A rifling affair

When you live 78 degrees north, there are some things that might differ from your life back home. For example, the temperature in March can be –20 ºC one day, and –2 ºC two days later. Winds can go from a gentle 20 km/h breeze to a wild 65 km/h gale. Icy tracks line the roads and avalanche dangers lie in wait on the mountains beside you. Three thousand polar bears roam the archipelago with some roaming beyond the outskirts of Longyearbyen, the largest settlement of Svalbard. The Arctic can be a dangerous place.

That is, if you venture forth unprepared.

When travelling outside Longyearbyen, you are required to carry a rifle at all times. Students studying in Svalbard must undertake a weapon handling course, regardless of their previous gun experience. This was the first time I had ever fired a gun before, so it was really something new to me. The use of a rifle is especially important when it comes to polar bear threats. Firearms are only to be used in self-defence, and if and only when a polar bear threat is unavoidable.

Rifle training at the shooting range.

Rifle training at the shooting range.

This means that any hiking trips outside town require one trained person to carry a rifle at all times. In Svalbard, it is usually not possible to rent a rifle without a police permit, but the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) will host a rifle lottery if winners can demonstrate safe weapon handling. This grants students the right to carry rifle and ammunition for up to one week. It felt rather uncanny entering the lottery, winning and lining up to receive my ‘prize’.

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Some establishments in Longyearbyen prohibit townspeople entry if they are carrying weapons and firearms. In some shops, it is possible to lock and store ammunition in a safe while you purchase your groceries.

At the very least, I’ll be able to go hiking this weekend!

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View away from Longyearbyen.

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Keepin’ count in Norway

It’s hard work keeping count in Norway. Especially when it comes to species.

When you hear the word ‘species’, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? A bird? A lion? A wolf?

Many people consider species to be a group of organisms that can breed and produce fertile offspring. This means that donkeys and horses are species, while mules on the other hand are not. The dog is a single species, but exists as many different breeds. E. coli is a single species, but comes in many strains (most of them are actually harmless). Even though there are 7 billion human beings on this planet, we are but just one species.

So just how many species are out there? In short: nobody really knows. The number is said to range between 3 and 100 million, but how can we make a guess on something we don’t know? New species are still being classified today and this rate of discovery does not appear to be slowing down.

In Norway, the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre (or Species Data Bank, translated from Norwegian artsdatabanken) contains information on species observations across the country, as well as documentation on red listed and introduced species. Over 44,000 different species have been observed in Norway and almost 2 million individual records have been registered on this service.

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The Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre

Searching for the Atlantic puffin, for example, tells us there are 8,234 records, with each observation containing additional information such date and location. This sort of data can tell us if puffin distribution has changed over the past few decades, or whether other factors such as climate or human activity might be influencing where they choose to nest in spring. The Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre will prove to be an asset if we are to better understand how to take care of our 3 to 100 million species that inhabit this planet, whether it be a bird, lion or wolf! It just comes to show that hard work really does pays off.

Puffin sightings

All records of Atlantic puffin sighted in Norway using the Species Map Service. Source: Artskart, Artsdatabanken

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My Arctic Adventure

Latitude—it tells us how far north or south on the earth we are. The equator sits at 0 degrees; and Oslo at 60 degrees north and Melbourne 38 degrees south. Now imagine where in the world you could be if you ventured 78 degrees north.

Northern Norway? Perhaps. But nordkapp, the northernmost point of mainland Norway lies at 71 degrees north. We still have eight hundred kilometres of sea to cross. Where in the world are we?

What about Svalbard—an archipelago of Arctic islands administered by Norway? With 60% of the region covered by glaciers, and with a population of less than three thousand, Svalbard stands at the extremity of this earth. Temperatures in winter average between –12 ºC and –16 ºC, but can drop as low as minus forties. Added with wind chill and the place can become even colder!

