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To the magic Beerenberg

The following voyage had the island Jan Mayen as destination, where we wanted to climb the Beerenberg, the highest volcano in the Arctic, in order to be the first to collect samples from there. After a few days we reached the island in good conditions. After a short introduction to the leading sergeant of the Norwegian military, we received permission to go ashore. Due to the COVID pandemic, the military was not allowed to drive us from the bay to the foot of the mountain, so we had to cover the distance of about 20 km on foot. We had planned to take 24 hours for the whole tour and we left at 23:00 on July 13. We were accompanied by Dario, Noe and Alegra, as well as the two older children Salina and Andri Schwörer, who had come on board only after returning from Svalbard during the stopover in Lyngseidet.

The approach to the mountain took several hours and went without problems. Since there was no hiking trail up the mountain, we had to make the ascent in unfamiliar terrain. Dario Schwörer is a certified mountain guide, Max is a very experienced alpinist. I (Sebastian, note) bring less experience in such terrain, but as an emergency paramedic I have equipment and know-how for critical situations. In this constellation, we were able to start the ascent together with the children, who were between 10 and 16 years old. Unfortunately, as time went on, I got very bad knee pain and had to announce at the foot of the glacier that I could not continue. We stopped our tour there while Dario and the kids continued to climb to the summit. Max and I had discussed that we would travel as a team and stay together, although I had offered to wait alone in an emergency bivouac. Dario never showed any hesitation to continue alone with the kids and encouraged us to stay together. It was a very reassuring feeling that I was not left alone.

Route of the TOPtoTOP Arctic Research Expedition 2020 & 2021.

We used the time at the foot of the glacier to collect snow and air samples and to let the view wander over the sea of fog at our feet. Afterwards, we made the long walk back. We took another sample and back at the beach we were fortunately able to arrange with the military to have me returned via jeep to the bay where we anchored. Max enjoyed the twelve remaining kilometers of “remotest nothingness” and was back two hours after Sebastian (after a total of 21 hours).

After about 27 hours total time, everyone was finally back at the beach from which we had started. Because the swell in the bay was very strong, we all had to spend a night in a military hut in the bay. Max , Salina and I had to spend another night in the hut, because after Dario, Andri, Alegra and Noe had crossed, the swell increased strongly again and the military stopped the action. On the second day, after involuntary tests of the survival suits and very wet research equipment, everyone made it back to the ship. Tired and exhausted as we were, however, we had to get the ship ready to go quickly because there was a danger of it running aground due to the strong swell. We began our crossing to Ittoqqortoormiit in northeast Greenland.

Sampling on Iceland's glaciers

The weather was calm, but the crossing was more exciting as we now had to keep a lookout for large icebergs. We sailed between icebergs the size of an apartment block and reached Ittoqqortoormiit in calm weather. Again, we first had to wait to see if we were allowed to go ashore due to the pandemic, which we eventually were. After a night in the harbor, despite my persistent knee pain, we went to take samples here as well. Max took over carrying the equipment and largely sampling in this case, and I kept polar bear watch. Whereby in this case one must speak rather of musk ox guard, since such one ran us curiously behind and approached up to few meters to us. When we then took flight, the musk ox also startled and stalked away. We were probably similarly fascinated by each other and similarly divided as to whether our counterpart was a danger or not. After 11 hours in the field and petting the local sled dogs, we reached the boat again just before the next sunrise.

The next destination was Iceland. However, we had to wait a few days beforehand because there was a bad storm at sea. We were going to disembark the Pachamama in Iceland, in Bolungarvík, because the glaciers we wanted to investigate were far away from our mooring point. We had to take a bus from there to Ísafjörður and transfer to Reykjavík. There we were going to rent a car. The nature of our trip by sailboat, unfortunately, did not allow us to plan a fixed route in advance, because we always had to pay attention to the weather and were dependent on it. It was not easy to get a car, because at that time there were already many tourists in Iceland and most of the providers did not have any vehicles available for the period we needed. Since we had to go inland, we also needed a vehicle with four-wheel drive, which again limited the choice. Eventually, however, we were able to find a car. We spent another night in the harbor on the boat before boarding the bus to Reykjavík the next morning.

In Reykjavík we spent three days in an air B&B where we could rest and dry and sort our gear. For the next week, the car was our home. We drove to the highest mountain in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur. On the way there, we were able to make a stop at the currently active volcano, Fagradalsfjall.

We knew that it would take us at least 15 hours (without our sampling) to climb Hvannadalshnúkur, so we started the tour at 05:30. We were lucky with the weather, only a short rain shower surprised us before it became sunnier and sunnier. My knee had calmed down since the Beerenberg by almost two weeks of rest including painkillers. Despite the reappearing knee pain, we were able to climb the mountain almost to the summit. At this time of year, however, the glacier is very aper and extremely full of crevasses. So finding our way through the huge labyrinth of crevasses was not very obvious. However, thanks to alpine experience, we managed to get through the crevasse zone without any problems. However, an insurmountable bergschrund blocked us the last 150 hm to the summit. Further attempts to bypass it to the east or west were also unsuccessful. So we had to start taking samples below the summit. On the way back we decided to take a different route and had great pleasure when, as a highlight, we had to climb through a small crevasse that blocked our way. As expected, it took us a little more than 20 hours to get back to the car.

