Climate researchers Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm thrive in a long, cold Arctic winter with the help of Undersun Resistance Bands.
Extreme conditions call for serious efforts to ensure physical, as well as mental, strength. To be more specific, the most extreme conditions – like extended periods spent in the coldest, most desolate locations on the planet – require lightweight and portable training equipment.
That’s why Undersun Fitness Resistance Bands landed in the Norwegian Arctic to serve as a critical training tool for two brave citizen scientists – Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm – conducting important climate research in Svalbard, an island midway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole.
Hearts in the Ice Research Mission
Sorby and Strøm have been “overwintering” in the Arctic,140 kilometers from civilization, since late 2019 for their Hearts in the Ice (HITI) mission. Conducting data collection and partnering with research organizations like the Norwegian Polar Institute and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, HITI’s stated objective is “to engage our global community in the conversation around climate change and what each of us can do.”
The “Polar Girls,” as they call themselves, are the first all-women team in history to overwinter in the Arctic. And their accommodations are rustic, to put it mildly: living in a small trappers’ hut called Bamsebu with no electricity and no running water.
Average winter weather in Svalbard is in the single digits (Fahrenheit), with occasional strong winds and complete darkness from mid-November to late January – the “Polar Night,” it’s called. What was originally intended to be roughly a year-long mission (late 2019 to late 2020) for Hearts In The Ice has been extended to May 2021.
Training for a Great Cause
So, what do Undersun resistance bands have to do with the Polar Girls’ mission? Functional strength, flexibility, overall health and fitness, survival – that’s what.
As of this writing (late January 2021), Sorby and Strøm are nearing the end of their second Polar Night in Svalbard. In this exclusive interview with Undersun Fitness, the two citizen scientists share the challenges of living in isolation, cold, and darkness; how they’re dealing with these conditions and thriving; and what they hope will come of their critically important environmental research.
(In the below interview, Sorby answered questions via email from Bamsebu on behalf of both herself and Strøm. Therefore, the answers are credited to “Team HITI.”)
The Role of Fitness in the Arctic
Undersun: Being in isolation and in harsh conditions, how important is physical fitness and engaging in regular exercise?
Team HITI: We could not be more isolated than we are here in our 215-square-foot, uninsulated trappers cabin – closer to the North Pole than anyone else. We’ve spent 14 months here and over 10,000 hours together. Our living, working space is this tiny hut called “Bamsebu,” which has its challenges with limited storage and movement. Being so remote and isolated has elevated our coping skills and one of the most vital things we do is to stay physically active. Daily exercise is not just key to our physical health here; it’s also key to our mental health. It has kept us strong, flexible, able to handle the harshness of this place, and able to manage the heavy lifting we do for our daily survival.
Undersun: What are the biggest challenges to staying physically active and fit in extreme cold polar environments?
HITI: Our challenges in staying physically active and fit up here in this frozen tundra is the biting cold and incessant winds outside – the layers of clothing that restrict your movements, the cold air inside, and the 3+ months of total darkness in what’s called the long “Polar Night,” when the sun dips under 6 feet below the horizon. This limits your ability to walk any long distances, since there’s the constant threat of polar bears.
In the Polar Night, you can only see as far as your torch or headlamp. When the sun comes back in February, we can put on our running shoes and head out for a run with gaiters, layers of clothing, facemask, hat, gloves, and safety belt with flare gun and weapon. All of this is heavy, so you can only run so long before it’s just too cold and dangerous for frostbite, etc. We’re vulnerable to the weather and the polar bears all the time.
Undersun: With respect to exercise and activity, do you have to be mindful to conserve energy, either because of food limitations or simply the harshness of the conditions?
HITI: We don’t need to be mindful to conserve energy, but we do need to stay injury-free. We have enough dry goods and canned food to last us through to the end of this expedition, which is May 2021. We have hardly any fresh fruits or vegetables left, so it remains a challenge to maintain a really healthy diet.
Undersun: From an overall physical and mental health perspective, what types of challenges does the extended darkness present? And how do you combat that to stay healthy in mind and body?
HITI: It’s hard to describe the impact of living in darkness with only minimal artificial light. We both take fish oil tablets and vitamin D. Hilde has lived up in the Arctic for 25 years and is used to the “Polar Night.” Sunniva is on her second Polar winter. The darkness is like a cloud that hangs over your mind, and it’s easy to feel lethargic and sleepy, so you must never succumb to that.
You must always stay active and engaged, both mentally and physically. A routine is what saves you. We sleep well, eat well, train well and hard, and we get outside every single day regardless of the hurricane winds or blowing snow or biting cold. The trick is to never give yourself the option to quit, give up, or miss a day of staying active. We never allow ourselves to be complacent here. Our lives and safety depend on our alertness.
