On Top of the World

Geyman sets up the ground penetrating radar (GPR) system to measure snow thickness and snow properties on the glacier Kongsvegen, NW Svalbard.

It’s 6 a.m. and the sun is up; there’s been near-constant light since April. The coffee at the research station is hot and ready, and the GPS has been programmed for the morning’s trek. It’s -35 degrees Fahrenheit — even though it is the middle of spring — so layers and snowsuits are a must. Equipped with a flare gun, rifle, notebook and gear, Emily Geyman ’19 jumps on a snowmobile and heads for Kongsvegen, a glacier on the Northwest of Svalbard, where her team will collect data to measure snow density and thickness for an ongoing research project.

It was just another day in the field for Geyman, who spent two years in Arctic Norway conducting independent research, taking arctic geology courses and working alongside scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Geyman had been fascinated by the Arctic — particularly Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean about halfway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole — since high school. “I’d heard about the research station from my older brother,” she says. “I became enthralled with the idea of living there,”

She made a few stops along the way. As a sophomore, Geyman joined the Department of Geosciences. Fascinated by unanswered questions, and eager to find answers about the natural world, her field research at Princeton took her to “all sorts of places” in the world, including Namibia, Spain, France and Australia. She also spent two summers on Andros Island — “The Sleeping Giant” — a large but mostly unoccupied island in the Bahamas, where, for her senior thesis, she studied calcium carbonates and how they record the global carbon cycle.

Geyman calls the two summers conducting her thesis research some of the “longest and most challenging” days of her college experience, but also a time where she built core skills — from planning and logistics to preparing to go off the grid. “I started to feel more confident going to different places with no cell service with only a small group of people for weeks at a time,” she says.

As she entered her senior year, Geyman honed in on finding her way to Arctic Norway. “I had this one singular mission of trying to get to Svalbard,” she says. “It was just a question of figuring out how it would work, and if I could get funding to do it.”

The funding came in the form of a Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Graduating Scholarship, one of Princeton University’s highest awards. The Sachs Global is given to a senior “whose scholarship is most likely to benefit the public” and provides funds for work, study or travel for one to two years anywhere outside the United States after graduation. Geyman proposed a two-year project, where she would split her time doing glaciology research in Tromsø, a major city in northern Norway, and on Svalbard.

In August 2019, Geyman moved to Tromsø, where she worked alongside an international group of scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute headquarters. It was there that she began to explore questions about climate feedbacks on Earth. “I was curious about what observations can be made and what models can be built to better predict how glaciers might behave in the next century,” she explains. “Every day, I fell asleep thinking about [that question] and what I wanted to do the next day to try to answer it.”

Her first project used photogrammetry — or structure from motion — techniques to build 3D models of almost 2000 glaciers on Svalbard from analog photographs from the 1930s; these images were recently archived and digitized by the Norwegian Polar Institute. “There’s no place in the world where we have this extensive of a record of glacier change,” Geyman says.

From the long term (multi-million year) warming and cooling of the planet, to ice age cycles, to the shrinking of glaciers in response to modern CO2 emissions, there are a million questions to answer about how the climate system works.

Geyman moved to Svalbard in the winter of 2019, in anticipation of the primary glaciology field season. Life on Svalbard was unlike anything Geyman had experienced before. Ny-Ålesund, the town where she was working, has a population of approximately 35 people in the winter — “the core people needed to run a town,” including electricians, cooks, plumbers, carpenters, a harbor master, and a handful of technicians and scientists like the glaciologists from the Norwegian Polar Institute. “The food arrives by ship every few months, and everyone in town eats the same food together, as there are no grocery stores,” she says. “Everything is covered in snow, so snowmobiles are your primary means of transportation.”

“Boring” was not a word Geyman used often on Svalbard. When you live at the base of a glacier, entertainment is sometimes as simple as putting skis on and opening the back door, she says. Most of Geyman’s downtime was spent outdoors: hiking, climbing or moonlight skiing. Many locals abide by the Norwegian phrase, “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær,” or “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” Geyman says.

Although researchers work all year-round, Svalbard is almost totally dark during the winter months, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. “The best time to make measurements of the glaciers is in the spring because it starts to get light again,” says Geyman.

In 2020, just as the polar night was ending, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe. Svalbard closed its borders to visitors. While some scientists and students were forced to return home, Geyman was allowed to remain due to her affiliation with the Norwegian Polar Institute. But researchers who were not already on-site were not allowed in, which meant that during her first field season, Geyman worked with a much smaller team. She had greater responsibility and expanded her research scope, including data-collection for other international scientists who were unable to get to Svalbard for their annual measurements.

Since the 1960s, the Norwegian Polar Institute has collected annual data from glaciers on Svalbard. Geyman helped collect the 2019-2021 data as part of her daily fieldwork. She and the team would travel to various glaciers to take and record measurements to determine whether the glacier is growing or shrinking, and how quickly.

“We have so much data from satellites, and that’s how we’ve learned much of what we know about how fast glaciers are moving and shrinking today,” she explains. “But there are some things that satellites just can’t tell you when you’re hundreds of kilometers up in space taking pictures of Earth. You really need to be on the glacier.”

Before she left Svalbard, Geyman submitted a paper with some of her research results. Now, after returning to the United States, she has been working on another model about how glaciers are changing using a larger dataset.

Geyman will spend the next few years in a Ph.D. program at the California Institute of Technology with funding from the Hertz Fellowship, awarded annually to the nation’s most promising graduate students in science and technology. Her focus will shift to studying the global carbon cycle, because she is “most excited about studying climate on Earth” in different forms, but she’s also eager to continue studying glaciers.

As long as there are still questions that need answering, Geyman is excited for her future research. “From the long term (multi-million year) warming and cooling of the planet, to ice age cycles, to the shrinking of glaciers in response to modern CO2 emissions, there are a million questions to answer about how the climate system works,” she says.