How will climate change affect Santa Claus

No sign of Santa Claus

A slightly different research blog from Svalbard

By Rudolf Amann, Kathrin Büttner, Katrin Knittel, Sebastian Miksch and Jörg Wulf

On December 13, 2018, an expedition from the Department of Molecular Ecology to Longyearbyen on Svalbard started directly from our institute Christmas party (known as Julefrokost) - more precisely after the smoked fish and before the roast. Svalbard is a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean belonging to Norway. The main focus of the expedition was on sandy coastal sediments in Isfjorden, a fjord on the west side of the island. The researchers were particularly interested in the seasons on the seabed there. Because while the research of the department for bacteria in water (bacterioplankton) can show a pronounced seasonality at the Kabeltonne station in the German Bight of the North Sea every year with great dedication, it is extremely difficult to identify such taxonomic and functional fluctuations to be detected in the bacteria of the seabed. At 78 degrees north in the polar sea, this should be easier than off Heligoland. The seasonality is very pronounced here: there is a polar night for three months and the length of the day does not fluctuate between 8 and 16 hours, as on Heligoland, but between 0 and 24 hours. In addition, an extension of the Gulf Stream and climate change keep the Isfjorden ice-free all year round and, like Helgoland, there is a sandy seabed. However, the sand is not easy to find as silty and muddy sediments dominate, which our former director Bo Barker Jørgensen has already explored.

And why do we care? Sandy coastal sediments are very important for global material cycles. There, organic material that comes from algal blooms in the seas or inputs from rivers is broken down very efficiently by so-called heterotrophic bacteria. The coastal sands act like large bioreactors that clean the sea. Through the mineralization, biomass is broken down into nutrients all year round, which together with the sun, water and carbon dioxide form the basis for photosynthesis. In this way, the biogeochemical cycles are closed and the foundations for life are preserved.

But the search for sandy sediments wasn't the whole truth, because the younger expedition members in particular - Kathrin Büttner and Sebastian Miksch as doctoral students in their first year - also wanted to check whether Santa Claus was really at home here on Svalbard, only 1,300 km from the North Pole is. An intensive inspection of all streets - there are not many - and even the suburbs of Longyearbyen on Saturday with a lonely, antlerless reindeer revealed the first trace. Then all expedition participants decided on Sunday to explore Adventdalen until the end with snowmobiles, which ultimately turned out to be just as cold and dark as it was inconclusive. Even with the promised northern lights, there was nothing to be seen despite the clear starry sky at -15 degrees Celsius and a wind of 50 km / h. The local guide assured that there should be frequent and that every child knows that Santa Claus would live on Svalbard. But he also unsettled the Bremen scientists with the statement that only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter and therefore Rudolf, the famous red-nosed reindeer, must be a Rudolfine. With Rudolf Amann, this particularly irritated one of the more experienced participants.

So on Monday morning we went to the research ship Farm, which has been sailing through the polar sea for longer than the famous icebreaker Polarstern, with a little less wind and consistently low temperatures. Old friends met again there: four of the Bremen scientists - in addition to Katrin Knittel (PI), Sebastian and Rudi, also the ship-proven Jörg Wulf - knew not only the ship but also their captain, Mr. Stig. Incidentally, he was supported on board by his father as the helmsman and his assistant Lucy as the woman on the winch. The way led us almost to the Russian polar station and miners' settlement of Barentsburg, where we found sandy sediments as in previous expeditions. Sampling had to be done quickly, as not only the seawater samples, but also the sediment frozen within minutes and then portioning and filtering was no longer an option. Apart from that, all limbs then also cooled down considerably, in addition to fingers in wet gloves, toes in survival suits and, above all, the tips of the nose. After a short time the deck was covered with ice. So it was good that Sebastian, the doctoral student at the sediment grab, was secured on a short leash with a carabiner. After a good 5 hours before Barentsburg, where Kathrin in particular had given everything on the swaying ship, we went back to Longyearbyen. On the way back, Captain Stig told us that he had seen northern lights while we were digging in the sand in the light of the deck spotlight. So our hope increased to catch a glimpse of this natural spectacle.

And in fact it was Katrin who saw the first northern lights when entering Longyearbyen, which developed really spectacularly in a few minutes. Kathrin was then asked to document the unloading of the farm under the northern lights in the moonlight and the deck spotlights, which we prove with the pictures shown here. As usual with Max Planck scientists, we did not use any image processing and that is why Santa Claus with his sleigh pulled by reindeer (including Rudolfine, as we should not forget!) Does NOT appear in front of the moon, even at the highest magnification .

So: We found sand and saw the northern lights, but still no sign of Santa Claus! It should be noted here, however, that the philosophy of science insists that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and thus a final conclusion is not possible.

We wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!