Hearts in the Ice: A Q&A with Polar Explorers


Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm, two passionate polar explorers started “Hearts in the Ice” to raise awareness about climate change in our polar regions and to inspire a global dialogue around it. Committed to being the first all-female crew to winter over at the remote cabin Bamsebu, they used their time to contribute to projects from organizations around the world as citizen scientists.

Born in Norway and raised in Canada, Sunniva was part of the first team of women to ski to the South Pole in 1993 and has since been pushing the boundaries of her physical and psychological limitations. She has traveled to Antarctica over 100 times as a history lecturer and naturalist/guide.

Hilde was also born in Norway. For the past 25 years, she has lived in Svalbard, which has been the playground for many expeditions and adventures. Her experience on a snowmobile has netted over 60,000 kilometers (which equals a trip around the globe) and has had more than 250 Polar Bear encounters.

As two women who have spent decades exploring and working in the Polar Regions, they felt that they could add value to our understanding of climate change while also testing the limits of their skills and abilities by over-wintering, collaborating with scientists, and being keen observers to the changes in the Arctic.

The remote, historic trapper’s cabin “Bamsebu” lies at -78°N. in Svalbard, Norway. It offers a unique vantage point of the Earth. It’s located in the Van Keulenfjord—one of the only two fjords (with van Mijen’s) in the west coast of Spitsbergen that still experiences sea ice formation. Scientists have investigated the effects of ongoing climate change in this area, but the projects are typically short stints of time and mainly in the summer seasons.

Hearts in the Ice allows for year-round observations that can strengthen and enhance scientists’ ability to utilize remote sensing data to evaluate the climatic state in the region. David Bain virtually sat down with the two women and discussed life in the frigid north, coping with isolation, citizen science and how they paddled for sanity.

The cold weather must be a significant challenge physically and mentally, but what other challenges have you faced?
Yes, it has, but we have years of experience handling rough weather. The darkness is more challenging. The darkness, the isolation. Coming back from a scooter ride to find a massive polar bear— one that would not leave—on your doorstep a meter away from your dog.

The ice conditions, being in a boat and the engine not functioning, waking up after a storm and discovering that a snow drift several meters deep is blocking our front door and we absolutely cannot get out. Random encounters in the dark, communication equipment suddenly failing. We are very vulnerable here. So, we’re also contributing to studies on coping and isolation as we are prime targets for this sort of investigation into the mental and physical toughness of what we are doing.

A winter in Bamsebu is the ultimate level of isolation. Looking back on your experience in comparison to the worldwide ‘isolation’ due to COVID-19, do you have any tips about how to cope with isolation?
Yes, stay active. Keep a routine. Stay in touch with people. Be curious. Find a purpose. Go outside if you can or train with [resistance] bands or do yoga inside. Bring people in your life into your thoughts even if you can´t see them. We developed a Bamsebu Blueprint that we wrote about in one of our blogs. But here are a couple of our top tips:

On Connectivity: Write letters or postcards regardless of how long it might take to get to its destination and tell people how much you care about them and what you are grateful for. We have limited email/data ability here, so instead we read, listen to music, paint, play a ukulele, write, play card games, football-soccer ball. We spend a lot of time outside connected to the elements. It does wonders. So, get outside and walk, talk and play.

And then, we always light a candle and eat our meals together.

On Problem- solving: When something breaks or stops working, try to use patience to find ways to fix it with what you have. We have no one to call to come and repair a boat engine or a door. When we break or spill something it’s not worth getting irritated, it’s just a “thing.” When we do something that provokes the other, we work to set our egos aside and take time to talk or cry it out. We come from a place of love, fondness and deep mutual respect for each other, so we try to show that even when our five-year-old self shows up.

On Food Sustainability: We eat everything we make—no waste. Food lasts a lot longer than the date stamp. Our eggs lasted over seven months because we keep them cold and turn them every week just like the trapper Wanny Woldstad did back in the 1930s. Peel and freeze any produce that is about to spoil.

On Self-care: We both like massages, face masks, pedicures, salt scrubs, training, washing our hair. We have a “spa” day, all about self-care which boosts our morale, is fun and breeds self-respect.

We train six days a week in a very small space with TA2 (Train Anywhere Anytime) bands with video coaching from experts. Get a workout buddy (even virtual), make a goal to lose weight or get stronger. We get out for walks every single day with Ettra. We keep a routine with our drone flying, cloud/aurora observation, ice core sampling.

How has paddling enabled your scientific research at Bamsebu and enhanced your overall experience?
Having kayaks and solid kayaking gear has been critical. We have been able to collect saltwater samples and phytoplankton with a net. The net for the phytoplankton is challenging to tow because there is so much drag with the rope and the net, but it’s good practice and great exercise.

We had great fun paddling this summer since our stay here was extended due to Covid (our plan was September 2019- May 2020 and we stayed until September 2020). We paddled through the “polar night,” which is 24 hours of pitch black so that presented its own element of challenge. The last paddle we had was February 10 since the fjord was entirely ice-free. We have also been able to fly a drone from the kayaks which is also challenging but has enabled us to get some great aerial and infrared shots.

