Bjornerud and Thiem: Research in Norway

Caitlin Williamson

Thursday, Apr. 24, Professor of Geology and Shober Professor of Environmental Studies Marcia Bjornerud and senior Emily Thiem delivered the Science Hall Colloquium lecture entitled “Women with Latitude: Geology Glaciology in the Far North and South.”
The lecture gave details about the research Bjornerud and Thiem did last summer in Svalbard, Norway. As a part of the research done for the International Polar Year, which was 2007-2008, the University of Krakow invited Professor Bjornerud and one student to assist with geological and glaciological research in Svalbard.
Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, between Norway and the North Pole. Though uninhabited by humans, Svalbard has been the site of a much research; the impacts of climate change are easily documented there as, according to Bjornerud, it “is a place where the human imprint is very small.” Bjornerud focused on Svalbard during her PhD work. The first time she visited was in 1984, and she has gone back several times since.
“Svalbard is remarkable because it has a very accurate record of geological time,” Bjornerud said. “The Arctic is the canary in the coal-mine for the earth’s climate; the changes are just obvious,” Bjornerud said. “So I guess if we carry any message back, it would be that climate change is here.”
The purpose of the research was to link geological meaning to climate change by looking at major fault structures on Svalbard, studying “snowball earth” rocks, characterizing Caledonian fault zones, and documenting changes in glaciers. For Bjornerud, the biggest shock returning to Svalbard after twenty years was the glacial changes.
“Going back to this place that I knew so well was amazing because I’ve thought about Svalbard so much, and it was like traveling back in my own life as well traveling back in geologic time,” Bjornerud said. “It was stunning to see the changes in the ice cover. [It was also interesting] to look at rocks through older eyes and twenty years of new advances in geology-we’re asking different questions than we had been twenty years ago.”
For Thiem, who is a geology major, the opportunity to spend eight weeks in the high Arctic was an incredible experience. Along with assisting Bjornerud, she was able to conduct her own research on the glaciological aspects of Svalbard. Thiem traveled to Svalbard three weeks prior to Bjornerud’s arrival to meet up with scientists from Poland and Russia to do research.
“They were trying to answer big questions about the rocks and the big fault that runs through that region,” Thiem said. “We did a lot of hiking, all day, every day, looking for hints in the rock record to help answer their questions.”
Bjornerud chose Thiem to accompany her because of her previous experience with studying glaciers through the Juneau Icefield Research Program. Bjornerud said, “I needed someone who had outdoor experience, and who was fit, and pretty willing to live in extreme conditions.”
Thiem said the most challenging part of her research was not having to deal with freezing temperatures or the threat of polar bears but instead working with people from different cultural backgrounds. However, despite the difficulties, Thiem found it to be a rewarding experience.
After Thiem graduates this year, she is planning to return to Juneau to work as a staff member for the Juneau Icefield Research Program where she worked two summers ago.
“I really want to work more with ice and learn more about glaciers, and also about rocks,” Thiem said. “I think I want to go to graduate school eventually, but I don’t want to be there right now.”
As for Bjornerud, although she does not have any current plans to return to Svalbard, she hopes to go back someday. She is currently working on several different projects with the research she collected last summer, including creating the tectonic story of the rocks in Svalbard. Bjornerud is also examining what the rocks from Svalbard have to say about “snowball earth,” the earth’s greatest climate crisis, in which it was completely covered with ice.
“I think Svalbard’s such an amazing place,” Thiem said. “It’s just such a unique place that I feel so privileged I got to go. It’s a place unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. And the lifestyle of only having to hike and look at rocks and be curious — it doesn’t get much better than that.