Resistance Bands: Team HITI’s Saving Grace
Undersun: How have you been using the Undersun Fitness resistance bands? For example… How often do you use them? What types of exercises do you do? What are your objectives when using them?
HITI: We’ve been religious about using our resistance bands: 6 days a week (one muscle group per day, and then a HIIT workout on the weekend), plus yoga 6 days a week. We use them to build muscle and maintain flexibility. We started last December, 2019, and used them until September 2020 (10 months!). Then, we left the hut by snowmobile – an 8-hour trip back to the town of Longyearbyen to get supplies for our return – and have been here since November 2020 and will be here until May 2021.
In total, we’ve been here 14 months now and we can both say with conviction that using the Undersun Fitness bands have rendered us injury-free! We’re stronger than ever before and feel that we’ve developed such a strong core and foundation that it has enabled us to do all of the heavy work up here without injury.
Undersun: How does the added strength help you in your living conditions?
HITI: Just living here is about survival. We have to chop wood for our stove inside that we use for cooking and for heat, so we need lots of firewood. We chop ice to bring inside to melt for our water that we use to drink, cook, wash our hair, and wash our clothes. We have boats that are onshore that are on a pulley that we have to drag with all our might – one, two, three, pull… one, two, three, pull – and it’s absolutely exhausting and takes all of our energy to get them in and out of the water.
We need the boats for one of our many citizen science projects, which is collecting salt water and phytoplankton. When the fjord is frozen, we use a snowmobile and head out onto the ice to drill ice core samples. It’s such heavy equipment that you need a fully functioning body with healthy joints and muscles. Our resistance bands are essential for our survival up here in the Arctic. We’re so grateful!
Undersun: Do the two of you work out together, or at separate times?
HITI: Because of the fact that our floor space is just big enough for two yoga mats, we always train together. It builds camaraderie, it inspires us to motivate each other, it fosters positive energy in a space where we have no external stimulation, and it provides time and space for us to mentally “clean out the cobwebs” with any irritation and negative energy we might have inside our bodies.
Undersun: Overall, how have you enjoyed using the bands?
HITI: The bands have been one of the most import pieces of gear we have here and are a vital part of how we cope in isolation in this small space and in our remoteness here.
Food for the Long Winter
Undersun: What type of food do you have available there? Are there certain nutrient requirements you have in the Artic that you wouldn’t necessarily have in more normal (and warmer) living conditions?
HITI: Mostly bulk foods, lots of powders and spices, canned goods and frozen vegetables and proteins, sustainably caught fish, reindeer, etc. We have a lot more frozen food than we might normally have. 😉
Undersun: Do you have a certain daily eating regimen, or do you eat more instinctively?
HITI: We’re very regimented here. We eat breakfast (usually oatmeal or cereal), and lunch can be a healthy smoothie with frozen berries and powders (kale, beet, bee pollen, protein, spirulina, etc.) or something like crackers with cheese. Then, we always sit down with a nice dinner and light a candle. Our dinner is often planned and decided on when we’re working out with our resistance bands or on our walk across the frozen tundra – a great motivator to work out!
Finding Freedom in Extreme Environments
Undersun: At Undersun, we often talk about “Fitness Freedom.” What we mean by that is, with the resistance bands, you have the freedom to exercise anywhere and anytime you want, even on a trip or vacation… or in your case, the Arctic! That’s how we think of freedom. From your standpoint, how has your definition of “freedom” changed since being at Bamsebu?
HITI: This is such a brilliant question. Last summer, we took our yoga mats and our bag of bands outside to train under the Arctic sun. It was so amazing to be surrounded by 360 degrees of beauty and get our workout in. We love our fitness bands and have turned so many people on to them and our routine. We feel so free here, and that means the ability to train when we want – we make up our own schedule.
We’re only limited by our thoughts here at Bamsebu. This is perhaps similar to being at home, except at home we definitely use “excuses” as freedom inhibitors. We have very little space, extreme and harsh weather conditions, and the daily threat of polar bears. We are remote and isolated. Our regular “comforts” are gone. Our identity here is defined by what we do and what we create, how we treat each other, and what we think. We have complete freedom to be ourselves, and we have time to do what we deem a priority every single day. So then, the question is: What’s important with all of this freedom?
We place priority on a strong, healthy body and mind with our fitness band routine and yoga; elevated creativity by immersing ourselves in observation of our immense and endless natural surroundings and stillness/quiet; importance of building community by sharing through images and stories why we’re here, what changes we’re observing, what data we are collecting, and why it matters; and then, our friendship and how we communicate and cope, and hopefully providing insights to others in isolation.
