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University of Copenhagen
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Professor with a pump gun

Arctic — Professor of freshwater biology at UCPH Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen shoulders a rifle when she takes students out on field trips in Greenland and on Svalbard in northern Norway. But the weapon is no protection against climate change.

There is a half-metre long scabbard hanging on the wall of Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen’s office at the Department of Biology. And in the corner there are two rifle holsters.

»Don’t worry, there are no weapons in them,« she smiles.

Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen is actually a skilled markswoman. And it is a part of her job as head of UCPH’s Arctic station on the Greenlandic island of Disko, Qeqertarsuaq, and as teaching staff at UNIS, the University Centre in Longyearbyen on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

»There are polar bears both places, so it’s mandatory to attend safety courses that also include weapons handling and shooting training,« she says.

»I have several times been responsible for biological expeditions in northern Greenland. And the university had no weapons we could bring with us for self-defence. So I bought my own pump guns. It is from these that the holsters originate. But in the places that I go now, the equipment is all in order. So I have handed in my rifles to the police.«

Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen holds a 20 per cent position at UCPH and a similar position at UNIS. She is also head of the UCPH Arctic Station in Greenland and is the Kingdom of Denmark representative in international fora for Arctic freshwater monitoring.

»The Arctic makes up a large part of the globe, and it is at the poles that warming is happening the fastest. But the Arctic regions are less studied than other parts of the world. This is why I started to take an interest in the area about 20 years ago,« she says.

Ice getting thinner

The professor has been able to see the consequences of global warming first-hand.

»It suddenly starts raining in winter, and the ice on the lakes gets thinner and disappears earlier in the spring. There is disorder in the ecosystem. We are approaching a tipping point where the previous balance is overturned, and it could take hundreds of years to re-establish order,« she says.

We are approaching a tipping point where the previous balance is overturned, and it could take hundreds of years to re-establish order

Professor Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen

For Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen, it is crucial to be able to document as much as possible of the original state before we possibly reach a tipping point.

»The Arctic is becoming less and less pristine. That is why it is so important that we safeguard our knowledge about its fundamental state now.«

Every year, in both summer and winter, she goes on field trips with her students on Disko Island in Greenland and in Svalbard in Norway.

»All teaching has a field component at the university in Svalbard. And even though the area is covered by snow and ice for much of the year, we go out to lakes and take water samples. Many people believe that nothing goes on under the ice in winter. But the light can penetrate as early as February. And even a little light is enough for microalgae to grow, and then the food chain starts,« says Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen with an enthusiastic smile.

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Caught up in a storm

It requires special equipment to move outside in temperatures that often reach below minus 25 degrees in winter. UNIS on Svalbard has a huge department dedicated solely to logistics. Here are tracked vehicles, snowmobiles, rifles, and boxes with survival gear, for example, if a student falls into a glacier crevice, or a group gets snowed in out in the field.

»These boxes were upgraded after a field trip that I headed,« says Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen.

»It was winter, and we were going on a trip in a tracked vehicle, a kind of tracked minibus that can drive through the snow. But there was so much snowdrift that day that at one point I walked ahead to show the way and avoid the vehicle getting stuck or driving into a wind hole. The drifting got worse and we rang on the satellite phone to UNIS to hear what we should do. The logistics department is constantly monitoring the weather, and they are the ones who decide whether you can drive or not.«

The response from UNIS was that the group should turn around and drive back to the university immediately. A little later, they called up again. They said that due to the risk of avalanches, the group should drive a different route back and head out towards a valley with open countryside to spend the night in a log cabin that the university owns and lends to the employees for recreational use, says Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen.

»I know the cabin well, it resembles a small summer hut with room for six or eight people and a WC in the wood shed. But we were a team of 20 students, two lecturers and a logistician, so on the way out there I tried to make a plan. I had to think it through: Who should I take special care of among the students, and who was more resourceful,« she says.

Plan B and C

When the group of students and teachers reached the small cabin, the door was locked, Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen explains.

»We had to break the lock. Some of the students were quite concerned about the situation. We had only brought light snacks, no real food. And one of the young people needed their heart medicine. We called the local hospital in Longyearbyen, who instructed us about what to do for the young person with heart problems. She needed some chocolate, and to take it easy.«

I slept at the door with two Norwegian guys as my attendants. If we received a bear visit, we would be able to stop it before it got inside the cabin to the students

Professor Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen

Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen suggested to her group that everyone put their snacks in one community stash so everyone could have something to eat. Drinks they got from the snow outside.

»I challenged the students to build an igloo outside the hut, and they cared so much about this that time flew by. When the wind picked up, we gathered inside. One US student suggested a fun fantasy game that everyone could participate in.«

By nightfall, Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen says that everyone spread their thermal jumpsuits out on the floor and used their fleece jackets as blankets.

»I slept at the door with two Norwegian guys as my attendants. If we got a visit from a bear, we would be able to stop it before it got inside the cabin to the students,« says Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen.

The next morning, the group called UNIS and was given permission to drive:

»We drove towards the town along the Longyear glacier, and high up on the mountain we could see Longyearbyen at the end of the Advent fjord bathed in sun. It really was such a wow experience. But it was after that trip that UNIS decided that you should always bring a box with emergency rations, even on one-day field trips. And I also always have a plan B, and often also a plan C. Because you never know with the weather and the polar bears in the Arctic regions«.