Iceland or rather the land of endless summer day light

Hæ frá Ísafirði!

We are Marlene and Julia, both from Germany and 24 years old, and together we are Team Iceland. Our adventure in this year’s GAME project unfolds in the breathtaking landscape of Iceland’s Westfjords. More specifically in the charming town of Ísafjörður – the capital of the Westfjords – with about 2.700 inhabitants. It lays surrounded by water and steep mountains in the middle of the Skutulsfjörður. Here is where our experimental work, which is almost accomplished by now, takes place. But let’s back up quickly to explain what we are doing and how the start of the experiment went for us.

View over Ísafjörður from Naustahvilft (The Troll Seat). Photo; Marlene Oertel.

This year’s GAME students are investigating the impact of light pollution on the colonization of marine hard-substrata by sessile organisms. But what is light pollution? It describes excessive or misdirected artificial light, which interferes with the natural darkness of the night sky. However, natural darkness is something that also depends on where you are on the planet. Imagine this: You wake up and you cannot tell if you overslept or if it is 3 am in the morning – because there is light outside. Since we are so close to the arctic circle (66° 33′ 55″ N) here in Ísafjörður (66° 04′ 29.10″ N) we are blessed with daylight during the night hours throughout the summer months. This makes our research more intriguing, since we add artificial light at night (ALAN) to a marine system, which evolved under these extreme summertime light conditions with light all around the clock. In this regard, our experiment is unique among the GAME experiments of this year and the upcoming results are highly interesting.

Midnight sun on the 14th of June 2023. The picture was taken at 1 am by Julia Mangliers.

We both run our own experiment and the difference between them is the ALAN coloration (white and yellow). Marlene is adding white LED light to the natural brightness of the Icelandic summer. This light shows a peak in the blue part of the wavelength spectrum and is therefore similar to daylight. Julia is applying yellow ALAN in addition to the naturally available light. Yellow light lacks the characteristic blue peak of the daylight spectrum, but still illuminates the surroundings in way that is acceptable for the human eye. It is therefore often considered an environmentally benign alternative to white street lighting. Since it lacks the blue peak., the affected organisms might not respond to it as much as to the white light, since they do not confuse it with daylight. If this is true we may see a difference between the communities that establish on the panels that are illuminated with white light and those that experience yellow light.

In addition to the illuminated panels, we have the same number of panels that are not illuminated. The communities that will establish on them will serve as a control group to which we will compare the communities on the illuminated panels. We are curious to explore whether the different ALAN treatment levels (no ALAN, white ALAN and yellow ALAN) will affect the settlement behavior of the sessile organisms in this very special environment with naturally lit up nights.

Let us take you through our journey so far, which is filled with unique experiences and challenges, but was also surrounded by heartwarming support all over the place. Our biggest difficulty in the beginning was sourcing the right materials, since we needed some very specific things like the grey PVC-panels that we wanted to use as settlement plates. Sometimes it felt like searching for the needle in a haystack. As you can probably imagine, in a town of under three thousand inhabitants in the northwestern tip of Iceland, the range of what you can buy from the shelf is limited. The heartwarming thing about this place is that people always tried to help you and if they could not, they pointed us in the direction of someone who might. This kindness made all the difference and kept us going. We (or rather our dear helper and supervisor Dr. Peter Weiß, director of the University Centre of the Westfjords) called every company we found in Iceland that could (with the slightest chance) have what we were looking for. But the color grey was nowhere to be found in Iceland, so luckily Dr. Mark Lenz (GAME coordinator) sent us some leftover PVC materials from GEOMAR in Kiel.

Preparation and cutting of our precious panels. Photos: Julia Mangliers & Marlene Oertel.

When we started exploring the shores of the fjord, we quickly realized that finding a suitable spot to place our experiment was not as easy as we had hoped. Requirements for a “perfect” spot were: a) the water should be deep enough to deploy the experimental set-up, b) the place should be near the shore and have landline electricity supply and c) receive as little artificial light as possible. Finding all of this in one place proved to be a challenge. In addition, the big tidal range (up to 2 meters) here in Isafjördur excluded most of the locations along the shoreline. With crucial help from Peter, the harbor administration authority and Stígur Sophusson (ferry company Sjóferðir), we finally found a good spot in the harbour of Ísafjörður (Hafnir Ísafjarðarbæjar). We were welcomed to use Stígur’s winter parking spot for his ferry boat, which we were very happy about and we got access to landline electricity on top.

