Introduction

This summer I will travel for the thirteenth time up to an archipeligo called Svalbard. It sits some 700 miles from the N pole, on the edge of the arctic ice pack in the extreme North Atlantic, the departure point for many a doomed north pole expedition, but not a place of leave taking for me, but a destination. It is a home of sorts, both an intellectual and emotional one, and I consider myself very priveleged to work there. Altogether, I've spent a year of my life doing field work in Svalbard, a year's worth of walking and living in the landscape, a landscape now familiar but that still enthralls and educates. I wish to share what I can with you of this home, and give you some idea of why I return there. It is an arctic world with an incredible wealth of geologic history, a dynamic landscape sculpted by ice and water, a world where life hangs on with ferocious tenacity and is embedded in a matrix of interdependencies, a field setting where simple comforts loom large and humanities dependence on technology can be keenly noted, a place that challenges spatial, temporal and mental perspectives, a place of the sun at midnight and darkess at noon. This essay is a collage, a melange, a patch work of ideas and images, non-linear in organization. I suggest you simply sit back and let it flow through you, and see what is caught in your mental web.

A wealth of geologic history

The wealth of geology, of earth history, on display in Svalbard is staggering. In mountain side murals up to thousands of feet high and miles long, are exposures cut by glaciers or by undercutting waves. Sometimes you can see the answer to a geologic query all at once, not the normal outcrop puzzle-piecing work of geology with important pieces covered, but the whole answer writ large on the rock wall. Not all places display such wealth so openly - Svalbard is a rare geologic trove. That is the draw, the motivation for returning, for it is an unparalleled geologic classroom.

Landscape tells of relatively recent geologic history. Long, narrow and deep indentations into the land now filled with water were carved by ice. Ice filled many of these fjords as little as 10,000 years ago. Along the fjord's margins are trails of debris, hummocky moraines, abandoned as the glaciers retreated. Retreat continues now, hundreds of meters over the last several decades in many cases, a local climatic thermometer of sorts - it is getting warmer in this part of the Arctic. New outcrops and islands appear from underneath the glacier as it retreats, ones not there on the last visit, a delight for the geologist. Glaciers do not retreat steadily, but in fits and starts. Every few years this or that glacier in Svalbard revolts at the retreat, detaches itself at its base and surges, moving down the fjord a few kilometers in a year, a train of ice with an express route to the sea. As the glacier surges the strain is too much, and the surface distends by forming an array of crevasses. Such glaciers are no longer passable by foot - the crevasses would swallow up cars. The floating tonque of ice at the glacier front breaks up and calves, giving birth to icebergs, in a commotion of cracking, roaring, splashing and large waves. What ground has been gained by the glacier during the surge is lost even quicker than usual. As Svalbard loses its ice to the sea, the land, relieved of its icy mantle slowly rises, rebounding from the load, and what was sea bottom becomes land as a shoreline migrates down the slope, leaving traces of its retreat. It is a very young and changing landscape, and little is in equilibrium.

Inside the landscape is evidence of a much longer history, one connected with past landscapes very different from the present one. At least five times, likely more, the Svalbard crust heaved, thickened, built into an orogenic welt, a mountain belt. The mountain belt then melted away, eroding and spreading out under its own weight, until shallow seas covered the beveled roots of the orogen, and sediments accumulated on a stable plaform. These sedimentary accumulations are particularly rich in geologic history. Past glaciations, deserts, temperate swamps, reefs, deltas, many transgressing and regressing shorelines and much more are represented in Svalbard's sediments - tombs within a lithologic library, sheaf upon sheaf, strata upon strata more than tens of miles thick in aggregate from bottom to top. In this rock book the pages are not small either, but measure in units of square miles. One sequence has equatorial type deposits at its base. These give way, as one ascends, to sediments associated with a temperate climate, and then finally to a more polar influence, tracking the global wanderings of Svalbard from 300 million years ago to recent geologic times.

