Svalbard is as human as the northern Arctic gets: as far north as you can venture without joining a scientific expedition, and the furthest north mankind has managed to establish permanent communities inhabited year-round. Luke Waterson investigates what it takes to survive at nigh-on 80° North.
I looked out of the window as our plane forged towards the most northerly community on the planet and realised that what I had taken for the usual cotton-wool cloud scattering were actually islands – densely snow-covered, sheering brutally hundreds of metres up out of the sea and devoid of any sign of life. There was a great deal of them, and nothing so much as a track through the ice to indicate anyone had ever set foot there.
Such was my introduction to Svalbard, a lonely archipelago technically belonging to Norway but geographically and spiritually closer to the North Pole, and situated about halfway between the two. My initial impression was probably correct: many of the islands in this group are not even named, much less visited (not by humans, at least).
Ostensibly indeed, people would have little cause to linger long anywhere on Svalbard. The names early adventurers gave this land are telling: Svalbard means “cold rim” in Old Norse. This was a destination that killed the man credited with discovering it, Willem Barentsz. Over the 420 years since, it has claimed the lives of many more through the hostility of its climate and terrain.
Trees do not grow here. For more than two months Svalbard is plunged into utter darkness. The 60 percent glacier cover and rigorous protection of one of the world’s most dangerous – and yet critically endangered – animals, the polar bear, prevent access to most places.
A thermometer reading of -20°C does not even induce a “brr” from residents. If you do brave the outdoors, the amount of clothing it is necessary to adorn will have you resembling a waddling Michelin Man and your hand might well go numb before you have peeled off your gloves to press click on your camera.
Beyond the confines of Svalbard’s Capital, Longyearbyen, it is impossible to “pop out” whatsoever without an armed escort. Polar bears, you see, can appear anywhere on Svalbard at any time. They are not averse to attacking or eating people, either, as numerous stories here testify.
You really have to love wildernesses to come to Svalbard. Longyearbyen itself is the world’s most northerly permanently inhabited settlement, with 60,000-odd square kilometres of nothingness stretching beyond its outskirts.
Here, the semblance of cosmopolitanism is imposed upon by the visceral power of nature. Visitors can sip cocktails in the suave Svalbar pub or peruse a museum as insightful as any you might encounter in Scandinavia’s larger cities. Yet there are still the threats of avalanches, which have caused several residents’ deaths in recent years, and of hungry bears intermittently stopping by to remind one that, ultimately, wilderness rules.
“It is us that live in the polar bear’s land,” smiles Marte Myskja, our guide for our three-day snowmobiling trip across the remote Arctic landscapes south of town. “Not the other way around.”
Upon leaving Longyearbyen, we are soon amidst the kind of environment it is difficult to conceive of unless you have previously experienced polar climes. Imagine valleys where snow sits several metres deep. Imagine precipitous peaks flanking them. Imagine more valleys and peaks beyond these, broken by glaciers or moraine or the occasional ice-blue fjord or trapper’s hut – but besides these, nothing. The whiteness emphasises it. The soundlessness emphasises it – and so does the knowledge such bitter temperatures are ultimately fatal.
Even the reindeer, appearing well acclimatised, invariably starve to death because their teeth become blunt from digging through the snow and stones to find roots.
I had believed myself familiar with wildernesses, having journeyed through the Amazon and Sahara, but no other region on Earth – save, of course, the Antarctic – boasts vistas where life (human, animal or plant) seems so absent. Svalbard is only one of many locales, Canada, Russia, Greenland and the North Pole encompassing the others, which offer similarly isolated Arctic expanses.
But while pack ice impedes public access to the rest of the Arctic, the Gulf Stream keeps some of Svalbard continually ice-free. So year-round settlement and tourism are possible. People can get to understand the Arctic here.
I returned to Longyearbyen exhilarated. I had seen the Northern Lights every night, and walruses lounging on the icebergs in the fjords, and Arctic foxes streaking across my snowmobile’s path. I had seen that the whiteness can, at times, yield turquoise, saffron, rose-pink even. No polar bears, but then there would be something to loom large in my imagination for next time.
Come spring, the midnight sun will return to colour Svalbard. But the temperature still will not venture many degrees above freezing, and light will have practically deserted the archipelago again by October. And the question arises: how? How does one endure the darkness of the polar night and the constant, biting cold?
The answer is that for all the talk of Svalbard’s exceptional fauna, there is another fascinating dimension to life on these islands: the human population. The human motives for settling this far north are intriguing.
One key thing is that there is no hospital on Svalbard: with few exceptions, not one resident is born there. Almost all choose to come. And only the best in their fields get the available jobs. That creates a sense of enthusiasm and vested interest that simply does not exist elsewhere in the world.
“The community is very strong here,” says Jason Roberts, who has spent three decades making films in the Arctic. “If you contribute, you are accepted.”
“The Arctic is more responsive to environmental change than any other landscape,” says Kim Holden, the International Director of the Polar Institute.
“We find out what the future of our planet holds here first.”
If Svalbard is a barometer for the planet’s destiny, indications are bleak. I might get that second shot at glimpsing polar bears. But my grandchildren would probably not. Even if CO2 emissions ceased worldwide tomorrow, I learn, ice caps would keep melting for another 10 to 20 years.
And 10 to 20 years would be too late to prevent irrevocable change: not just to the Arctic, but to the world.
Luke travelled round Svalbard with Basecamp Explorer and Visit Norway. Basecamp Explorer operates multiday trips across the Arctic wilderness in Svalbard. Find out more about Svalbard in The Rough Guide to Norway. Last image by Kitty Terwolbeck via Flickr.