Into The Unknown
As if enduring one extended winter in the coldest depths of the Arctic wasn’t tough enough, polar explorer and citizen scientist Hilde Fålun Strøm is gearing up to do it all over again.
It’s probably safe to assume very few of us grow up with aspirations of a life traversing the most isolated and freezing corners of the globe. But for Hilde Fålun Strøm, her obsession with all things cold and icy began at a very early age.
“Ever since I was little, I was happily consumed by the snow and wintertime,” says Hilde, of a childhood spent dogsledding with her beloved pooch Nanok. “It was my dream to be immersed in nature.”
Fast forward a few decades, and Hilde has spent 25 years living in Svalbard, an archipelago of Norwegian islands, working as product manager for Hurtigruten while also partaking in long stints at remote huts and embarking on hunting, skiing and snowmobile expeditions.
It’s these remarkable experiences – and the valuable skills picked up along the way – that have proved especially vital in Hilde’s most recent mission: spending nine months with Norwegian-born, Canadian-raised expeditioner Sunniva Sorby at a remote trapper’s cabin as part of the Hearts In The Ice project. Joined only by a trusty Alaskan malamute named Ettra, the two adventurers set out to document climate change, while also becoming the first women to overwinter in the Arctic without men.
“It started out as an opportunity to try and create a platform around the dialogue of climate change, and to do something that would inspire people to get involved and make a contribution,” says Hilde, who first met Sunniva in 2016 at a travel event in Alaska.
The pair arrived at Bamsebu, a historic 20-square-metre hut located 140 kilometres from Longyearbyen in September 2019. Built in 1930, the structure has no running water, electricity or insulation.
To say the conditions were demanding would be an understatement. According to Hilde it was bitterly cold, with temperatures plummeting to -34°C. The winds were so strong that on one occasion the door of the hut was blown clean off its hinges. Engines failed, things broke and the physical work was relentless. The darkness was suffocating, and, of course, spending 24/7 with only each other came with its own unique set of challenges.
But, as Hilde confirms, every moment – good and bad – was a “privilege”.
“You learn so much about yourself and the other person,” she explains. “There’s no space for getting bothered by small things.
“I think we learnt gratitude, to show appreciation for the contributions we each made, and to say thank you for simple things, like making dinner or chopping wood.”
Dealing with all of these unpredictable elements only made their research and subsequent findings all the more impressive.
Of particular focus was how polar bears were adjusting to the changes in their environment. Hilde had 52 encounters with these enormous predators, recording every meeting.
“Due to the lack of ice, polar bears have started to alter their behaviour,” she says. “They are starting to hunt on land, in particular reindeers, which is very unusual. They are trying to adapt to a warmer climate, but the changes are happening too fast.”
The two were also able to collect valuable samples of salt water and phytoplankton (tiny algae responsible for transferring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the ocean), as well as road test cutting-edge new technologies, like drones and electric snowmobiles, gather microplastics and monitor weather patterns and sea ice.
Then, just as the expedition was coming to a close, COVID-19 struck. Due to be picked up on 8 May this year, the pair was informed the steamship company tasked with ensuring their safe passage home wouldn’t be returning for them until September.
“Although we felt safe, we also felt so far away from everything and everyone we loved,” says Hilde. “Our world was falling apart from afar and it really affected us, even if we were probably in the safest place on Earth.”
Such potentially devastating news could have broken the two women, but instead they got back to work, eager to spend the summer conducting new tests and collating data – fieldwork which proved even more important, considering the majority of the world’s scientists were stuck in lockdown.
And, as Hilde adds with a laugh, “we became the experts on being isolated, as we had already been doing it for so long!”
Almost a year after they first bid farewell to their family and friends, Hilde and Sunniva arrived home. But their foray in the real world was fleeting. Having prepared provisions for another long winter, the duo has once again returned to Bamsebu.
“We’re going back to some hard work – both physically and mentally,” muses Hilde. “But it’s not about us, it’s about the whole community and all the contributions that have been poured into this project.
“We’re hoping to inspire people to make changes in their own homes, and in their own lives, and give them some practical tools to be able to do that.”
So while they plan on continuing the research undertaken on the first trip, there will be a much stronger emphasis and more time devoted to educating others, especially children, on climate change through online lectures and digital classrooms.
“They are our future,” says Hilde of the younger generation. “They are already so knowledgeable, so awake and so engaged. To be able to teach them even more is really great and so much fun.”
And with Hilde and Sunniva leading the way, sharing their wisdom and actioning change, that future is looking pretty bright.
Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby are once again researching from Bamsebu. You can follow their journey and donate to their research project at the website.