Polar Access Fund 2018

Funded projects

Beneficiaries and their projects

Alizée Le Moigne, PhD student, UZH



Diversity of microbial community structure and function in Arctic thermokarst ponds: 3 weeks in the north-eastern Siberia, in the Kytalyk nature reserve.


Carla Perez Mon, PhD Student, WSL


Sampling and establishment of a warming experiment in Permafrost from Villum Research Station (81°36’N, 16°40′ W)



Eef van Dongen, PhD Student, ETHZ



Monitoring of the calving glacier Eqip Sermia, West Greenland, using UAVs


Andrea Baccarini, PhD student, PSI



Participation in the MOCCHA campaign in the high Arctic onboard of the ODEN Icebreaker


Sonam Wangchuk, PhD Student, UZH



Bathymetric survey of glacial lakes; GPS measurements of lake shoreline; ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of moraine dams and glacier tongues; turbidity and surface temperature measurements

Field trips and projects

Alizée Le Moigne

Project: Diversity of microbial community structure and function in Arctic thermokarst ponds: 3 weeks in the north-eastern Siberia, in the Kytalyk nature reserve.

Keywords: Community functioning, Bacteria, Carbon cycling, Climate change.


In the north-eastern Siberia, water and land merge to form an extraordinary landscape sitting on a constantly frozen soil: the permafrost. This fragile environment is extremely sensitive to the climate change that promote the melting of the permafrost. Carbon derived from dead vegetation is released from the ice and reach the numerous water bodies of the tundra. This carbon is then recycled in carbon dioxide (CO2) by a variety of microscopic bacteria living in the water, which reinforce the warming of the atmosphere as CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

Alizée’s research in the arctic tundra investigates which bacteria are responsible for this process in small shallow ponds. She wants to find out if these bacterial communities are similar across the numerous ponds of the region or if different communities can occur and have a different yield in their recycling process. Alizée spent one month in a remote field station in the nature reserve Kytalyk (Rus: Кыталык) in Russia and, fighting with thousands of mosquitos and cold wind from the north, she sampled 20 ponds to analyse bacterial communities as well as the quantity and quality of carbon present in these ponds.

Impressions from the field:

Sampling day 1: “After spending the first week to select 20 ponds, I am ready for the main work of my field campaign: The sampling of all these ponds. I am collecting filtrated water to analyse its carbon content, and filters to analyse which bacteria live in these ponds. Today is a windy day so we are not annoyed by mosquitos on the way. The ponds are located 2.5 km from the camp, not far you may say, but as walking in the tundra is an everyday challenge, we need 45 minutes to 1 hour to reach them. I am organizing a “field laboratory” on a towel and start to filter the water. I flame the forceps to collect the filter, I open the filtration tower to collect the filter, I catch the filter with the forceps and… the wind blows my filter away. I need to start all over again.”

Sampling day 2: “Today is a sunny, windless day! Hurrah my filters will not be blown away. However, we need protection against mosquitos: the hat, the net, the trousers and the mosquito-proof shirt. I install the filtration tower, the filter, pour water and start to pump. I flame the forceps, open the tower, collect the filter and… in a fraction of second already 4 mosquitos landed on my filters! Why is that a problem? Because I will extract DNA from these filters and I am more interested on aquatic bacteria rather than on the bacteria presents on mosquitos’ legs! I am laughing, every simple laboratory operation becomes a hard task involving attention.”

Carla Perez Mon

Project: Sampling and establishment of a warming experiment in Permafrost from Villum Research Station (81°36’N, 16°40′ W).

Keywords: Microbial ecology, microbiology, permafrost, cryosphere, climate change, global warming, Arctic, Antarctic, Alps.



Global warming is causing the rapid thaw of permafrost, or frozen soil, in Arctic and high alpine ecosystems. The permafrost thaw is causing the extensive activation of permafrost microbial communities, a process that could be stimulated further by the increase of nutrient input to the soils because of the expansion of the above ground vegetation. A higher growth and activity of the permafrost microorganisms could result in the faster microbial cycling of carbon and nutrients in the soils with negative consequences such as the increase in greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. CO2, N2O). To test this hypothesis, this summer Carla and her supervisor Beat Frey travelled to Villum research station (81°43’N, 17°47’W), the northernmost station in Greenland, where they established a field experiment to simulate the permafrost thaw and increase in nutrients under natural conditions.

For more information on Carla’s research group, click here.

Impressions from the field:

“We had never been so far north into the high Arctic before, nor in such a remote place. Villum research station is managed by Jørgen Skafte from the University of Aarhus and it is integrated in the military Station Nord, operated by a crew of five members that enroll voluntarily for two years. The surroundings are a peaceful desert flanked by ice covered sea on one side and a giant glacier on the other side. An unusual amount of snow this year kept the landscape dressed in white. Vegetation was scarce but flowering was strikingly rapid as melt occurred. Temperatures were not harsh, they oscillated between -2◦C and 10◦C and visibility was good most of the time, although fog established quickly some of the days. We had a wonderful stay in Villum. Digging on the frozen soil was challenging and because of the snow we had to use snowshoes to reach the sampling spots. Nevertheless we completed the planned work successfully and were provided with all additional materials we needed from the scientific station.  During the meals and after work we had the opportunity to spend time with the Station Nord crew and also with the other scientists staying in the station. Through their enriching experiences we learn a lot about doing research and living in the north: from the logistic complications of preparing expeditions to encounters with wildlife, or how to operate machines in complete darkness at -50°C. I am heartily grateful to the SPI for their financial support to our research in this amazing environment. We am looking forward to coming back next year!”

