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UW researcher, Fulbright Scholar, spent winter above the Arctic Circle

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Posted May 9, 2018

Think Seattle is dark in winter? Imagine going farther north. Cecilia Peralta Ferriz, an oceanographer at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory who completed her doctorate at the UW in 2012, knows what that’s like. Last fall she was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship to spend nine months in Norway, based at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, the third largest urban area north of the Arctic Circle. She also made two trips to the biggest settlement on Svalbard, an island that is about halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Peralta Ferriz, whose husband and toddler son joined her for the nine-month stay, kept a bilingual blog in English and Spanish about her experiences. UW Today asked her a few questions about the experience before she returns to Seattle at the end of May.

The Norwegian coast photographed in August 2017. Image credit: Greg Curtiss

You are living north of the Arctic Circle, and you blogged in November about when two-hour days transitioned to 0 hours of daylight. Did you find it hard to go so long without seeing the sun?

Not as hard as I thought it would be, perhaps because I was conscious that this would be a one-winter experience only. So I was actually very curious, and was looking forward to this experience. During the zero hours of daylight there was a two-hour twilight, around noon, so it actually wasn’t ever completely pitch dark at noon. Like most people here, I tried to take a break for a few minutes whenever possible during this short twilight period.

But dark winter really wasn’t a burden for me, and didn’t make me depressed. Having said so, however, I did notice how excited I was when the sun came back above the horizon in mid-January. It is so much easier to do things outside in daylight than in the darkness. By mid-April, already the sun rises at around 4:30 a.m. and sets around 9 p.m.  Soon, around May 20, we will have 24-hour daylight.

Did you do anything special to help get through the dark period, like vitamin D, full-spectrum lights, etc.?

My family and I took a daily supplement of vitamin D through the winter. Locals usually take cod liver oil — many Norwegians, children and adults, take a spoonful of it every day year-round.

On the psychological side, during November and December we had a couple of Christmas lights turned on daily inside the house. We also lit candles inside the house — something I feel I would have never done in Seattle because of safety concerns, especially with a little kid. However, here in Tromsø, kids are taught at daycare, from a very young age, to be careful with candles, and fire in general. And this makes sense: candles are lit everywhere, indoors and outdoors, outside many shops and restaurants. Candles are lit pretty much in every household — it contributes to the “coziness” feeling that helps people overcome the dark winter period.

Also the common sight of the Northern Lights during the winter was simply amazing — often strong enough to enjoy them right outside our window.

We hear a lot about environmental changes in the Arctic. Have you seen anything that you, or the local people, feel is unusual for this region?

People here have definitely expressed that the amount of snow has been lower in recent winters, compared at least to winters in the 1980s or 1990s. This is likely related to the increasingly warming air temperatures in the north, which have also made rain events, as opposed to snowfall, slightly more common during the winter.

How does experience this relate to your UW research?

The research I am doing is largely motivated by past work at the UW, particularly as part of my doctorate in physical oceanography. Briefly, I had found significant variations of ocean bottom pressure as measured at the North Pole from 2005-2010. These variations are well represented in a state-of-the-art computer model of ocean and sea ice (by my UW colleague Jinlun Zhang), so I used output from his model to identify the ocean circulation patterns associated with these variations of pressure in the Arctic Ocean.

The model results suggested large oceanic exchanges through Fram Strait, which connects the Arctic Ocean with the Nordic seas and Atlantic Ocean. My research in Tromsø aims to demonstrate how such ocean mass variations at the North Pole (updated now to 2015) are linked to the observed ocean transport through Fram Strait.

You visited this region as a UW grad student to install instruments. What is the benefit from being there for a longer period of time?

A critical part of the research I am doing here includes the analysis of a large amount of oceanographic data that has been collected in Fram Strait by researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute, here in Tromsø. While the data is available online, and hence the work could be arguably done from Seattle, working in person with my colleagues has facilitated not only the data exchange, but also the necessary discussions for a more successful analysis.

More importantly, perhaps, is the experience that I am getting by being part of a research group other than my home research group at APL/UW. This has given me the opportunity to meet and even collaborate with different researchers from other areas of oceanography, as well as participate in meetings and activities with the group.

What are some of the things that have surprised you so far from your time in Longyearbyen and Tromsø?

I’ve been really impressed by what I consider the very healthy work-life balance in Tromsø.  I’ve been surprised about how family-centered is the society here; to cite an example, I had a spot secured for my son in the daycare of my choice in Tromsø before I even obtained my residence permit.

Perhaps more surprised, though, is that after living in a town where temperatures don’t go above freezing for a long time (up to about a whole month), whenever it is just above freezing I am happy that it is so warm!

My stay in Tromsø is rapidly approaching the end; we return to Seattle at the end of May. My Fulbright experience has been wonderful socially, culturally and career-wise, and I will certainly miss Tromsø, and my entire experience living here, very much.

Source: University of Washington

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