Monday, July 20, 2015

Kiruna to Tarfala, 24th of June

This series of posts shares field notes from the study abroad course "Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic." The course begins at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and then students from the University of Illinois and KTH travel north to conduct research in the Arctic. This blog was originally posted on KTH's Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic webpage.

by Jessica Malmberg & James Buckland

We woke up this morning an hour earlier than normal - today is the day that we are going to the Tarfala Research Station high up in the Swedish mountains. We wake and pack and board the bus to Nikkaluokta, the frontier of civilization in Norrbotten. There is a small outpost, with a store, a cafe, bathrooms, and a few camps. It used to be Sami territory, and there is a small traditional church up on a hill nearby.

The church is beautiful, with wooden sculptures and modest stained glass and a small organ. The hill overlooks a valley leading up to Kebnekaise, although it is yet too foggy to see the peak. Over the next three hours, as we wait for the helicopter to carry us into the mountains, the fog clears and the mountain reveals itself to us below. We hike a bit, but it's soggy and droll. The church and the cafe hold more interesting things than the mud.


One of the reasons it is soggy, we are told, is that this is an especially long winter, with snow late into the year, only now melting into giant snowbanks and creating a generally humid atmosphere. We see more of this up at Tarfala.

Around about 12:30, we make our way to the helipad, where the helicopter company operates twice-daily flights to Tarfala, to carry food and remove refuse. We partition ourselves into three small groups, divvying up luggage and weight across three separate nine-minute flights into the mountains. The helicopter pilot seems unfased by our photography and exclamations of delight - he must see this sort of thing a lot.

The valley below parts its fog, and we see the untouched wilderness - even the trail that we would have hiked in drier conditions is impossible to discern among the short trees and brush that populates the landscape.

We turn corner after corner through the mountains, until Tarfala Valley finally reveals itself - a small v situated between two shallow mountains, with higher mountains further out in all directions.

In between the shallow mountains are three named glaciers, each known since at least the 18th century and photographed regularly since the 19th. Storglaciären, the "Large Glacier", is the largest glacier (no surprise) in Sweden. It looms massive above the camp, a sparkling blue amongst the white snow and black rock beneath. Storglaciären extends from Kebnekaise downwards, and is slowly retreating from year to year, as the winter's snow fails to replenish the summer's melt.

When the helicopter flies closer the camp, we see the Tarfala research station. It stands a dull red against the snow, seven or eight small cabins sprinkled across the valley, with a central mess hall among the northernmost of the buildings, along with the sauna and the lecture hall. The dormitories, guys' and girls', are nearer to the south. We carry our luggage into the dorms, but are quickly whisked away to the mess hall, where we are given a mission briefing.

We meet the staff - the head researcher and technician who stay year-round; the newly-minted chef; the three interns here for only a few months. A safety briefing follows, and then the distribution of snowshoes.

The weather is quite good today - it is not supposed to be, tomorrow - so we set off immediately on a short hike up the valley, towards the dead end that is a u-shaped wall of mountains at the northwest end. Snowshoes are difficult at first, and they require you to walk like a cowboy - the straps are tricky, and the balance is totally alien from normal walking. After a while it merely feels like a second skin - not least because of the cold. By the end, it's almost hard to take them off - the feet feel weightless without them.

At the end of the valley, there is a semicircular foundation of rocks, opening in towards the valley. We try to guess at its purpose - is it indigenous? Do the archaeologists study it? But it is far more modern - a foundation for the tents of hikers from the last decade or so, made possible only by the retreating glacier. Up close, the mountains loom huge - we can see cracks in the snow banks and even a small avalanche up at the top, discernible only as a flurry of white smoke hovering and a small boom in the distance.

Circling back up on a stone ridge (termed 'Moraine'), out of the snow, we begin to see signs of life - the rocks are covered in moss and lichens, and flowers bud from the soft soil. A few birds and lemmings make themselves seen, but keep their distance. We can see Isfallsglaciären (The ice-falls glacier) up above, and are treated to a wonderful dissertation on the relatively young ages of these glaciers, and their fast retreats in the last hundred years or so. At one point, possibly as late as 1910, the very ridge on which we stand was the edge of the glacier. Now it is hundreds of meters above us.

Glacier melt and climate change in particular are not a clear-cut subject - the temperature of the arctic changes decade by decade in response to a number of environmental cues - famine and disease reduce human activity, sunspots dictate solar energy, and volcanoes block out the sun. The glaciers at Tarfala can be measured over time to react to these events, and as such serve as an excellent indicator of world temperature and heuristic ecosystem health. These lessons will undoubtedly continue in the next few days.

On the way back, we slip and slide down a short hill too steep to walk. We look like baby deer on skiis, and there is lots of falling and yelling. Back at the research station, we visit the sauna and are treated to a lovely, authentic Swedish dinner courtesy of the station chef. There is, of course, fika. Tune in tomorrow for more updates!

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