Eef van Dongen

Project: Monitoring of the calving glacier Eqip Sermia, West Greenland, using UAVs

Keywords: Iceberg calving, sea level rise, UAV photogrammetry, ice fracture modelling


Warming in recent decades has caused glaciers and ice sheets to shrink substantially, and thus to contribute to the observed global sea-level rise. Iceberg calving – the breaking off of icebergs at the edge of glaciers into the sea – is responsible for approximately half of the ice mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet. Calving mechanisms are still not entirely understood. In her PhD, Eef uses numerical models to improve our knowledge of calving. However, the lack of observational data is a common issue when trying to validate such models. Thanks to SPI, she carried out fieldwork at Eqip Sermia Glacier – a very active calving glacier in West Greenland. This field trip is a collaboration work with the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich (Prof. A. Vieli, Dr. M. Lüthi), who organize fieldwork and study the calving of Eqip Sermia Glacier every summer since 2014. Using drones, Eef acquired high-resolution aerial images of the glacier front. These data provides a great opportunity for an in-depth analysis of individual calving events.

Impressions from the field:

“After studying the theory of calving glaciers for almost a year, it was very impressive to see a calving glacier in reality. I did not expect the sound of icebergs breaking off and falling into the see to be that loud. It is almost like hearing a thunderstorm. Since Eqip Sermia is a very active glacier, we could hear this very often, about every five minutes. Sometimes, there was a chain of events, one after the other, which could go on for over ten minutes. Then, when the icebergs fall into the sea, they produce huge tsunami waves, which can be up to fifty meters high at the glacier front. We had our camp about four kilometers away from the calving front. Once the sound reached us, the icebergs had already broken off and the only thing we could still see was the seawater splashing up in the air and the icebergs floating away. To see a calving event happening, you have to stare at the calving front and be patient. That is what I did during the moments when there was nothing to do, for example when our drone was in the air above the glacier, flying the planned survey with the autopilot.“

Andrea Baccarini

Project: Participation in the MOCCHA campaign in the high Arctic onboard of the ODEN icebreaker.

Keywords: aerosol, cloud, sea ice, climate change, new particle formation


The Arctic is warming faster than the global average (a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification) and the extent of the sea ice coverage has decreased dramatically over the past decades. However, this complex environment is not well understood because of the many interactions and feedback mechanisms between ocean, atmosphere and cryosphere. Andrea is participating in the Arctic Ocean 2018 expedition, a joint Swedish-US effort, within the Microbiology-Ocean-Cloud-Coupling in the High Arctic (MOCCHA) project. They will be investigating aerosol-cloud interactions in the high Arctic and their linkage with microbiological activity in sea ice waters. Aerosols are tiny particles suspended in the atmosphere that interact with solar radiation and are fundamental for the creation of clouds. They serve as “seeds” on which water vapor can condense and initiate cloud formation, if atmosphere was particle free than clouds would not be present on Earth. Andrea is particularly interested in the formation of new aerosol particles from condensation of gaseous species (for example sulfuric acid and ammonia), this is a very important phenomenon that contributes to almost half of the total particle concentration on our planet but is still poorly understood, in particular in pristine and remote regions like the high Arctic. He will bring a set of very sensitive instruments to measure the concentration of gaseous precursors, look at the chemical composition of the nucleating clusters and count the number of freshly borne particles. Together with the other measurements on this expedition, the scientists on the Oden will try to understand which are the aerosol sources in the high Arctic, if particles can be linked with microbiological activity in the water and eventually if an increase of sea ice melting could enhance aerosol formation.

Impressions from the field:

Andrea in his laboratory on board of the IB Oden ©Karin Alfredsson

“On the 12th of August 2018 we reached the North Pole on board of the Swedish I/B Oden as a part of the ArcticOcean2018 expedition, organized by the Swedish Polar research secretariat. After 2 weeks of navigation we were finally able to leave the ship and step on the North Pole sea ice (the ship stop at 89.89°N), take some pictures in front of the “North Pole stick” installed by the crew and enjoy a nice sunny day. Standing on top of the world and contemplating this breathtaking landscape made me think about the North Pole conquest that saw so many great explorers struggling and fighting to reach this place during the first half of the 20th century, I felt uneasy considering how comfortable was our trip in comparison! Reaching the North Pole is still a complicated voyage, only few icebreaker in the world are able to open their way through the thick high Arctic sea ice and very good navigation skills are required but as a scientist life on board was nice. I simply had to take care of my instruments and make sure they can handle all the rough movements of the ship.