Our experimental site viewed from the jetty nearby. Julia is installing the first version of the frame, which actually needed some more improvements. Photo: Marlene Oertel.

However, the specific situation at our site resulted in us scrapping the original plan on how to anker the frames to the seafloor, which the GAME group had made up in March. We then came up with a new solution using some big pilings that are present at our site. Well, let us be honest, of course our first version did not work with the big tidal range here. So, we kept testing new ideas, again and again changed little things and after about two weeks of making improvements, we had built our last version, which is still working brilliantly. Moral of the story: Sometimes you must go with the flow and throw your carefully thought-out plans into the bin. This really fits into the atmosphere in this part of the world, which we already started to love – Icelandic people have a strong believe in “everything is going to work out fine”.

At last, they were right and all the hurdles were cleared. On the 31th May the PVC panels were deployed in the sea, we could even borrow a boat so that Julia (as she is the only one in the team with a dry suit for diving) did not had to jump into the only 5°C warm water. Everything went smoothly that day and even the weather gifted us a sunny day, making it more comfortable for us to work outside.

We are assembling our frames for deployment in the sea at the installation day. Photo: Jannis Luncke.

Buoys and chains are keeping the frames at the right depth. Photo: Marlene Oertel.

Julia with her yellow ALAN frame construction – just ready for deployment. Photo: Marlene Oertel.

Marlene and her white ALAN frame – also ready for deployment. Photo: Julia Mangliers.

At the end of the day, all panels and frames were finally in the water and with this the experiment had started. The wooden frames around the pilings allow the construction to move with the tides. Photo: Marlene Oertel.

After two weeks, we took a first look at the recruitment panels, which are there to give us an overview about what organisms could possibly settle on the “main” settlement panels at different times during the experiments. For this, new sets of recruitment panels were added at regular intervals to the frames throughout the duration of our study and were always analyzed two weeks later, while the settlement panels stayed in the water for the whole time to let entire communities establish on them. Our first set of recruitment panels had a few algae species on them and only a couple of barnacles. Two weeks later – so four weeks after the deployment of the set-up – we then analyzed the settlement panels for the first time. They now had even more algae growing on them than what we had previously seen on the first recruitment panels. We also found more barnacle individuals and new algae species. However, identifying all these species turned out to be more difficult than expected.

Early successional communities that were photographed four weeks after the deployment of the panels. The left panel was illuminated by white ALAN and the right panel by yellow ALAN. Photos: Marlene Oertel & Julia Mangliers.

The settlement panels and the frames underwater. These panels were illuminated by yellow ALAN. Photo: Julia Mangliers.

What else to do in Iceland?

In our free time, we are exploring the area around the town and we already did some short road trips to other parts of Iceland. The unique environment invites you to spend plenty of time outdoors, given that it is not stormy or rainy. There are so many different plants and animals to discover, different mosses in every shade of green, the purple blooming lupines, Eider ducks, oystercatchers, arctic terns, seals, and whales to only name a few of the possible sightings.

Stunning view in the Westfjords with lupines in the foreground. Photo: Julia Mangliers.

Julia already went diving in some amazing spots, for example at Silfra – the famous rift where you can dive between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

Silfra – clearest water and an amazing scenery. Photo: Jannis Luncke.

Besides diving and road trips, there are plenty of other activities and sports you can do in and around Isafjördur. Like BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), surfing, swimming, and kayaking. All these sports and the little communities associated with them made us feel welcome from the first moment we joined their family atmosphere.

Marlene got the opportunity to go to the nearby Hornstrandir Nature Reserve to help with the yearly survey of the arctic foxes. During her week there, she saw five puppies, about ten different adults and even a fight between two foxes. Hopefully, the one she never saw again afterwards did not die in the fight!

An adult artic fox in the process of loosing its white winter fur. Photo: Marlene Oertel.

The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is a very remote region in Iceland with nearly untouched wilderness, because there are no roads and the region is difficult to access. Being there makes you realize that at the end of the day, nature is always in charge. Sometimes you feel like you are the only person left in the world, especially when surrounded by thick fog. Coming for a visit is definitely a good way to humble yourself and to experience a truly unique place on earth.

Sunset in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Photo: Marlene Oertel.

In short, we are really enjoying our time here, be it working on our experiments or just the pleasure of spending a summer in stunning Iceland. And to our fellow Gamies, whenever something goes wrong just remember the Icelandic “everything will be fine” mentality.

Kveðja úr norðri,

Marlene and Julia