Published: Jan. 31, 2023 By

Scientists and crew of the ship on the ice.
Header Image: Shelby Buckley on an ice floe near the North Pole.
Above: Researchers and the crew in front of  the Kronprins Haakon.

Shelby Buckley has made the research trip of a lifetime – studying the impacts of climate change up close and personal on a five-week trip to the Arctic aboard the Kronprins Haakon icebreaking ship.

It offered a unique chance to personally collect ice core and seawater samples and experience the excitement and fears of life on top of the world.

Polar Bears

“I flew into Svalbard, Norway. It’s an Arctic island with no trees and you can’t leave the city limits without a rifle because there are so many polar bears,” Buckley said.

On the ship, they took similar precautions. Any time a team was on an ice flow, observers with rifles and binoculars kept watch, and with good reason. Over the course of the trip, Buckley saw 20 polar bears.

“I was shocked by the number. The first one I saw I think I screamed like a little girl. By the 14th one, it’s okay, another one,” Buckley said.

Buckley is studying organic matter and pollutants and as a PhD student in environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, working under the leadership of Professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz.

Diminishing Ice Coverage

“Seeing how little ice there was at the North Pole was very sad,” Buckley said. “When we got there we struggled to find an ice floe big enough to walk on. The climate projections in general are frightening and seeing it with your own eyes, it’s real.”

The trip was sponsored by the Norwegian Polar Institute and came about through a longstanding research collaboration Buckley has with Juliana D’Andrilli, a professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

Buckley’s work includes analysis of organic matter in the Arctic. When organic matter is hit by sunlight it reacts to form carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. As the ice sheets continue to melt, the sunlight will penetrate further into ocean releasing these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

 In addition, Buckley is studying the presence of persistent organic pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, herbicides and flame-retardant chemicals. While the arctic has very few people, these pollutants are carried to the region on air and water currents from more populous areas thousands of miles away.

She was able to conduct some analysis on the ship, but much of the work required collecting samples to bring back home to a more controlled environment.

“When the ship is breaking ice, the boat lifts up over the ice and then comes down over and over. It’s hard to do chemistry,” she said.

24 Hours of Sun

Life on board was a continuous adventure with nearly every experience shared with her shipmates. And with the sun above the horizon all day and night, there was plenty of time to get to know the 28 researchers and 15 crewmembers aboard.

The ship in the distance on an ice floe.
The Kronprins Haakon above the Arctic Circle.

“It’s 10 p.m. and still sunny and we’re wondering if we should we keep hanging out or go to bed,” Buckley said. “Every night we would play board games. I learned to knit. A researcher gave me needles and yarn and we would sit and talk and have coffee and tea.”

Although there was an abundance of high-tech scientific instruments, there was no internet access and while email was available, it was a single account shared by the entire crew.

“You’re with these people for five weeks 24 hours a day. I formed really strong relationships and friendships I hope last forever,” Buckley said. “It’s a little like summer camp in that way.”

Now back in the lab, Buckley is conducting organic matter photochemistry on the samples.

“I run optical measurements like absorbance and fluorescence to characterize the samples,” she said. “I use a solar simulator to hit the Arctic organic matter samples with artificial sunlight. You can measure the formation of reactive intermediates, which are generated by reactions between organic matter, the environment and light.”

The goal is to learn more about how sunlight interacts with the Arctic organic matter in the environment and how that affects climate change.

More Arctic Plans

Despite the risk of polar bear encounters, Buckley is eager to return to the tundra, and is planning an expedition to Alaska and Mt. Denali for this spring to analyze persistent organic pollutants in the high alpine.

“My Mom is excited but is concerned about my safety,” Buckley said. “She has asked why I can’t pick a field that doesn’t risk my life.”

After completing a trek to the North Pole, Buckley is also hopeful to make a similar trip to the opposite end of the Earth.

“It was never on my bucket list to visit the South Pole, but now that I’ve visited the North Pole, I want to go,” she said. “I am passionate about research and leading project, and I want to make a positive difference in the fields of environmental and climate science.”

Additional Photos

The team doing research on an ice floe.

The Kronprins Haakon polar icebreaker in more open waters.