A nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day

At the moment I’m escaping the cold in the UK by working up on Svalbard in the High Arctic. Half way between the top of Norway and the North pole, the current temperatures are hovering around -3*C, in spite of the depths of polar night. The next sunrise here in Longyearbyen will be on the 15th of February, 2018.

My work here is part of a project funded by the Royal Geographical Society’s Walters Kundert Arctic Fellowship which is looking at microbial life on glaciers during polar night, and how changes in the Arctic’s winter climate might affect microbial activities. This is the second trip as part of the project. We currently assume microbial activities on glaciers are limited to active melting conditions in summer, but there is little in the literature to validate this assumption.

A bleak future is also being painted in the media for Longyearbyen’s human inhabitants. I consider the notion of a warm, wet, winter as a “bleakest midwinter” for the region’s microbes, disturbed from their likely hibernation.  Today marks the publication of NOAA’s 2017 Arctic Report Card (Headline: Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades) and it is also St Lucy’s day – the year’s midnight, according to John Donne. So, in this post, metagenomics meets metaphysics.


AugustAs shadow, a light, and body must be here. Svalbard glacier surface showing some algal biomass, dispersed cryoconite and cryoconite holes. All active microbial habitats.


December: Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk/ Dead and interr’d. Or not: Same glacier, excavating microbial habitats from under the snowpack.


The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk: Soaking excavated cryoconite in RNA later for return to the UK.


new alchemy. Meanwhile, using some some spare sample material, I prepared a bucketload of DNA for shotgun metagenomics on the Oxford Nanopore Technology’s new field sequencing kit: a freeze-dried, use anywhere library preparation kit.


A quintessence even from nothingness. Using a flow cell stored for 3+ weeks and flown to Svalbard at ambient temperatures (with >1200 active pores) I had a go at sequencing the DNA. Compared to out UK trials of the same kit, the results were poor, providing only hints at the microbial community structure.

My thanks are owed to the Royal Geographic Society for funding, and Professor Andy Hodson of UNIS for hosting.

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