Having been the base for whalers, soldiers and miners the world’s most northerly community is now adapting to the increasing number of tourists heading to an Arctic wilderness subject to strong environmental, economic and political currents writes Alex Matchett.
A snowmobile tour on the glacier above Longyearbyen
All photos courtesy of Renato Granieri
Returning from the igloo we came across the Festival of the Sun. Inside a glacier we entered blue green caverns carved by melt water. At dusk our snowmobile headlights flashed across fleeing reindeer. Father Christmas’ lamp twinkled from the window of an abandoned coal mine. And everywhere there were stuffed polar bears.
Svalbard, an archipelago roughly the size of Ireland, is the world’s most northerly community. Administered by Norway, but with its own treaty enshrining international rights to its mineral wealth, it is closer to the North Pole than to Oslo. Discovered by the Dutch explorer Barents who named the main island Spitsbergen (sharp mountain), or by Russian Pomor hunters depending on who you believe, Svalbard has served whalers, weather men, soldiers, miners and most recently tourists.
It is in this capacity that we fly in over the Arctic Ocean on a regular SAS service direct from Oslo. We fly down the Isfjorden to land at the small airport nestled next to the sea, ten minutes to the west of the capital Longyearbyen. On the luggage carousel is a stuffed polar bear.
Longyearbyen takes its name from the early 20th century American mining pioneer John Monroe Longyear and is a town still framed by the coal he sought. 90 per cent of the roads, infrastructure and people in Svalbard are within fifteen miles of the settlement. Here you can walk unarmed, outside of the town, however, one of your party must be equipped with a large bore rifle to deal with any unwanted polar bear encounters. The only thing resembling sentries in Longyearbyen are the decaying pylons that previously carried coal by cable bucket to the coast. The rusting legacy of coal production is everywhere, from the ruined railway to the photographs of faces grinning through coal dust that adorn the walls of the local bars. The alcohol ration card they carried still remains, a savoury hangover from former generations, which still limits how much residents can purchase from shops. Miners were granted 24 bottles of beer a month that were dispersed from the cellar of the coal company’s managers’ quarters – meanwhile, upstairs the management focused on unrationed cognac and backstairs skiing competitions. It is now the upmarket Spitsbergen Hotel, well stocked with French food, champagne and cognac.
So, thanks in part to a hydrocarbon price crash, the coal is going and the tourists are coming – not least for the beer. We visit Robert Johansen, himself 27 years in the mines, in his office overlooking the world’s ‘most northerly brewery’ where he makes 250,000 litres a year, selling just under half on the islands. The glacier water he uses makes the beer ‘a little bit more crispy’. His pilsner, stout and weissbeir are good drops but beyond their taste Johansen emphasises the ‘story behind it: the exotic, far away north’.
The route to Barentsburg from Longyearbyen
That narrative is as surreal as it is enchanting. Walk outside and you could be eaten by a polar bear. Drive a snow mobile fifteen minutes outside of town and in the sigh of falling snow you’ll come across small weather huts sleeping in a white pillowed gorge. It is a dreamt landscape that humans are alien in, their history here in every way shaped by the elements. Parked by the huts our guides speak of the Norwegian commandos who returned to Svalbard having been evacuated before the arrival of German soldiers during the war. Their plan was to hide in the coal mines and spy on their adversaries from inside the mountain.
We continue through the gorge and open out into wide valleys lined by the teeth of steep igneous stacks that cut the sky above the snow. 70km later we reach the Russian mining town of Barentsburg. Like Longyearbyen we enter via the detritus of heavy coal mining: the idle derricks resembling multiple Monuments to the Third International broken by Arctic storms. Lunch is hearty borsch and kvass inside a wooden panelled canteen you would find anywhere in Russia, but this one has more pictures of walruses. Outside we meet our guide, ‘Barentsburg Band’ member, and heavy metal fan, Zheka Taganay. The town is well provisioned for its small population with a hotel, medical, sports and science centres, Pomor museum, brewery (also claiming to be the world’s most northerly), Arctic administration centre, ‘Culture Palace’ and an impressive, if overbearing consulate building: ‘The northern most embassy in the world,’ where you can solve any visa problem, ‘it doesn’t matter which nationality you are’.
A statue of Lenin in Barentsburg
Taganay explains the heritage of the place: how the hardy Soviets first posted there invented a new drink; ‘because in Soviet time polar explorers believed [that] the degree of northern latitude should match the degree of alcohol [in] drink. Following this tradition we created this unique cocktail called 78 Degrees, also known as “See You Tomorrow”.’
Like Longyearbyen there is only one small mine still functional now in Barentsburg. Taganay says 80 per cent of the populace is made up of Ukrainian miners from the Donbass region, many who have lost friends and family in the recent conflict. ‘Barentsburg people try to maintain friendly atmosphere and try to treat each other very carefully because it is necessary – we are a close community.’ Understandably, this code is not compromised anywhere in Svalbard: Barentsburg has expelled miners for fighting while more recently the Norwegian governor had to remove a woman who set light to a mattress.
