Contents 2002

 

 


A feeling for snow

"Oh my God!", sighs one of the students as she sweats, spade in hand, digging a pit two-and-a-half metres deep into the snow. She is about to find out how plants and animals manage to adapt to this harsh climate. We are on a course on snow and winter ecology at Finse Research Station.  

Text: Mia Kolbjørnsen   Photo: Helge Hansen

Just a little further, and the snow temperature measurement system that was set out before the snow began to fall will reappear. Students Stina Strand and Tashi Tsering have already dug a snow pit almost two metres deep. Erika Leslie, dressed in green anorak, is waiting for us with the snow-scooter and sledge when the morning train from Bergen arrives at Finse Station. Erika is assistant manager of the research station. For the past 20 years she has spent all summer in the mountains at an altitude of 1222 m. And she has also been here whenever it has been necessary, for example when a course in snow and winter ecology is being held here. Now she climbs elegantly aboard the snow-scooter and tells us to grit out teeth.

"This won't be fun. It will bump and shake you like nothing on earth" she warns us, switches on the ignition and takes off down the hill to the research station, which is a 20-minute walk form the railway station. It takes five minutes by scooter to run us up to the two long low buildings that are shared by the Universities of Oslo and Bergen. It is half past eleven, and the twelve students on the course this week have already listened to the morning lecture given by Harald Steen, senior lecturer at the University of Oslo, on the importance of snow cover. Now they are well under way with practical exercises out in the snow.

"You can see them over there" says Leslie, pointing to some little dots on the far side of the railway line. We fasten our skis and glide over the snow-clad moors to see what they are up to.

An international gang

Four groups have spread out at different heights on the slope, each of them gathered round a tall pole that sticks up out of the snow and shows how deep it is. Each group has a black case filled with all sorts of equipment needed to learn about and describe snow. Now they are rather hesitantly investigating the contents of the cases. Virginie Ramasco holds up a fairly thick rod with a weight on the end.

"This is to measure how hard the snow is", explains the Italian Erasmus student. She is not the only foreign student to find herself in these harsh snow conditions at Finse. Only four of the twelve students on this course are Norwegian. The others come from the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain's Basque Country, Switzerland and even from Tibet.

"This is a 300-level course, designed for higher-degree students. But it is also highly popular with our exchange students. This is because all the teaching is given in English, because snow and winter are exotic for them, and because courses of this sort are not offered in their own countries", explains Torstein Solhøy, senior lecturer in Zoology at the University of Bergen. Solhøy has 20 years experience of holding these snow and winter ecology courses at Finse.

At this moment he and Steen are rushing around in thick trousers and sweaters explaining to the students how to measure the temperature of individual layers of snow, how to study snowflakes with a magnifying glass and what to write on their forms. By the end of the course, the students will know a good deal about how animals, insects and plants have adapted to the narrow range of options that low temperatures, deep snow and poor food availability leave them. It is in order to give them a sense of the special conditions created by the snow that the students are now spending half a day digging down into it until they reach a temperature measurement system that was placed there in the autumn, and which, together with the snow profile, will give them a good idea of the adaptations that animals and plants have to make when they live on a stony ridge or in a snow-bed

"Very interesting. This is not something I could study in Spain", says Aitana Uria from Bilbao, who has already been on her second trip on cross-country skis today. "It's very difficult", she laughs.

University cooperation

Finse has been a base for teaching students from the University of Oslo since the early 50s, although regular courses only began to be taught here in 1962, when the The University of Oslo's Zoological Laboratory, as it was then known, set up its ecology courses, which were started by Arne Semb-Johansen and Eivind Østbye. After a few pioneer courses, the necessity for a base became obvious. This need was met in 1965, when the Norwegian State Railways offered to rent out a disused power station just below Lake Finse for only five kroner a year. After a period of intense voluntary work, the Finse Field Station, also known as Garpebu, was ready for use and research really took off. In 1970, scientists and students logged 800 person-days of work in the tiny stone cottage. At the same time, intensive efforts were being made to finance the building of a larger research station in the same area, and it soon became obvious that it would be a good idea to cooperate with the University of Bergen in this task.

By the end of 1971 the 700 square metre, 70 metre-long building, officially called the High Mountain Ecology Research Station, was ready for use. It contained laboratories, a library, classrooms, rooms for aquaria and small animal cages, accommodation for 14 people and, last but not least, a sauna. During the 80s and 90s the number of scientists and course participants using the station steadily increased, and it began to be difficult to find room for everyone who wished to utilise it. The prospect of expanding the station was discussed in the early 80s, but it was not until 1993 that this suggestion was given a positive reception by senior management in the Universities of Bergen and Oslo and the Norwegian National Office of Building Technology and Administration, which had funding responsibility. Construction started in 1994 and in 1996 the new building, which now functions as the research station's course and conference department, was ready for occupation - with 44 beds, hotel-standard kitchen, dining room, course facilities for 30 persons, two small apartments for full-time personnel, and of course, a sauna. "This is essential. We have had lots of good meetings in the sauna" laughs Solhøy.

Saving the environment

"Can't you give us some good advice about digging?", calls Stina Strand to Torstein, as she stands in her Gore-Tex outfit with a little snow-saw in her hand, peering resignedly through big rose-tinted sun-glasses. In front of her, Master's student Tashi Tsering from Tibet has pulled off his sweater and has dug himself nearly a metre down into the snow in his t-shirt.