Immense as it is, it is an incomplete record, a biased record of all that transpired. A thin and widespread conglomerate layer, often only a foot or two thick, called the Brentskardhaugen bed, appears anomalous. It separates overlying deepwater deposits from terrestrial and shoreline deposits, is found over half of Svalbard, and was explained as the moving trace of a linear beach deposit sweeping up the slope as the sea invades. But the layer does not look right - as a shoreline it is an anomaly. Further observation and it begins to make sense as coalesced megastorm deposits, the result of very large waves and surge associated with a megastorm, transporting and depositing sediments in normally placid deeper water depths over a broad region. In this case it is the rare event that is well preserved, that provides a distinctive marker. That is the story for just the Brentskardhaugen Bed, for a maybe two feet of the tens of miles of stacked history. It would take quite some time to translate a fair bit of this rock tomb into human language, into a history comprehensible to us. I concentrate on only a few of the chapters given a human life span in which to work.

There is a special architecture to the most recent of mountain belts on Svalbard that I research, that intrigues me specifically. Asking initially - what does a three dimensional blue print look like - field observations are compiled into maps and cross sections. Geophysical data is analyzed. Other questions evolve from the one. Why does this architecture occur and not another, and how does it compare to other mountain belts? What was the history of assembly, what are the driving forces and what made the differences? Faults define distinctive slivers with their own internal design, and the slivers can be stacked into duplexes, some in a row, some in a high rise arrangement. The rocks are bent, twisted into folds both regular and irregular. How can solid, brittle rock layers bend to such forms? Heat can help, we know it weakens materials, and if temperatures are high enough allows them to flow, to be rheids. But these sediments are largely unmetamorphosed, they were relatively cold when deformed, so we look elsewhere for an answer. Part of an answer lies in time, in creep. Slow deformation can bend smoothly what will normally crack and break. The rest of the answer is in distributed slip, for the rocks are layered, and the layers can slide past each other, and that makes a big difference. So the stratification is a fundamental weakness in the rock. The momentous task of folding rocks is accomplished by slow, continuous and distributed action. Certainly this approach is not unique to rocks.

Our research on this lithic architecture reminds me of the parable of the three wise man and the elephant, an oft repeated moral tale in our and other disciplines. It goes as follows: "Once upon a time a king gathered some blind men about an elephant and asked them to tell him what an elephant was like. The first man felt a tusk and said an elephant was like a giant carrot; another happened to touch an ear and said it was like a big fan; and another, who grasped its tail said it was like a rope. Not one of them was able to tell the king the elephant's real form." Geologists are blind in the sense that they can not see the whole beast, the mountain belt for example, at once, and they have bits and pieces from which to construct their rendition. The cautionary tale is really about the assumption of homogeneity, our hopes for simplicity, a use of Occum's razor, the desire that a small bit represents the whole. But geology repeats over and over that the earth is not simple, and it is understanding complexity that we are about, a sometimes daunting task.

Our research has recognized how certain mountain belts can self organize into two very different parts, how they be naturally partitioned, with fault motion parallel to the length of the mountain belt concentrated in one part and fault motion perpendicular to the length in yet another part. Oblique motion is decoupled into separate parallel and perpendicular components, just like the resolution of shear and normal force vectors on the chalk board in a physics class. Parallel and perpendicular exist in more than geometry textbooks and on paper. Again, one question leads to another and we want to know - why decoupling here? We also want to know why has mountain building recurred, localized 5 times in this part of the world. We think on fundamental weaknesses, on reactivation, on how the past provides a template for the action of future forces. This understanding helps in resource exploration and in seismic risk assessment, it has serendipitous utility, but fundamentally we do it because we want to know.

Svalbard's geologic history is particularly eloquent with regard to time spans. In the rock tomb of strata each individual layer represents some depositional event - some storm, flood, tide or other occurrence that transported and deposited sediment. Minimally, tens of thousands of sedimentary events are evident, some unique, many common. Contacts between layers represent time also, a time of nodeposition at that locality. Then there are the mountains, there must be time to build them, and then to bring them down again. There must be time for all of this to occur, deep time, time so vast that it dwarfs our lives to the point where it frightens some deeply, where humanity appears insignificant in its duration. It frightens some to the point were they deny that it could be so, even though deep time is scientifically inescapable. In studying earth history it is past reality geologists now seek understanding of. Curiousity motivates, as does the love of a well crafted story, a volume in the biography of earth. In addition, wisdom tells us past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, and so it is useful to study the record to see what behavior the earth is capable of, to see what may await us. We have learned that global change can be much swifter than we used to think.

