Extreme diving, crucial to Arctic research

August 16, 2015 by Celine Serrat
Scientific divers work in the icy waters of the Kongsfjorden, near the scientific base of Ny Alesund, on the Spitzberg island of
Scientific divers work in the icy waters of the Kongsfjorden, near the scientific base of Ny Alesund, on the Spitzberg island of the Norwegian Arctic Svalbard archipelago

How do algae react to the warming of the Arctic Ocean? How is it affecting wildlife in the fjords? To find answers, researchers rely heavily on divers who brave the icy waters to gather samples.

"Without them, we wouldn't be able to successfully complete our projects," admits Cornelia Buchholz, a who is working at Ny-Alesund on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in the heart of the Norwegian Arctic.

Until the start of the 1960s, this town—the northernmost permanent human settlement in the world—was populated by coal miners.

Today it is entirely dedicated to science.

Between mid-April and the end of August when the sun never sets, dozens of researchers stay there.

The site, which boasts exceptional facilities despite its extreme location just a thousand kilometres (600 miles) from the North Pole, has a unique window on climate change, the effects of which are far more pronounced in the Arctic region.

Under water at Ny-Alesund, rising sea temperatures have already led to the appearance of new species of krill (small crustaceans) and fish, such as Atlantic cod and mackerel.

"The scientists give us a sort of 'shopping list'," explains Max Schwanitz, 52, a diver who has been working since 1994 at the French-German research station.

"For example, they tell us the type, the size and the quantity of algae they want and from what depth."

At the end of July, the surface temperature of the water was between three and seven degrees Celsius (37 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit) in the fjord. But earlier in the season, they were entering waters of less than two degrees Celsius.

"Salt water freezes less easily than fresh water, at around minus 2.6 degrees C here," he explains, and diving under the ice is rare here.

German scientific diver Max Schwanitz shows the decompression chamber to a journalist, at the scientific base of Ny Alesund, on
German scientific diver Max Schwanitz shows the decompression chamber to a journalist, at the scientific base of Ny Alesund, on the Spitzberg island of the Norwegian Arctic Svalbard archipelago

Working with him are two students, Mauritz Halbach, 24, and Anke Bender, 29. Together they form the only diving team at Ny-Alesund.

"Obviously, the temperature is on the extreme side for diving in here," explains Halbach, student at Oldenbourg in northeastern Germany.

"When visibility is very bad or the currents are strong, the dives themselves can also be extreme," he says.

Hands: the Achilles' heel

Although the divers wear specially made gloves, the cold is felt in the hands.

"Hands are always a problem because it's the part of the body which is most sensitive to cold," Halbach explains.

"We generally stay 30 to 45 minutes in the water. We can stay up to 90 minutes but by that point, your hands are really cold," adds Schwanitz.

Beyond the discomfort, it can also hamper the precision of the work they are sometimes required to do in the depths, adjusting both photographic equipment and fixed underwater instruments for measuring temperature, light and water clarity, as well as gathering samples.

The rest of the body is well protected against the cold with divers wearing Arctic cold-water wetsuits, which are 7-millimetres (0.2 inches) thick.

Diving masks hang on the wall at the scientific base of Ny Alesund, on the Spitzberg island of the Norwegian Arctic Svalbard arc
Diving masks hang on the wall at the scientific base of Ny Alesund, on the Spitzberg island of the Norwegian Arctic Svalbard archipelago
"We also wear warm undergarments like for skiing," says Bender, who has a doctorate in marine biology from Rostock in Germany.

Between their bulky suits and ballast weighing 18 to 20 kilos (up to 44 pounds), the divers are each carrying a weight of around 40 kilos.

Aside from the cold, security is another big worry for the trio—and for their insurers who lay down very specific demands.

When one of them enters the water "another is ready to dive in in case of a problem, while the third is in charge of the boat," Schwanitz says.

In 2005, the installation of a decompression chamber—indispensable in event of an accident—has made procedures much simpler.

Scientific divers work in the icy waters of the Kongsfjorden, near the scientific base of Ny Alesund, on the Spitzberg island of the Norwegian Arctic Svalbard archipelago

Previously, they would check every morning to see if the weather was sufficiently good to allow a plane to come from Longyearbyen, the main town on Spitzberg, in case of an emergency, to fly someone to mainland Norway where the nearest decompression equipment was located—a journey of some four hours.

But in the 10 years since it was installed, the chamber has has only ever been used in practice exercises.

"We usually dive to depths of 18-20 metres (up to 65 feet)," explains Schwanitz, patting the side of the cylindrical white chamber.

"Most experiments here are done at that depth, so they are safe dives."

Explore further: Tracking the retreat of Arctic ice

Related Stories

Tracking the retreat of Arctic ice

August 2, 2015

Not so long ago, skeleton staff overwintering at the Ny-Alesund research centre could walk on the Arctic town's frozen bay and race their snow mobiles across its surface.

Tides stir up deep Atlantic heat in the Arctic Ocean

February 17, 2015

Researchers have identified how warm Atlantic water that is flowing deep into the Arctic Ocean is mixing with colder waters above to contribute to sea-ice loss in the Arctic. The results, published this week in the journal ...

Diving shrews -- heat before you leap

July 3, 2012

How does the world's smallest mammalian diver survive icy waters to catch its prey? A recent study of American water shrews to be presented at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting in Salzburg on 1st July has surprised ...

Experts offer diving safety tips

July 12, 2015

(HealthDay)—It's tempting to dive into pools, lakes and other bodies of water when you're trying to cool off on a hot summer day, but it can be dangerous if you don't take proper safety precautions, experts warn.

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

denglish
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2015
Its nice to see an article about our scientists in action without having to wince through hater propaganda.

Here's something I found to help understand the fluctuations in Artic Ocean temperatures:
https://bobtisdal...ctic.png

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.