Gjelder Hele Svalbard

My last day in Svalbard was really only a half day. My flight left in the afternoon so there wasn’t too much time to do anything; however, one thing that I did want to do before I left was to go to Svalbard’s famous polar bear sign. The sign itself lies on the outskirts of town so it required a bit of a walk. Although I wasn’t overjoyed to step outside of the university’s warm halls and into the bitter cold, things looked up when we serendipitously we saw a reindeer along the way.

IMG_8812  IMG_8886  IMG_8887The reindeer in Svalbard are slightly different from the reindeer on the mainland. The first thing that I noticed is that they are much shorter than mainland reindeer, and they also have thicker winter coats. Additionally, unlike other reindeer, I’ve been told that they tend to live alone or in groups of 2-6. Reindeer can still graze on Svalbard during winter, as this one was doing, but it’s much more difficult for them to find food in the midst of all of the ice. Because the winter conditions are so tough, Svalbard reindeer put on about 10 kg (22 lb) of fat during the summer in order to keep warm in winter. On the plus side, the reindeer don’t have any predators on Svalbard so their greatest risk of death is through starvation.

IMG_8819  IMG_8827  IMG_8829IMG_8837  IMG_8844  IMG_8850After snapping a few pictures, we continued on our way to the sign. It was about a twenty minute walk away from the university, but before too long we reached the sign. The only problem? Just as we completed our walk, a taxi full of tourists stopped right in front of us. This means that we had to wait for eight or so tourists to take their pictures before we could finally go and take our own. Apparently you can take taxi tours of Svalbard, and considering the prices of the more expensive tours, the taxi tours seem quite cheap.

For those of you wondering what “Gjelder hele Svalbard” means I’ve been told that it translates to “Valid for all of Svalbard.” In other words, you should watch out for polar bears throughout the islands.

IMG_8864  IMG_8865  IMG_8883After that all that was really left to do was to buy a few more souvenirs (I bought a Svalbard hat that is apparently 30% possum—who knew that possum was a clothing material?) before heading to the airport.

The airport itself was pretty cosy. It’s so small that there aren’t even gates, though I suppose you could make the argument that the airport technically contains two gates—they just aren’t numbered. I caught my flight out of Svalbard without a too much of a hassle and eventually made my way back to Trondheim. I have to admit that compared to Longyearbyen Trondheim seems like a major metropolitan area. While I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah for hosting me, I’m definitely glad to be snuggled back in Trondheim and to have the (limited) sun for company.

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On Top of the World

The next day proved to be my favorite day in Svalbard. Sarah and I woke up on the early side in order to hike one of the nearby mountains, Sarkofagen (the mountain on the left in the first picture). I hadn’t quite realized how much effort it takes to plan anything in Svalbard until talking more to Sarah. Major things that were included in our backpacks were: extra layers, water, flare gun, flares, and a rifle. If we had been scaling a mountain with more than a 30 degree incline, Sarah told me that we would’ve had to carry a shovel, probes, and avalanche beacons. These three things are used to help in the event of an avalanche. Fun fact: one of the biggest dangers with avalanches is suffocation. If you are ever caught in an avalanche you want to wrap your arm in front of your nose and mouth in order to help create an air pocket.

I will also say that there is a significant difference between hearing about polar bear preparations and actually seeing them. Soon after leaving the barracks, Daniel, the other person with us, half loaded his rifle in preparation for the hike.

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The hike itself was gorgeous. At this point in time I’ve traveled around Norway quite a bit, but Svalbard might just take the cake for the most beautiful scenery.

Luckily the path we took wasn’t too steep so we made it to the top of Sarkofagen within two hours. All in all we went from sea level to approximately 512 m (1,680 feet). We were climbing on glacier for a good part of the hike, and at one point contemplated on going into one of the glacier’s ice caves. Unfortunately, we realized that doing so would take quite a bit of time and would require getting a lot of extra gear that I lacked, such as crampons. So we soldiered on to the top of the mountain.