But even if we imagine this is all a bit of strange cosmic humor and the earth was created within in a human time frame with the appearances of deep time purposefully embedded within the rocks and in the heavens above, then geologists can be thought to study the design of a creator, the deep time of the earth's history as it was created, and thus we can come to know the the creator's mind. It was out of such natural theology, the desire to know the plan of God as writ in stone, that geology and other sciences were born. Nature and theology have mostly parted ways for the present. The earth provides gripping tales, a history well worth studying, and it is the history that humanity is embedded in, whatever are position in a grand scheme of things. During storms in a tent you have time to muse on such thoughts, although I prefer to eat!

Landscape, the geologic present, and ice everywhere.

This is a landscape where it is hard to tell how big something is. Many of the features that hint at scale, such as trees or roads or such are absent. Landscape here is shaped by many processes - glaciers plucking rocks over which they ride, ice wedging rocks apart, gravity pulling down pieces that have worked themselves free, mud flows and debris flows transporting sediments, streams dissecting, waves cutting cliffs and rounding grains, more. But the material upon which these processes act on, which they sculpt and mold, is fractured bedrock and therein lies insight into the scaleless character of the landscape. Fractures range from microcracks inside rocks, to faults that traverse the crust. Patterns of fractures at a large scale are often the same as at successively smaller scales - they are self similar. A profile of an entire ridge is as jagged as the profile of a part, is as jagged as a fractured piece of the rock that makes up the ridge. Theoretically a profile can be so jagged it is something more than a line with a finite length. It is between 1 and 2 dimensions. It is a fractal. Fractal fractures underly and shape the topography. Yet, the fractures are far from random and lacking in any predictability. Quite to the contrary, a trained eye sees, and sampling confirms, preferred orientations, sets, distinct populations that share a common orientation. Subparallel ridges and valley, sharp bends, common slope orientations all reflect the underlying structural grain of the crust. In western Svalbard a dominant grain is NW to SE, and it is due to the most recent moutain building event. Fracture orientations can be related to the forces that fractured the rock - tectonic and gravitational forces. Typically three to four fracture sets or populations dominate the rock, and that is enough to produce the infinite variety of jagged edges and topographic surfaces. There is general aggreement fractals are pleasing to the eye. They are also pleasing to the mind.

Tenacity of life:

In describing the arctic, words like barren and sterile, wasteland and bleak are used. Lord Dufferin, an itinerant Irish adventurer visited Svalbard in 1857 and described his first impression thus - "no bird or living thing was visible; the midnight sun - by this time muffled in transparent mist - shed an awful mysterious lustre on glacier and mountain; no atom of vegetation gave token of the earth's vitality; a universal numbness and dumbness seemed to pervade the solitude. Primeval rocks - and eternal ice - constitute the landscape." There are parts of Svalbard that appear as Lord Dufferin describes. However, where we can not see, under the water, life is particularly bountiful. Svalbard is probably one of the few places where more mammals live in the adjacent water than on land. Walrus and a variety of seals and whales, clearly outnumber the three terrestrial mammals - polar bears, fox, and reindeer. Beluga whales, swimming in pods of tens of individuals, cruise along the shoreline well into the interior of the fjords. They may come to itch themselves on the rocks, but it is fun to imagine they come to visit the mountains, the submarine mountains. The fjords, sculpted by glaciers, are hundreds of meters deep, with subvertical walls, and drowned hummocky moraines, landscapes possibly as striking to them as mountains are to us.

The Belugas remind us of another reason people have come to Svalbard. Along certain stretches of beach whale skulls, large and small, litter the sand. They are the legacy of a period when whaling was extensive in these waters. One of the first summer settlements, established in the 1600s, was Smeerenburg, which literally translates as blubber town. Dutch, Basque, English, Danish and Russian whalers plyed the local waters. Historically, people from diverse origins have come to Svalbard to exploit whales, seals, foxes, bears, coal and marble. Coal mining, fishing and very limited trapping continues today, and mulitnationals search for oil and gas, possibly gold. Others exploit the very landscape, feeding tens of thousands of hungry tourists the images and sense of adventure they crave. Yet others exploit the rocks and the wildlife to gain knowledge, and to understand the myriad of linkages in our complex world.

