June 12 2024

Fieldwork Starts in Svalbard – Unveiling the Litter Problem on the Arctic Shores

ICEBERG’s research activities have kicked off properly and in the next months our natural scientists are busy with the project’s first fieldwork period in Svalbard. Our researchers will collect data to analyse various pollutants, such as stranded marine litter, microplastics, chemicals and heavy metals on land and in the ocean.

The ICEBERG project will conduct fieldwork in three different case study locations: Svalbard, Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) and Iceland. The activities will start in Svalbard already in June with collecting data to analyse pollution sources, distribution and impacts on the Arctic ecosystems.

The fieldwork in Iceland and Greenland will kick off in August and focus on citizen participation and engagement with Indigenous and local communities.

In Svalbard, the fieldwork will take place from June to October in four different locations: in Ny-Ålesund in Northern Spitsbergen, around the capital Longyearbyen, in Sørkappland in Southern Spitsbergen, and in the Fram Strait, the passage between Greenland and Svalbard.

“Southern Svalbard provides a unique insight into the pollution problem. On the one hand, it constitutes the first potential accumulation zone for pollutants transported into the area from lower latitudes, and on the other, due to formal and practical access restrictions, it’s not affected by direct human activity. Besides, our study site lies further north than the sites in Iceland and Greenland,” says co-leader of ICEBERG’s natural sciences work package Barbara Jóźwiak from the Polish forScience Foundation.

“We can combine collecting relevant scientific data with making an immediate positive impact on the environment.”
A map of Svalbard.
ICEBERG conducts research activities in four different locations in Svalbard. Read more about Svalbard as a case study site here.

Studying stranded marine litter in the wilderness

Two of the research tasks in Svalbard this summer will focus on stranded marine litter. From late June to early August, Jóźwiak, her colleague Adam Nawrot, PhD, and their team from the forScience Foundation will gather stranded marine litter and marine litter data from the shores of Svalbard.

Stranded marine litter is very common and the most easily visible aspect of pollution in the Arctic. The aim of the ICEBERG project is to analyse the quality, quantity and distribution of the litter washing up on the shores to build a deeper scientific understanding of the problem.

“The issue of marine litter has been given surprisingly little scientific attention. However, the beauty of studying it is that we can quite easily combine collecting relevant scientific data with making an immediate positive impact on the environment,” Jóźwiak says.

Sørkappland is the first potential accumulation zone for marine litter brought by ocean currents.

The seriousness of the marine litter problem in the Arctic is highlighted by the fact that the study location for these tasks lies within the remote, uninhabited and legally protected South Spitsbergen National Park. ICEBERG’s fieldwork will build upon a previous project during which almost 6 000 kg of litter were collected from 30 kilometres of the coast in the same area.

“Sørkappland is the first potential accumulation zone for marine litter brought by ocean currents from lower latitudes and nearby fishing grounds. It’s also naturally very diverse, from flat sandy beaches to steep rocky cliffs. This provides an interesting insight into how coast morphology affects litter distribution,” Jóźwiak explains.

Gathering stranded marine litter is hard physical work done by hand and on foot.
A pile of litter on a rocky beach.
Collecting marine litter data along the north-western coast of Sørkappland, Svalbard. Photo: © Barbara Jóźwiak, forScience Foundation.

In practice, the researchers’ goal is to cover a minimum of 30 kilometres of coastline and collect all the marine litter stranded there. The litter will then be gathered in one spot for analysis and afterwards transported to Longyearbyen for disposal.

For the team of five this is hard physical work, especially since it must be done by hand and mostly on foot, as land vehicle use in the area is forbidden and boats can only be used when the weather permits.

To make task logistics more complicated, there is no infrastructure in the area, with the only exception being an old trapper’s cabin from the 1960s. This will be used as a base for the research team.

“Being able to stay on land with sturdy walls around you and a roof over your head is very important in the land of the polar bear. It’s a matter of safety,” Jóźwiak says.

Old wooden cabin on a rocky landscape in Svalbard.
An old trapper’s cabin used by the forScience team as field base. Photo: © Barbara Jóźwiak, forScience Foundation.

In addition to the marine litter collection work, the team will also set up a time-lapse camera to study beach dynamics in the area. The camera will provide a rare insight into what actually happens in this remote and uninhabited area.

“If things go as planned, we may get a glimpse of, for example, how much litter gets buried in the shore or washed back into the sea during heavy storms. Normally, there is no one to witness these events,” says Jóźwiak.

From heavy metals to microplastics and chemicals

In addition to the stranded marine litter, a lot more is happening with the ICEBERG project in Svalbard this summer. On top of their litter analysis task, the forScience researchers will also investigate heavy metal contamination in soil and freshwater samples collected in Sørkappland and around Svalbard’s capital Longyearbyen.

“High concentrations of heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, can cause harm to ecosystems. We will collect soil and freshwater samples both around the capital and in the national park to see how human activities affect the concentration levels,” Nawrot explains.

Other organisations within ICEBERG are also doing fieldwork activities this summer. In June, the researchers from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany will board RV Polarstern to collect samples of micro- and nanoplastic particles along a transect in the Fram Strait. Their aim is to characterise the microbiome of the plastic particles and analyse their genetic potential for antibiotic resistance.

“The amount of microplastic in our oceans is increasing, and these particles can travel long distances. Studying their associated microbiome and antibiotic resistome will allow us to gain a deeper understanding of how microplastic pollution can affect the fragile ecosystems in the Arctic,” explains Benjamin Pontiller, PhD, from GEOMAR.

Another team from the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council in Italy (ISP-CNR) have set up their operations in the world’s northernmost research station in Ny-Ålesund. Here they have already collected snow samples from two nearby glaciers and sediment samples from the Kongsfjorden in previous years.

This summer they will supplement this data with new sediment samples. Their aim is to investigate frozen locked pollutants like organic chemicals and microplastics that are being released due to the melting of the cryosphere.

“We are analysing the types and quantity of pollutants that are susceptible to release by cryosphere thawing and try to understand where they come from. Many of these chemicals and microplastics can have serious impacts on the health of humans and animals,” says Dr. Tommaso Tesi from ISP-CNR.

Stay tuned for more updates on our fieldwork

During the summer and autumn, we will share more news and articles about our research activities in our channels. To stay tuned, follow us on social media and subscribe to our newsletter to get the updates to your own email.

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Project Scientific Coordinator

Prof. Thora Herrmann
University of Oulu

Project Manager

Dr Élise Lépy
University of Oulu


Marika Ahonen

Innovative Community Engagement for Building Effective Resilience and Arctic Ocean Pollution-control Governance in the Context of Climate Change

ICEBERG has received funding from the European Union's Horizon Europe Research and innovation funding programme under grant agreement No 101135130

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