Farewell Svalbard

Geoff Evatt | 18 Mar 2019

Hello, and hopefully soon, goodbye, from Svalbard. I say this as our return flight back to Longyearbyen has just been cancelled due to the gale-force blizzard going on outside the door… (If we fly tomorrow instead, then things should still be OK for returning to the UK — apologies if any of my lectures are missed as a consequence!).

Long evenings. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
A view across Kongsfjorden; in the foreground the airship mast used during the 1926 Norge expedition to the North Pole. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Anyhow, we’ve had an excellent trip, and been looked after brilliantly by the base manager Nick (thank you!). The present weather aside, we’ve had an fantastic run of things, where we’ve been out conducting field trials for 8 days solid with our metal detector array. Only on the last afternoon did the the storm start to come in, just whilst we were clearing the test site up, which added a thrill to things. I think we’re now in agreement that the system will likely detect 100 gram iron meteorites down to 20 cm in real-time, and finding smaller and/or deeper objects will require post-processing back in the tents after a day’s searching (in so doing, we won’t be distracted by the system constantly pinging due to background noise, and we’ll only get off the skidoos to investigate the largest signals). Should we locate iron meteorites much larger than 100 grams, then we’ll also find them in real-time at much deeper depths. This is all testament to our engineers Liam, Wouter and John, who have designed, built, and tinkered with the system over the past couple of years, and who are likewise trapped with me in the Arctic base.

Manual labour to start the day. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
The northern lights or aurora borealis. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Reindeer in front of the Kronebreen glacier. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
The Svalbard 2019 team.

As you will see from the images, the bitter cold we’ve had for most of the trip has been tempered by the stunning conditions. And the northern lights we saw two nights ago really capped the trip off well. As for wildlife, then only reindeer and seals this year, with no polar bears for distraction. That said, having the BBC’s Today Programme up here acted to keep us continually interested in what was going on around us, and many thanks to them for putting together their news-piece on our project, which can be listened to here:


Liam and I were particularly pleased about this, as it’s not often two New Mills residents feature so prominently on the news! And in case you are interested, my project colleagues back in the UK, Andy and Dave, plus myself, set four of the Arctic-themed “Puzzles for Today” this week, which can be found here (puzzle numbers 434-437):


It’s strange to think that the next time the system will be used in the cold will be down in Antarctica, where discussions as to exactly where we head to, and how much area we’re likely to search, are now well underway. In the mean-time, further equipment tinkering and engineering will commence back in Manchester, where the big deadline for shipping things South is mid-August.

All-in-all, we now have the two key components of the project together: we know where on the continent to search, and we have built the equipment capable of detecting englacial iron meteorites. The proof of whether they are actually lost within the ice, will now be in the pudding!

Goodbye Svalbard. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Svalbard: an unusual field trial

Geoff Evatt | 14 Mar 2019
Hello from Svalbard [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Good evening from 79º North (more informally: that’s very far North). It’s freezing. Proper freezing: –20ºC air temperature, plus a hint of moist wind, and with a sun barely popping over the surrounding mountain tops. And just before I left the house to fly here (whilst doing my last-second packing), I realised that I had left most of my thermal clothes on a washing line down in Antarctica in January……..

The view on arrival at Ny- Ålesund [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Anyhow, things are progressing here in somewhat a slightly unusual manner. This is because we have a team from the BBC working from here as well (for the Today programme on Radio 4), who are darting around  compiling stories about research and life conducted up here. And also because there is a team from the UK Research Councils who are also darting around, making sure the BBC people don’t slip up — in both senses. It’s great and fascinating to have the BBC guys here, who have shown genuine interest in matters, and we’re utterly impressed by how hard they work. As we await for the programme’s live broadcast tomorrow morning, where some tedious Brexit story will likely supplant our (we like to think) far more interesting meteorite story, we do have the consolation prize that we’ve set the last two Puzzles for Today on their programme.

Liam, John and Wouter setting up the metal detectors [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

As for the meteorite project: things are going rather well (I say this even as John, Liam and Wouter stand 2m away from me studying a severely broken metal detector). This is because we’re getting excellent and repeatable results from our main metal detector, where we’re ‘seeing’ objects being detected in real time at the depths we hope to find the meteorites, across a range of skidoo speeds. The one big caveat however is that ‘down’ South we’ll be searching over solid glacial ice, whereas ‘up’ North we’re testing over soft fresh snow. The former has the potential to give more vibrations to the system than the snow, and, if not accounted for,  has the potential to swamp meteorite signals.

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

As for the wildlife? There’s a couple of Svalbard reindeer hanging around the camp, but the Arctic foxes from last year seem to have moved on. Maybe this will change shortly, as sunlight is increasing by almost 25 minutes a day at the moment!

