Svalex Excursions

Our field trip to Svalbard was dubbed “Svalex”, which roughly stood for Svalbard Expedition. Statoil have been sponsoring this trip for Norwegian students for 13 years and our experience was the first experiment in bringing it to America. It was meant to be a pedagogical field trip to impress upon us the importance of geology in the oil industry.

And so we did a lot of looking at rocks.

I didn’t know much about rocks before, so I learned a ton while we were there. Every day, we would leave the ship for a shore excursion to look at a particular formation of interest. To do so, we had to get suited up in our warm, waterproof clothes, rubber boots, and life jackets. There was a mud room on board the ship where we got ready and launched.


When we were ready, we boarded the small rubber zodiac boats through a door in the side of the ship. Each of the zodiacs was named after on the Canadian provinces.


Each boat would take 10 people to shore and there were usually several boats running back and forth to get all of us to shore. The rides were often chilly with the wind, but a great opportunity to get a sense of the scale of the land and check out the birds that liked to follow us.


You don’t realize how big some of these mountains are until it takes 10 minutes to get there on a zodiac at full speed. In other news, I learned what an alluvial fan is on this trip. (The lighter-color on the side of this mountain that streams down from the top and spreads out at the bottom, formed by water carrying sediments down with it.)


Scouts would always go ahead of us to secure the area from polar bears, so there would be someone to greet us when we reached the shore.


Then we would all get out of the boats, put our life jackets in waterproof bags (they were water-activated), and set out for the day’s guided tour and lessons.


When we set out, we were required to stay with an armed polar bear spotter. They would use radios to communicate information when they were at different posts.


Other spotters would stake out the high ground so they could keep a watch over us and anticipate any unexpected guests.


This usually meant you could find them lurking up on ridges.


Perhaps not the most glamorous job, but none of them were complaining. You can’t beat this office view.


With the spotters standing guard, we were free to hike around to different spots each day where our guides would give lessons on notable aspects of the local geology.


Lessons might happen anywhere from down on the beach where we landed to 1,000 ft up a steady incline. This climb was one of the more treacherous, a straight shot up loose rock.


I didn’t always have the background knowledge to catch the nuances of the mini lessons, but there was usually time afterward to ask other student geologists for more details. Here, I even got a pictorial demonstration on my helmet of a half-graben, where a piece of the crust gets kind of rotated down in the presence of a fault. Naturally, in the middle is me conquering the half-graben (I think).


One I did understand was the concept of isostatic equilibrium and basin infill; this one applies to ice, too. The main idea is that the crust is kind of floating on top of the mantle, similar to how an iceberg floats on water. When the crust is thinner, it sits a little lower, creating a basin. Sediments are going to collect in the valley that’s created, just like snow would fill in a hole. After a long time, the sediments turn into sedimentary rock which is what we were seeing at one of our sites in the Billefjorden Trough.


It was nice to have the lessons as a guide to some of the notable features around. Many of them I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. Take, for example, this sand (!) that we found after hiking an hour up into a valley. The sandstone it was falling from was evidence that this had once been a marine environment, either back when sea level was high enough to reach this point or before the rock had been uplifted to its current elevation.


We also came across this in a cliff wall along the beach. Any guesses?


Oil residue! It smelled strongly of petroleum. If this was away underground it would probably be oil. This is what everyone’s after.


I also got up close and personal with a fault for the first time. I added some arrows to point out the fault itself. Here, two blocks of rock are grinding against each other. There was mud along the fault line to prove it.


Each day there were usually 2 or 3 stops we would make with different instructors to talk about a variety of subjects. So the group would finish at one and traipse along to the next.


The instructor shown here is a paleontologist, for example. I believe he was intently looking for a particular fossil under this rather structurally-unsound outcrop. Note the fallen rock at the bottom. At least he was wearing a helmet…


Of course we always stuck together in a tight group to avert polar bears.


And the wrath of our polar bear spotters.


On the longer days, the kitchen on the ship would prepare us food to take with us. We were on shore the entire first day, so we got sandwiches, cookies, and fruit. We stopped for lunch on (you guessed it) some rocks, but we didn’t linger for too long since the day was cold if you didn’t keep moving.


It wasn’t all about rocks during our shore excursions. There might not be any trees on Svalbard, but there is wood. The expedition guides told us these logs likely washed up on shore from somewhere in Russia.

And of course, we were also there to learn about drilling, so we stopped by some small drill sites while visiting the town of Pyramiden (which was awesome and I’ll describe in a later post). We learned that different sized pipes are often used when drilling deep wells; larger pipes are used at the top of the hole and they get smaller as you get deeper, to ensure structural stability of the entire well. This was a good in-person example of the process.


We also stumbled upon some old drill bits in a dumpster in Pyramiden. Drill bits are one of the most important pieces of equipment for drilling a well (perhaps obviously). There are several different varieties and they all cost 10’s of the thousands of dollars each. They also have a habit of getting stuck or broken, so it’s necessarily to have many bits for each size pipe you’re drilling. It was especially interesting to see these one tossed out after they’d (presumably) been used.


Our days weren’t all work, either. On our last shore excursion, some people chose to test the water. I thought the water looked just fine from the beach, personally.


And of course we stopped for a group photo.

I made sure to take the time to look back on where we’d come from as we were climbing mountains all week. The scenery sure was something else. 


Before we knew it, the trip was coming to a close and we were heading back to the M/S Expedition for the last time. The trips to shore absolutely made this the unparalleled learning experience that it was, so I’m grateful to have gotten the hands-on field time surrounded by people who know a lot more than I do.


5 thoughts on “Svalex Excursions

  1. Gosh–it’s like a floating college course. Those polar bear spotters were pretty grim looking–I’d do whatever they told me to do. They look like they mean business. The photos are very instructive and helped me understand more of what you were seeing and doing. (What province of Canada did you ride on?)


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