Svalbard lies in the Arctic circle. Source: UNEP/GRID-Arendal 2008

Svalbard lies in the Arctic circle, eight hundred kilometres north of mainland Norway. Source: UNEP/GRID-Arendal 2008

Extremity also takes form in the sunlight. At the beginning of March, the sun rises at eight and sets at three—giving the residents of Svalbard about seven hours of sunlight. Within one day Svalbard gains an additional fifteen minutes of sun. Within a week, an hour and a half. Within a month, eight hours. And by April 19, the sun stays up until August.

Next week I will be flying to Svalbard to take a course in Arctic Environmental Toxicology. Pollutants play an interesting role in this extremity since we find so many toxic substances in animals such as seals, walruses and polar bears. How do pollutants reach the Arctic? Do they cause harm? Is there anything being done about this? Taking the course will hopefully answer some of these questions and give me the knowledge to better equip myself as an ecotoxicologist.

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Mutual Friends

ONE THING that I’ve come to realise after living in Norway for two years is that: mutual connections are everywhere. For example…

– I know a Master’s of Biology student studying at the University of Bergen. She is undertaking part of her thesis in a city called Arendal.

– One month ago I started a course called “Life-history strategies and climate effects” at the University of Oslo. On that morning, I met two PhD students. Both of them knew this girl.

arendal– Two weeks ago I was drinking beers during a happy hour event at the University. I met the two students from Arendal again and discovered that we shared a mutual friend: a PhD student whom I got to know on the very day I had my interview for job at the University.

– I was first introduced to this PhD student a few months back when I was still living in Bergen. I was having dinner with some friends and a girl who works at the Norwegian Environmental Agency in Oslo.

– In January, I was at a conference for the Norwegian Society of Pharmacology and Toxicology. It was there I first met this girl from the Environmental Agency, and I introduced to her by one of my former lab mates.

– August last year I met my new housemate. He was from the same city as my lab mate (called Moss). It turns out that lab mate’s younger brother and my housemate used to play together as kids!

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How many mutual friends do you think you really have?

I could keep going, but you get the point. Norway is such a small country (with a population of just over 5 million people now), that it’s nearly impossible to escape a mutual connection with somebody else. I actually quite like meeting new people and finding out if we both have a friend in common, but maybe that’s just me.

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How I Relate to Norwegians

This morning I attended a welcome breakfast for new international workers commencing at the University of Oslo. One of the presenters was a PhD candidate from NTNU in Trondheim and founder of a group called “Mondå”. He gave a talk about how he found adapting to Norway as “the most challenging cultural experience of his life”. He stated this having lived in four other countries prior to moving to Norway.

He gave some examples of how strange the Norwegian culture can be, but the more I listened, the more I felt like I had more in common with the country. I am aware that a lot of foreign people struggle with Norway and will complain to one another about how weird Norwegians can be sometimes. In my case, I feel I fit here very nicely because a much of how I think overlaps with the society here. So in response to this morning’s talk, I have compiled a list of things that I feel I share in common with the stereotypical Norwegian!

– THE OTHER DAY I boarded a train and each aisle in the carriage had at least one person sitting in it. I decided to stand until the train arrived at the next station. A few aisles emptied and so I decided to sit in one of them.

– ONE TIME I was walking down the street and somebody walking in the opposite approached me. I was wondering why they were talking to me.

– WHEN I get home from work I enjoy unwinding and relaxing in my room. I sometimes decline events if I want to spend time by myself too.

– WHEN I am in a small grocery store and somebody blocks my path, I stand and wait until they see me before giving me space to walk past.

– THAT PERSON is wearing nice clothes, but I don’t want to freak them out by telling them that.

– I ENJOY working in my office without having to share with other people.

– WHY is that person in the corridor smiling at me? Have we met before?

– ONCE I was in a fruit and vegetable shop and it was so busy that they stationed staff to pack your items for you. I thought that person was trying to steal my food.

 

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I really like my office space. But two’s a crowd!

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Life as a PhD: Week One

After a Bachelor and Master’s degree and a change in countries and city, I now have what I can call a job. For the next four years, I will be working as a PhD candidate at the University of Oslo in the field of ecotoxicology.