We’ll be back in touch with the latest Brexit, I mean meteorite, update, later in the week.

Svalbard: first day in the field

— Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

Today has been a busy day for the team here in Svalbard. We were accompanied by Henry Burgess from the NERC Arctic Office as we spent out first day in the field setting up the test site for the next few days of testing. The test area is approximately six times larger than the one we used when we were here last year; this time we have an overall track length of around 200m, and a width which is capable of accommodating three panels.

The test site near Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard [Credit: Liam Marsh]

We have placed 20 dummy meteorites at seven different depths throughout the test area, which is sufficient for testing one detector. As the trial continues, we will place a further 19 which will allow us to test all three. Each pair of flags/poles in the image below represents target locations, which have all been carefully positioned and buried (some requiring quite a lot of excavation!) It was slow going, and hard work, but thankfully here on Svalbard there is always a very nice view waiting when we get the chance to look up and enjoy it.

Tomorrow morning we will be getting the equipment outside for the first time. We will be accompanied by the team from BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who are here to find out about NERC, BAS, and the UK’s involvement in Arctic research; including the Lost Meteorites of Antarctica. We plan to test a single detector, with the main aim of determining the sensitivity of the detector to the dummy meteorites, characterising the vibration associated with dragging the detector system, and testing of the user interface.

‘Dummy’ meteorites before being buried at the test site. [Credit Wouter van Verre]

Tomorrow evening we expect to be joined by our University of Manchester colleague, and Lost Meteorites PI, Geoff Evatt. Sadly for him, if all goes to plan he will arrive to find us having completed a full set of measurements and facing a day indoors processing all the data. As the week progresses there will be plenty more work to do as we tweak the system and scale up to the three detectors that we have with us.

Svalbard: indoor testing of the detector system

Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

On day two of our time here in Ny-Alesund we have been making good progress. Much of the morning was taken up with further administration, covering both firearms training and coordination of the testing plans and media coverage of the activities taking place here at the NERC base. We did get time to conduct a small amount of testing or the response of two of our three metal detectors with meteorite surrogates, and the initial results were looking promising. We also undertook a significant amount of indoor vibration testing, which the system dealt with better than we had expected; this produced so much banging and crashing that the BBC Radio 4 Today team became curious of what was going on and stopped by for a brief interview.

When we resumed testing in the afternoon we experienced some difficulties in integrating the three detectors. It took a few hours but we managed to make the necessary software tweaks to get the hardware to behave properly. As we reach the end of the day we are at the stage where all three detectors are operational, and we have some initial configuration for outdoor testing of the system.

Tomorrow morning (Sunday) we intend to go out into the field to set up the test site, and all being well (after some further minor tweaks tomorrow afternoon) we should be heading out for some initial detector testing on Monday morning.

Svalbard field campaign 2019 begins

Our field campaign in Svalbard to undertake the final testing of our metal detector panels has kicked off.   Here is the first update from our University of Manchester electronic engineering team, who have arrived the British Antarctic Survey’s UK Arctic Research Station.

Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

Myself and fellow electrical engineers, John Wilson and Wouter van Verre arrived here in Ny-Alesund earlier this morning after a brief overnight stop in Longyearbyen. The flight from Longyearbyen was extremely smooth, and had its fantastic views of sea ice, glaciers and the rugged terrain that exists here in Svalbard. At one point in the the four flights it took us to get here, 3 out of our 5 bags were lost; against all odds all of our bags made it here in the end. None of us fancied conducting a field trial at –20 °C without the appropriate clothes to keep us warm, however, it would have been equally challenging without the equipment we were here to test.  

As is customary on arrival in Ny-Alesund there has been a lot of administration. Wouter was sent off to do the rifle training that is needed to keep us safe from polar bears, whilst myself, John and fellow scientist Arwen were dispatched to collect the 9 skidoos for the team, owing to the fact that we were the only people trained to use them having visited previously. It is quite a busy time to visit, as we are accompanied by a team from BBC Radio 4 Today show (who will be broadcasting from here all of next week), a microbiologist from Aberystwyth University, and staff from NERC and BAS — including our station leader Nick G — who is doing an excellent job of standing in for the the regular station leader Nick Cox.

For a while it felt like things were stacked against us when we found out that our two 12 V batteries (which are necessary to power our system) were discharged to a point very close to which they would be unchargeable, but thankfully it looks like we got here just in time to resurrect them. Since then things have been going a  lot better. We set up our equipment in the lab and have tested three metal detectors, and three coil panels and everything is working well. There is still some tuning needed to get the optimal sensitivity, however the response to our meteorite surrogates looks quite good and the system is showing excellent signs of resilience to vibration. The real acid test will be when we get the system outside on Sunday/Monday…

Field trials start indoors: detector panels in and electronic boxes our lab space in BAS’s Ny-Ålesund arctic research station. [Credit: Liam Marsh]

Svalbard Equipment Testing Mission, April 2018

Geoff Evatt | 04 Jul 2018

Antarctica is a long way to go to only to find out a essential piece of equipment does not work properly. To avoid (well, minimise) this risk, our Lost Meteorite team needed to find somewhere we could trial our metal detector design and system. And so at Easter 2018, we headed north, to the relatively near-by icy Norwegian island group of Svalbard (~79o N), to conduct our first set of field trials.