Large rookeries of sea birds, of guillomots, puffins, little auks, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, muirs, and fulmars feed from the sea. They in turn feed the land and the foxes. Seals feed the bears. The bird rookeries are a focal point for terrestrial biomass, a critical link in the chain. The terrestrial inhabitants exploit the sea, depend on the sea. An initiation rite of passage for young guillomots provides a sobering natural example, which we witnessed one still summers midnight. The guillomots nest in large rookeries on rock ledges in cliffsides, the higher the better. These are diving marine birds that feed on fish and in the evolution of gaining their aquatic capabilities they compromised some of their flying capacity. The parents must fly out to sea and bring back food for their young up to the cliff, and it takes a good bit effort. The rookeries are stalked by fox and gulls taking what chicks they can. Clearly it is to the parents advantage to get the chicks into the sea, where they can feed for themselves and can dive underwater for saftey, as fast as they can. They cannot wait until the chicks can fly - there is not enough time. Time is of the essence since they have maybe 6 weeks to rear their young, before winter starts in. So well before they can fly, the chick launches itself from the cliffside and makes a power glide for the water. They drop at an angle of maybe 30 degrees, gaining speed as they go. The speed is such that they sound like small jets zooming by. The landing is rough since the chick doesn't know how to air break, and they hit the water with accumulated speed, often bouncing, somersaulting, and skipping along the water for at least several feet. The parents follow them in their descent to the sea, calling to the young chick the whole way. When the chick is swimming in the water, they all contribute to a racous family celebration for at least several minutes. This night the normal pitch of the rookery rises to new levels, and a good portion of the rookery will take for the water over just a few hours. Their is saftey and comfort in numbers, and it is a mass exodus for the sea.

Now if the water is immediately below the cliff all is well, the chick can't miss. But this is where geology comes in. Remember that the crust is rebounding and the sea retreating, and for many of the established rookeries the shoreline has been retreating with time. In some cases the shoreline is almost a mile away. Some of the chicks don't make it to the sea and crash land on terra firm. Some don't survive the landing. Others stunned, gather their resources and start waddling as fast as the can for the shoreline. Considering they have never walked before in their life, they do an incredible job. Then it is a race between them and the fox, which has been waiting for this time. The fox is determined and efficient, running to a chick, quickly breaking its neck and then moving on to the next one. They can dispatch tens of chicks or more in a hour or two worth of work. Foxes can not fly away to warmer places, and it is in their interest to stockpile what food they can while they can. They will dine on guillomot chick over the next few weeks, putting on much needed winter fat supplies. So that still, and relatively warm summer night we watched thousands of chicks go through their rite of passage from the land to the sea, and watched the fox take his plunder.

Svalbard reindeer can't escape south as the birds do and are thus different sorts of reindeer. Fatter and squatter than their mainland cousins, they waddle, legs splayed out to either side, when they run, snorting as they go. There is no better place for them to migrate to, as there is for their leaner rangier cousins on mainland Norway. They must make do the best they can during the Svalbard winter. People are their only predators. They only really need enough leg power to get them from pasture to pasture, and to hold up the barrel of fat their body becomes by the end summer. Their big challenge is to build up enough reserves to get them through the winter. It is pitch black for days on end in the middle of the winter, with howling winds and sub zero temperatures. A bleak existance for a time. Yet, the reindeer are naturally curious and can even be playful. One for some reason hung around our camp for a few days, occasionally kicking around a metallic spherical fishnet float that we had collected from the shore, intriqued either by its ability to roll or by the clamor it made when kicked. I am sometimes asked - how did the reindeer come to Svalbard? Transport on or migration over sea ice or land bridges associated with lower sea levels during the Ice Age seems plausible. Fossils indicate Musk Ox also used to live here. They were reintroduced to Svalbard in the 1960s by well wishers. They did not survive. WIth the waxing and waning of the ice Svalbard has been and will be a place of change. If the climate warms more and sea ice retreats farther, then even the king of the arctic, the polar bear, will have to migrate or adapt, because they depend on the sea ice to catch seals. They are, as the Norwegians call them, truely Isbjorn, ice bears.