We don’t paddle far, because it is freezing cold and falling into the water would be deadly. But the kayaks have also given us the opportunity for close encounters with the wildlife—the seals, shorebirds, eiders.

Speaking of wildlife, these days, the only polar bears we see are the emaciated ones on the news, which is a heart-breaking nod to climate change and global warming. What were (if any) the interactions with polar bears like?
We saw/met 53 polar bears in the year we stayed here. The interactions varied from an encounter at a distance to literally at our doorstep. A few of them were way too curious and too close or too pushy.

We also saw a large polar bear run off in the distance, so we carefully followed the tracks and saw evidence of it having hunted a reindeer with the kill all fresh. Slide marks down a hill indicated that he carefully hunted the reindeer, which was a possible sign of adaptation due to diminishing sea ice.

Most of them were healthy but some a bit skinny. The polar bear mum we saw in April had a four-month-old cub weighing about 15 kilograms. Sadly, when we saw her again on July 13 outside of Bamsebu, she was without her cub. She probably lost it due to starvation.

But our favorite encounter happened during a random trip to a glacier in April. We witnessed a female and her four-month-old cub in a display of pure love and protection! When we spotted them, we were on our Lynx snowmobiles, so we cut the engines and just watched. We photographed such tender moments between these two, it felt like a window into this Arctic world that we are so desperately wanting to protect. The mom had a tracking collar on–nr N26131 according to Jon Aars from Norsk Polar Institute. They hadn’t been able to confirm if she had given birth this year, so we were able to confirm that yes indeed she had. It was truly a priceless afternoon at the glacier!

Why do you think no other team of women has wintered over at Bamsebu?
Great question. Very specific circumstances had to enfold for us to render this cabin useable for a stay this long. We needed logistics, solar and wind, communication equipment, etc. It’s an expedition just to get here and then the planning part is also logistically complex. Given the years that Hilde has lived in Svalbard, that helped make the logistics possible with numerous bodies to haul heavy loads on and off boats and up to Bamsebu.

When we met in 2016 the universe aligned. We were the perfect pair to pull this off—from a mental, physical, emotional, professional and experiential standpoint. And you need the two right people.

Did you speak to other women who had been there before (with men)? And what did those women struggle with the most and how did they plan to overcome those foreseen struggles?
No one—man or woman—has wintered over in Bamsebu. There have been a few women who have wintered over in Svalbard (with men). They are part of Svalbard’s long, rich history, which has been male dominated despite the fact that women have played major roles.

It was time for us to re-write history, to break with tradition up here and to show and share that we are strong, capable, resourceful and successful without men. This is an exciting time to celebrate our experience, our leadership abilities, our deep concern for the natural spaces we love and that we can contribute to history as Polar Pioneers and Ambassadors! Who could be better than us to lead the charge up here as caretakers of mother earth?

We are entering a “perfect storm” of change where individual activists—ahem, Greta Thurnberg—are beginning to shift the social climate, raising the level of awareness and provoking the conversation as we are also doing.

It’s our time to stand up with other strong, capable women leaders to create policy and change in collaborative ways that include all citizens and species without waging war. We are just two examples of what is possible, and we are doing it with heart and soul and our powerful network of other female leaders.

Do you think that women are just as capable as men to do this type of civilian science?
We did experience difficulty in getting funding. A lot of our support was from female leaders, decision-makers and female game-changers in the world. It would have been easier if we were men. But despite that, absolutely. Even better than men. For the overwintering itself, we believe two men would have struggled a lot more.

Every day women in science and exploration are expanding our knowledge of the world. Whether it’s by conditioning or ‘bred in the bone’, ample research shows us that women are more collaborative, inclusive, legacy minded and trusted with assets (money and people). We make statistically significantly better leaders in 12 out of 16 well-acknowledged leadership attributes.

Yet, we encounter gender bias at every turn. Even as the world faces new, unprecedented challenges, our work is under-funded and cited less than men’s work of equal merit. This must change.

If you could give citizens who aren’t scientists or expeditioners—’normal’ people—one piece of advice that could make the greatest impact on climate change, what would it be?
The time is gone where we can wait, think and wonder what to do. In essence, be curious, ask questions and educate yourself on topics that interest you. Then show up: vote, volunteer, collect data, speak out and use your power for good.

There are so many things all of us need to do in our daily life. Be a thoughtful user. Involve yourself in your community. Engage in local conditions and climate change. Become a part of some organization or become a citizen scientist. There are hundreds of programs you can collect data for and make an important contribution. Or just engage with our website: www.heartsintheice.com/citizenscience.

Hearts in the Ice is more than a project, more than two brave women managing to stay on their own during a polar winter. It is a model for how scientists, industrial partners, explorers, artists and other stakeholders can meet in a common action to focus on polar climate changes. They are following in the footsteps of other polar pioneers, but his time not hunting for fur and skins, but knowledge and wisdom” – Borge Damsgard Director of UNIS