SVALBARD: LIFE ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Updated: Jul 22
Svalbard, at ~77.8 N, is an island archipelago north of Europe. This archipelago has grasped the media’s attention with stunning images of calving glaciers, rugged conditions and wandering polar bears. The island is primarily under Norwegian occupation; however, Russia also lays claim to certain sections of the archipelago. Little do most people know, in Longyearbyen, the largest town in the region, there is a university center that focuses on research in the high Arctic (i.e. UNIS). I had the privilege of going to Svalbard twice: once to take a class in Glaciology and another time to join a geoscientific cruise just north of Svalbard.
I had a fantastic time, although life on this remote remote archipelago was a bit different than I expected. Keep reading to hear about my experiences, impression of Longyearbyen and about some of the more unique aspects of life in the High Arctic!
Do note that I plan on writing some more scientific posts to accompany this article. It'll just take a little bit of time to get them written.
An image of a glacier in northern Svalbard during a AMGG cruise aboard the Helmer Hanssen research vessel.
Prepare, Prepare and Prepare Some More
I do come from the US, where it’s not incredibly uncommon to own a firearm. I, however, grew up in a suburb where I did not have access to any weapons and I honestly never had any interest in owning one. On Svalbard, gun ownership is not a preference, but necessity. Polar bears are a very real threat and they often come close to town. Therefore, if you wanted to leave the town for any reason, you needed to have a rifle on hand as well as a flare gun. Even the tiny stretch between Longyearbyen and its airport is off limits for walking unless you have a firearm. Therefore, on my first full day in town, I took a firearms training course and needed to pass a marksmanship test to be allowed out in the wilderness.
Mandatory weapons training when you first arrive on the island.
As one might expect, there are not many roads on Svalbard. The ones that do exist are primarily there to connect towns to old coal mines or just inside of town for convenience. During my first visit, I arrived during the middle of winter, so the entire island was covered by snow. So… how to get around?
Solution: drive snow mobiles everywhere! So along with rifle training, I was also given snow mobile training, avalanche training and some other Arctic safety and survival training. Every time that we went across the landscape, sometimes hour and hours driving on snow mobiles, we had to go into an intense amount of detail about safety and logistics. Which was for a good reason too. This is an extremely remote and inhospitable place.
A photo taken from atop of a snow covered glacier during early March. We were all surprised to see the sun actually appearing above the mountains!
And as one might expect it is quite cold in the High Arctic. Especially during the winter. To conduct fieldwork everyone dressed in warm snowmobile suites with numerous layers. I was usually so heavily covered that as we would walked outside, I felt like I was departing into outer space or I was the younger brother from ‘A Christmas Story’. But, like it or not, these layers only did so much when you’re outside all day. Especially when you’re travelling by snowmobile for hours a day. Multiple students that I knew got frostbit after some long days of fieldwork (they all recovered). I was lucky enough not to get any, but I did need to constantly do little things to stay warm (like race people around their snowmobiles to stay warm. I'm sure you haven't given it much thought but it is impossible to run in a heavy snowmobile suit!).
An example of the clothing/snowmobile suit we were required to wear during the winter months.
When I returned in the summer it was quite a different story. Not exactly t-shirt weather, but temperatures were a lot more bearable then you would expect.
An image taken on a hike near Longyearbyen during the summer. Here you can see a glacier ( I think Larsbreen?) on top of the mountainous landscape.
Longyearbyen: A Small Town with a Strong Sense of Community
I found the town of Longyearbyen surprisingly cozy with plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars. Everyone in town seemed to know each other, as most of the people either lived there for a long duration or were visiting scientists who frequently found themselves in the town. As I mentioned in another article, Norwegians have truly mastered the art of “coziness”, therefore that this only added to the friendly communal atmosphere if the town.
A shot of downtown Longyearbyen.
I was quite surprised by the great sense of community within the university center as well. It was an environment that encouraged meeting new people and going on excursion. Every Friday students, and at times faculty, would gather in the cafeteria for drinks. And this wasn’t just a few people, this was what seemed like most of the students every week. There was also a lottery for free equipment (such as rifles, flare guns, snowshoes, avalanche equipment, etc) held every so often. These items were always in high demand, but in limited supply, so this would encourage students to share what they had and go on trips together. Students also lived in a shared living space and kitchen, so we frequently had movie nights together or had communal dinners. Norwegian students also seemed quite pleased that beer was cheaper here than it is on the mainland!
An image of UNIS (from the back). their main building has some really nice architecture.
Wildlife: Don't Forget Where You Are
Due to the cozy nature of the town it is easy to forget that you’re in the High Arctic. Polar bears are spotted just outside of town more frequently then you would hope they would. Luckily, I only spotted them from a safe distance away on an snowmobile excursion over sea ice to a glacier. Reindeers can also be found all over the landscape and seal and walruses appear near town occasionally.
One of the two polar bear signs on the outskirts of Longyearbyen.
A (blurry) photo of a baby reindeer! Ok, probably not the best example of fearsome wildlife, but still... look at the baby reindeer!
Fieldwork: Science-ing North of the Wall
For those of you interested in Arctic geology, geophysics biology, engineering, etc. I would HIGHLY recommend taking some classes at UNIS. It was probably one of the best decisions of my life. Honestly, nothing could beat snowmobiling and hiking across glaciers all day.
During our Glaciology course we mapped glacial caves, collected water samples from icings near the terminus of cold-based and poly-thermal glaciers and obtained ground penetrating radar (GPR) data, ice cores and snow depth/profile data from the surface of glaciers. Later we returned to the university center to perform geochemical and geophysical analyzes. The course I took had a large field work component, which I personally loved.
Taking a break in a glacial cave as we were on our way to collect water samples from some icings.*
Exploring another glacial cave. This time the cave was much closer to Longyearbyen and a quite a bit deeper.*
An image of us digging away snow that is covering a glacier so we can make a profile of the snow and collect an ice core.
An image of snowmobiles parked on top of a glacier just before we are about to descend to the other side. Taken on a trip to travel to the Russian settlement of Barentsburg.
The scientific cruise that I also joined in the summer, which was not through UNIS but rather the University of Tromsø, went north of Svalbard to collect geologic and geophysical data to better understand past glacial movement over the continental margin, ocean current variability and sedimentation. I plan to write more about this in another article so stay tuned!
An image of a glacier with the back side ov the r/v Helmer Hanssen in the shot.
Endless sea ice.
A remote cabin on northern Svalbard. We reached it by ship. As the name suggests the cabin contains a decent amount of alcohol in it.
Sound appealing? Well, the world always needs more scientists and engineers who have an interest in the Arctic, so I would highly recommend getting up to UNIS if you are a student. Tourism exists up there, and as much as I’m sure they would appreciate your business, it is also quite nice that it isn’t a tourist “hot spot” (or… cold spot?) right now. Hopefully the special atmosphere of the place can be maintained without too many tourists making an appearance.
*I tried to exclusively use my own photos for this post but I may have accidently grabbed someone else's from the 2019 Glaciology course or 2019 UiT AMGG cruise. If you notice that I accidently posted your photo please let me know so I can give you credit!