We walk through the town passing the school, decorated with murals celebrating Norwegian and Russian culture: the houses of Bergen sitting beside St. Basil’s. We also pass the obligatory Soviet monument to the industry of the miners, an orthodox chapel and a replica Pomor hunters’ cabin. Taganay ends his tour outside the former Soviet canteen and radio station, the only building to survive bombardment from the Tirpitz in 1943. We stand beneath a mural of the idealised polar explorer, next to which is written a poem he translates as: ‘Whenever you travel, by the start of each spring you’ll be seeing the polar roads, you’ll be seeing the polar dreams.’
Our own polar road back to Longyearbyen is taken at dusk across the snow and ice. The valleys are a cold, beautiful, bluing porcelain under the moon and a North Star that anchors the heavens. When you stop you can hear nothing. I ask one of the guides if polar bears can see in the dark. He reminds me it is perpetual night here for five months of the year.
Back in Longyearbyen, we visit Mary-Anne’s Polarigg where the beguiling lady of the house treats us to salt cod, king crab and Arctic Char before showing us her collection of appendages at the bar: hare, fox and polar bear. The walls are also adorned with images from a fashion-shoot she did in one of the coalmines in the 80s. You wouldn’t associate the clothes she was modelling with the Arctic but she says it was only minus ten and they had cognac.
Mary-Anne has been here a long time and is a local legend. Invariably, when you speak with those existing in Svalbard, conversation turns to what life is really like in the world’s most Northerly community, how does it really all hold together? From speaking with Mary-Anne it is clearly with no little sense of fun, enjoyment and comradeship – that was true with the mining and it remains true now. But as she takes a cigarette in the bright orange bus she has converted into a smoking lounge she laments the additional politics that logistics must often carry up here. Moscow and Oslo still impose. She recalls sending presents to the children in Barentsburg when home ‘forgot about them’ after the fall of communism and says even now the Russian governor there decides who can leave to visit Longyearbyen, and who cannot, a claim sequentially denied by Taganay.
The following evening we meet at the edge of town where Carl Schönning loads his rifle. Equipped with snowshoes and poles we follow him into the gloaming and up onto the glacier; it takes us three hours. By the time we reach the igloo in which we’ll be sleeping it is dark and snowing but Schönning was able to find it without turning his torch on once. Immediately he and his colleague, Signe Dahlberg, start making camp. We do not tread here lightly so everything we bring must be taken back with us. The protocol is to burn toilet paper after use as when the snow goes it will be left behind. Dahlberg relates a cautionary tale: following an eight-day trip to Svalbard’s east coast she was charged with disposing of the toilet paper. Unfortunately red spirit did not aid the process, nor did paraffin, two-stroke or petrol. In the end it took jet fuel to save the day – ‘and I can tell you it was not easy’.
Tiredness and cognac make good pillows. The next day the small but snug dome is filled with the smell of coffee and a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. Then it is time to go down the ladder into the glacier. Dahlberg, a graduate of Svalbard University, is our guide, explaining the geological formations, glacial movement and melt water run-off. Our headlamps illuminate a winding alley of smooth and shimmering ice that forms the blue-green ribbons flowing around us. Inside it there are small pebbles, seemingly suspended mid tumble. We walk far inside the slow frozen serpentine, turning swooping corners into vaulted caves pierced with stalactites – It is another world, yet there must be a hundred others hidden in this one small glacier alone. You can touch your helmet and wonder whether it isn’t part of a spacesuit.
Inside the glacier
On leaving one of our group is ticked off for accidentally knocking a small stalactite. Such is the sovereignty of the wilderness here that visitors carry the licence of stewards rather than guests. ‘The rules here are up to here on us,’ says Schönning pointing to his neck. ‘As soon as you step out of the door you will break a rule. Those of us who live here understand it.’ Gøril Ovesen of the North Norway tourist board explains how uncompromising those rules are – large parts of the archipelago are off limits completely, and even a visit made by local guides to the scientific base in Ny lesund was treated with some consternation.
However, so far, tourism and research are in harmony. ‘If you’d asked how many more tourists [will come] in the 50s they would have said a couple of hundred,’ says Schönning. The number is now roughly 135,000 annually, half on cruise ships during the short ice free summer. ‘When they go back to the ships you see nothing at all [left] because it is all done in the right way. I think it will be fine with tourism. In twenty years’ time there will be more hotels in town but that’s pretty much all I would say.’ Ovesen is more developmental, envisaging a cable car just outside Longyearbyen, giving tourists a vista of the landscape without exposing them or the environment.