The next day we drove for almost 20 hours, with a stop at the impressive Diamond Beach, formed by the outflow of Jökulsárlón, the Jökulsá á Breiðamerkursandi, until we reached the foot of Kverkfjöll inland. During the trip we had to cross two river fords by car and drove through a constantly changing landscape of gravel, sand and stone. At the base of the mountain, we slept in the car for a few hours before Max set off to the mountain alone. My knee pain was too severe and I was too debilitated to climb a glacier again. As an experienced alpinist, Max knows about the dangers on the mountain and how to avoid them; he wouldn’t take any risks alone to collect samples. Before starting, he discussed his route with the ranger on site and we agreed that I would alert a search party if Max was not back after 14 hours. He climbed Kverkfjöll via the north ridge in order to walk solo over glaciers as little as possible. At the top, he crossed to the west to be able to sample the first cryoconites of the trip on the summit plateau (so far, there was too much snow everywhere, so that there were simply no bare ice surfaces on which cryoconites could have formed). From here he had a magnificent view north out through Steam Valley, a sulfur-yellow valley whose name comes from the geothermal activity that leads to hot gas emissions and steam clouds here. An almost Mediterranean tempered high valley in the middle of the eternal ice. To the south, the view swept over the endless Vatnajökull glacier plateau. At Max’s feet was another lagoon, a warm lake at 1800 meters, again due to volcanic activity, causing the glacier cover to melt in spots and plunge 60 meters into a mountain lake. All in all an unimaginable phenomenal scenery. 11 hours later Max was back at the vehicle. I had been able to recover and sort out the equipment for departure. We spent another night in the vehicle and drove to Akureyri the next day, where we returned the rental car and spent the night at the campground. On 9/4/2021, 8 weeks after our start in Munich, we finally started our journey home. Due to the booking situation I flew back to Austria, but Max decided to take the one seat that was still free on the ferry and drove from Iceland via the Faroe Islands to Denmark and from there by train back to Austria.

The selection of the surveyed glaciers

The glaciers to be examined we had to decide rather spontaneously, depending on where we could sail to. We had looked at maps and searched for possible glacier mouths where we could sample the different altitudinal levels in 3-5 sampling areas in a straight line from a high point (e.g. summit or embayment) down to the sea. In doing so, we had attempted to identify potential local pollution gradients. On Svalbard, the glacier surface at Longyearbreen is much more polluted than those at Ny Alesund and Brokebreen in the Magdalenafjord, where there are no local MP polluters. In Iceland, we sampled the much-touristed south side of Vatnajökull with Hvanndalshnukur and decided to use the little-touristed Kverkfjöll on the north side as a second sample spot for comparison. This is the same glacier massif, but once on the coast next to the ring road and the other time inland without many visitors.

The funding

We had to raise the financial means ourselves: through crowdfunding, the support of the Liechtenstein Society for Environmental Protection (LGU), the Austrian Climate and Energy Fund, grants from the University of Innsbruck, the German Society for Polar Research (DGP), the Lions Club Bad Neustadt an der Saale, and the support of Frozen Latitudes. We had received extensive material support from the Sportler AG.

From this income there is still a small remaining budget, which will be exceeded by the not inconsiderable costs for the evaluation by FT-IR. We are therefore grateful for further donations or support.

What's next?

After returning, we had to wait some time for the samples to arrive. We had to work with the post office for over a week to finally get them to send the samples on. They were kept in a collection center in Vienna for almost a month. Why this was necessary was not clear to us.
Now we are in the middle of the laboratory work. At the beginning there is the inventory and the density separation of the solid samples (sediment and faeces). These are then also filtered so that all samples are on filter discs. Then an optical analysis under the microscope follows, whether plastic particles are to be found at all. These must be separated from the remainder and evaluated by means of FT-IR (Fourier transform infrared spectrometer) or Raman spectroscopy. Possibly parts of the samples (especially the atmospheric samples because there the smallest microplastic particles are expected) can be sent to an analysis laboratory with automated FT-IR machines, because they can detect much smaller particles than we can with the naked eye under the microscope. Afterwards we will check if there are plastic particles in the air sampled by the air sampler and in the animal excrements collected from arctic fox, kittiwakes, polar bear, walruses, ptarmigan and reindeer, and if we can see how MP particles are distributed. Furthermore, we want to see if there are correlations between the presence of certain microorganisms and MP, since MP particles contribute to biofilm formation through their surface. In addition, we want to check whether an increased occurrence of antibiotic resistance is recognizable.

Thanks to these sponsors, the project became reality:

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Photos: ©Max Kortmann und Sebastian Pohl

About the scientific authors

Written by Max Kortmann and Sebastian Pohl, University of Innsbruck

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