Fieldwork in the Freezer

Dr Steve Thornton has recently returned from fieldwork in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

An iced over lake in the arctic

Thornton was part of a team studying the interaction between groundwater and glaciers, drawing on his expertise in geochemistry and solute transport. He had to develop bespoke sampling techniques and equipment to enable testing in arctic conditions, where surface temperatures are -20ºC.

This means that water samples freeze when extracted, which can introduce testing errors and compromise groundwater chemistry. So, how did he fare? As someone who ‘doesn’t do cold’ the experience took Steve out of his comfort zone.

In fact, safety preparation for the fieldwork involved survival training and learning to shoot, just in case of polar bear attacks. Luckily his training didn’t have to be deployed…

The sun setting over the Arctic.

Despite the presence of frozen water everywhere, finding a natural spring beneath a thick layer of ice can be akin to finding the proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’. 

But the fieldwork was a success – both the equipment and Steve survived the arctic conditions and showed it is possible to overcome scientific sampling in harsh environments.

The research aims to better understand sub-glacial groundwater. The Arctic is facing increasing demands from population growth, tourism and exploitation of its resources.

Groundwater is a key resource but is transient due to ground thaw effects on permafrost. The team looked into whether it is able to meet the increasing demands of tourism, to help inform local communities about the sustainability of their water resources.

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Top 100 Civil & Structural Engineering department in the world and 9th in the UK according to the QS World University rankings by subject (2023).

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12th in the UK according to the Complete University Guide (2024).