The decrees of that exposure do not discern: Svalbard can be dangerous. The local paper ‘Icepeople’ puts the number of rescues carried out by the governor’s office at almost 300 over the last four years. While the vast majority of these did not involve tour groups, we heard stories of scientists being trapped in glaciers and ice collapses putting snowmobiling tourists into the sea. In December 2015 an avalanche, following a blizzard in Longyearbyen, tragically took the lives of two locals. Polar bears remain a constant threat although we’re told the fatal mauling of British schoolboy Horatio Chapple in 2011 could have been avoided had the tour group used local guides.
Those guides are certainly experienced: Schönning mentions waking to find his snow mobile seat chewed and a bivvy bag strewn outside his cabin on one expedition. Another guide, Trude Hohle, conducting a similar expedition inside a glacial cave on the east coast, heard the ice crack around her; on leaving the cave they discovered it was a polar bear raiding their camp. They fled but when they returned later to pack up so did the bear. Eventually the governor’s helicopter was employed to scare the bear away – as in other instances, flare guns didn’t work.
These occasions are the exception and not the rule, however, and any polar bear interaction is generally considered the fault of the human and, while people have the right to defend themselves, the governor Kjerstin Askholt says ‘we do our best to avoid the killing of bears. If a polar bear is wounded or killed, the case will always be investigated by the police.’ At the time of writing, a group of tourists who shot a bear at 35 metres after flare guns failed to scare it away are being investigated. Askholt also describes how she recently deployed her helicopter to remove a tranquilised bear to the other side of the archipelago stating such operations are now ‘considered uncomplicated’. However, it is hard to see encounters becoming less common as human numbers increase and the sea-ice, which allows the bears to live offshore, decreases.
Retreating sea-ice has other consequences too. Stepping from the igloo in the morning we have a view across Sassenfjorden to the northern part of Spitsbergen. One mountain stands out for its symmetry: Pyramiden, beneath which is an abandoned Russian settlement of the same name. The warmest Arctic winter on record (on New Year’s Eve Longyearbyen was the warmest part of Norway with a barmy plus nine) has kept the fjord unfrozen, severing the six men who run the hotel there from the outside world. ‘It is probably very lonely,’ says our guide.
Without the ice, Pyramiden hotel remained largely unvisited this winter and spring. Climatic and environmental protection is the premium Svalbard’s burgeoning tourism sector respects most, no doubt wary of how human failings can tip (and have tipped) the scales of a razor-edge ecology. The water in the pipes of Pyramiden are infected with Echinococcus Multilocularis, a parasite that attacks your liver. Helga Bårdsdatter Kristiansen, a local guide and green party councillor, fears the mouse that runs across the snow in front of us on a freezing night might also be.
We are standing outside a replica of the driftwood hut Barents’ men wintered in on Nova Zemlya after discovering Svalbard and then losing their ship to the encircling ice. Like the other guides we encounter, Bårdsdatter Kristiansen is the next generation: A graduate in Arctic ecology and evolutionary biology from the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) she is conscious of the difficulty in calibrating a human presence here with responsibility – neither the mouse, nor the parasite it carries, are native here and allegedly the Norwegians and Russians blame each other for their introduction.
Inside the hut over reindeer stew, Bårdsdatter Kristiansen describes Norway’s journey to sovereignty of the archipelago, largely helped by the state’s neutrality in the First World War. A journey intertwined with treasure hunts: ‘When they wrote the [Svalbard] Treaty it was sort of like Klondike up here. Everyone sort of put their flag in the ground, saying “this is my coal mine”, “this is my gold”, “these are my minerals”’.
Since then the Cold War has been and gone and coal and hydrocarbon prices have collapsed, moving the onus on Svalbard away from political and economical zero gains and to environmental co-operation. However, there are still reverberations, some would say deliberately made echoes, of Klondike. In 2007 Arthur Chillingarov planted the Russian flag on the sea bed beneath the Arctic ice and since then Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark (who have sovereignty over Greenland) have made overtures of having exclusive economic rights to the submarine continental shelves that run up to the Lomosov Ridge, the undersea mountain range that traverses the pole. These claims are made under the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a treaty as yet still unratified by the fifth major player: the USA .
The difficulty in obtaining accurate bathymetry data, risk to life and shipping and, perhaps most importantly, the collapse in global hydrocarbon prices, has meant a slashing of exploration budgets in the High North. However the last decade has seen not immodest spending from all five Arctic states, particularly Russia, on military capabilities in the region. While the environment is politically sensitive at the pole there is simply too much at stake for states: the US Geological Survey suggests 30 per cent of undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of undiscovered oil lies there. Other estimates suggest much more. It is tainted treasure that becomes more accessible the more the ice melts. When these states take on the mantle of Arctic custodianship it is hard to say that they are not jealous guardians. They also frame the international windows: The Arctic Council has given membership only to the other the Scandinavian states; China, Germany, France, Britain et al. must make do with observer status.