Some things that jumped out at me on this trip were that you could actually see the imprints left behind by former hikers. When you step in the snow you compact the snow on impact. When the weather is windy it can blow the surrounding snow away and leave a type of reverse footprint (see pictures below).

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Other fun things include picking a less steep climbing route to reduce the chance of starting/getting caught in an avalanche, my breath creating so much moisture that it caused parts of my eyelashes to freeze together, my breath creating enough moisture on one side of my face that the hair on that side of my face froze and went white with frost, and alternating between being cold in effectively -35°C weather and feeling incredibly hot due to the hike. I definitely felt like the queen of the world when I reached the peak of the mountain, and while I wasn’t technically at the North Pole I felt as though I was on top of the world.

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The hike down was much quicker, though because we did spend a lot of our time walking on snow covered glacier, it was a bit slippery at times. I definitely fell over more than once and scooted down part of the mountain on my butt. But it was all worth it.

After that we made our way down to Svalbard Gallery, a gallery with some local artwork, and then called it a day. Because Svalbard had only just achieved civil twilight, it was dark the majority of the time that I was there (wreaking absolute havoc with my circadian rhythm). That in addition to the cold weather meant that I spent a good portion of my time in Svalbard hanging out with some of Sarah’s friends and spending time indoors. I was even introduced to a Norwegian miniseries called Kampen om tungtvannet, which translates to The Battle for Heavy Water. The drama focused on the development of heavy water in Norway and how the Germans wanted to use this during World War II to try and build their own atomic bomb. The stars of the program were British and Norwegian intelligence agents who tried to disrupt the Germans and the heavy water plant. While I didn’t understand the majority of the show, it was still nice to watch. The skiing scenes also emphasized how poor my skiing is in comparison to most Norwegians.

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The Svalbard Museum

My second day in Svalbard was much more low key. This time I was able to see more of the town simply because there was more daylight, and when I say daylight I really mean twilight. After about a 40 minute walk, Sarah and I made it to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and Sarah dropped me off at the adjoining Svalbard Museum.

The museum was great and full of useful information (pretty much everything below is taken from informational slides in the museum). Svalbard was originally seen as international and communal land; however, with the rise of the coal mining industry it became important that there be a governing body that could settle disputes. Things were finally established at the end of World War I with the Svalbard Treaty. In the treaty, Norway was given “absolute and unrestricted sovereignty over Svalbard.” However there are a few restrictions on this sovereignty. Norway is required to give the citizens and companies of the Svalbard Treaty signatories (as of 2005 this includes Afghanistan, Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, The Dominican Republic, USA and Venezuela) equal rights regarding:

  • Entrance to and residence on Svalbard
  • Fishing, hunting, and trapping
  • Maritime, industrial, mining and commercial activities
  • Acquisition and utilization of property and mineral rights

Norway is still allowed to regulate the rights above, it just isn’t allowed to discriminate against a particular country. Svalbard itself is under the jurisdiction of the sysselmann, or the governor. The governor is not elected by those living on Svalbard, and is a part of the Norwegian administrative system. Fun fact: even though the sysselmann is part of a bureaucratic hierarchy, apparently the status of the sysselmann is the same as that of the king of Norway.

Because Svalbard is in some senses an international territory, the taxes and fees that are collected on Svalbard can only be used to benefit Svalbard’s residents. There is income tax on Svalbard, but there is not VAT (Value Added Tax) or fiscal taxes. The Norwegian government also helps subsidize the Svalbard budget.

Right now about 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. That’s 36,600 kmof land covered in about 7,000 km3
of ice. Svalbard’s glaciers and mountains add new dangers to living in Svalbard, mainly in the form of crevasses (people will occasionally fall in them when they are covered with winter snow) and avalanches. Yes, the total number of things I could severely hurt myself with or die from on Svalbard was at about four (frostbite/cold, polar bears, crevasses, avalanches). It felt good to be alive on Svalbard.