Low trees and tall flowers

The tundra is covered with a splotchy organic mat. Locally there are forest of willow trees here, but the willows spread out on the ground, and are no more than inches high. Adaptation is necessary. Spring comes in July, and the tundra is various shades of green and dotted with flowers. By mid August fall has set in and the tundra turns shades of red, yellow and orange, and mushrooms start to proliferate. Again it is a short time to conduct the business of growing and reproducing. There is twentyfour hour light, but not necessarily sunlight. One summer season we had sun maybe 10% of the time. The vegetation grows slowly and has a fragile hold in this rugged tundra. The tracks of all terrain vehicles used by the Russians in the 1950s and 1960s, before we knew better, are still strikingly evident today. Environmental regulations in place today attempt to prevent the further scarring of the landscape.

In places, traversing the tundra is like walking on a giant sponge. The accumulated remains of lichens, moss, some grasses, and tiny trees can be up to feet thick. The reindeer love to browse in these pastures. You can sink up to your knees in the tundra when it is soaked, and you can hear the dry crunch of dessicated plants as you walk when they are dry. These pastures occur in predictable places, mainly along the higher strand plains of the west coast, because these surfaces have been uncovered long enough to accumulate the plant matter, and because the bird rookeries are here. Directly under some bird rookeries is actually green grass thick enough to mow (if you had some particularly insane urge to do so). The birds provide the fertilizer that create these green oases. Again, life on land depends on that in the sea.

In this world of ice and rock, of shades of mainly browns and greys, one's eyes naturally focus on the tundra flowers, lured by the bright colors that stand out so vividly. Upon inspection the flowers are inches high at most, and tiny. Nothing like the extravagant abundance of a rose, azalea or tulip grows on the tundra. Yet the colorful display still seems extravagant. Why do these plants expend all this energy to flower? As to pollinators the only insects we see are gnat like creatures that seem to live for a day or two at most, and which crumple if you breath hard on them. Down amongst the tundra, out of the wind, there may be a hidden insect world. Then there is the Svalbard poppy. One of the tallest plants one can find, sometimes reaching a stately six to eight inches, it likes to grow on bare mountain ridges in isolated clumps. There isn't even a hint of real soil here, just regolith, broken up rock. Even lichens are sparse here. The soft Triassic shales are a preferred roothold for the poppy. These dark shales, the legacy of shallow sea, are organic and phosphorous rich, and it may be the nutrients of sea critters some 200 million years old, serve as natural fertilizer for the poppy now. But what could possibly pollinate these flowers. It is as close to insect-free here as I could imagine. Ptarmigan frequent the area, and may play a role, but I suspect the wind is the best pollinating agent, or perhaps these poppys colonize the ridge from elsewhere, but do not reproduce. I almost tempted to bring up a small brush to help next season. Perhaps flowers in Svalbard are mainly a legacy, no longer necessary, a relict of past generations in other places when and where insects were common. There are many relicts in geology and biology.

The comforts of camp:

Humans are a recent immigrant to Svalbard and nowadays do not hang on with tenacity, but visit with modern comfort, the results of our technologic creativity. We come and go pretty much as we please, using helicopters and boats, perhaps delayed a bit sometimes by bad weather. We have GPS units to locate ourselves, radios to keep in contact with others, guns to protect ourselves, trip wires to warn of a bear in camp, solar batteries to power field computers. We have zodiacs, inflatable boats, to zip around in and special dry suits to survive the cold if we happen to take a spill into the water, water so cold that without such protection a human will pass out in less than 5 minutes. Then there is the simple technology of a good sleeping bag, and of a thermarest pad! A sleeping bag is an ultimate refuge for a cold and tired body. If you can sleep warmly and comfortably it is so much easier to take whatever may come. With Goretex gear we can work the day in storm winds and rain, and stay mainly dry. Tents, an important refuge, I must admit we have had more mixed luck with. I have seen 4 tents destroyed by the winds in my arctic tenure. While setting up a tent at a pack camp, during a moments inattention, it went sailing with the wind, rolling along the ground for several hundred heading for a gorge. A flying tackle stopped it, but poles were broken, and so a day long hike pack to the main camp ensued to get the spare tent. Still, that you can carry such good shelter in your pack and on your back is wondrous. Then there is the camera, it is an unparalleled data aquisition machine. We can be in this arctic region because of our technology - it expands horizons and possibilities, physical and mental.

