Stories from Rijpfjorden 5: On the way in (and out) of Rijpfjorden

Top image: The cairn Bluffvarden in outer Rijpfjorden. Right in front of this landmark is the place where our station was established in 2006, and right behind it you look towards the area where Haudegen is located. Photo: Jørgen Berge.

When Captain Albertsen from Tromsø, on board the boat Blåsel, slowly sailed into Rijpfjorden on 3 September 1945 to pick up the last of armed German soldiers in Europe, he had no idea of what was expecting him. Perhaps the fjord was full of fissured and half-melted drift ice as he headed south to the inner part of Rijpfjorden. At one point he must have sailed past Bluffvarden, looking further down the fjord towards Haudegen (German weather station 1944–45). That was the sight I met the first time I was in Rijpfjorden in September 2004. At that time I did not know how important Rijpfjorden would turn out to be for me, both as a researcher and as an individual.

5 November 2018
Text: Professor Jørgen Berge (UiT The Arctic University of Norway, UNIS and NTNU)

On my way into Rijpfjorden for the first time in 2004, I was primarily on a personal little adventure. I had never been there before, but at the same time I knew that we would do exciting studies of Torskevatnet (the cod lake) and not least the marine fauna in Rijpfjorden. But I had no idea that this place would become our climatic laboratory, and that we in this very fjord would do some of our most important studies in the next 15 years. For example, with the launch of the ocean observatory in 2006, our first discoveries about biological activity in the polar night began. Through the Cleopatra research project (one of Norway’s official IPY projects in 2007–08), I became acquainted with people that would become some of my closest colleagues and best friends. Through the same project we did some very important studies of how the Calanus glacialis is specifically adapted to an algae bloom primarily controlled by the availability of light. The amount of available light is again controlled by sea ice and snow in the fjord. And my first PhD student took his degree on data collected in Rijpfjorden.

Gained new and important knowledge
But what is so important about Rijpfjorden? What is it that makes us who have worked there becoming so tied to and fascinated by the place? One thing is the mighty nature you experience by walking on the sea ice in winter, with the Polar Ocean as the closest neighbour. Another thing is that we can study marine systems that only to a limited extent are influenced by humans. Nevertheless – it is the possibility of using a fjord so dominated by cold Arctic waters in a comparative study with Kongsfjorden, dominated by relatively warm water masses from the Gulf Stream system – making Rijpfjorden so unique and important.

Over the last 12 years we have had the opportunity to do measurements, sampling and, not least, study processes in two very different systems; one of them a kind of picture of what the Arctic can be in the future if the climate continues to get warmer; the other as a sort of cold reference point for how an ice covered Arctic functions. Although we have gained a lot of new and important knowledge from the studies that have been done in these fjords in the past 12 years, there is still a lot of new knowledge left to be uncovered.

There are simply many things we do not know about the Arctic marine system; how processes in spring, summer and autumn have connections to the polar night and winter processes, or how the biological diversity may change in the future. This is knowledge that can only be obtained by having measurement stations, field stations and expeditions in the area and actively using them to acquire new knowledge.

“I’ve taken part in something important!”
When the Nordaust-Svalbard nature reserve management plan was established, it was an important principle that the reserve should be a reference point in research on environmental changes in the Arctic. To succeed, it must be actively used for research purposes. Unfortunately, the Nordaust-Svalbard nature reserve is increasingly being protected from activity. And it is easy to draw a parallel to the Haudegen weather station in Rijpfjorden. It is almost a theoretical cultural heritage monument, as it is so protected that no one has the opportunity to visit this cultural heritage. I hope Rijpfjorden will not suffer the same fate, and become a kind of theoretical reference point that no one can benefit from? That it will be like the cat in Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment – does it live or not?

Without drawing the comparison too far, I think maybe I felt a bit of the same, when we left Rijpfjorden aboard Helmer Hanssen this August, as captain Albertsen must have felt when he sailed out the fjord with 11 German soldiers in his custody on 6 September 1945: “I’ve taken part in something important!”

Stig Falk-Petersen and Jørgen Berge
In the cabin Bjørnehiet in Rijpfjorden: Professor Stig Falk-Petersen (left) reads old notes from our expeditions, and I write a last greeting (for the time being) in the guestbook. Photo: Reidar Kaasa (UiT).
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