Svalbard was discovered as Northern European nations looked to find a Northwest passage to the East. They didn’t find such a passage, but they did find whales, seals, and walruses. Whale and seal products slowly became more popular as the European demand for oil increased. In order to meet this demand, whaling was developed and in 1612 organized whaling came to Svalbard.

Until the 17th century, whaling was done near Svalbard’s coasts and inside the fjords. As whaling continued year after year, more permanent settlements were slowly built. In order to actually catch a whale, numerous boats were used. The whales were essentially hit multiple times with harpoons and then sailors waited until the whales tired out from fighting the sailors and from blood loss. The whale was eventually dragged back to shore where it was finished off and then processed for oil. You can get an idea of what these settlements looked like how whaling worked from the pictures below.

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Svalbard was originally located down by the equator, which is what allowed it to develop coal deposits. Once whaling and trapping died down in Svalbard, coal mining gradually began to replace it; however, the mining industry encountered low oil prices in the 1970s. The price of coal was so low that in order to save Store Norske, the big Norwegian mining company on Svalbard, the Norwegian government had to buy nearly all of its shares in 1976.

Because the company was now owned by the State, it became politically necessary for Longyearbyen to transition from being a company town to being a family friendly town. Normal welfare and public services were introduced in Svalbard starting in 1975, and the State introduced or expanded education, hospitals, the postal system, administrative system, and telecommunications. These days the services offered on Longyearbyen exceed those found in some of the more rural areas in mainland Norway. Though with regards to healthcare, there is only one doctor that services the approximately 2,000 people living on Svalbard. What really helped normalize Longyearbyen however was the opening of the airport in 1974, effectively ending Svalbard’s long periods of isolation.

Things have continued to expand since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the coal industry was again hit with a crisis. This prompted the development of more businesses on Svalbard, particularly those related to research, tourism, trade, and services. The university, UNIS, was established in 1993.

Right now, Svalbard is considered more of a research town than a mining town (they actually have super fast fiber optic Internet due to all of the research that goes on). In fact, coal prices hit another low this year, causing the coal company to be in the red. Apparently this prompted the company to make a joke presentation at this year’s holiday party proposing that the government replace the coal industry with the timber industry. How can you tell this is a joke? There are no trees on Svalbard. How’s that for an arctic desert? But even though it’s a silly presentation, it does speak to a wider problem. As coal gets more and more expensive to mine (if I remember correctly there is only one working mine out of the ten that exist near Longyearbyen) the communities on Svalbard will have to start coming up with alternative ways to get fuel.

Once I finished reading through all of this history, I had a fun time looking around at some of the animals on display. The polar bear was huge in reality. On all fours it came up to about my shoulder (around just over four feet/1.2 meters tall). Sarah actually told me that one of the professors she works with was responsible for shooting it. Apparently he was so against shooting the bear he waited until it was 1.5 meters away before shooting.

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After that we went back to the barracks and spent the rest of the day lounging around one of the common rooms. I had a good time talking to some of the other students and working on some of my knitting. Guys, I’m getting better! Finished fox scarf featured below. Pattern here with the English version towards the bottom.

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One thing that I found interesting was talking about the upcoming solar eclipse. The eclipse is scheduled to happen on March 20th and Longyearbyen is one of the only places in the world where you can see the complete eclipse. This has sparked a huge wave of tourism to the island. The office of the sysselmann has estimated that approximately 50,000 people are flying into the island to see the eclipse. The population of Longyearbyen is just 2,000 people, so it’s literally 25 times more people coming to the island. This also means that the government is worried about people having places to stay. There is one hotel in Longyearbyen that hasn’t even been finished yet (it doesn’t even have walls or a roof) that is completely booked for the eclipse. One friend told me that when she stayed at an airbnb in Longyearbyen, her hostess told her that her house had been booked for the eclipse five years in advance. People are making a fortune renting out their houses, and apparently most rooms are going for tens of thousands of kroner a night. At this point hotels are charging a minimum of 10,000 NOK a night (1322.36 USD/night). The government is concerned that many people will arrive and not only lack a place to stay, but will also lack the necessary protective gear and clothing to survive the cold. There is currently talk of opening the local gym and using that as a place where people can sleep. All in all it seems a bit ridiculous, even more so since the weather on Svalbard is so finicky. There is a good chance that all of these people will show up and that it won’t be a clear day. But oh well. I guess that’s the risk that people take.

