For the first time, two women scientists are engaging the global community around climate change and what each one of us can do to help right at home.
In 2019, scientists Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm became the first women in history to overwinter in the Arctic without men. Stationed across the 78th parallel in the Norwegian Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard, they shelter in place in “Bamsebu,” an uninsulated trapper’s hut that offers little by way of convenience and natural light. There’s no running water or electricity. They are 140 kilometers away from civilization, subjected to total darkness, and surrounded by territorial polar bears, all while trying their best to remain intact within one of the harshest and most dangerous conditions on earth. The pair are in the High Arctic collecting critical data on the staggering effects climate change has on the larger world. What we know is that the Arctic is warming three times as fast as the rest of the planet, and climate scientists are saying that its regions are the key indicator of the changes that have already occurred worldwide and those yet to come. Not only are Sorby and Fålun Strøm acutely aware they’re in an environment that tests their survival every day, they also understand the brevity of the evidence they source, which will be used to help keep the planet alive while they’re at it. So…no pressure?
“We’re not sure two men would survive this particular experience if they were here,” laugh Sorby and Fålun Strøm simultaneously. “They would kill each other.”
Both women have just completed a workout in their hut (“We use resistance bands, and now we’re all wired!”) before they connect with us for a chat over satellite phone, which gives a connection that’s a bit scratchy and prone to dropping. While they do sound lightyears away—their coordinates are closer to space than they are to civilization—the emotion and enthusiasm that radiates in conversation make it feel like we’re all sitting and talking in that tiny hut together. For Sorby and Fålun Strøm, this off-the-grid science experiment they find themselves in is an opportunity of a lifetime, and they’re dead set on reminding themselves of that fact every day. “As women, we often undervalue ourselves, and that has to stop,” says Sorby. “We’re both in constant dialogue that we need to do much better in sharing our achievements and acknowledging the important work we’re doing here. We feel extremely proud and courageous doing what we’re doing. It’s very emotional.” Svalbard has a long history of traditions around over-wintering, and it has always been a male-dominated conversation despite the fact women have also played significant roles. For Sorby and Fålun Strøm, it was time to re-write that history, to break that institution, and to show the world that women are strong, capable, resourceful, and successful—all on their own.
Rightfully so. Due to their combined 46 years of observations and experience in the Arctic and Antarctic, Sorby and Fålun Strøm are uniquely qualified to service this project. Born in Norway and raised in Canada, Sorby has travelled to Antarctica over a hundred times as a lecturer, naturalist, and guide. She’s also the youngest member of the world’s first all-female team to ski to the South Pole. Fålun Strøm is undoubtedly no wallflower, either. Born in Norway and living in Svalbard for decades, she’s a seasoned expedition leader, big game hunter, snowmobiler, and she’s also survived 200 polar bear encounters. (Before you ask, it’s the right word—polar bears are terrifyingly territorial.) Both women understand extreme conditions and extreme stress: two factors that play big parts in the role they’re assigned now. “It’s overwhelming being here. We left everything we know and all of our comforts to come here to provide some understanding of what’s happening as it relates to climate change.” says Fålun Strøm, “but it feels like the single most important thing we could be doing right now.”
The project, known as Hearts in the Ice, has the women broadcasting and sharing their experiences in the Arctic to contribute to the global dialogue about climate change and raise awareness of its effects on the Arctic and Antarctica. Using their time at the remote cabin Bamsebu, they contribute to scientific projects for The Norwegian Polar Institute and the University Centre of Svalbard as citizen scientists. Whether by foot, on snowmobiles, in a boat, or paddling a kayak (and often with their Alaskan husky Ettra in tow), they record all wildlife encounters—from polar bears to beluga whales and reindeer—to observe populations, sizes, behaviours, and locations. They store and collect samples on micro plastics, a now devastating reality in the far north where plastics travel on ocean currents and through the air to accumulate, sometimes even inside the animals that live there. They have mapped the biodiversity of sea ice to understand the role of this unique habitat of microscopic life to ecosystems, all of which is diminishing at an unprecedented rate. They’re working with NASA on cloud observation, too. Because of their unique vantage point on earth, they can see the clouds’ bottom while satellites only see the top. This combination of both views creates a complete story and offers a picture of the changing earth that would be hard to detect using other data sources. The work is hard, and it is relentless, but it’s also intensely rewarding. “As two women who have spent decades exploring and working in the polar regions, we knew we could add value to the conversation around climate change in this way, and we’re using our powerful network to inspire people to reconnect to nature,” says Sorby. “We are shouting loud and clear that our world needs protecting!”
Through collaboration with diverse partners (like us at Canada Goose and Polar Bears International), a blog, social media, and hosted virtual video chats that connect schools, teachers, and students globally, Sorby and Fålun Strøm are engaging the public by building a movement of curiosity and action around climate change issues. By being on the front lines of observation, their goal is to communicate all of that data and facts to make it palpable for non-scientists to understand. “Citizen science” is the way to close the gap. “We may not be able to reverse or stop these processes that are contributing to climate change,” says Fålun Strøm, “but we can research them and break down what we understand to help others see what that means in their lives. Our goal is to take people out of climate despair and into climate optimism, which is all about hope, action, and looking ahead.”
Knowledge has always been revered as an activism tool. Still, under the lens of climate change, it can be wholly intimidating: What can we, regular people living regular lives, do to help fix a catastrophic global crisis? Sorby counters this question with a candid response: “Do you need to shower each day?” One shower contributes to over 17 gallons of water usage. While Sorby isn’t suggesting we stop showering altogether, we can ask ourselves if we must take that everyday rinse. “For the average person, it’s important to re-evaluate our daily living rituals and the choices we’re making,” she says. “whether it’s the amount of water we use, if our food is sourced sustainably, or how much we purchase as a consumer. How much plastic do you use? How often do you reuse and recycle? All of those daily decisions matter in the end.” Fålun Strøm jumps in and references Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and how his call to action was: change your lightbulbs, people. “The point he’s making here is that a single person has a role to play in the web of citizens that make up this planet. The average person can participate in a movement, create discourse and dialogue around climate change, or volunteer time at a non-profit. Align with like-minded citizens and contribute to something bigger than what one person may accomplish themselves.”
Sorby and Fålun Strøm will leave the frontier in May of this year. Although both will admit to looking forward to returning to some simple conveniences of ordinary life, they both recognize that this time has left them with an emotional imprint that will stay with them forever. “There is nothing quite like the dark of a polar night and polar bears bumping themselves against our cabin,” says Sorby. “And with that comes a deep silence and stillness that has opened up this creative space for us. For the first time, we have recognized how intrinsically connected all living things are to each other. Hilde and I feel a tremendous responsibility to share what comes out of this experience, and if we weren’t stubborn optimists before this all began, we certainly are now.”