"Just take it easy and work methodically. It's all going perfectly well. This is nothing for us who have grown up in heavy snow winters in southern Norway", answers Solhøy in his Arendal dialect. For a long time, he has been doing research on the occurrence and adaptation of insects and other tiny animals in mountain soils, both in the summer and the winter, and he has dug away many a ton of snow on the Hardangarvidda. Doctoral student Judie Howe from Leeds also has some experience of snow from her field work in Antarctica, but all this digging is a new experience for everyone.

"This is going to take all day", sighs Stina, who has taken time of from her economics studies at the Norwegian School of Management and Business Administration to gain the two course credits that the week at Finse will give her after the oral exam in May.

Stina already has an introductory course in biology and several other subjects in zoological ecology from the University of Bergen. She is taking this combination of ecology and economics because of her interest in the environment.

"When I finished high school, I first began to study business and administration in the UK. I only held out for about six months. I was completely shocked by the purely "profit thinking" attitude, so I decided that I would have to come home to Norway if I wanted to save the environment" says the 22-year-old from Porsgrunn. This is what brought her to study ecology in Bergen.

"I had heard that the student milieu here was good, and so it is. We were a bunch of very different people who got together and who have all accepted each other. There were so few of us that we were able to get to know each other very well", continues Stina, who looks forward to going back to the University. "I may take a doctorate later on", she says, adding that so far, she has really only been disappointed by one thing in Bergen: the rain.

Smart snow case

"I wanted to come to Scandinavia, and it turned out that the University of Basle has an agreement with the University of Bergen" says Tobias Roth, who had been studying evolutionary biology for three years before he decide to try his luck as an Erasmus student, living in a one-room apartment in Fantoft student home. He is very pleased with his situation, and has had no difficulty in making contact with Norwegian students.

Now the wind has risen and the gloves are being put on. Tobias is lucky. The snow cover is only 60 cm deep where he and his group were digging their snow shaft. Now he has time to talk, and to keep an eye out for a ptarmigan that someone had seen in the distance. The group just beneath him is measuring snow temperatures. Ronny Arildsen holds up the thermometer he has taken out of the case of special equipment. The penetrometer set, the density measurement kit, magnifying glass, tape measure, dram glass (with and without alcohol), and ram sonde are only a few of the items in the list of contents of the mountain ecology snow case.

"One degree above zero. Is that possible?" asks Ronny, when he sees what the thermometer indicates.

"It may seem a little strange, but it is quite possible" answers Steen.

Intense research activity

"Always say where you are going!" it says on the notice board in the cosy living room with its high pinewood ceiling in the research station's newest building. It will soon be time for the afternoon lectures, and the students have emerged from their snow shafts into the warmth. Wenche Eide, a research fellow in botany, has just driven in on the snow-scooter, coming directly from a seminar in the USA, to teach part of the winter ecology course. Slightly jet-lagged, she has seated herself among the students to relax a little between lectures.

The mood is quiet.

Outside the window, Harald Steen's poles still stick up out of the snow, offering visible evidence of his current project. He is observing the life of small rodents under the snow. Oscillations in the population levels of small rodents have been under study for 30 years at the station, which can now boast of the largest collection of research material in the country on this topic. In the living room, the collection of scientific articles and the recommended reading "Life in the Cold" lie unread for the moment. Some of the students are eating sandwiches in the kitchen, while others have taken the opportunity to go for a short ski-trip. Aitana comes in bearing a bundle of frozen moss.

"Now we will take a couple of days to extract the organisms that are hibernating in there" explains Eide, who did part of her Master's degree work here at Finse.

She is not the only one to have done so. Between 1960 and 1996, 79 students gained their Master's degrees in zoology, geosciences, regional planning and botany, on the basis of dissertations related to the Finse region. Twenty doctoral theses and 534 scientific publications have also been published.

"This is what is so fascinating about studying ecology. You can do almost whatever you want. There are people who have done their Master's in Egypt, on Spitzbergen or at Finse", says Eide, who is currently working on her doctorate, for which she is reconstructing climate changes since the last Ice Age. The train will soon be here and it is time to be leaving the Finse group. The afternoon break is nearly over. This is Monday, the first day of the course. On Friday the students will return to Bergen - with an even better feeling for snow.

 

 

Just a little further, and the snow temperature measurement system that was set out before the snow began to fall will reappear. Students Stina Strand and Tashi Tsering have already dug a snow pit almost two metres deep.

 

After the students have completed the course in snow and winter ecology at Finse, they will have a better understanding of how plants and animals have adapted to the extreme temperatures of this high-altitude region. From the left: Katharina Plater, senior lecturer Harald Steen, Aitana Uria and Ronny Arildsen.

 

Aitana Uria from Bilbao studies snowflakes with a magnifying glass. Everything has to be noted on the snow profile form..

 

Senior lecturer Torstein Solhøy of Dept. of Zoology at the University of Bergen has twenty years of experience of teaching courses in snow and winter at Finse.

 

Assistant station manager Erika Leslie and senior lecturer Torstein Solhøy outside finse Research Stations' new building, which was completed in 1996. It has beds for 44 people, dining room, course room and, of course, a sauna.

 

E-mail:
torstein.solhoy@zoo.uib.no

 

Reponsible editor: Morten Steffensen Contact editorial staff