Nevertheless, the Council is a vehicle for understanding and regional cooperation. ‘The work of the Arctic Council is producing tangible results,’ says Ane Haavardsdatter Lunde, spokesperson for Børge Brende, Norway’s foreign minister. ‘Its comprehensive reports and studies of the climate and the environment in the Arctic have documented the accelerated pace of climate change and its implications not only for the region, but also for the rest of the world.’
Predictably the ministry sidesteps questions on Russian military personnel passing through Svalbard, instead highlighting Norway’s commitment to an environmentally holistic approach conscious of cooperation: ‘There are huge variation in climate conditions, settlement patterns and economic activity. The changes taking place in the Arctic, however, are giving rise to new opportunities and new challenges that will affect the whole region. Norway is striving to make use of these new opportunities and address the challenges in a safe and environmentally sound way. We will work to ensure that the Arctic remains a peaceful region of cooperation and sustainable development. Svalbard is a prime example of how human and economic activity can be combined with high environmental standards and one of the world’s most efficient environment protection laws.’
Governor Askholt is equally clear: ‘My aim is to contribute in the management of Svalbard as Norway’s northernmost region, and I will do my best to achieve the Svalbard goals set by the Norwegian parliament: Consistent and firm enforcement of sovereignty, correct observance of and control with the compliance of the Svalbard Treaty, securing of peace and stability in the area, protecting and preserving the wilderness character of Svalbard.’
The dumper trucks edging up the icy hairpins towards Longyearbyen’s last working mine may be crucial to the governor’s ‘enforcement of sovereignty’. As Bårdsdatter Kristiansen points out, those trucks, and the Ukrainian miners in Barentsberg, give Norway and Russia the power of precedent for further mineral extraction and crucial proof of heritage and capability in the region – a kind of economic squatters’ rights.
However, if Norway can use the juncture of a fall in hydrocarbon prices and a rise in tourism to build the responsible environmentalism, education and tourism that Oslo says it wants, then the idea of state sovereignty in the Arctic may be a lot more palatable. Guiding us back down the mountain Carl Schönning says he is not so worried about Svalbard, ‘I’m worried about the rest of the world’.
Traditional houses in Longyearbyen
In the centre of Longyearbyen is the slanted, ship like, main building of the University Centre, whose eastern wing houses the Svalbard Museum. The ecological display, complete with yet another stuffed polar bear, is orbited by the human story. It is hard to tell which has more gravity. The museum tells you Greenland Right Whales can live for 200 years, and that populations are still recovering from a series of whaling gluts that started in 1610.
‘The museum here is the Norwegian government’s window on the culture and history of Svalbard, so is very closely connected to the treaty and Norway’s presence here,’ says assistant curator Anne-Kari Dalstø. There’s a mission for Norway to share the cultural history of the islands, says Dalstø, listing the nations who have been here over time, mentioning whalers from Britain, the Netherlands and the Basque country as well as American and Russian miners. The museum is testament to a well woven international heritage. There are 42 nationalities including Filipinos, Thais and Koreans. The local sushi restaurant has the Svalbard Treaty laminated across its tables. ‘Me and the Ukrainians and the Thai people all have the same rights,’ says Dalstø. ‘This is one of the places in Norway where we have the best integration, no one is unemployed, everyone works and I think everyone who lives on Svalbard is proud of this treaty and the Norwegian government are taking it seriously.’
Just off from the main exhibition area is a small arts’ space showing the film ‘Ahead’ by Norwegian artist A K Dolven. It depicts a woman being pushed up a snowy mountain feet first by her friends, the work being a celebration of the power of friendship and cooperation in a harsh environment. Here it has been painful viewing for many locals given the tragedy of the avalanche just a few months before. The most poignant mirror to a fragile reality and the community spirit it forges.
Hiking back from the igloo, past Nybyen coal mine, where Father Christmas lives, we came across the celebrations for Longyearbyen’s ‘Sun Festival’. The local children, dressed in celebratory multi-colours, were enjoying the small ski slope opposite their school. No one is born here, their mothers would have been flown to Norway to give birth before bringing them back to Svalbard to grow up and begin their education. Svalbard is at the centre of a sea of political, economic and environmental concern. The importance of understanding that metaphorical sea is as important as understanding the warming ocean around the islands themselves. For states and citizens alike, Svalbard is a seat of learning.
Alex flew with SAS (flysas.co.uk) via Oslo, staying at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen (radissonblu.com/en/hotelspitsbergen). He visited the ice cave with Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions (wildlife.no), and Barentsburg with Spitsbergen Travel (spitsbergentravel.com). His cold weather jacket, trousers, layers and hat were all supplied by Helly Hanson (https://www.hellyhansen.com/)