Going South to Go North

I realize that my title doesn’t initially make sense, but it will in a minute. Not too long ago I paid a trip to Svalbard. Unfortunately the only way for me to get there from Trondheim was to go through either Oslo or Tromsø. It ended up being cheaper and more convenient for me to go via Oslo, so I did in fact go South in order to go North.

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Svalbard has been a place that has captured my imagination since I was a child, specifically since I read The Golden Compass. In fact, both Svalbard and The Golden Compass were featured in my Fulbright essay, so I was really excited to finally get the chance to go there. Sidenote: if you haven’t read The Golden Compass you should and if you have no idea where Svalbard is check out the Map section of my blog. It’s the northernmost pin and Longyearbyen is actually the world’s northernmost settlement.

While organizing my flights to Svalbard was a bit of hassle since they only fly on certain days, it was pretty exciting to go, and I wasn’t the only one who was thrilled. I’ve never seen people so excited to travel. Everyone on my plane was upbeat (or intoxicated), constantly taking pictures, and pressed against the windows of the plane. I never really recognized how toxic the atmosphere can be around airports until I boarded my flight to Longyearbyen and experienced such a drastically different environment. I have to say it was quite a nice change to have everyone so happy.

But before I talk a bit more about my flight into Longyearbyen, I need to talk about my flight into Oslo. Why you might ask? Well it’s because I had a medical emergency happen on my flight. Not just on my flight, but to the person sitting next to me. Now for those of you who don’t know me you should know that I could never be a doctor. Not only did I hate most of the subjects that you need for medical school (mainly chemistry and physics) I’m also just a bad person to have in a medical emergency. Bodily fluids gross me out, I struggle to even watch doctor shows, and I tend to lose all common sense in medical situations. The thing I am most famous for is when my best friend fainted and when coming to I asked her what she thought the best course of action would be. So my number is clearly not the one you call when you have a medical emergency. That being said, life loves to have its little ironies so I was hardly surprised that this medical emergency happened right next to me.

Now the second thing you should know is that I can sleep through almost anything. Something I happen to specialize in is sleeping on planes. I have mastered the art of falling asleep before takeoff so it was only when I heard a lot of panicked sounds that I woke up from my nap against the window. Looking around I spotted a few alarmed flight attendants shaking the woman next to me and seeing her look pale and nauseous with the vomit bag clutched to her face. This rapidly escalated as she seems to go in and out of consciousness. An oxygen tank was retrieved, and at this point the man in the aisle seat was relocated and I was asked to move. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible due to the hunched position that this woman had taken. So medically incompetent me stayed squashed between the window and the medical emergency.

The first problem occurred when they either couldn’t managed to open the oxygen tank valve or the tank just failed to work. A second tank was retrieved and this time the oxygen mask was successfully applied to the woman’s face. This seemed to help incrementally, but after a while the woman continued to drift in and out of consciousness. The flight attendants indicated to me that we should get her horizontal. Now thanks to my fainting best friend, I’ve learned not to be wholly incompetent when people faint. So my first course, and really the only course, of action that I could take was to help move this woman so she was lying down and prop her legs up to increase blood flow to the head. Luckily by the time we finished doing this the plane was preparing to land. All in all, our landing scene had a man across the aisle holding an oxygen tank, a flight attendant in the aisle seat holding the woman’s head in her lap and placing the oxygen mask on her face, the woman having the medical emergency, and me attempting to prop this woman’s legs up.

