You know those days when nothing goes as you though it would? You have a plan and then life happens and everything gets thrown out of the window, but somehow you make a comeback and it turns out to be a great day? I had one of these days on the 17th February 2020.
It was about the middle of my field trip to Ny Ålesund in Svalbard, an archipelago between the north of Norway and the North Pole. My research is to develop an instrument to measure water vapor in the atmosphere, specifically the troposphere (up to ~10 km altitude) and stratosphere (between 10 and 50 km altitude). I usually launch this instrument in a weather balloon together with a few other instruments: a radiosonde, to send the observations back to the ground via radio; an ozone sonde, to observe the ozone layer; an instrument that observes aerosols and clouds; and a reference instrument for water vapor.
On the 17th February I planned to perform the second launch out of four. It took me longer than anticipated to establish which control parameters of the instrument I wanted to test in this launch. But I was ready. The communications between all instruments had been checked. They had all been assembled together and the team was just waiting for it to get dark enough to start the launch. The instrument that observes aerosols and clouds only works when the sun is about 13° below the horizon. This is why we were in the Arctic during the polar night. But during February at 79°N the night slowly turns into twilight and eventually day.
This was the last window before a big storm coming in from the Arctic Ocean would hit Ny Ålesund with winds up to 12 m/s (40 km/h). The next window would be on the 21st February. If we were only able to do our second launch then, the objectives of the field trip could be compromised.
At 7 p.m., we were all ready for the launch: me, Nico (who joined me from Zürich), Greg (the station leader from AWIPEV), and Wilfred (the experienced technician from AWIPEV). But, the forecast changed. Despite being one of the most observed locations on Earth in terms of weather, with regular radiosondes and extensive ground equipment like wind radars, the forecast had missed the strong winds by a few hours. The winds were already at 7 m/s and launching was no longer recommended.
We were very disappointed, but decided to wait. We estimated we only needed one hour from a “go” signal until the balloon could be in the air. As the forecast was wrong before, it could be wrong again or there could be a momentary slowdown in the wind. And this was what we got at around 8.30 p.m., with a consistent decrease in the wind down to almost 4 m/s. Operation second launch was a go.
Although it was only the second time working together, we were a well-oiled machine. Every piece of tape went in the right location, no second was wasted. It was like a well-rehearsed symphony. At 9.30 p.m. we launched and the wind speed was 0 m/s.
The night became even better. A strong polar light event was expected for that evening and on account of polar light research being conducted in Ny Ålesund that week, all the lights were out in the village. Greg took a few of us scientists out to take pictures of the auroras. He is a professional photographer turned AWIPEV station leader and was helping us with exposure times and ISO. This was the most amazing polar light event I experienced during the field trip in Ny Ålesund. Besides the more common green lights, there were also hints of red.
The wind stayed low until about midnight. When it started picking-up again, it became too cold to be outside, with a wind-chill of about -40°C. For the next two days we had a total white out, which happens when the wind and snow are so strong that you cannot see a hand in front of your nose. All outside work was forbidden because it was not possible to see if a polar bear was within 100 m. Life is different in the Arctic but absolutely amazing.
Teresa Jorge is a PhD student at ETH Zurich. This field note relates to her field trip to Ny Ålesund in Svalbard in February 2020 funded by a Polar Access Fund grant.
Header photographs: Teresa Jorge