It wasn't always so luxurious in Svalbard for humans. Natives of the north, such as the Innuit never made it here. Hunters, trappers of centuries past had to be tenacious. Graves are not uncommon. They are evidence of people really living on the edge and pushing the envelope. There is the perhaps apocryphal story about the attempted use of Svalbard as a penal colony by the British. When the supply boat came to replenish the colony after the first winter, the survivors begged to be taken back to England to be hung, rather than stay another winter.

Being mobile:

To a geologist getting around is of paramount importance. It is the metaphor of the elephant - you need to see as much of this beast as possible, you need to sample widely, especially if you want to work out the 3-D architecture. You need to circumambulate the mountain, then traverse it. I remember skiing in the mountains, above the tree line with a friend in mainland Norway for two weeks. One day it was thickly overcast, and without illumination the lay of the land was literally indiscernable. You could not tell whether valley or mountain lay ahead, and we were lost. We came to a lone outcrop sticking up through the snow. He had done his geology dissertation mapping in this area, and upon skiing up to the rock he knew immediately exactly where we were and were to go. After mapping a terrane you come to know it that well. So mobility makes all the difference. By foot, by ski, by boat large or small, and by helicopters - you use whatever you can up here.

This is a landscape for helicopters, which make inaccessible areas, acessible. For a geologist it is like a dream come to true to hang in the air in front of the cliff, to be able to see and photograph the mountain sides from different angles, to see the landscape laid out below, to land on alpine ridges that otherwise would take many hours of technical climbing to ascend, to sample across the landscape with speed and ease. They make the most maneuvable plane seem clumsy. Helicopters bring visitors, new supplies, and most importantly mail. My heart beat always accelerates a bit when in the field and the distinctive beat of a helicopter is heard in the distance, even here in Omaha this occurs - it is now a Pavlovian response for me.

Second to helicopters in the arctic in preference among geologists are zodiacs. French inflatable rubber boats with outboard motors, they can carry a large amount of gear, can easily maneveur amongst the ice flows, are very fast, and are very stable in rough seas. They can been flown in with helicopters as part of a sling load. One trip stands out. Three hours into a long trip across one of the larger fjords, heading into 3-4 m swells with occasional whitecaps, with four people, and a full load of gear, the motor races, and ceases with a large crack. The crankshaft and housing dangle loosely, broken. We switch with the small 5 horsepower spare motor and start back to camp, our trip aborted, but it is very slow going in these seas. We also begin to understand that the zodiac is slightly underinflated. The spare motor dies every 10 minutes or so, and takes 10 minutes to start again. We decide to simply head for the nearest shore, leave the boat and walk back. During this time I come to understand in a new way how much we depend on technology. I can't imagine being in a wooden row boat, chasing a whale, without the security of a survival suit as was done several hundred years ago. I was glad to make the 5 mile walk back. Later, on a very quiet warm night we returned and rowed the zodaic back, and a new motor was flown in.

Zodiacs are great when it comes to pack ice. You can drag them over the ice if need be, or just park them on top of a good floe and wait. Not so with somewhat larger boats. Sleeping on a 43' specially rigged, aluminum hulled, cabin cruiser boat one evening after a long day in the field, and a large dinner of reindeer steaks and wine, we are awakened at 1 in the morning by a growling sound. A storm has pushed a wall of sea ice into the protected fjord, and we are being pushed towards the shore, only several hundred meters away. The skipper quickly raises anchor and heads into the pack. The boat is picked up, tilted and rotated as it gets caught in between two floes the melee of ice, but is then thankfully released. We hide behind a large iceberg for hours fighting the ice. After a 10 hours the storm abates just a bit and the tide turns and we make our way free to a stormy open sea, but it was close. If it had been a wooden boat of days of old it would likely have been crushed. This boat had radar, sonar, GPS, multiple radios, emergency transponders, and much more. That summer, in a short time we sampled and worked over a 100 miles long section of the mountain belt, and I gained a keen appreciation for a boat and her trapper skipper. However, it was not where we had originally intended to work, and I gained a new respect for the mobility of sea ice.