Luckily this day was not the only exciting moment of the expedition; after reaching the North Pole we moored to an ice floe and drift with it for 5 weeks to perform continuous aerosol measurements in the high Arctic. During this period we saw polar bears walking around and playing with our equipment, a walrus visiting the open lead and “fighting” with a buoy, we saw frost flowers growing on the top of the water surface and sun dogs coloring the sky. The same variety was also shown from our measurements: we had several different weather patterns and measured very heterogeneous aerosol physical and chemical properties. I’m extremely excited about the dataset that we collected, it will take a lot of time to analyze all the data and put together the various pieces but I’m looking forward for the final results!”

For more impressions from the cruise, click here and read the cruise diary of the Swiss team on board.

Sonam Wangchuk

Project: Bathymetric survey of glacial lakes; GPS measurements of lake shoreline; ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of moraine dams and glacier tongues; turbidity and surface temperature measurements.

Keywords: Remote sensing, glacial lake, lake volume, hazard, risk, modelling, third pole, Himalaya, Bhutan Himalaya, Sentinel-1 and 2, Landsat, SAR


The majority of glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating in response to the atmospheric warming. As a consequence, many glacial lakes have formed on debris-covered glacier surfaces and behind moraine dams. A sudden release of stored meltwater from them, commonly known as glacial lake outburst flood, causes catastrophic and devastating damages downstream, including human and livestock casualties and destruction of costly infrastructure (e.g. hydropower). Therefore, timely detection and monitoring of potentially dangerous glacial lakes, through remote sensing techniques and in situ measurements, is critical to minimize downstream impacts. This project aims to survey few proglacial lakes in the Bhutan Himalayas, including, but not limited to, measurement of lake volume, glacier tongue thickness, and assessment of moraine stability. These datasets and information will be used to develop comprehensive hazard and risk map to inform relevant authorities and public.

Impressions from the field:

The fieldwork in the Bhutan Himalayas, funded by Swiss Polar Institute, was successfully executed in association with the National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology of Bhutan (NCHM), Cryosphere Service Division (CSD), Ministry of Economic Affairs, Royal government of Bhutan. The team was comprised of 15 individuals: 5 NCHM officials and 10 personnel. The duration of the fieldwork was from 16 September to 17 October 2018. This period marks autumn in Bhutan. We experienced no or only little rain and storms in the field. This small window of time is very precious and is the best period to carry out fieldwork in Bhutan and glacio-hydrological work on the Thanagang glacier. We had to cross forests, rivers, bare mountains and valleys, muddy paths and cliffs in order to arrive on our field sites. The weather during our entire trip was mostly sunny and warm with temperatures ranging between -4 and 100 C. Since the group was quite large and the elevation gain per day was significant, for instance between 400 and 700 m, we had to take enough time to acclimatize ourselves and avoid altitude sickness. We made an acclimatisation hike to Maloongang before crossing Thole La pass (4800 m). Concretely, it took us 7 days on foot to arrive to our glacier and glacial lake sites. Our nightstand was mostly inside a portable tent. We also encountered a few temporary guesthouses, made up of wood, on the way. We also met nomads and their yaks and sheeps. As a mean of transport of field equipment for the survey, we did not rely much on aeroplanes and choppers, as one might expect. Due to the remoteness of the field sites, our food and equipment was carried by 25 healthy horses. Our survey started with the bathymetry measurement at Chubda lake, located in the eastern ridge of the Bhutan Himalayas, facing south at 4800 m. Since the lake is huge (~1.5 km2) and the measurements were only possible before noon, it took us 4 days to complete the survey. Half of the survey days were affected by wind and water currents making it harder for rowing the boat. A sonar mounted on the boat carried out the survey. The position of the lake shoreline was surveyed by both non- and differential GPS. The lateral and terminal moraines were surveyed using range finder equipment. We also investigated Thanagang glacier, a benchmark glacier for mass balance measurements of glaciers in the Bhutan Himalayas according to the NCHM officials, as they have been monitoring these glaciers since 2012. There, we replaced and installed glacier stakes at the accumulation and ablation regions. In addition, we also carried out GPS survey, ice radar survey, and measured density of snow by digging a snow pit. The highest accessible elevation in the accumulation region is ~5600 m.

In the field, the majority of us suffered from mild illness such as headache, sore throat, cough, and body pain. I have personally learnt to appreciate the value of this glaciological data collected in the Bhutan Himalayas. I personally felt that the collection of data in Bhutan Himalayas is like a trade between life and science. Many fatal risks are being involved in data collection such as Acute Mountain Sickness, skidding into a lake, getting hit by a rock fall, sliding into rubbles or falling into a crevasse. A sudden earthquake could easily take our lives as boulders are simply hanging on a cliff and they are highly unstable. According to the NCHM officials, there are cases of live losses, while going for a data collection, mainly because of altitude sickness. We were very grateful that none of our team members suffered from altitude sickness nor had a fatal accidents. Through the experience of NCHM colleagues and with a supplement of synthetic medicines and local herbs, we were able to overcome this mild illness, and everybody returned home safely. My special thanks goes to the colleagues of CSD for making this field trip a great success and enjoyable.