Once the plane landed the flight attendants instructed us to all remain seated and a medical team was quickly ushered on board. Of course knowing no Norwegian and having slept through the beginning of this escapade, I was completely useless when it came to giving the medical team any sort of helpful information. The woman seemed to recover once we landed and she was able to walk off the plane on her own. The unfortunate realizations that I had after this episode included: flight staff don’t seem to have much medical training, there isn’t really too much you can do to help a person on a flight, and that I’m lucky that most domestic flights in Norway aren’t more than three hours. Lucky for this woman, I think the closest airport we could have landed in was Oslo, our actual destination. Oddly enough no one asked if there was a doctor on board the plane, but then again that could have happened while I was blissfully sleeping.

But back to Svalbard! It was with a certain amount of relief that I left my Trondheim to Oslo flight and prepared to board my flight to Longyearbyen. As I mentioned earlier, there was also a significant change in attitude on the flight. I again slept on this flight, albeit I slept more peacefully. But I didn’t sleep the entire time and I was amazed when I woke up and saw beautiful snowy peaks underneath the plane. Flying into Svalbard was just incredible.

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Unfortunately my iPhone couldn’t quite do justice to the view.

But flying in was simply breathtaking and we landed between these gorgeous mountains. On the other hand walking outside was a bit of a shock. Some weather screenshots below for your benefit. The picture on the right is in Fahrenheit while the first two are in Celsius. I find the middle picture the most fascinating since you can see that there isn’t sunrise or sunset (both listed at 12 am) and that’s because the sun has yet to come back to Svalbard. When I visited they had just reached civil twilight, which means that the sun is below 6 degrees of the horizon. Other things to note are the wind chill and effective temperature (-32°C/ -25.6°F) as well as the nonexistent UV Index.

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Longyearbyen is located in an arctic desert so the weather is very dry and pretty extreme. The town is situated in a valley which means that the mountains help create a huge wind tunnel. To make matters worse, the island is situated in a windy area. That’s not to say that this is all bad. Svalbard gets cold winds but it also gets the warm Gulf Stream, which is why you can see such extreme differences in the temperature (based on the pictures above you can see the jump from -23°C to -6°C in the same week). Sarah, a fellow Fulbrighter and my host, later told me that frostbite is an everyday concern. Apparently when classes go on trips you are assigned a buddy that you check on regularly to monitor any frostbite that they might be developing. You can tell if you are getting frostbite if white patches develop on your skin. There are also degrees of frostbite, similar to how there are different degrees of burn (first, second, and third), and these white patches are a good indicator that you are developing a low level of frostbite. One of the big dangers is that in such cold conditions it can be hard to tell if what you’re experiencing is frostbite or simply the cold. And yes I’ve never warn so many warm winter layers in my life. Ski pants became my new favorite article of clothing.

But back to my trip. Because there are a limited number of flights going in and out of Svalbard, the airport bus waited until we were all on board before setting off. Due to Longyearbyen’s  size (population roughly 2,000), there aren’t that many stops for the bus to make, and it didn’t take me too long to reach Sarah’s place.

Although I had to get up early to catch my flights, my series of plane naps meant that I was happy to go explore town as soon as I dropped my things off. So we set off to explore the settlement.

The funny thing with Svalbard is that it truly does look like a settlement. It’s more or less a one street place, and none of the buildings look that permanent. In fact, the student housing is called barracks, which just seems to reinforce the idea that nobody stays in Svalbard for very long. According to Sarah, the average length of time that people stay is five years, though we’re assuming that students are not counted in this figure. Most people who are in Longyearbyen are there for the university, coal mines, or tourism. Nobody really stays and develops a legacy or family on Svalbard. You actually are not allowed to give birth on Svalbard or die there. Additionally, because most people who come to Longyearbyen are in their 20s and 30s and there on a short term contract, they tend to have young kids but leave before the children are fully grown. This means that there are 3 kindergartens on Svalbard but only two children in upper secondary school/high school.