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Flying over Svalbard. [Image: G W Evatt]

This small, far-flung High-Arctic region is in fact rather easy to reach: Manchester to Olso, Oslo to Longyear; all via budget airlines (other more luxurious options do exist). The island hosts an annual jazz festival, ultra marathons, wildlife tours, and an eye wateringly large number of polar bears. Yet more relevant to ourselves, they host the UK’s polar science research base, run by the National Environmental Research Council. It is based in the World’s northern most habitation, Ny-Alesund, which is home to many a nation’s polar research station. Ny-Alesund is steeped in polar history, for it is where numerous North Pole-searching trips were launched in the 1920’s, including those by Admundsen and Nobile. Today the spirit of discovery still lives on there, although more in regards the understand of the Earth’s systems, rather than adventurism. (That said, upon taking the final short plane ride from Longyear to Ny-Alesund, one could be forgiven for thinking it still rather adventurous.)

The team members attending were the electrical engineers John (UoM), Liam (UoM) and Mike (BAS), plus experimental mathematician Andy  (UoM) and myself (head skidoo driver?). Fortunately we were not alone out there, for we were under the superb care and supervision of BAS’s Nick Cox, the base manager. Nick quickly showed us around the base, taught us how to drive skidoos, and found us glacial areas within 20 minutes of the base upon which we could test the panels in a controlled fashion. Yet before we could be set loose, Mike and I first had to attend a ‘Polar Bear & Weapon for Protection’ course.  I can’t say whether or not we felt safer before or after the live fire course, but it certainly did take the term ‘meteorite hunting’ to the next level.

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Team in the field in Svalbard testing the detector panel. [Image: A R D Smedley]

So, what were we out there to test? The first thing was to see whether or not the large plastic panels (each 2 m x 1 m) – which have the metal detector coils embedded inside –  could actually be towed by skidoo. And if they could, did they work and were they robust to inevitable impacts and undulations? Next, was to test whether or not the generally electrical system operated as we wished (i.e. data logging, cable connection robust, LED systems etc etc). Finally, we wanted to test whether or not we could actually locate sub-surface iron objects.

To conduct our experiments, we created a sort of run way on the Storvatna Glacier, in which we buried iron objects/ meteorites at different depths in the snow/ice, each spaced some 5 meters apart. We would then drive along the runway – directly over the top of the buried objects – collecting the data relevant to each point. We  conducted this for constants speeds, and then repeated the tests for increments of 5 km/s (from 10 km/s up to 25 km/s).

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Testing the technology – dragging our detector array along a test track. [Image: M C Rose]

Cutting to the chase, we found that our first two requirements (panel design and system design) worked without a single hitch. This was a great relief, for without these working we would have been almost out of ideas for alternatives! However we found the detection system was, initially, temperamental to temperature variations. For example, we would set up the system indoors, and could detect object down to ~50cm. But outside, well, we often got jibberish.

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Fixing the equipment in the field. [Image: M C Rose]

After much troubleshooting, the problem was identified and remedied by the ultra-hard-working and diligent John and Liam (which involved some very cold hands). Yet the lack of time left on base meant that a rush ensued, in which we gathered as much data as possible, late into the final day. Their hard work paid off, for we were able to obtain very useful detector results at the 11th hour; we certainly detected objects down to some 20 cm below the surface, and possibly deeper. Of course we need to hunt a bit deeper still, but now that we have initial data, we can tune the equipment accordingly to the target range – had we had another week out there, this would have been possible. Fortunately, we have another test mission ahead (for me and Mike) at Sky-Blu, Antarctica, this January, plus another possible Svalbard trip next Easter. This means we still have time on our side to optimise the sensitive of the detectors. And of course, with the panels and system working fine, much of the trip was a large success.

As for Svalbard itself? Well, it’s glorious. We saw seals on the sea ice, and had close encounters with Svalbard Reindeer and Arctic Foxes. In fact, we had issues with the Arctic Foxes digging out our buried meteorites! The island is trying to encourage more tourism, and travel out there you must. After all, it’s not every day you get chance to drink at the World’s northern-most pub. Thank you Svalbard/Ny-Alesund/Nick, we hope to see you again next Easter.

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Visiting scientist in Svalbard. [Image: G W Evatt]