The weather dictates our freedom of movement here, so we always seize the good moments and we never wait – we always jump in when we can.
On December 30, the fjord was calm, an eerie calm, so we took advantage (even though it was cold). We put our drysuits on top of our down jacket and pants, hauled our ORU kayaks out, took our phytoplankton net (fjordphyto – Scripps Institute of Oceanography) and our 25-pound castaway device that measures salt water density and temperature, and headed out for a paddle. It was pitch black, cold, calm and perfect for a paddle. So, as Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Hearts in the Ice Research Update
Undersun: As for your research, what have been the most significant and impactful observations/findings in your time in the Arctic?
HITI: We’re collecting data for 8 projects up here (heartsintheice.com/citizenscience).
What’s significant and impactful is that we’ve been able to collect, observe, and contribute data and images to ongoing relevant research around climate change from the same place for over 14 months. This is almost unheard of for researchers and very unusual given the extreme conditions we’re in and how remote we are. The data from last year is getting processed now, so the results are not yet in.
It’s important to share that as “Citizen Scientists,” we’re helping to bridge the gap that exists between science and the general understanding of science. Our stories from the field can educate and inspire others in a way that “dry” science doesn’t. You can reference an article here that includes all of the research:
Here are a few examples of what we’ve done and for whom:
Visible and thermal drone data with the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT)
The use of drone technology from INDROROBOTICS to collect environmental data is a relatively new concept. It’s even rarer to have specific data collected in high Arctic latitudes. We’re working with BCIT to capture color and thermal imagery using drones.
“Sunniva and Hilde are ground-breaking pioneers in leading citizen science-based climate change research,” says Eric Saczuk, PhD, a professor at BCIT and an expert in remote sensing and geospatial technologies. “It adds tremendous value to determine whether drones can effectively be deployed into harsh polar areas to gather data related to climate change.” HITI has been recording surface air temperatures and taking aerial photos of glacial sedimentary deposits.
Microscopic marine life observations with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
“Phytoplankton are the key to life. They provide food and oxygen to the world,” says Allison Cusick, a PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a key contact for the phytoplankton study called FJORDPHYTO. “Citizen science collaborations like HITI help scientists learn more about these dynamics at a timescale one scientist alone couldn’t manage.”
For this project, we’re observing phytoplankton in the waters surrounding Bamsebu. For our observations, we’re using a Secchi disk (a tool that helps measure water depth and transparency) and a plankton net and CTD device to measure temperature and Chlorophyll.
Aurora borealis observations using the app Aurorasaurus for NASA
The remote location of Bamsebu, away from light pollution and at a high latitude, offered a unique opportunity to observe the northern lights (aurora borealis) consecutively over a longer period of time. We’re monitoring when we see the aurora borealis, their appearance and form, and where in the night sky they’re showing up. Our observations will aid scientists in gaining a better understanding of the structure of aurora borealis and the environmental conditions in which they occur. We were also able to photograph a rocket launch on December 10, 2019, for NASA, as we were in the most ideal location for this, thus rendering us “Rocket Citizen Scientists.”
How We Can All Help the Environment
Undersun: How are you hoping your time at Bamsebu will help the rest of us appreciate the threat of climate change and the importance of protecting the environment?
HITI: We want to take people out of and away from climate despair and paralysis and toward inspiration and active engagement. We’re hoping that we’re two examples of what’s possible. Everything starts with us. We first need a healthy, strong body and mind as our base, and then from there we can take care of each other and our precious planet.
Hilde and I are only as strong as our “collective.” We’ve managed to build a powerful network of individuals and organizations and have created a movement, but this is not about us. It’s about all of us as a community. We really hope that people understand their role in this web of life. We’re all needed to participate in the climate conversation, and we’re all needed to understand how important our thoughts and choices are in that big picture.
Here’s a quote from one of our science partners on the power of collaboration: “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 this time not hunting for fur and skins, but knowledge and wisdom” –Borge Damsgard Director of UNIS
Undersun: What’s your message to those following your journey at Bamsebu? (including teachers, kids, or anyone else interested who’s been tuning in) If there’s one thing the average person can do to start helping the environment RIGHT NOW, what is it?
HITI: Protect what you love. Participate in conversation so that you understand the impacts of your choices. Read. Educate yourself about where your water comes from and how much you use, what you eat and where your food comes from. Is it processed? Is it sustainable?
Look at the choices you make. Be a thoughtful user. Get involved in politics and your local community. Become an activist in whatever way you can. Stand up for what you believe in.
Re-use. Re-Cycle, Re-Purpose, Re-connect.
To get involved directly with Hearts in the Ice, visit the Join Our Team page on the HITI website for information on how to sponsor and/or donate to the cause and subscribe to the newsletter for updates and content.