The Northern Lights of Old Longyearbyen

All team members have now returned safe and more or less sound to Longyearbyen and departed for points south and west.

Despite another set of walks with heavy packs in tough terrain, especially between Lusitaniadalen and Deltadalen, where we had a couple of major ravines to cross, plus a significant river, we managed to press on with the scientific work and got a lot of work done and hauled about 120 kg of specimens out on our backs.

We did a lot of fossil hunting in river sections, where we could improve our understanding of when events happened by working bed-by-bed.

Geologists working in Deltadalen

Working on small quarry for microvertebrate remains.


You can see me looking very pleased with a Early Triassic ammonoid in this photo. Otoceras is part of a family of ammonoids that have a quite different external morphology from any other group. The group survived the Late Permian mass extinction but never flourished after the event. This led Dave Jablonski to use them as an example of a ‘dead clade walking’ in his paper developing this idea
Palaeontologist with ?Otoceras

Al holds two parts of a large Early Triassic ammonoid, probably Otoceras.

. The blue skies and T-shirt show that we did have some good weather.

Another example of sunshine is this ‘low winter sun’ shot I was able to capture on CCD during one of my stints on bear watch.

Sunrise over mountains at Deltadalen

The sun rises over mountains to the north during my bear watch stint.

This is not the BBC’s latest nature programme but the armed guard we put up every night as a precaution against polar bear attack. We are certainly not at the apex of the food chain on Svalbard. As we did not have dogs with us, we had no choice but to lose a couple of hours sleep each night on ‘stag’ but it was time to think and observe natural phenomena other than the rocks and fossils.

We had a 10km walk back over patterned ground, flushes, scree and rivers to our pick-up at Vindodden (Windy Point). We had to relay gear and samples due to the weight. On the final leg out from Lusitaniadalen to our pick up point on the beach at Vindodden we camped at a halfway point in Belvederedalen. I was able to get my bivvy bag out and sleep under the one big star visible, Sol.

Bivvy bag on ground looking across fjord to glacier

The view from my bivvy to the NE. You can see the glacier on the top left.

The only drawback was that I could only have looked more like a seal by having a bivvy bag made of sealskin. Fortunately, bear watch worked! Actually, we never saw a single bear in all our time in the field.

We made it to Vindodden in good time but we knew the wind was picking up from the east, generating waves down the fetch of the fjord. We had already had to scrub one drop-off on the 18th due to such conditions. Vindodden has a number of weekend cabins and huts and it was not reassuring to see the people packing up and getting their boats out of the anchorage. Despite the conditions, our RIB came in ahead of time, we piled kit in and were lifted off to Longyearbyen.

Spent the last day posting off specimens back to our home institutions, eating, drinking and repairing the knackered bits of our bodies. My hands are a mess from tying boots with wet hands and feet a bit sore but otherwise I’m fine.

The one big change between leaving for the field on the 19th and our return on the 25th was that the lights are on in Longyearbyen. Winter and the days of night are coming.

Street lights in Longyearbyen

The street lights now are now on in Longyearbyen.

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About Al McGowan

I am a palaeobiologist in my early 40's carrying out research work. I am based in Scotland.
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One Response to The Northern Lights of Old Longyearbyen

  1. westiedad says:

    Fascinating stuff. Sounds a bit more hard core than collecting fossils in New Zealand.

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