.”

The pair began sending e-mails to various organizations such as The Norwegian Polar Institute, NASA, the University Centre in Svalbard and the Scipps Institution of Oceanography, asking if they could collect data and conduct scientific research on their behalf while in Svalbard. The answer was a resounding “yes.”

Which is not to say everything went according to plan. In the far reaches of the Arctic, Sorby and Strom were tested in ways they never experienced before. The door of their trapper’s hut flew off its hinges in a hurricane, the antennae on their satellite broke, and saltwater build-up caused their boat’s fuse to fail.

“We had to figure things out on the fly – it was extreme in all respects,” Strom says.

Just as the duo was settling into their new routine, news was spreading about a novel coronavirus originating from Wuhan, China. As COVID-19 spread, bringing about travel restrictions and border closings, Sorby and Strom received a shocking update: the ship that was supposed to pick them up at the end of the winter wasn’t coming after all.

In the end, the pair spent 19 months in the trapper’s cabin. They doubled down on their citizen science research, filling in for the scientists who couldn’t make their usual rounds because of pandemic restrictions and using ice drills, drones and other equipment for eight scientific projects. Among them was NASA’s Globe Observer initiative, which helps scientists study Earth from orbiting satellites. The pair also collected ice core samples to identify organisms living in the ice and took recordings of more than 100 polar bears for The Norwegian Polar Institute.

Fålun Strøm and Sorby use ice drills to collect samples, four at a time, then cut off the bottom portion for study.

Along the way, Sorby and Strom shared snippets of their daily life on their website, Hearts in the Ice, and partnered with educational organization Exploring by the Seat of your Pants to converse with school-aged children in classrooms all over the globe through a satellite link.

From their remote cabin in the middle of the Arctic, Sorby and Strom sent e-mails to some of the world’s top environmentalists, such as Jane Goodall and David Suzuki, asking if they’d present some of their research. Again, the answer was an emphatic “yes.”

“It was very humbling,” Sorby says. “We’ve never felt more relevant than we were out there, in a tiny trapper’s hut in the middle of nowhere.”

At the end of their year-and-a-half together, Strom and Sorby hitched a ride on a Norwegian coast guard vessel and made their way back to their homes in Longyearbyen and Squamish. It was strange to be apart after being confined together for so long, and both women struggled to find their balance amid a changed world, with stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.

They began reflecting on the incredible experience they shared and brainstorming ways to continue contributing to citizen science – and inspiring others to follow suit.

“Of what importance was our experience,” Sorby wonders, “when there are millions of people living in the Arctic who live like this 24/7?”

Their discussions have led them to collaborate with prominent Indigenous leaders such as Inuk activist and Nobel nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier to raise awareness of how climate change is affecting communities across the Arctic.

Now, the pair hopes to leverage their influence to lay the groundwork for citizen science projects in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Part of their goal is to use their platform to highlight inconsistencies in funding between projects backed by conventional research institutions versus those anchored in Indigenous knowledge systems. They also hope to work with Indigenous leaders to co-identify a handful of science projects that combine data collection and hands-on training with equipment such as phytoplankton nets and ice core drills.

Ultimately, however, data collection is second to what they see as being the primary mission of citizen science.

“It’s about making people feel like they matter, that they can participate and effect change,” Sorby says. Both she and Strom know a thing or two about just how transformative that can be.

Where to book your own citizen science adventure

Conservation is at the heart of and Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, an eco-lodge in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. In 2019, the property announced an ambitious conservation project aimed at rewilding pangolins – the most trafficked and poached mammal in the world – in a region where they’d been locally extinct for decades. Guests can participate in the ground-breaking project by helping tag, monitor and perform check-ups on the rescued pangolins that have been slowly reintroduced in the area.

Expedition cruise outfitter Ponant operates the only passenger ship sailing to the North Pole. Off-ship excursions include ice fishing, snowshoeing and opportunities to participate in citizen science experiments, such as setting up a research station on an ice floe and deploying an Argos transmitter (a satellite system that collects and disseminates environmental data).

On a scientist-led Earthwatchexpedition to the Mackenzie Mountains – a range that forms part of the border between the Northwest Territories and the Yukon – travelers will measure the effects of climate change by taking soil and permafrost samples, monitoring the tree line and documenting the native plant species.


SOURCE https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/article-arctic-adventure-friends/
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