 

An overview

(Feel free to skip this section if it sounds too technical)

For those who are interested, for my project I will be investigating how life history strategy affects the bioaccumulation of environmental contaminants. Life history strategy incorporates life, reproduction and death within an evolutionary framework. For example, birds migrate to move to warmer parts of the world to avoid the winter as a life history strategy. Differences in strategies mean that species will prey on different animals leading to differences in diet. This has consequences when considering what pollutants animals might be exposed to, and can largely depend on the types of interactions animals share with one another in a food web. What effect might climate change have on all this? And to think I’m only in my first week!

 

The week so far

So far this week has involved meeting administrative and academic staff, as well managing things like keys and user accounts. Most of the week I have been trying to gauge how life at Oslo differs from Bergen and there are quite a lot of differences, both big and small.

 

Master’s students

All upcoming Master’s students already have a project title and approved supervisors. They are required to submit a detailed project plan by the 1st of November (i.e. 3 months after commencing Masters). In Bergen, a title does not need to be formalised until January the following semester, with a formal description of the project not due until mid-April (8 months after starting).

 

Free coffee

Tea and coffee are provided completely free of charge, meaning that you basically have access to unlimited caffeine. However, I have noted that whenever I prepare a coffee pot it frequently disappears within 30 minutes. I often find myself crossing my fingers whenever I make a trip to the lunch room to find enough coffee that I can bring back to my desk.

 

Private academics

One aspect I enjoyed when studying in Bergen was that offices were visible through glass doors. In Oslo, office doors are wooden and dull, and a lot of staff keep their doors closed during the day, making the hallways darker and a little lifeless. I have made it a policy to keep my door open whenever I am in office.

 

Opportunities to interact with the department

Every Tuesday the department head sits in one of the lunch rooms for 30 minutes for morning coffee and invites all staff and students to come join if they have anything they wish to discuss. I think this is a fantastic initiative and helps bridge the gaps between people in separate research groups.

 

Overall

I have had a great first week so far and already have some direction for my project. I look forward to seeing what these next 4 years of life will bring!

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Unfinished Business

It’s amazing what can happen in just one week. One week ago I was searching for a place to live in Oslo, and one week later I now have a place that I can call home. After viewing four properties in Oslo, I decided to call back the owner of the apartment in Grønland and this Friday I will be bidding my goodbyes to Bergen. I hope Oslo is ready for me.

In the meantime, I am spending my final few days in Bergen with friends and ticking off some items left on my Bergen bucket list. One of those items includes hiking one of the seven mountains of Bergen: Damsgårdsfjellet.

Damsgårdsfjellet is 284 m tall and lies southwest from the city centre. The end of summer weather brings bright green environments and the cool early autumn keeps the colours verdant and fresh. Rocks are wrapped in wreathes of moss and grass, and mushroom sprouts of scarlet and pale white dot the forest floor. Few flowers from spring linger now, but most of what remains are decorated in shades of lilac and violet.

IMG_9254At the peak of the mountain the tree line vanishes, revealing a panoramic view of neighbouring mountains, the city and the seas that lies beyond. The overcast weather shrouds the distant hills in a grey haze and a strong, bone-chilling wind blows through the lingering grass and bald rocks, foreboding the wintery days yet to come.

IMG_9232When you turn away from the city and face the mountainside, you hear nothing but the wind howling against your ears, rustling trees, and the sound of your own footsteps and breath. If I didn’t know any better, I could almost imagine myself standing in the middle of nowhere, away from everything that is, everything that was and everything that is yet to come. Being surrounded by natural scenery and feeling isolated from the city life is one of my favourite reasons to go hiking in Bergen.

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Early autumn is one of my favourite times of the year, as it represents change and new beginnings. For me, in this case, it means life in a new city, the starting of a new job with new people and faces. Until I leave, I hope to fulfil what remains of my unfinished business in my last few days and remember why I have come to call Bergen my home these past two years.

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