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There is only one grocery store in town and it’s pretty much a one stop shop for most of your basic needs. While the price of food is quite expensive, even by Norwegian standards, pretty much everything on Svalbard is tax free…which means that the alcohol is very cheap compared to mainland Norway. The store does make an effort to remind you that you cannot stash alcohol in your carryon bag for the trip back home. One thing that does make Svalbard and their alcohol store unique is that the island has alcohol quotas if you are a legal resident. I’ve been told that the quotas are quite generous (2 liters of liquor and 24 cans of beer per month) and it only counts beer and alcohol bought in the store. The reason for this was back when Longyearbyen was almost completely a mining town, the mining companies felt the need to regulate their workers and make sure that they were not getting completely inebriated–hence the alcohol card. You might be wondering why wine isn’t monitored, and that’s because that’s what the mining company bosses would drink. Of course they didn’t feel the need to monitor their own alcohol supply. Sarah told me that not too long ago the residents voted on whether or not they wanted to keep the alcohol card, and they overwhelming decided to keep it. Apparently they like being the only place to have an alcohol card and quota. The other funny thing about it is that Sarah told me her alcohol card is pretty much the only evidence she has showing that she’s a resident on Svalbard.

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Other things to note are polar bears! Polar bears are a very real danger in Svalbard and there are number living on the islands. It is legally required that you have adequate polar bear protection when you leave certain areas of town. In practical terms this means that you should be carrying a rifle. I’ve even heard that when the schools let out for recess the teachers form a protective circle around the playing children and that all of the teachers are equipped with rifles.

If you encounter a polar bear the proper procedure goes something like this: fire any and all flash and bang flares (the idea is to hopefully scare off the polar bear), at 200 meters you fully prepare your rifle to shoot, and at around 50 meters you are well within your rights to shoot. If you get to the point that you are using your rifle, you are shooting to kill (and it’s estimated that it will take you 2-3 shots to accomplish this). If you do shoot a polar bear you have to explain why to the local government because polar bears are an endangered species. Unfortunately for both us and them polar bears are 1) incredibly smart and 2) see humans as food. Polar bears will actively stalk humans that they encounter because they see them as food. Additionally, the bears are also getting much smarter when it comes to our defense mechanisms. Polar bears are slowly starting to realize that the flash and bang flares won’t actually harm them, and although the local government has two helicopters that it can use to scare off polar bears (the loud noise really disturbs them) the bears are coming to realize that the helicopters won’t hurt them either.

Because of all of this it’s quite common to see people with rifles. Proper rifle etiquette dictates that you leave rifles outside of public buildings (there is usually a coat room or outer room where you can do this). Most people also leave part of the bolt open to show that there is no ammunition in the gun. In the student barracks each room is provided with a safe so that you can safely store your rifle bolt away from your rifle.

IMG_2491  IMG_8608  IMG_8612I was clearly getting quite the education in my walk around town. The next place that we went to was a seal store. I was somewhat tempted to buy a pair of seal boots (see below) but then Sarah informed me that seal products are banned in the US and that they would be confiscated. There went that dream for warm footwear.

I was also excited to see the musk ox below! My colleagues have been telling me about musk ox and how it’s quite a dangerous animal (supposedly it’s bad tempered, pointy, and can run quite fast) but I haven’t seen one yet. They’re pretty rare animals, so although this musk ox was a rug I was excited to see one and get a better idea of what one looked like.

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After that we stopped by a place called Huset to catch the end of the student elections and to grab some cheap beer (only 25 NOK/ 3.28 USD–guys this has got to be a record for beer prices at a Norwegian bar) before finally wandering back home. Before we turned in we took some pictures of the moon and the landscape. Enjoy and sorry for the somewhat haphazard blog post!

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