Boats and helicopters make a tremendous difference, but it is by foot that most field work is done. Here again technology intervenes - a good pair of boots makes all the difference. A good pair of boots lasts two field seasons, if you are lucky. On a nice day, there is nothing better for me than to be walking through the Svalbard landscape, collecting data, puzzling on the landscapes embedded in the rocks, and how they came to be.

Collaboration

While a days worth of solitary field work is a joy, it is not only the landscape, but my colleaques that draw me to Svalbard. This has been a sustained collaborative effort I have engaged in. The working group includes, Norwegians, English, German, Japanese, and French. My heart felt thanks go to Alvar Braathen, Steffen Bergh, Alistair Welbon, Winfried Dallmann, and Cam Craddock in particular. I have been lucky enough to take three UNO students over with me, and have three more work on Svalbard research here in Omaha. I owe all these people a lot.

Svalbard is a natural mixing bowl, a collaborative political entity. One summer field season, in a fairly remote fjord, St. Jons fjord, we met up with geologists from University of Leningrad, from France and England, and from Denmark and Sweden. I was working with a Norwegian - Arnt Iver. Seven nations were represented in that small and remote fjord that summer. By its history and political structure Svalbard is a meeting place of nations. While it is Norwegian territory, the Treaty of Svalbard gives signatories equal scientific and economic access, and so Russians outnumber the Norwegians on the islands. The science that can be learned on Svalbard attracts researchers from around the globe. In 1996 154 scientific projects were conducted by 17 different nations.

Simplicity of field work

Life in the field has an enjoyable, simple and to me elegant dichotomy - there is the primitive work of keeping yourself warm, dry and fed, and then there is the intellectual challenge of understanding the rocks, of doing science; sort of a dichotomy of body and mind. For the duration of field season all the intermediate stuff of bills, purchases, politics and such is absent. One time the mother of one of our expedition members forwarded his phone bill, which arrived by helicopter one particularly sunny day. He was absolutely crestfallen with that intrusion, while we were amazed and amused that someone had got a bill in the middle of the arctic. Still this was the exception. We, in our modern lives, are so surrounded by technology, we can almost drown in our opportunities. In Svalbard, the technology is crucial, but more focused in its purpose. It was in Svalbard my advisor told me that a person is as rich as the things they can do without.

The light of the midnight sun

The wealth of geologic history and deep time, elephants and mountain architecture, the nature of life, our connection with technology, the power of collaboration - these are elements in this particular collage.Words and slides are as close as I can bring you to this world I have been privileged enough to work in. They are always somewhat unsatisfactory. Seeing a slide is not the same as being surrounded 360° by such landscape, feeling the coolness, smelling the arctic ocean. Geology of the past and the present surround in such a wealth that a handful of meager images can't represent that richness. An arctic fox frozen in motion on celluloid is not the same as one bouncing over the tundra in that manic way they have. Slides of bird rookeries do not include the magnitude of the populations or the fetid smells, nor can the raucous noise of many thousands of birds compare with the the shuffling of the slide carousel. A panorama from the mountain top does not carry the emotion of reaching the peak by your own efforts - hot and sweaty in the cold crisp air vs. warm and sleepy in a dark room watching square images. Virtual reality has a long way to go before it comes close to the mountain top. Still, I hope you have some idea, some understanding, some feeling for Svalbard now. For many the midnight sun captures some essence of the exotic quality of the arctic. Night and day seem so unquestionable in our world of lower latitudes. Sustained low-angle lighting through the arctic atmosphere does give the midnight sun a special characteristic, and so I will say thank you for this opportunity to share, and leave you with some images, and say no more!

Harmon D. Maher Jr., 4/97

Return to H. D. Maher homepage. Return to Svalbard index.