Well, I have been here in Svalbard for just over a week now (though I didn’t manage to post this at the time of writing). It’s hard to know where to start in terms of describing it. Were it not for the stunning back drop of snow laced peaks and glacier, and hundreds of snow mobiles parked up, you could almost forget you are in the Arctic and at the northern most nearly everything!
Longyearbyen is a
pretty funky little town with a lot packed in: University branch, 2 museums, hospital, supermarket, sports centre, galleries, culture house, church, skate ramp, and of course the many shops, bars and hotels that support the seemingly booming tourist trade. Still, given that nearly everything is branded with some form of polar bear logo, and possibly a stuffed bear to boot, you really don’t forget exactly where you are – as many souvenirs are embossed with the 78 degrees latitude as well. Oh yes, and it happens to be light round the clock. Sometimes the nicest time for a sunny walk seems to be around midnight.
The activities on offer are pretty uniquely Arctic too – cruising around or trekking on glaciers and husky dog riding (sledges on wheels, as you can see, there’s no ground snow in the summer).
Plus of course there is the coal mining activities, very much at the heart of the town, both literally with the chosen town public artworks and otherwise. Current activity is evident from the word go near the airport and transport trucks from ‘Mine 7’, the whole town is also framed by wooden mining remains, like the cable car pylons, and what is left of mines 1, 2 A, 2b etc. Interestingly I read a few quotes in the Svalbard Museum referring to a masculine culture here, one of which went something like ‘real men don’t give roads names’, Longyearbyen doesn’t really do road, or mine names, but I don’t think I felt any masculine glands being activated (see quote below!).
Wood here has a long life in the dry and cold climate and is used for most buildings and infrastructure, that is largely on stilts up off the perma frost which takes a bit of getting used to when similar structures back here would be steel and/or concrete. Since I started researching Svalbard, I have liked the look of those colourful houses featured on the website. I now know this is all part of a master colour plan devised by colour designer Grete Smedal on request from the mining company here back in the 80s. I’m really glad they have carried on with this, as it does a great job at breaking up all the grey and makes up a little for the no tree situation. The longer I stay the more I notice how the differing light catches the buildings and affects how bright they look (when I first arrived on a dull day and spotted the houses, I thought I had been duped by some clever Photoshop tricks!).
Despite being town bound so far, I’ve seen a fair amount of wildlife too: eider ducks, huskies, Svalbard reindeer and arctic fox, not to mention all the birds and flowers that grow in the most unlikely places.
I’ve met all kinds of people too. The summer is tourist season in more ways than one. Not only are there plenty of tourists milling around, hundreds at once when cruise ships stop by for by a few hours, but there also ‘working tourists’. Both in the usual sense of casual workers here to serve the tourists, but also people coming from all sorts of places to work jobs that Longyearbyen locals (who are a pretty eclectic bunch anyway) do when they are not on holiday – so there are visiting hospital workers and a visiting priest, for example, taking over while they holiday on mainland Norway. It certainly makes for a jolly mix.
I have definitely appreciated having longer than a whistle stop tour of the place to get a sense for how things are and how the PhD might progress. One thing I will need to think carefully about is WHEN I return. Though most places have their cycles and seasons, it seems, like other things here, it operates at the extreme. Dark season has been touted as a favourite by many, who enjoy the peace from tourists and the many cultural events that light up the night. The end of winter march-may is snow scooter, ski-marathon and field science time, which sounds exciting, but very busy… Either way, I look forward to seeing the place transformed by snow and different light conditions, which is hard to imagine wandering round in 24 hour daylight, in reasonably balmy temperatures at the moment! My mind is racing with all the things I have seen and people I’ve spoken to so far, with many, many questions and some people here have been helping me start answering them – tusen takk!
So, next week I head to the abandoned Russian town of Pyramiden and Petunia bay with a group of students from KTC Sweden and arctic geo politics/ archeology expert Dag Avango, watch this space for summary of adventures part 2 and possibly 3….