In January 2020 I was given the opportunity to attend a conference in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago famed for housing more polar bears than humans. I was attending this conference to discuss my research project that was recently funded by the Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System (SIOS) and to meet people from across the Arctic research community. This was my first ever visit to the Arctic and I’ll never forget it!
My trip started with a 2-day journey from Edinburgh to Longyearbyen, one of the most populated settlements in the Arctic and the ‘capital’ of Svalbard. It was -20°C when I arrived. I guess you could say it was cold! For weeks before I had been trying to envisage how I would cope with such low temperatures. In the end, a big jacket and lots of layers sufficed, although try not to take too many pictures as you will get cold wind burns on your hands (as I found out!).
After I was dropped off at my hotel, I couldn’t help but compare Longyearbyen to my home, Edinburgh. Of course, they are very different places, but it was remarkable how fresh the air was in Longyearbyen. Svalbard is mostly untouched, preserved from the raging footprint of humans across the world by its relative remoteness and extreme weather. This means that when you walk through the dark streets of Longyearbyen, made brighter by the seasonal snow cover, you feel as if you have a new breath of life, literally!
On the point of snow cover, I should mention that there was much less snow here than I expected. Svalbard is a polar desert which means it receives very little precipitation across the year. Of the snow that does fall, much of it gets blown away by the winds that run through the valley, leaving only traces on the paths that run through Longyearbyen. Much of this has compacted and turned into an almost icy mixture which can sometimes be hazardous to walk over. There are also isolated pockets of yellow snow near the edges of the walkways, but I don’t think this is natural! 😉
There are a number of ‘popular beliefs’ about Svalbard, or the Arctic in general. Number 1, it is not completely dark during the polar night. Yes, there is no sunlight all day every day, but the moon reflects a lot of the light that appears over the horizon so instead, Svalbard has this elegant, blue-ish glow hovering in the skies. Number 2, -20°C is actually quite warm for the Arctic; the Gulf Stream that keeps the UK toasty also helps to ensure the temperature in Svalbard remains slightly above average.
Beyond the elegance of the surroundings, Longyearbyen has numerous quirks that distinguishes itself from other towns. The one I was most surprised by, but equally wondered why we didn’t practice something similar, is the long-standing tradition of taking off shoes before entering a building. There are large shoe racks at the entrance of every building to avoid people bringing in unwanted dirt and wet snow, a particular problem in Svalbard where everybody wears boots and walking gear. This is such a great idea and I wonder if something similar should be adopted in other countries around the world.
As the conference wrapped up I started to wonder whether I would ever be back during the Arctic winter, when there is 24/7 darkness and temperatures plummet to -20°C. I will be back to Svalbard for fieldwork in the summer but it will not compare to the winter months. It’s cold, dark and devoid of colour but, to be honest, that is the glamour of Longyearbyen and makes it a perfectly unique place. During winter Svalbard hides its secrets from view but when I come back in the summer, the archipelago will transform into a completely new environment. The contrast will be stark, but the chance for exploration will increase and I look forward to this new opportunity.
Will D. Harcourt